The Third Bird's executive chef Lucas Almendinger's rise through the Twin Cities culinary scene could be described as meteoric. How often does one start an entirely new career and within the span of six years, help to open several of the best restaurants in Minneapolis, including Kim Bartmann's newest spot on Loring Park? Almendinger was on the line at Haute Dish and Tilia when they opened to rave reviews. He helped open the Jim Christiansen version of Union and led the redesigned Union Fish Market. All the learning wasn't local, either. He traveled to South Carolina to work with Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's under the guise of a "vacation."
It was inside W.A. Frost under Leonard Anderson where Almendinger first honed his fine dining cooking skills. However, his culinary career began in a more humble environment. It was in small town South Dakota at the family-owned cafe, helping his mom prepare prime rib sandwiches that Almendinger first declared that he would never, ever, ever do this as a career.
Where did you grow up? South Dakota, a small town called Edgemont in the southwest corner. It's about 45 minutes southwest of Mount Rushmore.
What brought you to the Twin Cities? My then-girlfriend now wife was going to the University of Minnesota. I had just finished school in Phoenix to learn how to build and restring instruments. I played guitar in high school and it seemed like a good career option when you're eighteen. So, I thought - sure, Minneapolis... why not? It's a big city and there's great music from here.
What was your first job in the restaurant industry? My mom owned a restaurant when I was in high school called The Iron Horse Cafe. There were only 900 people in the town. It was a lot of French dips, but she made her own bread. We cooked the prime rib really low and slow and reduced the au jus and all of that sort of thing. She wasn't classically trained, but she'd always wanted to do it. That was sort of my first exposure to this and I thought, "I am never going to do this." I actually blame her for all of this.
Then after that I worked at Subway.
Oh, a sandwich artist. Oh yeah, that was another confirmation that I didn't want to do this forever. And then after that I kind of just did construction, helping out on ranches - that was kind of the thing. After moving here I ended up getting a job in the cabinet industry and worked at that for about seven years. There is a lot of correlation in attention to detail in being a chef and building furniture.
It got to a point where I was in charge of a finishing department. We were doing about $8 million in business in a year. I was 24 and was kind of like, well, tapped this one out.
That was when I looked into cooking. I called Tim McKee, Alex Roberts and then I thought I was calling Russell Klein, but it ended up being Leonard Anderson over at W.A. Frost/ All three invited me to come spend a day with them and see if culinary school was something that I wanted to do. All three were awesome, but Leonard said, "You can either move to New York and go to culinary school where they'll pay you $7 an hour or you could work here and I'll pay you $9. I'll teach you what you would learn at culinary school."
I would come in and he'd say, "Get your station set. Today you're making vinagrettes, but while you're working, I want you to tell me all of the mother sauces." He was a great teacher.
Then he left for the Hanger Room and Wyatt Evans took over. Those two taught me everything. You show up on time. You are prepared. There is no excuse for not having your task done. Plus, the little things, like say, "behind."
W.A. Frost is a great restaurant for a first time cook; a great restaurant period. I worked there for a year and then I ended up meeting Steven.
How did you meet Steven Brown? I sent him a Facebook message. He responded and said, "Is your dad named Rob?" Surprisingly, they had gone to high school together. He sat down with me and he told me about becoming a chef. We ended up doing a catering gig. Well, he had a catering gig and I ended up inviting myself along. It was there that I met Landon [Shoenefeld] and Eric Emery. I told Landon that I'd like to work with him at Haute Dish. So, I got to help open Haute Dish.
Also, at that time, Steven had hooked me up with a stage at Sea Change under Erik [Anderson]. I was eventually hired as a lunch cook and worked my way up from lunch to the main prep cook at night. I got to kind of work at every station in the kitchen.
I was doing both of those jobs at the same time.
Ow. Yeah, that lasted about four months. Looking back on it, that was great, but incredibly foolish. I'd get up at 7 a.m. and go work at Sea Change until 2 p.m. Then I'd work from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Haute Dish. I was getting about four hours of sleep a night. But, I was able to learn under two amazing chefs at a time.
It was really cool because before that it was, "Here's a recipe, here's how you do that." Landon would say, "Okay, make mayo and make it taste like Hellman's." It helped me develop the palate and learn how to make dishes in that sort of way.
