Chewin’ with Chef Becker

by Grant Tillery and Yena Lee

Chef Isaac Becker is nothing if not a local culinary force of nature. Unlike most chefs who earned their chops in culinary school, Becker’s hard-nosed grit helped him rise to the top of the local food scene. He began his career at the Lowry and cooked within the D’Amico restaurant group until 2005, when he set off with his wife, Nancy St. Pierre, to open 112 Eatery.
Ten years and three restaurants later (he also owns Bar La Grassa and Burch), Becker shows no signs of slowing down. A&E dined out with Becker in early April at Kyatchi, a sushi joint in South Minneapolis, and quizzed him on his dining out habits, the building of his restaurant empire and his leisure-time activities.
Grant Tillery: What was your reason for picking Kyatchi? 
Isaac Becker: I’ve always wanted to check it out. My wife and I go to lunch a lot, and we don’t go to [new places] very often … so I needed an excuse to check it out. Same with Corner Table [where we originally planned to meet] — I hadn’t been there yet and I forgot to cancel my reservations, so me and my wife and my son went last Thursday. It was good.
GT: What did you get there?
IB: I had pork belly with rice noodles. I had the bratwurst they made there, which was pretty good. Their charcuterie platter, that was good — very meaty. 
GT: So [you and your wife] do lunch a lot. What are some of your favorite haunts?
IB: We’re always trying to eat kind of light, so there’s [that] factor; it’s not very exciting. We go to Quang a lot; we go to Obento-Ya, by the [University of Minnesota] — in fact, we were there today. We actually go to Agra Culture — it’s a chain salad place. We go to Zen Box a lot.
I feel like I’m not eating as heavy if I get [Japanese food]. We never go for a cheeseburger, even though I love cheeseburgers.
GT: Not even once a year?
IB: Oh, yeah! Once a year, we do.
GT: Where do you [get] your cheeseburgers?
IB: The last cheeseburger I had [was at] the Kenwood — it was pretty good.
GT: What got you started cooking as a career?
IB: The first job I had, a buddy of mine was a server there, and he said, “If you need a job, lie on your application and say you worked at Applebee’s since they closed, so they can’t check your reference.” So I put down I had worked at this Applebee’s that had closed, and I got a job as a cook, and I’d never been a cook before, and I was terrible. I’m surprised they kept me on. After that job, I swore I would never work in another kitchen again.
Finally, I gave in because I had [had] three kitchen jobs, so that made me qualified to get another one. I’d been in a band this whole time also, so the hours … and the flexibility and the schedule worked with that. Plus, you never had to get up in the morning, and you could eat for free. There’s some perks to being a cook, especially when you’re young and broke. It wasn’t until I had been at [the Lowry] for a few years that I decided that there could be a creative outlet [with cooking] … and that I enjoyed working with my hands and having that instant gratification of making something and having someone eat it.  
GT: When you were opening your three restaurants, what did you have in mind? Did you ever plan on opening more, or were you like, “Let’s just start with this and see how it goes?”
IB: When I opened 112, our goal was to just make enough money to pay our mortgage and bills at home, and do things on our terms. 
At that time, I remember that it seemed like in Minneapolis — or in the country, for that matter — there was this trend of people opening up concepts, like an Italian restaurant with pictures of Italy on the walls. The 112, for me, was the anti-concept restaurant. I didn’t want it to have any kind of scene.
[Bar La Grassa] was actually a concept I had on my mind before the 112, but the [112’s kitchen] was too small to pull it off. It was easy to open because it was planned out in my head for years and years; even the name La Grassa was a name I had for years wished I could use somewhere.
Burch came up because of the space. I grew up in South Minneapolis, and I lived two blocks from that drugstore [where Burch is housed]. The opportunity to get that space — I couldn’t resist it. 
One of the things that was scary was the amount of money we were spending on labor. When you open a restaurant — at least in my experience — let’s say you’ve got 20 line cooks. During one night you only have six of them working, but when you open you have all 20 of them come in every day. The idea behind that is after two [to] three weeks, you pare back. Because the menu was ambitious with the amount of things going on, I had 30 cooks working every day for a month.
We were going broke.
All I could think is maybe I created a concept that doesn’t work; maybe you can have only four to five steaks like everybody else does. Right around that time was when things started turning around. The cooks got better, and we were able to pare back on our staff. Just by the hair of our teeth, I felt like we didn’t go broke before it was too late.
Yena Lee: When you eat at restaurants — because you know what it’s like to be at the back of the house — [do] you have a different way of thinking about food, or do you set that aside when you’re [dining] out?
IB: Whether it’s my restaurant or a restaurant I’m eating at, it’s all about execution. It could be something as simple as French fries or some refined fine-dining thing; both can be made great [and] both can be poorly executed and be terrible. 
I don’t feel like I’m that picky, but I can tell that if you go somewhere and get a sandwich and on the side of the plate [are] vegetables that were cut the day before or two days ago or the bread’s dry — those simple things drive me crazy.
I also take into account where I am. If I’m in a small town [or] if I go out with my relatives, they’re always worried that I’m not going to like what they’re cooking or where we’re going out to dinner. If we’re at the cabin and we go out to dinner, then all I care about is that it’s hot. 
YL: What’s it like cooking at home?
I’m embarrassed to say that [over] the last five years, my wife and I have become weight-conscious. Days of pouring olive oil all over everything and having a steak on the side — we don’t indulge like we used to. We eat a lot of salads and try to balance that with something the kids want to eat, too — not making them suffer because we’re having salad.
In the old days, I used to make veal, rotini and polenta. But in the old days, Sunday night was our only night together, so I’d go spend $100 at the grocery store and make this feast. Now, we’re home a little bit more; Sunday nights are not our only night together, so it’s not quite the occasion.
GT: [Your wife] has a hand in your business, right? 
She’s the other half. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know if 112 would even be open anymore.
I wish my wife would get more recognition. Yeah, I’m a chef, and chefs get the buzz and that’s what people want to read about. She’s very much responsible for our success and works just as hard [as I do]. I feel like she gets overlooked a lot — entire articles have barely mentioned her. She gets mentioned, but no one
wants to know where she got her start or what her inspiration is, or who her mentor was.
GT: Outside of running [your] restaurants, what do you do? Do you have any hobbies?
IB: I like sports cars. The last few years, I started taking my car to the track — I drive a Porsche. I love it. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve really become a car freak. I bought [a BMW] M3, and that was when I really got hooked. I went from the M3 to the Porsche, and that was when I really got hooked.