Minnesota Spoon: Beyond barbecue—Thomas Boemer’s expansive vision for cooking with fire

Thomas Beomer roasting chestnuts on an open fire, alongside fingerling potatoes, onions, and the Minnesota delicacy of Turtle // Photo by Wing Ta

Thomas Boemer is roasting chestnuts on an open fire, alongside fingerling potatoes, onions, and a Minnesotan delicacy – Turtle // Photo by Wing Ta

Chef Thomas Boemer’s eyes are watering.

He’s standing in front of an improvised outdoor kitchen, made up of a cinder block fire well, with a steel-mesh grate laid across it for a cooktop, and a two-course block wall stacked on top of that for a windbreak. It is so rough-hewn and brawny looking as to be almost a parody of a certain kind of unrepentant male culinary energy. Yet a gusty December wind keeps lashing Boemer’s eyes with little stinging whip cracks of hardwood smoke.

And so he stands there in a chef’s coat and apron—a big man, operating a primitively bulky and smoking tool, looking as if he is somewhat delicately and thoughtfully weeping.

It’s an image that, to a remarkable degree, describes the fruitful contradictions of his cooking. On one hand, he is the Twin Cities chef most publicly steeped in the Y-chromosome, smoke-and-meat traditions of Carolina barbecue, and yet watching his thick fingers plate a dish at Corner Table—building elegant little tableaux with volume, height, negative space, color, and asymmetrical balance—it’s impossible to forget that he was trained in Alain Ducasse’s kitchen.

He pinches the bridge of his nose and blinks a few times. “I have really sensitive eyes,” he says, without moving—acknowledging the obvious, which is that, sensitive eyes or not, there’s pretty much nowhere he’d rather be than standing in front of a fire, meticulously nudging a meal toward completion.

Photo by Wing Ta

Photo by Wing Ta

On the grate in front of him this afternoon, licked occasionally by white oak flames and hovered over by smoke clouds that the wind then whisks away, is a similar collection of seeming contradictions.

Some purple fingerling potatoes are roasting in a corner next to a handful of chestnuts that, one by one, explode in showers of sparks. A saucepan balances on the near edge of the grate, half over the flame, with a thick mauve-colored potato broth climbing the side nearest the fire in a simmering froth. In a larger pan, the blackened faces of seared onions look up from a stock in which speckled shell beans simmer and a single spruce tip bounces on the agitated surface. And next to the two pots, a double skewer of snapping turtle cutlets is slowly glazing, yakitori style, in the heat.

“Turtle has always been here,” Boemer says, in answer to a half-asked question.

Meaning, here we are in a state known for lakes, if it is known for anything at all – and in most of them a completely indigenous native food has been swimming largely ignored for years.

One signature of a truly regional cuisine is that it keeps turning inward, toward its ancestral techniques, but also toward its native ingredients, over and over, finding ways to marry the two that can be almost endlessly satisfying and new.

And here’s an example: Can anyone think of a reason, other than squeamishness at their blistery Cretaceous Period ugliness, that we don’t cook more with turtle?

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Earlier, in the kitchen, I had put my face down into a tray full of raw turtle meat and inhaled. It had smelled just like the cutting board in the middle of filleting a walleye, or like a basket full of panfish. A mild, chlorophyllic, unmistakably freshwater marine aroma. It smelled like a backstroke swim along the edge of the lily pads. It smelled like Minnesota.

Boemer gives the potato broth handle a couple of gingerly taps, before pulling the pan a little farther off the flame.

If all goes according to plan, he will be doing a lot more of this kind of fussing in front of a cooking fire when his new restaurant opens tentatively next spring, as part of the Keg & Case renovation of the old Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul.

The centerpiece of the new restaurant will be a 20-foot-wide wood-burning hearth—an almost comically deluxe version of the cement block stove we’re standing around today. All the food cooked in the restaurant will be cooked over wood.

“There’s no plan for a gas line into the kitchen,” Boemer says, with the kind of expression on his face that says both, “I know that sounds incredibly cool,” and “I still can’t believe how foolhardy that sounds.”

But in many ways, it’s the next logical step, not just in the expanding restaurant empire of Boemer and his partner Nick Rancone. It’s the next logical step in Boemer’s evolution as a chef attuned to regionalism and tradition.

As grateful as we all should be for the rigor that Boemer has lately reintroduced into the meaning of that flaccidly overused word “barbecue,” his Twin Cities efforts in that direction have mostly left their soul in the South.

