Chef Paul Berglund picks through the selection of knives available in Jon Wipfli’s kitchen, hefts a couple of them, and settles on his weapon of choice. Holding it in his left hand, he trues up the root ends of a row of scallions, rocks the knife up toward its tip, and with a single smooth forward stroke, lops off the lineup of unkempt onion dreadlocks.
It’s not a fancy move, just practiced and precise. He does it once more, and sets the double handful of scallions aside, as the air above the countertop fills with a chivey sharpness. And that constitutes the entirety of his prep work on scallions for this evening.
He’s here to make us pork chops, and he’s here to talk about plating.
Pork chops, for reasons obvious to anyone who has attended The Bachelor Farmer’s Monday night Chop Night. Plating, because this is the Arts Issue, and plating is the most pictorial of the steps involved in setting something that originated in a field elegantly in front of a restaurant diner. He’s also here because, as of May 2, 2016, the night he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, he is a minor Minnesota hero.
Standing at the chopping block in skinny jeans and a pair of Converse One Stars, Berglund looks less like a hero than he does the hero’s mild-mannered alter ego—the guy wearing spectacles who might occasionally get bullied and probably bikes to his job in a cubicle. He prepares the next item on the menu by peeling off an outer leaf or two of a head of romaine, paring off the browned stem end, and then cleaving the head lengthwise. That concludes his work on the romaine, which, along with the scallions, will shortly serve as both vegetable and garnish.
Behind him, two massive bone-in pork chops—two inches thick? Three?—spit in their own rendered fat on a cast iron griddle.
He looks up at me. “I was…” He pauses. “I was…”
He has a tendency to repeat the first word or phrase of a sentence hesitatingly, as if giving himself time to be careful about the words he is about to serve forth. It comes across as a form of modesty, and the result of a long habit of precision. But it also feels like an extension of his drive for balance. He does not want to understate or overstate what he is about to express. He wants to get it right. He intends to give you something of substance, but if you’ll just bear with him for a second, he would like to run a rag over his thoughts, and give them a final little bit of polish.
“I was an okay line cook,” he confesses. “But only because I worked hard at it. I think I was a great sous chef, and a really good chef de cuisine. As head chef? I do most of it pretty well, and some of it not so well.”
And that concludes chef Berglund’s triumphal post-James-Beard-Award victory lap.
He migrates back to the stovetop with his plateful of scallions and romaine, and, spooning some of the fat from the pork chop pan into an adjacent skillet—fat that has been mulled with a good measure of the salt and pepper lavished on the chops before cooking, as well as the residual flavors from the brine—he begins sauteeing the whole sheaf of scallions. They wilt fragrantly, and he lifts one of the pork chops to reveal a surface the color of cowhide, with the texture of well-done bacon. Both chops get flipped, hissing as they kiss the griddle.
As he works, he tries to answer a question about why the pork chops are so good, and somehow, in his telling, the culinary genius of chef Paul Berglund fails to enter the equation. Instead he talks about the farmer who raises the pigs, and about the Red Wattle breed, and how they are bred for an extra thick fat cap, that he tries to trim just enough so that the fat enhances the flavor of the chop, but doesn’t overwhelm the cut’s balance of fat to loin to rib meat.
A tongful of limp scallions is arranged in a semicircle on one half of a serving plate and spritzed with a squeeze of lemon, and the cut faces of the romaine halves replace them in the skillet.
“Every restaurant meal is manipulated,” he says. “We don’t go out into pastures and just start eating whole pigs. So even the slaughter and butchering of animals is a form of manipulation. So is marinating. So is seasoning. So is cooking. So is plating and presenting. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to do as little manipulation as possible.” He pauses to think about what he means.
“You know, farmers work really hard,” he says. “They work a lot harder than we do. I don’t want to take all that hard work, and then hide it behind all this stuff I can do to it as a chef. That…” He thinks about it.
He lifts a sizzling handful of romaine and appears satisfied with the faint browning along the cut edges of the leaves.
“That…” he concludes, “in the end, seems almost disrespectful.”
The romaine halves are placed cut-side up on the serving tray next to the lemony scallions, creating a bright green, lightly cooked, refreshingly acidic bed for the browned, meaty chops. The whole arrangement is intended to give your eyes and mouth the varying experiences they will need to remain interested in the dish throughout the experience of consuming it. And that is our plating lesson for the evening.
If it’s art, it’s a different kind of art—something apart from foam, precarious food towers, and stripes of sauce painted across plates. It points admiringly backward toward the producers of the food, and respectfully forward toward the eventual eater. It points everywhere except toward the chef, who seems pleased to have had a hand in enhancing such deserving ingredients, and equally pleased to have stepped out of the way, to let the rest of the conversation happen without him. Trusting balance to speak for itself.
If it’s art, it’s the art of restraint.
Before he serves us what we will all later agree to be the best pork chops of our lives, he decides to serve one chop whole, and one sliced. With the same smooth, left-handed precision, he runs his knife along the inner edge of the rib, and with a now-boneless cut on the board in front of him, separates the loin portion from the rib portion because, in his words, these represent two different types of eating experience. Then, instead of slicing down through the chop, he turns his knife parallel to the cutting board, and slices each portion horizontally into three or four flat medallions.
It’s a way of cutting across the grain of the meat, so that the fibers are shorter, and each bite is more tender. It makes perfect sense, and appears the completely obvious solution to chef Berglund, although no one else in a room full of cooks and food obsessives has ever seen this done or thought of it ourselves.
He arranges these slices on their bed of greens, in a modified fan shape, saving the most attractive piece for last, where it will most entice us to take our first bite.
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Photos by Wing Ta
He pushes his glasses up on his nose, and contemplates his work. “Be careful, Mr. Mild-Mannered Alter Ego,” I think to myself. “Your superhero is showing.”