It's often the loud guys that get the ink. Chefs who blaze a trail from kitchen to kitchen with fiery tempers leaving a trail of disillusioned staff behind them grab the food section headlines. Whoever is the new, shiny talent of the week follows as a close second. Then, there is a chef like Doug Flicker. A small town guy, happily married, holding down the kitchen inside his diminutive restaurant where he churns out plate after plate of stunning, delicious, forward-thinking cuisine. When you gather late at night, after hours with the guys who have put in their time and moved on from the daily kitchen grind, the chefs who remember when there were only two fine dining restaurants in this town, they'll sit back over beer or coffee and tell tales of this quiet, kind, studious cook who continues to transfix them with his talent.
I knew that if I didn't leave now, I never would.
Flicker didn't grow up in a culinary family. Weeknight dinners were of the Kraft mac and cheese variety. It wasn't until his sister brought home a guy who was rough around the edges, swore liberally and brought a little big city allure to the young lad. That boyfriend was a cook and Flicker had found that behind the scenes in a restaurant is where his tribe lived. As a cook, Flicker said, "At least I could feed myself and probably get laid." Growing up in Rochester, he didn't feel like he fit in, but here in the Twin Cities kitchens were people living "alternative lifestyles." The freak flags waved at full mast and for the first time, he felt at home.
He landed inside the newly opened D'Amico Cucina. He worked his way up, prepared a couple of specials and got some good feedback. "It was an epic restaurant at the time, a convergence of godly people."
He stayed for four and a half years. "I knew that I needed to either stay with the D'Amico's for the rest of my life, or leave the comfort and strike out on my own. I knew that if I didn't leave now, I never would." His first stop was Minneapolis' first fusion restaurant, Nicollet. It was a time for him to stretch and learn, but the business collapsed within a year.
He had first met Lenny Russo at D'Amico and knew that the New York transplanted chef [now of Heartland] had taken over the Loring Cafe, a bohemian hot spot still fondly remembered by the eclectic crowd and artichoke dip lovers who frequented it. Flicker arrived at the back door one day and inquired about a position.
Russo's first impression of the mop-topped kid was, "He's short." Russo breaks out into a laugh before turning serious, "Doug was part of the Loring All Star Team. He had vision and an influence over all of us. His attention to detail and high standards drove us all. He's significantly underrated when people talk about the dining scene in the Twin Cities. The people I've mentored have all gone on to mentor other chefs who are now opening their own restaurants. That's what Doug does."
Russo also admires Flicker for the way he works the line every night. "He's there, in his kitchen, with his small restaurant - how he makes that work every night is math I don't understand." The menu at Piccolo changes frequently with the chef's moods, what is in season and the inspiration he and his cooks bring into that tidy kitchen.
Russo brings up the famous Anthony Bourdain incident. Bourdain dined at the restaurant during an episode where he covered the broad swath of "the heartland" for his show No Reservations. After finishing his meal there was a look of utter bewilderment on his face. All he could ask of Flicker was, "What are you doing here?"
"It was a valid question," says Russo. "Doug could easily leave here. He could be cooking in New York or Chicago and be on that stage - easily. Instead, he stays here and stays committed to his principles. Nobody talks about how hard it is to source from these small, local farmers using sustainable practices and pay the entire staff a living wage. Doug makes us all proud."
After a brief stint at Table of Contents in St. Paul, Flicker hatched his plan of opening his own restaurant. It would be named for a constellation: Auriga.
"My patience kept getting smaller and smaller. I just wanted to cook," Flicker recalls. "And I wanted to cook what I wanted to cook." That was exactly what he did, inside the space which now holds the new Bradstreet Craftshouse on Hennepin Avenue.
"There wasn't a lot of forethought. It was learn-as-we-go and cook to keep the lights on. I wanted to do my thing, do something better for the city and consciously bred it into my career that I could excel at things differently."
It's worth remembering that at this time, there were few other restaurants run by chefs. This wasn't a career that often led to business management. Flicker was at the forefront of that first audacious wave of chef/owners.
"My generation started to get some traction. I remember me and Steven Brown [now of Tilia] working the line together. People were discovering food and the dining scene was getting better," Flicker said.
One of the cooks at Auriga was a young chef named Erik Anderson (who has since gone on to be a Food & Wine Best New Chef and is currently working to bring Brut to life with his partner Jamie Malone.) "It was 2004," remembered Anderson. "I think. I had just moved here and was looking for a place to work. The kitchen at Auriga was a great learning experience. I tried to cook some horrible, miserable failures, but sometimes you would have to learn from those failures and Doug gave you room to find that success. Once he saw where your head was at, he would really let you try to create.
"He was also the first person to show me that cooking was more of a lifestyle, not a 9 - 5 job. Your brain needs to always be on, always thinking. That stuck with me."
Inside the kitchen, chefs were also learning new, modernist cooking techniques. "I think Auriga was the first experiment restaurant in the Twin Cities. We were cooking sous-vide.
