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.

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