College Kitchen with Chef Roberts

A new inn might come to town.

College Kitchenista and Minnesota Daily reporter Yena Lee and Chef Alex Roberts enjoy grilled bread with ricotta at Restaurant Alma on University Avenue on Saturday.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

College Kitchenista and Minnesota Daily reporter Yena Lee and Chef Alex Roberts enjoy grilled bread with ricotta at Restaurant Alma on University Avenue on Saturday.

Yena Lee

Award-winning chef Alex Roberts likes Marcy-Holmes.

He opened Restaurant Alma there in 1999 and moved to the neighborhood in 2002.

Roberts also runs Brasa Rotisserie locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. His family enjoys dinner there a few times a week.

On the heels of Restaurant Alma’s recent nomination for a James Beard Outstanding Service award, A&E spoke with Roberts about his experiences, a potential inn and much more.

 

What is your background as a chef?

I decided to enroll in culinary school … [so] I made a trip to New York City. I went to the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan for a visit, and, literally, within being a half hour off the airplane and experiencing [the] diversity of New York City, I was like, “This is for me.”

Six months later, I put everything I had in a truck, and I moved to New York City. And I was out there for about six years.

I worked with some great chefs out there. I worked with Tom Colicchio — of Gramercy Tavern, Craft and Top Chef fame — [while] he was partnered with Danny Meyer, who I also worked for at Union Square Café. [Also] I worked for David Bouley at his original restaurant Bouley on 20th Street in TriBeCa and at Cucina in Brooklyn.

 

So, why Minneapolis?

Ultimately, I wanted to come back here because I decided … when opening a restaurant and working for myself, I wanted to do that here and that New York was not the place to do that — [it was] too competitive, too expensive. I wanted to do it when I was a little bit younger.

 

How did your past experiences shape you?

I didn’t have a head chef position in New York. I worked my way up to an executive sous chef position, where the chef and owner let the control of the kitchen reside with the sous chefs.

It was a big restaurant, and that experience really prepared me … [for] leading a team and understanding everything when it came to the kitchen — the quality of the food and how the kitchen entirely represents the business and the restaurant itself.

Looking back at it, I think it would’ve been nice to have a head chef experience before I opened my own restaurant, but I think that experience of leading a large group and really challenging myself to be effective with my values and think of myself as a teacher allowed me to succeed there.

 

What inspires you day-to-day?

One thing that inspires me, truly, is artisanal traditions and people really learning from the past and applying to — in this case — food and hospitality in the present day.

People that put in their values first — I think that the best food is produced that way. I think farmers that put value in taking care of their land, taking care of their animals in a responsible way, growing things with integrity, treating their neighbors and people they do business with well, that really inspires me.

 

What is your non-work life like?

I have three kids, a 9-year-old, soon to be 8 and 5 — two boys and one girl. My beautiful wife Margo [and my kids] are the center of my world outside of my work.

Occasionally, I go to the Boundary Waters to go camping, if I can get away.

It’s kind of a lifestyle, being a chef and a restaurant owner, maybe like being a country doctor or a farmer, you live with it all the time. And it probably drives my wife crazy, because she’s not in the business, but we’ve been together for 15 years. She deals with me [laughs].

 

Chef Roberts on:

 

Work ethic

Lead by example, work your ass off — work very, very hard —no double standards, apply the golden rule and be truthful in all interactions. Always applying that, it really was what got me through the first 12-plus years.

 

Relationship with local farmers

We work very hard to supply a very large percentage of our food from local suppliers.

We never aspire to be 100 percent local, but we want to always buy local when it makes sense for us. We try to increase the percentage of local produce every year, and we’ve been successful in that.

It creates a really great relationship, and it also supports the things that we want, like keeping money in our state, our city. It’s simple and old fashioned stuff, [but] we think it helps people in a simple and good way.

 

Minneapolis dining scene

When I got back [from New York], people generally went out on weekends to eat. Now, people eat out every day of the week.

I think people’s eating habits have changed, and the quality of food has come up a lot.

There are so many places I know that are doing great work; it’s a tremendous community of chefs — a lot of talent, a lot of passion, both in the kitchen and the front of the house. People are saying, “Hey, this is a great place to open a restaurant.”

 

Café Alma

It’s been a dream of mine to take the whole building and expand Alma, to have not only a small, special-occasion restaurant, which Alma has really become, but to have an everyday all-day café concept next door.

Then, getting possession of the building and spending time up here, at first I thought it would be offices, but it grew into this idea, “What about a small inn?”

We’ve been trying to figure out how to do that [because] there is no ordinance that really supports a small inn yet. The existing laws in the books support bed and breakfasts, hotel and motels, but nothing in between. So we’ve been pursuing zoning solutions and things like that to see if that’s possible.

We’re not sure, but we’re hoping that an expansion will happen in 2015 that will create the café, and hopefully — fingers crossed — we’ll be able to do an inn upstairs.

 

A recipe: Grilled bread with ricotta, fresh herbs and honey

“You’ll become popular if you make this for your friends,” Roberts said.

 

1 loaf bread (day-old bread works best)

1 cup of ricotta (depends on how much you want to lather on)

1 handful of chopped fresh herbs (chives, baby basil, thyme and rosemary are recommended)

1 clove of garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

Warmed honey

A sprinkle of sea salt

A few cracks of black pepper

 

1. Dredge the slices of bread in olive oil, and throw them on a grill pan.

2. Flip the slices of bread over once the side is crispy.

3. Once both sides of the slice are crispy, take it off the heat and let it cool for a minute or two.

4. Brush a clove of garlic on one side of the bread (make sure you don’t brush it too hard or the garlic will be too powerful).

5. Spread a generous amount of ricotta onto the bread.

6. Sprinkle a handful of chopped fresh herbs.

7. Drizzle some warm honey and olive oil on top.

Optional: Add some arugula leaves and truffle oil on top for some extra flavor.