Mention the name Stewart Woodman in culinary circles around Minneapolis and the response is always lively. He came from the hallowed kitchens of New York (where he worked with chefs like Eric Ripert and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) to Minneapolis to open a restaurant with his then-wife Heidi Woodman. There would eventually be four restaurants that the duo would run: Five, Birdhouse, the original Heidi's, and the second location of Heidi's which shuttered last fall.
He's also racked up accolades as a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2006 and four-star reviews for the fine-dining incarnation of Levain and Heidi's. He also authored a cookbook, Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home.
Throughout it all he managed the blog Shefzilla . The name came from a media-given nickname for the chef, who never skimped on his opinions or articulate ability to express them. Woodman took the mantle and rolled with it, calling out Yelp!, food critics, chefs and shining a light on all the things that inspired him or fueled an indignant hate fire.
With the demise of Heidi's, the blog went dark. Woodman took some time out of the limelight, but he's ready to return to forefront with his new collaboration with Kaskaid Hospitality (who own Figlio and Crave, among others). The Workshop at Union is set to debut next Wednesday August 20. For the first time, he's ready to open up about the end of a restaurant and the lawsuit that ensued as well as how he found happiness.
What all are you doing in your new role?
My official role with the company is Culinary Director of Kaskaid Hospitality. Initially, I'm focusing on things here at Union, both in terms of tweaking the rooftop menu and re-launching a new place down here called Workshop and that will open on August 20.
It will be open for show nights for The Book of Mormon and then Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
The idea started to be kind of bounced around that this will be where we will develop ideas for Kaskaid Hospitality. Also, it's the opportunity to collaborate with the chefs inside Crave, Figlio, BLVD, Boneyard. They'll come in for a weekend. Eventually, it'll be this team here, the Union team led by me. Josh Hedquist is the executive sous chef and Ben Carson, sous chef, and then Amanda Luna, the pastry chef for the Kaskaid who has moved over here for now. This is really a think tank and an opportunity to workshop ideas.
The menu down here will essentially be a deconstructed tasting menu: amuse bouche, appetizers, entrees and desserts. They will be tasting menu-sized. Prices will start around $4 and the most expensive entree will be $16. There's one dessert that's $22, but it's meant to serve four people.
What else can you tell us about the menu?
On the amuse bouche side we have a beet chicharron that we cook twice, dehydrate and then toss in the fryer. It's like pork rinds, but vegetarian. Some things I've done in the past like the spring roll and the scallop on a fork. Scallops [served] with a little blueberry glaze, lavender, and rice crispies. Tomato variation. I think I'm going to add a burger. For the most part, all of the entrees are a little small. The free-form lasagna is a vegetarian entree that we're loving right now. There's a shrimp on a stick that's pretty sexy and yummy: shawarma spices with a tzatziki sauce. Some gnudis— Josh Hedquist is very, very good with pastas.
I really want it to appeal to people on this Top Chef level. Where they take a lot of lower priced items, see what they like, and sit and critique it.
Most importantly, it's going to much more casual, no tablecloths. We'll be playing my favorite 80's hip hop. Servers will be in jeans and t-shirts. There will be a level of knowlege there, too— wine knowledge. We get to pull all these resources together from a fairly good-sized company.
What appealed to you most about going from being your own boss to work for a larger company?
I've worked for all sizes of companies: hotels and smaller restaurants to a machine like Le Bernardin. Most appealing to me about working with Kaskaid was working with the team. It's a mid-sized company. It's not a behemoth. It's a company that's growing. There's a rate of growth that's exciting. There's a balance for sure when you're doing something a little more mainstream than what you're used to, but there's a great synergy here. We can put together what [we all] know about execution and operations on a greater scale and it's exciting.
How did the opportunity come to you?
I knew Kam [Talebi] from Levain. So, really back in the day, and we just connected. A couple of months after Heidi's closed, we started the conversation.
This is what I love about Kam. It's not broken a company or brand, but how can we make it better? How do we bring this guy's perspective in and with a fresh set of eyes see how we can grow? And conversely, it helped me grow. I can learn about the machinations of Corporate America in a mid-sized company like this that drives tremendous volume like this and has a loyal following. It's something that most small independent chefs simply never experience.
What was the outcome of the lawsuit that was the result of Heidi's closure?
It's settled. The servers, thankfully, were able to be almost entirely paid through the insurance companies.
It seemed like you received more vitriol than the average end of a restaurant. Do you think that was a result of you being out there in public as you were?
Yeah, I think that's fair. When you put things out there when there are good things, you get attention and when there are bad things that happen you get attention on that side, too. It comes with the territory. I'm glad that it worked out. I'm glad that the outcome was positive and that chapter is over.
There was a lot of Twitter chatter during the auction of Heidi's assets.
Oh, I didn't see that.
I probably chose not to pay attention to some stuff. Part of the vitriol was that we were a very tight family. Servers had been there for five to six years. Some of them had been there since the beginning. They had always been a part of the decisions of the restaurant when they were made. I think when that decision came out, they were not expecting it. Also, they had been left out of a big family decision. You know, Mom and Dad decided to get divorced and there's a lot of hurt feelings that come from that. In many ways, it was a family. We were very close.