Thomas Boemer's makeshift woodfire stove serves as his test kitchen for the new Keg & Case restaurant // Photo by Wing Ta

Thomas Boemer’s makeshift woodfire stove serves as his test kitchen for the new Keg & Case Market restaurant // Photo by Wing Ta

This new restaurant feels like a geographical step northward. Yes, turtle will be on the menu, as will Lake Superior herring, another sumptuously easy to love and intensely regional Northern food—although a currently troubled one—which has languished too long among northwoods fish fries. But more than the proteins and vegetables Boemer will be cooking with, there is something authentically raw and informal—something that feels more hospitably Northern than Southern—about a 20-foot-wide, belly high platform, like a loading dock, where a guy can start a few fires in a few different ways, and cook some good food.

In fact, if it does nothing else, this restaurant will have done us all a favor if it can simply expand our ideas about what constitutes cooking with wood, outside the three rigid lanes of grilling, smoking, and barbecue. Boemer is talking about a wall of different cooking techniques, from embers, to ash, to open flame, to columns of fire. He’s talking about cooking whole animals and parts of animals, in the ashes, over the coals, next to the fire, inside the flames, on spits, and dangling from strings. He’s talking about the kind of customizing that can only happen with wood—scraping away some embers to lower the heat, taking advantage of hot spots and cool spots on the cooking surface, leaving fires to burn down to a temperature that is barely even cooking hot.

And he’s talking about something—long, slow, flavor development—that we don’t hear much about at restaurants these days, where so much emphasis is put on the customer’s always-rightness and autonomy to choose, and where, therefore, a la carte dishes must be designed so that they can be prepared between when diners point to them on the menu, and when the plate is set back in front of them. This leads to a particular kind of cooking, and turns line cooks and even a lot of chefs into what Boemer calls (including himself) “pot jockeys.”

Thomas Boemer's pork shoulder and chestnuts // Photo by Wing Ta

Thomas Boemer’s pork shoulder and chestnuts // Photo by Wing Ta

He reaches out for an imaginary gas burner knob, and turns it clockwise. “All the flavor development happens between when you turn the gas on,” he says.

He turns his hand the other way. “And when you turn it off.”

But the thing about wood is that it doesn’t just produce heat and smoke (and smoke is so often done ham-handedly that we could all use a little less of it), it burns long, and on a lingering downward temperature trajectory. So you can, for instance, leave carrots in the cooking embers overnight, peel off the outer layer, and they will have a different texture from carrots eaten either raw, or cooked by traditional methods. You might be able to leave potatoes for several days in the anaerobic environment of a bed of ash, and let them begin to ferment. You can potentially achieve flavors that we simply haven’t tasted around here, at least in restaurants.

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There is a French expression au coin du feu, which describes a pot “at the corner of the fire,” and comes from a time when that actually meant at the edge of the hearth, not the stove, and meant beside the (wood) fire, not over the gas. It also implies the very slow, barely simmering, sometimes days-long development of a stew or a stock or a pot au feu—a process closer almost to ripening than to cooking.

I don’t want to get too optimistic too soon. But I will admit that my mind races a bit at the thought of setting Thomas Boemer loose on a 20-foot hearth. I find myself hoping that my most ambitious wishes for the place will be realized. That what Boemer is attempting to do here (and if so, I think is long overdue) is to marry the fully-realized vision of wood-based pit cooking from his Carolina background, with the Northern tradition (a pastime with room to become an art) of grilling fish, wild game, and red meat over the fire, and that he will give himself license to be as experimental as such a young tradition merits.

I have been trying for a while to formulate a vision for myself—with help from Boemer and the Minnesota Spoons, Jon Wipfli, among others—of what Northern barbecue in particular, and Northern cuisine in general, might look like. I’d like to think that we find ourselves somewhere near the birth of the former, and that a true, delicate, sophisticated, deep and varied relationship with wood and its culinary uses might bear its own weight and a little more, as part of the foundation of the latter.

By the time we finish at the cement block kitchen, the turtle has turned caramel colored, basted repeatedly with birch syrup that smells like a combination of mirin, soy, and molasses. A suckling pig shoulder has been finished briefly over the dying fire—its fat cap the color and consistency of peanut brittle. And a herring fillet has been seared, skin side down, until its upper surface has barely reached a warmish medium doneness. Three dishes are plated, or rather composed, and as we begin to eat, the influence of fire is everywhere in each of the dishes, but, like oak in a well-made wine, it speaks softly, somewhere in the background.

Nick Rancone appears out of nowhere, and uncorks a bottle of Loire Valley sparkling rose, not too acidic, a little explosion of bubbles and dry fruit, to freshen the mouth for the next bite. We talk about the ancient comforts of fire, and its contemporary possibilities. And I find myself hoping that Chef Thomas Boemer’s eyes will sting a lot, over the coming years.

Recipe: Thomas Boemer’s Turtle Soup

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