"People always ask 'what's your style of food?' Doug is one of those people that has a very distinct style of food. Anyone in their twenties that says they have a 'cooking style' is full of shit. One hundred people could make the same dish and I could tell you which one Flicker made."
"Anyone in their twenties that says they have a 'cooking style' is full of shit." - Erik Anderson
Anderson was quiet for a moment. "Doug is a very mischievous person at heart. That's a side a lot of people might not see. He's one of my best friends."
Auriga lasted for ten years. By all accounts, a special, but fleeting time in the Twin Cities dining history books . However, September 11th happened and the entire country changed. Immediately following the attacks, the country could hardly get it together enough to function. No one seemed to remember how to laugh and the idea of luxuriating over a fine dining dinner seemed too frivolous to consider.
"It was an incredible run," Flicker said, without a hint of sadness. "I was 29 years old when it opened and... It's kind of like a marriage. People get divorced and that doesn't mean you can point at one thing and say that went wrong." The dining scene changed and there was no return to profitability in sight for the restaurant. Auriga joined a lengthy list of white linen restaurants that passed into dining lore.
Local dining critics were bereft. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, then dining critic for City Pages wrote, "...what seems to be happening in our city right now is that the best and brightest are our vulnerable outliers, and have gotten mowed down first."
Unlike many restaurants, Auriga went out with solid relationships with all of its vendors. The building owner was an investor in the restaurant and helped with the dissolution.
Unemployment isn't Flicker's style and he was soon working at Mission on the first floor of the IDS building. "I'd worked with Anoush [Ansari] back at Cucina," remembered Flicker. The idea was that Flicker would bring his critical cache to the menu and elevate what they were doing. Unfortunately, once the powers that be saw the price tag that comes with that quality, all parties agreed that perhaps it wasn't the best future for that restaurant.
From there he went to Porter & Frye on the ground level of the newly opened Ivy Hotel. His old friend Steven Brown was running the kitchen and there were a lot of familiar and soon to be well-known faces working the line. "Plus, it's the only job I ever got fired from!" Flicker remembers with a strange fondness.
A new kid in town named Mike Brown (now of Travail) was hired to work the grill station alongside Flicker. "I didn't know who he was - I didn't know who anyone was! He was the easiest person to work with and a really good cook. One day someone came in the kitchen and said, 'Mr. Flicker, that was an amazing dinner. The meat course was perfect.' I didn't understand what was going on. It kind of came out that he was a big deal and someone filled me in on Auriga. Plus, I thought he was like 30 years old. I remember finding out his real age and I was like, 'you're fucking 41! Jesus Christ. When the fuck did you turn 41?"
Brown unleashes an unmistakable laugh that overtakes him for a moment before turning serious. "Sometimes you're just really lucky to work alongside someone. We all bonded in that kitchen. We wanted to do really good food - the best in the state."
"Doug is one of those guys who is the easiest person to be friendly with. He has a gentle heart and is very cerebral. He has a business mind and is a constant influence over what happens in his kitchen every day. I have the highest respect for him. He's in there every day because it's his craft - like somebody who builds really good, wood furniture. Because it's what he does. It's who he is," Brown said.
"I feel like minded. I think we think about things similarly. Before we opened Travail, we talked to a bunch of chefs around town and he was one of them. Like, 'we're gonna do this thing, we don't have some money, not a lot... what do you think?' He had a lot of insight. He said, 'Go fucking do it. Go get it.'"
After we had finished speaking, Brown called back to say, "I forgot to tell you the most important thing about Doug. He's my friend."
At Porter & Frye, Flicker was working alongside Brown under Steven Brown and Joan Ida along with Anderson, Jamie Malone, Josh Brown, Becky Brooks and more.
"Plus, it's the only job I ever got fired from!" - Doug Flicker
It was late one evening while the crew was cleaning up the kitchen, watching the clock tick down the minutes to ten o'clock when the day would be done. "It was the first hotel I'd ever worked for," Flicker recalled.
The room service phone was located next to the grill station that he shared with Mike Brown. "The room service line would run in the middle of a big rush and we'd have to deal with it."
On the night in question, the phone rang at quarter to 10 while a guest of the hotel called and asked a bunch of questions. They hung up and the phone rang again at ten after 10. There was no one there to cook the food, everything at been turned off and the dining room was closed. "I knew it was wrong as I was doing it," Flicker recalled. He said the one word you are never supposed to say to someone else's guest: no. No, you can't have your food. You missed it. Sorry.
The next day, Joan Ida sat him down to say how disappointed she was in him.
"I grabbed my stuff and it was time to go."
He had an almost monastic approach to cooking
Steven Brown still remembers their time together at Porter and Frye fondly as well as all the years that led up to that point. "He's one of the kindest, most caring human beings I know," Steven Brown said. The two met somewhere between 1993 and 94, "Back when he was this wunderkind chef at D'Amico's and then left for the Loring. I remember one time working the line with him, he got the pan smoking hot and rather than put the oil in the pan, he oiled the meat and the result was this kissed-by-the-wok flavors and it was just... This is a person of interest. This is someone to watch.