Just for a timeline, when did you start working at W.A. Frost? That was six years ago.
What came next from the epic work days at Sea Change and Haute Dish? Well, then Steven was opening Tilia. Erik was leaving Sea Change around that same time, to go to Noma and then Nashville. So, I quit to go work with Steven.
What was opening Tilia like? [laughs] It was one of the best and hardest restaurant experiences ever. When we started out there were five cooks. That was the whole kitchen staff. We were doing seven days a week. There were some long shifts there, but it was awesome. Working with Steven is... I could spend days talking about how much I think of Steven. Also, getting to work with Sam Miller.
Before the doors opened at Tilia, was there a sense that this would be the mega-watt restaurant it became? It was a neighborhood joint. I remember thinking, "No matter how bad it gets, there are only 40 seats in here." What we didn't realize is that people would stand in the rain, around the block. Brunches, we were consistently doing 200 people. That's five turns.
I remember when we did the Best Sandwich in America show. We sold 90 fish tortas at one lunch. Steven would say, "I need fifteen." I'd say, "Well, you get.. seven. Sorry, we have one fryer."
At what point did it go from "Holy cow, this is cool," to "holy shit, this is what it's like?" There becomes a critical point where you're as busy as possible and you just get used to it. It was interesting to bring stages into that. We can fit a lot of line cooks in that kitchen and really crank out amazing food.
From there, I foolishly left for what I thought would be a really great opportunity, but after four weeks it was obvious that it wasn't what I had expected it to be.
I had worked with Jim Christiansen at Sea Change and he was opening Union.
What was the Union opening like? It was weird. I mean, it was good. The scope of that project was something I'd never seen before. That rooftop is insane. All of my experience up until then had been small, independent restaurants (other than Frost's.) I was used to tying together a broken oven door with a towel and at Union we were peeling the plastic off the equipment that we had drooled over.
How did the change from Union to Union Fish Market come about? Jim ended up leaving. Matt Dickhausen was in charge of the rooftop and I was in charge of the downstairs. They decided to separate the concepts completely. Bill King, the corporate chef came from McCormick and Schmitt's. We decided that it would be a full seafood menu. I'd never written a menu before, costed it all out and we did it all in a month. It's not very often you have someone hand you the keys to a million dollar restaurant and say, "Here you go. Let's see how you do."
What happened? It was hard to grasp the clientel and I had a daughter. I'd never really had a vacation. Like, I took three weeks off and went to Charleston to work with Sean Brock. Then I took two weeks to go to New York and work for Paul Liebrant to work at Corton. "Vacation" was going to a much harder restaurant. I was fried and decided to leave not knowing what the next thing would be. Then, Steven was involved in this place and I talked to Kim. She had come in to eat at Union Fish Market and really liked it.
What was the creative process for deciding what kind of food you were going to serve at The Third Bird? What Noma and those new Nordic restaurants have proven is that it doesn't matter what climate you live in, you can cook with what you have around you all year. Not that we're trying to cook like Noma.
My time at Husk was huge. Husk and McCrady's are two sides to the same coin. I'd gone down there with the intention of just working at Husk. Like, okay, foams and gels, I get it - whatever. Then Sean came in and said, "I think it's really important that you split your time; that you see what we're doing here and how they intertwine." It was this beautiful beginning with agriculture and learning what people are doing around you. Then filtering that through what you want to do.
For The Third Bird, I just wanted to take all of that influence and do my take on a Midwestern restaurant.
What dishes on the menu tie you to your roots? The roast chicken. Part is just getting a great chicken and then not screwing it up. But serving it with stuffing and gravy reminds me of home. The polenta is a nod to McCrady's and Husk, plus Brasa. They have an amazing grits dish and this is our take on that. That dish has gone through a fair amount of changes since we opened. I have an idea of my head that it has to taste like this and it should look like this and sometimes it's a long walk between those two things. We have it now. Both of those dishes, I'm really proud of.
My aunt used to go out and pick tons of chockecherries and make jam, and we have a chokecherry and pork belly dish on the menu.
Anything else you'd like people to know about the restaurant? That we're open?
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