Posts Categorized: Chef on the Block

Chef on the Block: Winona’s Boat House

Chalkboard_WebIntro by Benji Nichols • Photos by Emily Kurash

Winona, Minnesota is a town rich in river history (that’s the mighty ol’ Mississippi in case you were wondering.) One of the winding sidetracks of that history includes the boathouses of Latsch Island, a small community of residents who live in floating homes just across from downtown Winona. You could say they represent a mindset, as such, of river life – living a little more intentionally, and holding a true sense of place. If you take those ideals, add a couple of entrepreneurial business partners, an empty building in Levee Park on the banks of the Mississippi, and great food and drinks, you get Winona’s Boat House.

With a rotating blackboard menu of whatever inspiration has hit daily, and a fun, worldly-yet-simple regular menu, the food can take you both around the world and right back home. The craft beer selection is great, and word on the street is that brunch – served Saturday and Sunday – is a total winner. Tip: Don’t leave without ordering a mimosa…and/or a Bloody Mary! From their regular menu, check out a (according to photographer Emily) “damn good” buffalo burger (pictured) or the chef favorite, the Boat House Lucy, along with pommes frites (including all the amazing sauces possible), or (another Emily favorite) tasty panko fried crab cakes. And any of the delicious desserts, of course!


Second to the food, is the ambiance of the place. And they’ve got boatloads (groan)! The wrap-around patio facing the river equals summer night perfection. Amazingly, the Boat House crew has figured out how to enclose that same outdoor space, making it an almost year-round dining area, complete with a cozy stove and fun décor. But we don’t have to think about that right now – it’s summer! And it’s finally nice! So get out there and enjoy the weather, grab a cold beverage and great food, and soak in scenic vistas of the mighty Mississippi.


MimosaWebName: Lyon Smith
Age (if you’re willing): 42
Restaurant: Boat House
Number of Years Cooking: 30

Formal training or live-and-learn?
Live and learn, that’s how we do it at the Boat House! We change with the seasons and always try and keep fresh, local ingredients and keep our menu interesting. Boat House would be considered rustic cuisine, with fresh, local ingredients, and beer of course. The kind of food you would expect if you were to visit a real boathouse on the Mississippi River.

What’s your earliest or most significant memory of cooking or being cooked for?
Hiking through the Bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley and gathering Morel mushrooms and trout fishing in the streams. Frying them up in a cast iron skillet with butter, salt and pepper with asparagus when in season. We still use that recipe; of course we get our trout from a local trout farm for the restaurant.

Why did you decide to become a chef?
Out of necessity. We love to cook and create! We live in a rural area and try to create interests in different tastes. A fusion of cultures and styles of cooking is combined to create delicious, adventurous choices for our customers.  Naturally, we started experimenting and learning out of sheer curiosity too!

What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
The best thing I have ever made is probably the Boat House Lucy, which is a half-pound of ground beef with local Wisconsin cheese curds stuffed inside of the burger, caramelized onions, arugula, garlic aioli, and tomato on a Kaiser roll, topped off with truffle oil and served with fresh hand cut fries. People have told us it is the best burger they have ever eaten.

Do you have any monumental food fails you’d like to share with us?
Once, while making curry, I used cream de coco, instead of coconut milk, it ruined the curry, needless to say.

How about secret food indulgences you don’t normally talk about? Will you tell us?
Authentic Japanese Ramen!

What’s your favorite…
Ingredient: garlic
fish tacos with guacamole
Cookbook: “Daniel Bouley: East of Paris: The New Cuisines of Austria and the Danube”
Random (or not so random) kitchen tool: cast iron skillet
Vegetable: endives
Fruit: apple


Chef on the Block: Ruth Hampton

Intro and interview by Benji Nichols

Ruth Hampton has been known for years around the Driftless Region as a creator of good, honest, and delicious food. From her early days in Minneapolis at the Seward and Loring Cafés, to running the Oneota Co-op kitchen, to her adventurous journeys brought to life with the Edible Alien Theatre (her totally unique, local pop-up dinner theatre of sorts), on to her current gig as head of her own Trout River Catering company, Ruth has always brought amazing dishes to the lucky people sitting at her table.

