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Stewart Woodman Bringing Rochester’s Historic Lord Essex Into the Modern Age

Two months in, here's how things are going for Shefzilla.

Joy Summers

After spending 13 years cooking in the Twin Cities at various restaurants (Heidi's, Birdhouse, Workshop at Union) Stewart Woodman, aka Shefzilla, announced he'd be leaving his latest gig at Kaskaid Hospitality and heading 85 miles south to Rochester to head up the Kahler Hotel Group restaurants. After just 2 months, Woodman and food and beverage director, Tyler Kase at the Kahler Grand restaurant, Lord Essex are excited to share details on the future.

This crowd is so international.
"Since Stewart's been here the menu has changed to a whole new culinary experiencesomething we've never had," said Tyler Kase. "Kahler was known back in the 70's and 80's for their grand ballroom, The Elizabethan, and known as best in the Midwest for their culinary arts. I would say that we're taking it to another level with [Woodman’s] creativity and what he can bring to the table. We're looking at re-concepting all of our restaurants here and he's a perfect man for the job. I like his vision."
Stewart Woodman making pasta magic in the Lord Essex kitchen. Photo courtesy Facebook

Stewart Woodman making pasta magic in the Lord Essex kitchen. Photo courtesy Lord Essex Facebook page

When asked if he would be appealing to a different clientele in Rochester versus the Twin Cites, Woodman said, "Here's the thing, this crowd is so international. It's a very different animal altogether. In the context of this hotel, it’s 127 years old and there's a lot of history with the locals. I think part of the goal is to get that traffic back. For instance, Friday and Saturday are our slowest nights compared to the Twin Cities."

I remember distinctly... one of our big-name chefs came to me on the line and said, 'Listen, you can't serve foie in this town'.
The reason for this is that the clientele are typically people traveling from afar, most often to visit the Mayo Clinic. They arrive on Sunday and leave on Thursday. When asked to elaborate, Woodman cited that, "Everything here revolves around the clinic. One of the reasons that I'm so excited to be here isand this is nothing I've ever shared with anyone hereis that many of the great restaurants are supported specifically by healthcare professionals and more specifically by doctors. Noma, for instance, is a great example of a restaurant that was created by that community that travels internationallythat has the money to support great restaurants, and that has typically a great palate and is interested in fine dining and/or trying new and different things. As far as Minnesota is concerned this is the epicenter for that. And so it is a unique opportunity to reach an international crowd."

The menu at Lord Essex is completely different than any menu the restaurant has had before Woodman came on board. According to Kase, "People who come here typically have certain expectations of comfort food—the walleye, the meatloaf."

Woodman added, "There's no question that there's a seismic cultural shift, however when I moved to Minneapolis 13 years ago I remember distinctly three weeks into it one of our big-name chefs came to me on the line and said, 'Listen, you can't serve foie in this town. You just can't do it. People want their meat and potatoes, they want their meatloaf. Look at who's doing well and don’t try to go against the grain. You'll never make it.' And that night we sold out of foie. The reality is, if you build it they will come."

Over the last year, the Twin Cities has gained much attention from national outlets such as Food & Wine Magazine, The New York Times, and Saveur magazine which dubbed Minneapolis as "The next great food city". So why head south to Rochester? When asked if Woodman thinks this will be a destination for local diners, he said, "Yeah, I'd like that. I hope so. When I started, I'd been looking down in this area for a restaurant property for the last three to four years. Being near this international population and close to home and tapping into that is a huge opportunity. We'll see what happens. In terms of destination? That just takes time. In the meantime there's so much to do here."

I worked at Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. It's the same age as this and it feels like this when you walk around the hallways.
Woodman added, "I did my apprenticeship thirty years ago at the Banff Springs Hotel, a very old hotel, very storied, very big. This [the Kahler Grand Hotel] just has that feel to it, this ancient feel to it. And so much history. But then the people have been there a long time and there's a reason they've been there such a long time. They're cared for. That goes against the culture because even a room like old hotel gets dinged in a way. People say 'we want new, we want modern—we want glass and metal'. I don't think that's quite the same in Europe. I worked at Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. It's the same age as this and it feels like this when you walk around the hallways. This is cool, this is old, I like this. I don't know that in our culture that's valued. At least not in this country."

lord essex

Dining room at Lord Essex. Photo courtesy Kahler Grand webpage

Woodman leads a team of tenured locals, one of whom has been a breakfast cook for 42 years at Kahler Grand. He's also brought on chef de cuisine Alexander Armour, formerly of Victory 44 and CoV, who relocated to the Rochester area to work with Woodman. To work in an internationally known hotel presents a world of opportunity for a young chef like Armour, according to Woodman. Knowing that building a good team is crucial, Woodman explained, "For someone like AJ (Armour) there's this different world from a resume perspective in the restaurant business. Now all of a sudden, you're in the hotel business and you do this for 2-3 years and your whole world has opened up. You have opportunities to travel and work anywhere in the world once you've proved this type of work."

Lord Essex at The Kahler Grand is just one of the Kahler properties getting Stew-ified. Other outlets include The Grand Grill, Crossings Bistro & Bar, and Salute Wine Bar.

· All Coverage of Stewart Woodman [Eater MPLS]