When the decision was made and the plug was pulled, what did you do?
I finished a novel. I'm on the third re-write now. I started that when I stopped blogging. I decided I wanted to write in a longer form. I had a book I was really passionate about. Hopefully, I'll have that done by the end of the year.
It's the story of a young chef who leaves New York City with his girlfriend and moves to Des Moines, Iowa.
Where did that idea come to you?
[Laughs] I don't know.
At least it's Des Moines. Do you miss blogging?
I liked blogging mostly because I spent more time reading food writers and watching what they were saying and thinking and writing about. On that level I miss it. It's certainly exhausting to be writing every day and then doing everything else. It can be ten times more exhausting to write fiction. An hour of fiction writing is like a six-hour brain fuck. It's fun. It's incredibly rewarding. So was writing a blog. At our peak we had 1,000 readers a week. It was fun to be a part of the conversation.
I think it was better received by other media folk than it was by some junior foodies that were kind of outraged that someone would have an opinion outside of an established channel.
I still have people who ask about it. The novel is obviously from the perspective of a chef, but it doesn't get into the day-to-day perspective of it. Rather than what the kitchen opinions are on Yelp.
How do you feel about Yelp?
I pay very little attention to it. Here, I'm working with really excellent managers, seasoned professionals like Steve here [at Union], who can look at a diner's face and get a sense of what an experience is in real time. I never really use Yelp to find other restaurants or see if Hanes underwear is good or something like that. For the most part, it's what it's always been. Friends and family and industry people to see who is going where. I've never been interested in trying a restaurant in the first months. What it becomes and what it evolves into is much more interesting.
So, probably no return of Shefzilla any time soon?
Not any time soon. I barely even find the time to do Twitter these days. I should do that a little more. I'm not in the school of those who think it doesn't have value. In terms of being part of the community it's nice.
I don't feel compelled to do it... until I feel compelled to do it.
This critical part with any art is figuring out how you contribute vision within the confines of certain parameters. When you build a canvas, it isn't endless. There are going to be borders and there are limitations. It's critical to the creative process to be able to embrace those limitations and imagine what you haven't imagined before.
I've worked at McDonald's and hotels and Le Bernardin where there were 35 cooks in that kitchen. Managing that experience was similar to this experience. Soon 500 cooks will execute this menu that we're creating on this line this week.
I think it's a company where the model isn't broken, but it's ripe for change. It's in the process and is just on the verge of becoming what it is. There's a lot of influence someone like me can have.
The challenge for someone like me is to come at it in the right way. You know, if I came to Jean-Georges and said, the only thing that matters if farm-to-table, I never would have made it. Same thing with Le Bernardin.
The calamari lesson is something I share with these guys. The first day I walked on the line, the amuse bouche for that night is calamari with tartar sauce and I'm like, "What?" Here Thomas Keller was blowing up on the West Coast and that style of food. You're going to have the balls to serve calamari? Only... it was perfect. It was perfectly executed. I know everybody wants to say the latest and greatest thing is fried monkey butt. The true challenge is inspiring people to execute and be considerate of details. To execute on a level that is both simplistic and skillful. That calamari still stays with me to this day. After that, I felt differently about food— after that one moment. I try to relay that to young chefs. They might think, "Oh, I have to be in fine dining!" Okay, well, what does that mean? And on some level, it's all bullshit anyway. It's very nice to espouse an idea like farm-to-table.
Portlandia hit the nail on the head. It's fantastic to be obsessed with where that chicken came from or what its name was, but the person bringing that out to you might not have healthcare. Or maybe if it was a server, they're working in an industry that's rampant with sexual harassment. It's possible the person cooking the chicken was an undocumented worker. It's not so simple that we're doing this one piece and we're going to change the whole world.
We can, however, change ourselves and imagine and understand that the world is much bigger and interesting place than we give it credit for.
Sometimes people come to a chain restaurant and write it off, but there's an opportunity here to create excellence on a different scale. Which isn't to say that I won't some day go back to a small, independent restaurant. I can tell you right now that this is infinitely interesting.
How would you say you've changed over the last couple of years?
I'm certainly happy for the first time in probably... since I can remember.
What is happiness to you?
[Long pause] I think it's kind of enjoying life and being able to appreciate how beautiful things are in the moment.
The thing is, I don't think I would be here if it wasn't for going through that other stuff. It's almost too bad when we resign ourselves to being disappointed in ourselves. But ultimately, it's through those disappointments that we realize the things that are truly important.
What's most important to you?
Well, professionally, to live the life that you imagine. This is the ultimate example of living the life you imagine. I mean, how fun is it to be a culinary director? It's the ultimate kitchen position in that I don't have to direct operational responsibility. I'm not worried about sending someone home or managing the schedule. I'm working to inspire people to see food in a way that they can in their best moments.
· All Coverage of Stewart Woodman [Eater MPLS]
· All Coverage of Union [Eater MPLS]