Photos by Stacy Schwartz
There are few professions in which a trim physique could be considered a liability. Alex Roberts is a clear-eyed, dark-haired chef who looks like a Crossfit devotee (which he is).
During Obama’s first presidential run, Roberts’ soul food restaurant Brasa, was a regular destination for the campaign volunteers. Stately older black women, often in extravagant hats, came in packs for lunch. They were outspoken, particular about their meals, but appreciative: “fantastic customers,” according to Roberts. One table full of women requested to see the chef. “I come out and the first reaction at the table—they just started laughing… they thought it was a joke. They thought it would be some big guy or maybe they thought they’d see a Caribbean person or a black person… I don’t know who they thought… and of course I laughed in response to their laughter.”
Once everybody regained their composure, the hugging started. Then Roberts sat down to a very serious conversation about sweet tea. The food was incredible, but his tea wasn’t sweet enough. Well, if he made it in the Southern style—thick as maple syrup—no one in Minnesota would drink it. Fair enough. (As an aside, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the word physique feels slimy in almost any context. Unfortunately, it could not be avoided here.)
Roberts opened, owns, and operates three restaurants in the Twin Cities. At Restaurant Alma, patrons drop $50 for a tasting menu, the menu changes every six to eight weeks, and 80 percent of the produce is organic. Brasa is comfort fare that’s slow-cooked, and affordable. Roberts wins fancy awards for Alma and appears on network TV for Brasa. His approachable nice-guy thing notwithstanding, Roberts is a first-rate talent.
For an hour at the Nomad, Roberts and I talked about culinary hierarchies, women in the kitchen, and the role he’s imagined filling in the post-apocalyptic world.
The Pirate Ship
As anyone who’s worked in the service industry knows, restaurant kitchens can be strange places to work. There are actors and artists, charmers and egoists, functional alcoholics and not-so-functional functional alcoholics, gifted cooks and students just passing through. A kitchen can be full of innuendo, camaraderie, or tears. Roberts says a good kitchen is a “pirate ship”: a balanced, motley crew. “The worst kitchen in the world,” he says, “is like the high school football team, where everyone likes the same music, goes to the same weight room and is chasing the same girl. That’s the worst kitchen ever.” He says that when he was doing all the hiring at Brasa and Alma, his decisions were based on culinary skill and social skills, almost in equal parts. One would suppose that you can teach somebody how to julienne, but you can’t teach him the importance of cultivating an indoor voice.
“The worst kitchen in the world,” he says, “is like the high school football team, where everyone likes the same music, goes to the same weight room and is chasing the same girl…”
Roberts says that having women in the kitchen is also important. In addition to their own sets of unique talents (and more sensitive palates, according to Roberts), they change the culture of the kitchen. “Have you noticed that guys just behave better when there are women around?” [Insert perfunctory Doomtree joke here.]
O Captain, My Captain
Roberts is now in his early 40s. When he entered the industry, it wasn’t as sexy or as mainstream as it is today. “You could hardly get a good cookbook with pictures.” He studied and worked in New York where kitchens adhered to rigid hierarchies. The chef, after all, is essentially the chief. And the restaurant is not a democracy. “I didn’t get it at first. I asked too many questions, and the answer was just supposed to be ‘yes’ all the time. Not ‘no.’ Not, ‘But what…?’ ‘Yes’ is the answer.” There’s an old-world thinking on the East Coast, he says, and a clear chain of command is part of the culture.
“I worked for a chef in New York who made his servers bring their plates past him on the way to the dishwasher.” The chef examined each and every plate to see what was eaten, what remained, what had been left untouched. “And if they past him without him looking, he would just rip ‘em sideways.”
The chef, after all, is essentially the chief. And the restaurant is not a democracy.
Although Roberts isn’t quite so dictatorial in his leadership, he did design his own kitchens to allow cooks and chefs to be able observe the parade of returning plates. “Let’s say you see everything eaten except the greens—the chard—on a plate. Every customer sends that back. Then the chef can say, ‘You need to wash that… there’s sand in ‘em.’ That’s happened before. In the last 15 years that’s happened. And we caught it for that reason. Two made it out; the third one coming back we caught it—‘Hey, go check the greens.’ Throw them away, start over.”
My Mouth is in Your Mouth
I asked Roberts if there were any foods that he wished that he liked. (I, for example, wish that I enjoyed coffee, hot and black, like a cowboy. In real life, however, I take it with big doses of sugar and cream. Like a kitten.) Roberts was quiet for a long time, trying to think of a food he didn’t like. He came up with shad roe, which seems like a good food not to like because almost no one I know has ever had or heard of it.
Ultimately, Roberts explained that when he’s working, he isn’t necessarily in the business of making his favorite food. “A great cook isn’t tasting for themselves. That is just one palate. You’re tasting for what you think is the average palate. I don’t, for example, like the sweet and sour flavor profile….But I learn to use it in the menu because people like it. Nobody cares what I like.”
Talking to Roberts, it seemed as though the role of the chef was sometimes exalted—the unquestionable authority at the front of a disciplined team—and sometimes a humble craftsman, whose palate and preferences would be of no interest to patrons.
“Some cultures hold the chef up high. And some cultures just see the chef as a cook. And I think both of them are actually correct. Imagine if the apocalypse occurs and we don’t have gas service to the house or to the restaurant anymore. Who am I? What am I? I’m the guy cooking — with a lot of skill — over a pot with a tripod and a fire underneath it.”
This writer would humbly suggest that, before it comes to that, you try Brasa’s spinach. One visit and it’s easy to forgive Roberts for his gym membership.