Chef Paul Berglund picks through the selection of knives available in Jon Wipfli’s kitchen, hefts a couple of them, and settles on his weapon of choice. Holding it in his left hand, he trues up the root ends of a row of scallions, rocks the knife up toward its tip, and with a single smooth forward stroke, lops off the lineup of unkempt onion dreadlocks.
It’s not a fancy move, just practiced and precise. He does it once more, and sets the double handful of scallions aside, as the air above the countertop fills with a chivey sharpness. And that constitutes the entirety of his prep work on scallions for this evening.
He’s here to make us pork chops, and he’s here to talk about plating.
Pork chops, for reasons obvious to anyone who has attended The Bachelor Farmer’s Monday night Chop Night. Plating, because this is the Arts Issue, and plating is the most pictorial of the steps involved in setting something that originated in a field elegantly in front of a restaurant diner. He’s also here because, as of May 2, 2016, the night he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, he is a minor Minnesota hero.
Standing at the chopping block in skinny jeans and a pair of Converse One Stars, Berglund looks less like a hero than he does the hero’s mild-mannered alter ego—the guy wearing spectacles who might occasionally get bullied and probably bikes to his job in a cubicle. He prepares the next item on the menu by peeling off an outer leaf or two of a head of romaine, paring off the browned stem end, and then cleaving the head lengthwise. That concludes his work on the romaine, which, along with the scallions, will shortly serve as both vegetable and garnish.
Pork chops sizzle in a frying pan // Photo by Wing Ta
Behind him, two massive bone-in pork chops—two inches thick? Three?—spit in their own rendered fat on a cast iron griddle.
He looks up at me. “I was…” He pauses. “I was…”
He has a tendency to repeat the first word or phrase of a sentence hesitatingly, as if giving himself time to be careful about the words he is about to serve forth. It comes across as a form of modesty, and the result of a long habit of precision. But it also feels like an extension of his drive for balance. He does not want to understate or overstate what he is about to express. He wants to get it right. He intends to give you something of substance, but if you’ll just bear with him for a second, he would like to run a rag over his thoughts, and give them a final little bit of polish.
“I was an okay line cook,” he confesses. “But only because I worked hard at it. I think I was a great sous chef, and a really good chef de cuisine. As head chef? I do most of it pretty well, and some of it not so well.”
And that concludes chef Berglund’s triumphal post-James-Beard-Award victory lap.
He migrates back to the stovetop with his plateful of scallions and romaine, and, spooning some of the fat from the pork chop pan into an adjacent skillet—fat that has been mulled with a good measure of the salt and pepper lavished on the chops before cooking, as well as the residual flavors from the brine—he begins sauteeing the whole sheaf of scallions. They wilt fragrantly, and he lifts one of the pork chops to reveal a surface the color of cowhide, with the texture of well-done bacon. Both chops get flipped, hissing as they kiss the griddle.
Romaine and pork chops on the griddle // Photo by Wing Ta
As he works, he tries to answer a question about why the pork chops are so good, and somehow, in his telling, the culinary genius of chef Paul Berglund fails to enter the equation. Instead he talks about the farmer who raises the pigs, and about the Red Wattle breed, and how they are bred for an extra thick fat cap, that he tries to trim just enough so that the fat enhances the flavor of the chop, but doesn’t overwhelm the cut’s balance of fat to loin to rib meat.
A tongful of limp scallions is arranged in a semicircle on one half of a serving plate and spritzed with a squeeze of lemon, and the cut faces of the romaine halves replace them in the skillet.
“Every restaurant meal is manipulated,” he says. “We don’t go out into pastures and just start eating whole pigs. So even the slaughter and butchering of animals is a form of manipulation. So is marinating. So is seasoning. So is cooking. So is plating and presenting. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to do as little manipulation as possible.” He pauses to think about what he means.
“You know, farmers work really hard,” he says. “They work a lot harder than we do. I don’t want to take all that hard work, and then hide it behind all this stuff I can do to it as a chef. That…” He thinks about it.
He lifts a sizzling handful of romaine and appears satisfied with the faint browning along the cut edges of the leaves.
“That…” he concludes, “in the end, seems almost disrespectful.”