Minnesota Spoon: Halibut with Mike DeCamp of Monello

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Monello chef Mike DeCamp // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The beard is magnificent. Untended and unfashionable. The anti-hipster beard. It streams down from his jaw in uneven rust-colored rivulets, and spreads high up his cheeks and toward his ears in a way that is tempting to compare to a blush, if we weren’t talking about maybe the least blushful person in this zip code.

The beard belongs to Mike DeCamp, chef at Monello restaurant in Minneapolis, and formerly, and somewhat legendarily, chef de cuisine at La Belle Vie. We are gathered in the kitchen of Jon Wipfli. Chef DeCamp has arranged seven shallow white bowls in a line, and put together his take on Niçoise salad, which begins with a bed of tuna crudo—fumey with preserved lemon—and gradually climbs into a short, aromatic tower of black-olive tapenade, harissa-tinted deviled quail eggs, a stalk of asparagus standing in for a green bean, a frond or two of frisee, and a single precarious wafer of potato chip.

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Mike DeCamp’s Niçoise salad // Photo by Daniel Murphy

He has performed this high-wire act with minimum fuss, kneading the tapenade into shape between two spoons, snapping off frisee tips with thick fingers and posing them on seven consecutive salads in a sort of casual blur. After a bite or two, someone asks—a little desperately—if this dish is available at Monello, and our chef reassures us that it is, as he begins assembling course two—a more or less comprehensive bowl of springtime.

“What are we looking at here, Chef?” asks one of the guests, forking aside a top layer of nasturtium leaves and peering at the varying shades of green beneath. What he’s looking at is ricotta- and parmesan-stuffed green tortelli, with preserved lemon, asparagus, ramps, and fiddleheads.

Or, as DeCamp puts it, with a straight face: “Pasta.” And then there is a faint tectonic movement somewhere under all that beard, and from behind his nerdy half-rimmed glasses his perpetual squint tightens into something suspiciously like a smile, before he turns his back on the assembled company. The pasta, as it happens, is so tender that it shouldn’t really be succeeding in containing the plump pillow of ricotta folded inside it. It should tear like a mylar balloon. But doesn’t.

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Tortellini // Photo by Daniel Murphy

It is followed by a second pasta dish, torchio this time—shaped like loose pasta torches—with braised rabbit. And somehow, the highlight of the evening is still ahead of us.

A second, or possibly third, bottle of prosecco is slowly tipped upside down over the empty lowball glass of my next-door neighbor, who decides in the end that a finger of whiskey will do just as well. The stereo is probably still playing Johnny Cash somewhere behind us, but we can’t hear it anymore. The food and drink has done its job, pulling a group of semi-strangers into a close, attentive, and affectionate circle.

Meanwhile over at the stovetop, I watch the source of all this pleasure slip a thin metal probe from his breast pocket and, with his butcher’s fingers, carefully pierce an oblong of ivory-colored halibut, and then return the probe to his pocket. It’s a little like watching Erik the Red execute a particularly delicate stitch of needlepoint.

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Photo by Daniel Murphy

It’s a cake tester, he’ll tell me later, not a thermometer. And what he was doing was feeling for the tiny resistance of unmelted fat between the layers of fish muscle. Once that resistance disappeared, the fish would be done.

I’ve spent a part of every day since that night thinking about DeCamp’s halibut. A thick halibut fillet can often, however well prepared, taste just like a big mouthful of fish. But the cut I was served acted as if it were barely held together, sliding apart at the touch of a fork and somehow tasting seasoned all the way through. It was served next to a modified vignole, or spring stew of peas and fava beans and miniscule, perfectly square diced onions. The prosciutto that would normally be found in the vignole showed up instead as a thread or two of shaved Speck ham, draped over the halibut, alongside a single wilted ramp.

What is it about this halibut? I asked. How did you do that?

It’s poaching it in olive oil, he says.

So it’s like a confit? I ask. It’s basically halibut confit?

Basically, yes, he says.

There is potentially a lot more to be said on the subject. But that’s not really the point. He could fill the air with explanations and unload a trunkful of accumulated wisdom earned in the kitchen and inherited from his mentor, Tim McKee. But the lesson of the day, kids, is that none of it amounts to a single mouthful of that halibut, which is the only kind of eloquence he appears to aspire to.

Chef DeCamp glances down at the stream of messages pouring through his iPhone, which has been vibrating all afternoon. It’s a busy night at Monello. “Gotta run,” he announces. He packs up and trails his caster-wheeled cooler behind him down the hallway, on his way to another long night in the kitchen, where he will talk, and talk, and talk, in his chosen language.

Next page: Recipe – Halibut with fava beans, mint, and speck

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