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Vegetable-loving Karyn Tomlinson is Princess of Porc

At just 32, Karyn Tomlinson has already packed a lot of success into her culinary career, and yet she calls herself a late bloomer.

Karyn Tomlinson was dining at the famed Swedish restaurant, Fäviken, a few years ago when she struck up a conversation with its celebrated chef and owner, Magnus Nilsson. Tomlinson was at a fork in the road in her life and thought returning to the first country she had traveled to as a kid might offer some ancestral direction. 

Instead that direction came from Nilsson, who offered her a coveted  “kitchen visit,” an unpaid internship, which sounds much more romantic than it actually is. But in fairness, a kitchen visit provides an education you couldn’t pay for. And she jumped at it. Accommodations included a spot 30 minutes away in a cabin by the sea, which served as a dormitory for the kitchen crew. They all shared one bathroom, but “I had the loft because I was the only female,” she says. She went skiing, explored the nearby villages and made friends, but mostly she worked. Prep shifts were 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every minute was planned. A mistake derailed that rigid schedule, and sped everything up to get back on track. It was hard work, and it was stressful, she admits.

Her main takeaway from the “visit,” she says, was the need for organization and professionalism in the kitchen. The work ethic there was notable. “Everyone was 100 percent in, from beginning to end, even kitchen clean-up,” she marvels. Now chef de cuisine for another highly acclaimed restaurant, Corner Table in Minneapolis, Tomlinson says she holds meetings twice a day so everyone is on the same menu.

Tomlinson already had the skills down pat before Sweden. She had attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris—this on top of a BA in history with a minor in art—worked for four-time James Beard regional finalist Russell Klein at his French restaurant, Meritage in St. Paul, and won a Charlie Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2015 when she worked at Borough in Minneapolis’s North Loop.

This is why cooking is referred to as an art. Here Karyn Tomlinson’s Swedish meatballs get tossed in a pan.

She was just crowned the Princess of Porc at the Cochon555 competition in April, where she beat out some of the best chefs in the Twin Cities, including her former boss, Klein.  She is following in the footsteps of her current boss, chef Thomas Boemer (a two-time James Beard semi-finalist), who was the 2015 Prince of Porc and went on to win the national title that year. If it sounds like Tomlinson only cooks with winners, that’s pretty much true. 

At 32, Tomlinson claims she’s a late-bloomer for the restaurant industry. Right out of college she worked for a mentoring program at a Christian college. “It took me into my 20s to realize I could do something creative for a living,” she says, which is why she decided to head to France. Her classmates at Le Cordon Bleu were from all over the world. Some were there to become the next best chef, others, where money was no object, were there on a lark. “I went for as long as I could afford,” she says. She chose to stick with the savory track and skip pastries because at the time, her view of pastry chefs was that they were primarily women and “I didn’t want to be a wedding cake decorator.”

“I’m stubborn,” she admits. “I saw more in-the-box thinking (with pastries)and made a lot of assumptions.”

Her view of pastries and pastry chefs changed when she was offered the job developing the pastry program at Borough, she says, ruefully. Her instructions were “Come up with great pastries.” She researched and drew on her travels to come up with combinations of flavors and techniques that fit that bill. 

When she was selected by her peers in 2015 to win a Charlie Award, she was worried that she might always be categorized as a pastry chef first, savories second. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t like pastries, but that she didn’t like limitations. 

And then Thomas Boemer reached out to her with the position at Corner Table. “Someone told him I might be interested in savories,” she says, pausing to muse, “I need to ask him who that was.”

The Twin Cities culinary community is a small, tight-knit group, she says, and she and Boemer had run into each other at events. “I like the kind of man he is,” she says. “He loves his wife and kid…and he’s not volatile (in the kitchen).” 

For his part, Boemer says, he was interested in recruiting Tomlinson because she was an award-winning pastry chef and had just returned from Fäviken in Sweden.  “She was looking to return to savory cuisine and I was quietly looking for a new chef.  It was a perfect fit,” he says. 

Tomlinson didn’t know she wanted the job until it was there. “I discovered this was an itch I wanted to scratch,” she says about working at Corner Table. “Thomas has given me the reins with the menus. I have to be in keeping with the Corner Table heart and soul, while using my own voice.”

Writing menus is both an art and science. In addition to presentation and taste, “you have to think of limitations—the temperature in the kitchen, how many hands will it need to have to make it…”

If she had to describe the menu,  “Midwest” doesn’t say it all. It’s more along the lines of “modern, Midwestern highlighting seasonal ingredients.” Accurate, if not catchy. 

She’s also more prone to lighter fare that’s less protein driven than previous menus. “Thomas appreciates vegetarian, but he’s a Southern-cooking guy.” A Southern guy who likes fried chicken and pork. No surprise that he was the winner of the Cochon 555 challenge in 2015, and encouraged Tomlinson to participate this year. She was the only woman leading a team in the Minneapolis competition, and Boemer wasn’t surprised that she won the local one.

“In the weeks leading up to the competition Chef Karyn was testing her dishes. One dish in particular she tested on at least eight separate occasions until every aspect was perfectly dialed in,” he says. “That is someone to fear in a competition. Nothing replaces doing the work.”

What will she encounter at the national competition? “At Grand Cochon Chef Karyn will be facing some of the finest chefs in the country, in a kitchen in another city, with half the team she had at local. The entire competition becomes much more intense,” he says.

Tomlinson employed her crew from Corner Table. Friends and family ran errands, and on the morning of the competition, “Thomas came in and made breakfast for us—his way of helping.”

Her five courses for the judges (three for the crowd) paid homage to immigrant culture in general and to her family’s Swedish heritage in particular. “My grandmother grew up eating lard sandwiches during the Depression,” she says.  (Her sandwich for the competition was a Sunday ham sandwich.). And her version of her family’s recipe for Swedish meatballs still had our reporter, Nick Upton, waxing poetically about them days later (see his story to the right).

Cooking for the judges was stressful, she admits. “When I spoke to the judges and told them what I was trying to do, I looked at the crew and audience and everyone was happy,” she says. And that, she adds, is when everyone on her crew got what hospitality is. And, of course, “It was awesome when we did win.”

But Tomlinson has managed to stay humble. When complimented on her red clogs, she grins as she admits the red ones replaced her previous gold ones. “Too much prima donna,” she says about the shoes. Although as the Princess of Porc, isn’t there a crown involved? 

Karyn Tomlinson of Corner Table and her team celebrate their win at the Cochon555.

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