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Adam Vickerman - Café Levain



Since meeting in 2004 when he interned at the restaurant under Steven Brown, it’s been an on-again, off-again relationship for Adam Vickerman and Café Levain. Vickerman has taken his cooking talents to Barbette, Sea Change and Haute Dish and even Levain’s own sister restaurant, Trattoria Tosca. 

But the two have been going steady since Vickerman returned as executive chef in 2011, and he shows no signs of directing his affections elsewhere. 

“I kind of had that calling to come back home,” says Vickerman. “I always wanted to come back and finish what I started.”

The restaurant opened as classic fine-dining French bistro Restaurant Levain in 2003 before closing and reemerging as the café concept in 2007. Vickerman is now leading the evolution of Levain with a French technique and heavier American influences that he says result in “rustic, humble cooking.”

“I think I’m pretty comfortable in my style of cooking, and what I like to eat and drink fits with what our customers expect,” says Vickerman of dishes such as braised short ribs, a simple onion soup and, of course, roast chicken.

“People don’t really focus on chicken as something that’s new and exciting, but it’s something we’re really proud of,” says Vickerman. “If I’m cooking at home I love roast chicken. It’s always satisfying, even when I have it 100 times.”

That’s not to say the 29-year-old chef isn’t looking to offer innovative dishes with new or more unfamiliar ingredients. He draws inspiration from his travels to cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, and overseas to Italy and likely Paris next fall.

“You always want to try harder and do new things,” says Vickerman, especially given the rise in new restaurants competing for diners’ attention. But for Vickerman and Café Levain it’s not so much a competition as a continual effort to do what they do best.  “We don’t try to be something we’re not,” continues Vickerman. “We’re a neighborhood restaurant through and through and we’re still deeply rooted in classic French technique. “We’re not trying to be a destination restaurant.”

Being at the mercy of area farmers also helps Vickerman keep the Levain menu fresh. “I take what we have and make it taste good,” he says.

Growing up in the south suburbs of Minneapolis, surrounded by “a lot of corporate dining and fast food,” Vickerman credits his middle school home ec class as influencing his eventual decision to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights. “I just liked cooking,” he says simply. “I didn’t grow up pulling on my grandma’s apron strings or anything.”

Though his title is executive chef, Vickerman is on the line five nights a week, cooking all the entrées — something he feels is integral to his style of cooking. With Café Levain’s open kitchen, Vickerman acknowledges it’s sometimes tough to play both host and cook, but he thrives on the positive feedback he hears from guests. 

“That’s what keeps me coming back,” he says. 

Like the environment in which he works, Vickerman says he’s been described as very nurturing in the kitchen, able to handle the stress of 100-plus covers on a busy night and stay even-keeled. “I kind of personify the restaurant and the restaurant personifies me,” he says. “I’ve grown with the restaurant over the years.”


Roast Chicken with Polenta

For the chicken

2 chicken breasts, skin on

2 Tbsp canola oil

2 Tbsp butter, unsalted

2 Tbsp lemon juice

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees; take chicken breasts, skin on, and season with kosher salt and black pepper. Heat a pan with canola oil until hot, place the breasts skin side down in the pan and cook over medium high heat, adjusting to not burn the skin, until the meat around the sides turns slightly pale and the skin becomes lightly golden. Then add a large pat of butter to the pan and let slightly brown; once there, put into preheated oven. Roast the breasts skin side down until meat on top is almost completely pale, with a hint of pink toward the middle. Once there, flip the breasts over and roast until slightly underdone, where the thickest part of the chicken still has a slight amount of give to it. Remove from oven and let rest in the hot pan for at least 5 minutes. Once rested, set the breasts aside in a warm area, add a squirt of lemon juice, and season the brown butter/pan drippings with kosher salt. 

 

Roasted Chicken with Polenta

For the polenta

1 quart water

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup coarse ground corn meal (We use Riverbend Farms.)

4 ounces grated aged cheddar

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Bring the liquids to a controlled boil, add the corn meal and stir until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Turn heat to a low simmer and cook corn meal until no longer toothsome, about 45 minutes for coarse ground, much less for fine ground. Add cheese, season to taste.

 

For the kale

½ bunch of lacinato kale, finely shredded

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil 

1 Tbsp lemon juice

Kosher salt, black pepper, and chili flakes to taste

Get a sauté pan hot (without any fat will work) and place the kale into the pan, tossing to slightly char. Once charred to your liking, steam with a tablespoon or two of water and take off the heat. Add in the oil, squeeze some fresh lemon juice to taste, and season with kosher salt, black pepper, and a teaspoon or so of red chili flakes.

 

For the Brussels sprouts

16 ounces Brussels sprouts, raw, ends cut off, halved

2 ounces butter, unsalted

1 shallot, peeled and finely shaved

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely shaved

2 Tbsp lemon juice

1 Tbsp finely chopped Italian flat leaf parsley

1 Tbsp finely chopped chives

Kosher salt, black pepper, and chili flakes to taste

Brown the butter in a sauté pan and add the sprouts, sautéing until deeply brown and caramelized. Add the shallot and garlic and continue sautéing until they are opaque and cooked. Season with the lemon, herbs, kosher salt, black pepper, and chili flakes.

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