"He had an almost monastic approach to cooking. He would read and was very well educated. He was always one of the first people to show up and the last to leave - or would come in on his day off. He was that dedicated and passionate that he works outside the bounds of a timeclock," said Brown.
Once, a mutual friend was heading to France, "This was before the internet," Brown recalled. The friend asked if the cooks wanted any mementos from the trip. The immediate answer was, "cookbooks!" The duo poured over Joel Robuchon's words and other classic culinary tomes late into the night, half drunk trying to decipher the French instructions. "There were all these magic tricks to discover! Plus, it was the '90's so everybody was making mashed potatoes." The two would make copious amounts of pommes puree before the decade was done.
After achieving his one and only involuntary termination, Flicker headed back to the familiar grounds of D'Amico Cucina. The restaurant was closing and he saw an ideal opportunity to come full circle in his career.
He and his business partner had also sent out a letter to a few local businesses that had attractive locations. The gist of the letter was, "No one wants to go out of business, but if you should ever consider selling, think of us." Cafe Agri responded swiftly that they were interested. As the parties negotiated price, Flicker followed the D'Amico's to their latest venture, D'Amico Kitchen on the first level of Le Meridien Hotel. "I was happy to be a line cook, but I was also focused on opening my own restaurant," he said.
The first menu of Piccolo, named for its relatively small space included a particular dish that has never left. "Scrambled eggs with pickled pigs feet was the first dish I came up with for the menu. I thought about what I wanted to do and what I'm really good at doing. I've always loved tasting menus and I love spontaneity and change." That was when he created the concept of twelve dishes moving from savory light to heavy. "I wanted to cook what I wanted to cook," Flicker said for the second time in our conversation. "I didn't want to do the soup/salad/entree menu. I love cooking small, beautiful plates. I love to conceive of plates, execute them and move on to the next big thing."
While that type of menu most likely wouldn't have been successful during the Auriga days, Piccolo has wooed neighborhood and national media alike. One notable and vocal fan has been Andrew Zimmern, the James Beard Award winning TV host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Food. "Piccolo has been a Zimmern family favorite since it opened," he gushed. "Superb food, inventive, but firmly rooted in reality. Great service, too. But, the reason my wife and I return again and again is that its intimate nature suits us. It's size obviously is small, portions are perfect, but in a meaningful way, the restaurant is infused with Doug's personality. We can be ourselves, dine quietly or with friends and always be happy."
Zimmern continued, "In the last decade or so, some really amazing things have happened in the Twin Cities restaurant scene. Several years ago, Bourdain emailed me and said he was doing a Heartland themed No Reservations show. He asked me if I had to pick one restaurant idea for him to pursue, what would I suggest? I told him that the battle for hearts and mind of our dining community would play out in Doug Flicker's success or failure with Piccolo. I said that I thought he was one of the best chefs in the country that no one outside of Minnesota knew about! Tony's show did a great job of profiling Doug and like La Belle Vie successfully moving to 510 Groveland or Gavin [Kaysen] coming home to open Spoon & Stable, Doug's work at Piccolo helps to define the best of our city's food vibe."
The ever-evolving menu gives Flicker the opportunity to draw his inspiration from every aspect of his life. "There's a certain collective consciousness," he explained, "with cooking, food, music, fashion and for me it's about being out in front of the direction that food is going." With the bevvy of images and work available, Flicker's days of pouring over cookbooks have lessened and now he finds the seeds of new ideas on Instagram and from the people he surrounds himself with - local chef friends that include Steven Brown, Mike Brown and Erik Anderson. "I'm inspired by the desire to do better," he said simply. "I want to do something different and something I've never done before. I't more of a feeling or a desire than reading a recipe in a cookbook."
Although I was able to occupy much of his prep time before dinner service discussing the past, it's not a subject Flicker spends too much time thinking about. "You're only as good as your last plate. Younger cooks will say, 'I've worked here and here and here.' I don't care. What are you doing now? What did you do last night?" Which gets him thinking about his old friend, Erik Anderson. "I remember when he showed up at the back door of Auriga. And I think of everybody who is in the kitchen at Piccolo now. It's fascinating to watch these versions of myself fifteen years ago. They have the same desire, that wonderment of the food world."
He braves a moment of contemplation, "Everything that goes into a menu is to prove that I have ideas. It's an affirmation of what I personally get to do on a daily basis." His gratification is the nightly service of those edible ideas to guests and the supreme satisfaction of seeing them enjoy his hard work.
On looking back, he says, "With Gavin coming to town and Jamie and Erik doing Brut, the competition is rising. I still have the desire to remain relevant with that group of people. To a certain extent, I just want to cook every day. I want to continue to create and improve and meet and cook with new people.
Doug Flicker will remain the forever boyish, passionate, inspiring chef who redefines Twin Cities cuisine on a nightly basis.
Piccolo will host a special five year anniversary dinner on Friday January 23. Seven courses will be paired with wine for $135 per person, plus tax and tip. For reservations, call the restaurant.
[Photos by Stephanie A. Meyer]