Country Flavor: New London’s Model Citizen is poised to shape the future of Minnesota food

Erin Lucas & Mateo Mackbee at Model Citizen in New London, MN // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Minnesota cooks are going wild.

Established chefs laden with talent are packing up their knives and fleeing Minneapolis–St. Paul. From Moose Bear Wolf in Ely to Poplar Haus on the Gunflint Trail, and from the Falls Landing supper club in Cannon Falls to Willard’s in Cambridge, chefs with the chops and drive to make it in the Cities are setting up shop in outer-ring suburbs, small towns, and in the wilderness itself.

Model Citizen at Goat Ridge Brewing // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Among the ranks of Minnesota’s rusticating chefs are Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas. The couple have cooked at restaurants and bakeries in Minneapolis and St. Paul, working at the heart of one of the country’s most vibrant food scenes. But since June 2018, they’ve been based in New London, a solid two-hour drive to the west of the metro. They’ve traded the North Loop for State Highway 9, the Mississippi for the Middle Fork Crow River, and the Minneapolis Farmers Market for, well, plain old farms. And they’re loving it.

“People are very inviting here—people have invited us over to their houses for dinner to get to know us and always been willing to help when we’ve needed help with anything, whether it’s building a pizza oven or moving,” says Mackbee.

Their restaurant, Model Citizen, is co-located within Goat Ridge Brewing, the partners who helped bring them to New London from Minneapolis. One end of the dining room sports 16 tap handles of the brewery’s beer and a bar; the other, locally made tables constructed from reclaimed wood and a sprawling chalkboard detailing the dozens of farms and other purveyors that feed the restaurant’s menu. 

Out back is a slice of rural life that would translate beautifully to a watercolor painting: the Middle Fork Crow River trickles merrily down from a millpond and winds its way behind the brewery and restaurant, setting the stage for outdoor dining.

Model Citizen’s chalkboard wall // Photo by Victoria Campbell

But it’s the chalkboard that’s the spiritual heart of the restaurant, a colorful acknowledgment of the food that makes the menu possible. “We work with a family-owned dairy farm in Brooten, Minnesota, and the sisters are all redheads—Redhead Creamery, that’s where we get most of our cheese from,” says Lucas, as we look at the board. “The farmers are mostly in Litchfield and Hutchinson so we have Loon Organics, Rebel Soil, and Prairie Drifter Organics.”

Beyond that: greens from Rebel Soil (“they are phenomenal—you don’t even need dressing or anything!”), aeroponic greens from Lettuce Abound in the winter, chickens from Glencoe, pork from Echo, and honey from four blocks away.

That’s not the half of it, says Mackbee. People from the New London community, sometimes drowning in produce from their gardens and hobby farms, support Model Citizen by knocking on the restaurant’s back door, food in hand. “This guy comes in yesterday and asks: ‘Hey, are you onto corn yet?’” recalls Mackbee. “And we said: ‘Probably next week or the week after that.’ He says, ‘Well, I’ve got a whole bunch of young corn, are you interested in it?’ He eats with his kids and says: ‘I’ll be back!’ and not even 15 minutes later he’s at the back door: ‘Here, try this. If you like it, I’ve got a lot more.’

“Another lady came by: ‘I’ve got a bunch of squash and zucchini we can’t eat, do you want it?’ We do tempura vegetables with squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, whatever’s in season,” Mackbee continues. “I bought them a pizza and they gave us probably 12 pounds worth of produce. […] People will take a cow to the butcher and they’ll let us know and ask if there’s anything we want. This back door probably gets more work with this kind of stuff than a big semi-truck pulling up. We got probably—how many pounds of raspberries from that lady?”

“At least 70!” replies Lucas.

Lucas & Mackbee working in their New London kitchen // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Elevated old dishes in New London

The county’s pastoral vibe conceals a cosmopolitan population—there’s money and well-traveled tastebuds in Kandiyohi County, and million-dollar homes hug some of the local lakes. Professors, artists, and corporate executives rub elbows with farmers in New London, and while Model Citizen’s prices are assertive, locals seem to recognize that you get what you pay for. “The food is so good, people will pay $12 or $14 for a sandwich and chips that are made from scratch, knowing where the food is coming from and supporting some of the things we do,” says Mackbee. “I think we filled a gap for fresh, locally sourced things that people are used to when they come from the city. And then introducing it to some of the locals, it’s reminiscent of how they remember eating as kids. It was a matter of getting them in the door and understanding what we were serving and how it tasted, and they were like, ‘Okay.’”

