Shefzilla returns

Notorious and renowned chef Stewart Woodman has reemerged on the Minneapolis dining scene

by Grant Tillery

Stewart Woodman is a polarizing chef.  Known for his Shefzilla alter ego (he once wrote a blog and published a cookbook under the moniker) and his outspoken criticism of the Minneapolis dining scene, Woodman’s pedigree often gets lost in the shuffle of the sensationalism surrounding him. 

Despite humble cooking origins as a 14-year-old McDonald’s employee, Woodman worked at famed New York City restaurants — including Eric Ripert’s world-class Le Bernardin — before setting out to Minneapolis. In Minnesota,  he served as chef at Levain (where he received a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine in 2006), Five, Heidi’s and Birdhouse. 

After the dissolution of Woodman’s marriage and the financial difficulties that led to the shuttering of Heidi’s, Woodman came back swinging as culinary director for Kaskaid Hospitality, which includes Union, Crave and BoneYard. He’s currently reinventing Union’s first-floor Fish Market.

A&E sat down with Woodman at the lower level of Union to talk about his plans with the space, the local food scene and the influence of mainstream media on diners’ palates.

So, you came on board with Kaskaid…

… and the question was, “Do we want to keep going with this fish concept?” This [Union Fish Market] is closed off and a little too serious, not that we don’t take the food very seriously.  Within the next few weeks, we’ll take down the wall and open it up; still no ETA, per se. I’ve already started writing the menu for it — we got the pastry chef, Amanda Luna, from Crave; she’s moved over here now. 

Downstairs is going to be your vehicle.  Will upstairs be any different?

The food on the rooftop is more mainstream — maybe that’s pejorative, but I would say that it has a broader appeal.  Here we’re going to focus on food that’s a little more cutting-edge in an environment that isn’t intimidating.

Will the downstairs dining room remain devoted to seafood?

No.  Menu-wise, I’m going to do something that isn’t tapas but is smaller plates.  We’re building a progressive tasting menu without the tasting menu side effects — the five-hour commitment and all that.  It’ll be building from amuse-bouche to larger appetizers; it’s going to allow us to put a lot of creativity into small plates.  The beauty of this location is that we’ll be able to offer the food at an exciting price point … starting at $4 a plate.

You’ve been critical of a lot of local restaurants…

In a good way.

…but who do you think are the top local chefs today?

Alex [Roberts of Restaurant Alma] always is a standout; I think he’s fantastic.  Isaac [Becker of 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa and Burch], obviously, does a great job, generates a lot of excitement around what he does.  I think Tim [McKee, currently with Parasole Restaurant Holdings] is still a force to be reckoned with; he’s coming out with a new concept that I think will be exciting.  

Any under-the-radar local chefs you can think of who don’t get the credit they deserve?

It’ll be really exciting to see what happens at Corner Table with Thomas [Broemer].  He’s an old-school craftsman [and] a workhorse. That combination could really put him on the map.  He was actually a cabinetmaker — he was cooking at [Alain] Ducasse in Vegas, and he just didn’t feel he had the space here to do it.  Rightly or wrongly, he went off and was a cabinetmaker for three or four years and focused on woodworking — he builds guitars in his basement. 

Then, of course, Jamie Malone [at Sea Change] is exciting. There’s a full talent pool here — it’s more and more exciting to be in this town.

When do you think dining started to change in the Twin Cities and why?

It was about 10 years ago.  You have to give most of the credit to the consumer base.  People are more knowledgeable and more engaged and less willing to stay the course of what was tried and true, willing to branch out — you’ve got to credit Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern and all of these guys that have been bringing food to CNN and Travel Channel.

A lot of people would knock that as mainstream, but at the same time it’s exposing people to things that are outside the meat and potatoes realm we know in Minnesota.

Absolutely.  Cooking shows — “Top Chef” and that kind of stuff — [have] engaged people in a way I’ve never seen people engaged before. There’s been repercussions to that; one of those repercussions is that,  aside from some major markets,  the old-school kind of fine dining — white tablecloth, stemware, intimidating environment, maître d hanging over you — seems to be a lot less interesting. They seem to be more engaged with great food, fun, exciting environments to be in, as opposed to wearing a jacket and tie.

What was it like working with Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin’s chef)?

It’s tough at that level.  Eric is an inspiring person. One of the amazing things about him is he has no sense of concern — he’ll eat dinner in somebody’s house and when he doesn’t know what something is, he’s the first person to say, “How’d you do that?  What is that?  Where’d you get that?  What does it look like when it’s raw?” He has this sensational curiosity and [is] not afraid to look stupid or look ignorant.

What food trends would you like to see more of or would like to see go away?

I’d like to see food writing and criticism become more based on what is in the best interest of the customer, as opposed to following every trend and touting every individual.

What can Minneapolis do to become a better food scene?

We’re going in the right direction; it’s hard to say where we’re going to end up.  Folks are lining up at Travail and places that have interesting, unique experiences. I think that’s exciting. 

What was your best meal in Minneapolis?

Jack Riebel when he was at La Belle Vie in Stillwater; I think it was a Sunday night and there was only a couple people in the restaurant, and Jack Riebel cooked dinner for me, and it was out of this world.