So they arrived, the guys from Travail Kitchen & Amusements.
Or rather two of the three guys. The third guy might swing by later.
The two guys, Bob and James, got out of their white pickup. Introduced themselves. We smiled at each other.
Bob had kind eyes and a scruffy black beard that failed to diminish his insouciant handsomeness. James held his sandy hair back, Catherine Deneuve style, with a Goody brand girls’ lavender headband.
A block over, a Harley hammered down University Avenue, celebrating, in its way, how kick-ass life can be sometimes, in Northeast Minneapolis, in June.
“They didn’t have chicken,” said James. “So we got a duck.”
There was not a hint of unfriendliness. In fact, Bob may have possessed one of the more fetching shy smiles extant in Nordeast that day. But neither was there a hint of solicitude. No B.S. No glad-handing. No earnestly delivered backdoor ad copy for their restaurant.
We crowded into the 1920s kitchen of our evening’s hosts, John and Martine Sticha, and the chefs laid out their supplies for the evening—a roll of knives, a tote the size of a kitchen drawer with tufts of herbs sticking out of it, and three small vacuum packs.
I thought to myself, “There’s no way that’s enough food.”
The idea had been this—let’s invite the guys from Travail, where 181 nights a year, Bob and James, and their partner Mike Brown, turn a Robbinsdale storefront restaurant into, among other things, a molecular gastronomical mad scientist’s laboratory. Let’s put these guys into a kitchen that Betty Crocker might have recognized. And let’s see what happens.
I was starting to be concerned—as I looked over the single pork chop, two ribs, and one duck on the counter—that they had taken their assignment a little too seriously.
“Well,” said James to Bob, as if it were just now occurring to him that they had to turn all this into a meal. “What do you think?”
Replaying the evening, I realize that I mentally insert, at just about this moment, a sort of ostinato drum beat. As if the aimless good intentions and uncertain social cues of our initial meeting are about to be resolved into forward momentum.
That’s how it feels anyway—like we’ve been milling around the joint, talking low, and now the musicians have meandered onto the stage—as Bob unrolls the knives with a tinking sound, and pulls one across a steel, with a sound like wishy wishy wishy. And then a pot clangs on the stove. And a knife raps the cutting board after finding its way between the ball and socket of the hip of a duck. We are suddenly very recognizably in business.
Soon enough the single duck is in three different places. James has filleted the breasts and thighs—the meat so dark it’s almost purple—and salted them down on a baking sheet with a sound like falling sleet. He has removed the skin, diced it rhythmically, and placed it in simmering water to render its fat for cracklings. The duck’s bones are making small popping noises in a pasta pot with a dinner plate for a lid, which Bob lifts for a moment, in order to toss in a fistful of herb stalks that immediately scent the air.
Bob returns to his cutting board, where his knife opens up a red bell pepper like a scroll, and then, chit-chit-chit-chit-chit, turns it into dice to add to the vegetable ragu that has begun to gurgle behind him on a skillet.
It’s not long before all four burners are blowing blue flame under a scavenged assortment of pots. The kitchen sounds like Sunday morning bacon on the griddle, and like a cabinetmaker’s workshop.
John Sticha is standing next to me, looking at his stove with wonder and a certain concern. As if he were watching his overweight middle-aged brother run an impulsive half marathon.
The produce that had looked so skimpy appears somehow to be multiplying. Bob is now quarter-slicing cue-ball sized green radishes, and James is chopping carrots to be served in the duck stock. I don’t remember seeing asparagus and fiddlehead ferns before, but there they are.
James has started talking to us. His last name is Winberg, and he is holding the floor in a way that has earned him his fiancée’s nickname, “Long-Winberg.”
His asides and half-smiles and eye rolls regularly undermine the earnestness, verging on nerdiness with which he talks about food, and cooking, and Travail’s mission to puncture the bubble of haute cuisine high-mindedness.
He steps around Bob, who instinctively shifts out of his way, and opens the oven door, with a steel hinge whine. “By the way, if you think I talk a lot,” he says, prodding a meaty rib, “wait until Mike gets here.”
John Sticha slips from my side to check on Martine outside. They are a wickedly witty pair, full of knowing, 21st century irony. But for a moment, as they work together to create a backyard dining room out of card tables, folding chairs, and colorful tablecloths, there is no irony. Just a happy couple, long-married, comfortable, and content, amid the cottonwood fluff drifting through the broken light of late afternoon.
It is at this moment, as if things have started to get a little mushy, that Mike Brown rolls into the kitchen, black hair tied into a samurai bun, black lucifer goatee, looking a little bit like John Belushi.
“I brought the rice,” he announces, and then doesn’t say, although his tone implies it, “…that you idiots forgot.”
There are no instructions from Bob or James, and no attempts to bring Mike up to speed. He just looks around, lifts a pot cover or two to confirm what’s up, then grabs a knife, and starts mincing herbs.
I have been wondering all afternoon whether these guys, who, on a bigger stage, have spent eight years hacking the local restaurant scene, and changing fine dining in the Twin Cities to nearly constant acclaim, really want to be performing at this little gig.
I don’t know the answer for sure. But I think if you asked a jazz ensemble whether, on a given night, they would rather be playing or not playing, they would say, “Playing.”
And that’s what Mike Brown’s arrival appears to make clear. The venue doesn’t really matter. Nor the audience. What these three are still thrilled about, somehow, after eight years, is cooking together.
Bob has been plucking away at his bass. And James has been warming up his drums. And now Mike has arrived, and sat down at the piano, and now they get to jam.
If it is a little like jazz, with everybody knowing the base melody and taking turns improvising off of it, it is also in the end, a lot like science. Not the science we had planned for. The science of lab coats and microscopes. Not the gastronomic science of taking food to its outer limits. It is the playful, big-spirited kind of science that looks at something supposedly familiar and hypothesizes.
“Hey, what if we tried this?”
What if we served the veggie ragu on stalks of celery and called it “Ants on a Log?” What if we flavored the radish, lemon, and herb “palate cleanser” with some pork drippings to link it to the rest of the meal? What if we sautéed the spring onions next to the morels in the pork rib fat? What if we found some Tabasco in the fridge and made the asparagus and fiddleheads a little zippier? What if… Hey, what if we only garnished with whatever we could find in the backyard?
And that’s what they did. When all the meat had been sliced, and the cracklings scattered over the roasted potatoes, and proper homes found for all the vegetables among the plates and bowls in the vintage sideboard, we filed out into the yard.
“Dahlia. Edible,” said Mike, and dismantled the head of a potted flower on the back stoop.
“Sorrel,” called James from the flower bed near the base of a big basswood tree.
“Sedum?” asked Bob.
“Edible,” said Mike. “And the peonies too. And what’s that vine over there?”
It was wisteria. Which we googled. And found that the seeds and pods were toxic, but the flowers were edible in moderation.
“Edible,” said Mike.
So that, when we sat down to eat, the dishes were decorated with flower petals. The cottonwoods made snow in June. And a garden of delights had been discovered in an urban backyard.
Science yes. Alchemy too. A little bit of magic. And as the sun set, and the dogs joined us, and the whiskey bottle was fetched, and Mike Brown and Bob Gerken and James “Long” Winberg lingered talkatively over their evening’s improvisation, irony, and jesterism were honeyed for a while into something murmurous and tonic, and there was among the three chefs a comfort and camaraderie that really only happens when a marriage has been long, and is founded on good chemistry.