Mateo Mackbee’s Roasted Chicken // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Right next to the purveyor board, patrons encounter a list of homemade pies; on our visit, it included Blueberry Plum Balsamic, Peach Ginger, Blueberry Peach, Honey Lemon, Chocolate Coconut, Sweet Beet, and Honey Lavender.

“Pie is my second language,” says Lucas. “I love eating it!” Before starting Model Citizen with Mackbee, Lucas worked at Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis, helmed by Solveig Tofte. “That’s when I started making the different combinations—honey lavender, or rose raspberry,” she says. “She taught me everything I know.

The Honey Lavender pie is the restaurant’s best seller, says Lucas: “It’s a custard pie but it’s a melt-in-your-mouth custard, not like a pudding. It’s got eggs, local honey, and just a little bit of lavender so it’s not soapy. Especially right out of the oven, it just melts in your mouth.”

While Lucas is focused on pie and vegetables, Mackbee is the resident entree artist, turning out dishes he and Lucas describe as “elevated comfort food.”

“A lot of the stuff is stuff we’ve grown up eating, in some shape or form; we’ve just manipulated it through our skills and training that we’ve had,” says Mackbee. “We don’t stray too far—you might not know all of the things that happened to the dish before it reaches you, but when it gets to you it looks very familiar, it tastes very familiar, it turns into—say the pot roast that we do. People have had pot roast before, but they’ll say, ‘This is like pot roast at a whole ’nother level!’”

Speaking of which: The chicken at Model Citizen is a minor work of art, with fully flavored, delicately crispy skin covering a tender and juicy interior, cradled by a savory bread pudding defined as much by bright herbal and vegetal notes as it is by the piles of eggs and heavy cream that give it its silken texture. After my first couple bites undertaken as a purely professional survey, I feel something primal kick in and I’m suddenly tucking in with unbridled relish. On paper, an airline chicken breast with a Brussels sprouts bread pudding is just another entree, but done with care, love, and farm-fresh ingredients it’s a thing of loving sorcery.

“Adding some fresh onions and seasonally available vegetables elevates the bread pudding to something that has a textural balance as well as a kind of earthiness and a little bit of sweetness from the heavy cream,” says Mackbee. “Most people do 2-to-1 milk to cream; mine is the opposite, and you get that lusciousness from the egg. There’s a lot of stuff going on there.”

Similarly good is a slice of Model Citizen’s crimson-red sweet beet pie, with a delicate crust, a smooth, creamy texture, and just enough sweetness to support and elevate the earthy funk of the beets.

A restaurant with a mission

When they were establishing Model Citizen, Mackbee recalls, he and Lucas dedicated themselves to making truly seasonal, local food. “Our seasonality fluctuates sometimes daily, sometimes weekly,” Mackbee says. “The idea was to get as much locally sourced stuff as possible within 100 miles of this location. […] The flora and fauna is good for your body, so we wanted to stay true to that.” The couple estimate their menu is 75–85% local in the summer and harvest months, dropping to around 60% over the winter.

“We also wanted to stay family-friendly, because our nonprofit piece needed it to be kid-friendly,” says Mackbee. “We wanted to see multigenerational people moving in and out and teaching and using the space.” 

The nonprofit Mackbee refers to is Model Citizen Inc., the restaurant’s sister company. It’s dedicated to bringing kids out to the country to teach them how food is grown and cooked. By the time we talk to Mackbee and Lucas about the nonprofit, we’ve followed them from the restaurant to the lush environs of Prairie Drifter Organics, one of the restaurant’s suppliers and a pick-up point for other small farms. Here, Mackbee and Lucas stroll through hoop houses of tomatoes and curing garlic as they talk about their mission and how it works with kids. 

“They’ll work from the seed all the way back to the ground—they’ll help plant, harvest, tend, weed. Also, we’ll do dinners out there where they can help us, and we’ll teach them the life cycle of the food, what to do when you’re selling it, and what to do when you’re cooking with it, and then the entrepreneurial aspect of how to make products,” says Mackbee. Model Citizen will be focused on kids from Willmar for now; the town’s Somali and Latino populations make up around 25% of the 20,000 total residents.

“This whole open-air thing—there’s no cement, there’s no buildings, there’s no stigma about what kind of shoes you’ve got on or what kind of clothes you’re wearing,” says Mackbee. “You can just be a kid and have fun in nature. Eat good food, and know where it comes from, and hopefully that will give them the idea that things that they thought weren’t possible are possible. No matter whether they go into food or not, it’s just about getting their minds to stretch a little further.”

Stretching further is something that Lucas and Mackbee are familiar with. Beyond their ambitious venture in New London, the couple plans to open two more operations in nearby St. Joseph this October. One is Krewe, a restaurant drawing from the New Orleans heritage of Mackbee’s mother’s family; the other is Flour and Flower, a small bakery tapping into Erin’s expertise. A potential synergy with the nearby Bad Habit Brewing Company will, Mackbee hopes, help build a clientele; Flour and Flower’s baked goods will help support the couple’s other two restaurants.

“My mom’s side is all from New Orleans so the food is all very close to my heart,” Mackbee says of Krewe. “My mom retired this year from 51 years in the St. Paul School District so it’s a good opportunity to open something like this that would be a legacy. I’d always wanted to do it,” he continues, adding: “but not this fast!”

But when opportunity knocks on the restaurant’s back door, Mackbee and Lucas always open it.

Roasted Chicken Breast with Savory Bread Pudding // Photo by Tj Turner

Roasted Chicken Breast with Savory Bread Pudding

By Model Citizen • Serves 4

Bread Pudding

Ingredients

4 tablespoons butter
1 small loaf of brioche bread (¾–1 pound), sliced into 1-inch pieces
1½ cups of wild rice, cooked according to package directions
1 handful of mizuna or arugula, chopped roughly
1 cup of shredded Gruyere cheese (or Parmesan), reserving ¼ cup
5 scallions, sliced (reserve small amount for garnish)
½ pound of Brussels sprouts, stems trimmed, any tough outer leaves removed, sliced in half, then sliced into thin strips
1/3 cup chopped parsley (reserve small amount for garnish)
4 tablespoons of thyme leaves
1 tablespoon sea salt
9 large eggs
1½ cups of milk
3 cups heavy cream
Pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Use 4 tablespoons butter to grease a 9-inch square baking dish that is at least 2 inches deep.

Spread bread pieces out on a baking sheet and toast lightly, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside. 

Add the arugula or mizuna, ¾ cup of Gruyere, scallions, Brussels sprouts, parsley, thyme, and salt to the cooked wild rice and mix well.

In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and cream until well blended. Pour over the wild rice mixture and stir to combine. Gently mix in the toasted bread cubes.

Carefully pour the bread mixture into the prepared baking dish. The custard should come right up to the top but not cover the highest cubes of bread. (If you have extra, fill a buttered ramekin and make an additional tiny bread pudding.) 

Scatter ¼ cup of Gruyere evenly over the pudding and grind a light dusting of pepper on top. Bake until the custard is no longer runny but still a bit wobbly in the center, 40 minutes to 1 hour (and about 25 minutes for a ramekin). It will continue to cook as it sits before serving. If the bread starts to look too browned, cover the pudding with a sheet of aluminum foil.

Serve the bread pudding hot or at room temperature. 

Chicken

Ingredients

4 skin-on chicken breasts
6 tablespoons olive oil
8 tablespoons butter
2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped
4 sprigs of thyme (remove and chop leaves)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat 6 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breasts, skin-side down. Cook until skin is browned, 6–7 minutes. Flip and place in oven for 7–8 more minutes. Remove and add 4 tablespoons butter, rosemary, thyme and garlic. Baste chicken with the butter. Cook until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. 

Remove chicken from the skillet and place on a wire rack or paper towel. Carry-over cooking should bring the temp to 165 degrees. Add remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to the pan(s) and reduce by ⅔. Scrape pan(s) to remove all the caramelized bits. Strain and serve as an au jus sauce with the chicken and bread pudding. Garnish chicken and pudding with reserved parsley.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.