The talented chef dubs Trout River Catering’s offerings as a “unique and delectable dining experience that is a dash eclectic, a splash elegant, and a dollop rustic…bohemian meets fusion cuisine meets Iowa farmgirl.” Her food has a focus on real, whole ingredients – local whenever possible – with flavors that stretch across boundaries, all while still being accessible to your grandparents.

We’d say Ruth Hampton is an artist of food, yes, but perhaps more importantly, she specializes in wonderful, memorable culinary experiences.

Read more about Ruth and her food at the blogs and sites she runs (below), where she posts recipes and tales of exciting catering and cookery.

Name: Ruth Hampton
Age: 47
Business: Trout River Catering and Edible Alien Theatre
Number of years cooking: Since I was 14 years old? 33 years…

Formal training or live-and-learn?
Definitely live-and-learn. It started at Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding high school near Iowa City where the students do all of the cooking and cleaning (yes, they even make the breakfast and bread!). I fell in love with stainless steel and cooking for others. Then I moved to Minneapolis where it was easy to find work in restaurants: first at the collectively run Seward Café, and then I had the good fortune of cooking with incredible cooks at the Loring Café (when it was still on Loring Park), many of whom went on to open their own restaurants. They were great guides to both the world of food, and how you work well in a kitchen.

Earliest or most significant memory…
I remember finding a recipe for Chicken Cacciatore when I was around 10 or 11. We mostly ate hearty farm comfort food, so this was a stretch. My mother helped me assemble the ingredients then let me cook the meal by myself for some kind of occasion, maybe Christmas eve. I’m sure she must have hovered in the background but it still required a lot of trust on her part to turn me loose in the kitchen, especially with a recipe that she did not know.

Why did you decide to become a chef?
Not sure I really decided it, but when decades have passed I have to give in to the fact that this is what I love to do. I’ve had a soft spot for commercial kitchens, seasonings and knives since cooking while Scattergood School. I am most at home in the kitchen alone or with a small crew while the party is going on, behind the scenes prepping deliciousness for the enjoyment of the group.

But I also love other aspects of food. The theater of dining: taking people on little journeys in the performance-art dinners of Edible Alien Theatre (E.A.T.), and writing about food. I’m about to complete year three of my food blog and have discovered that I enjoy the process of writing and sharing about edibles.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
Hmm. Last summer for the wedding of a friend I slow-roasted chuck roast (six hours) with North African seasonings like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, currants, lemon with zest, and nutmeg. The steer was from her parent’s farm, and six hours of roasting made it melt in your mouth tender and the flavor was incredible.

But a funnier quote was from a wedding guest many years ago. I served a vegetable and rice noodle salad with toasted sesame oil and Southeast Asian seasonings, and this well-lubricated guest kept repeating to me, “That salad was AWESOME – I could eat it ‘til I puke!!” I took that as a high compliment.

Monumental food fails?
It was more like hanging by the thread of disaster. The first wedding I ever catered on my own was four hours away in at a park near Okoboji for a family of lawyers from Cedar Rapids in the spring of 2000. The prepped food was incredible, but on the drive over my Bronco II (that was pulling the full trailer) overheated. I stopped and immediately two cars of friendly locals stopped to help, eventually discovering I had no transmission fluid. After first offering to use their pickup to haul us and the trailer the remaining two hours, they drove and bought more fluid, helped find the leak, and sent us on our way. We arrived at the park four hours late and with only an hour to prep and serve the evening’s pre-wedding meal for 125 people (did I mention they were lawyers?!?). All the guests showed up to help us unload and do whatever needed to be done. It was utter chaos, but we were able to serve the meal a little over an hour late – and the longer their happy hour was stretched the happier they got, so all turned out well.

That night they set up a pig roast and I would use the meat for the noon wedding meal.  In the morning I discovered the spit had slipped out of its rotator during the night so half the pig was fully cooked and half was raw. I tried unsuccessfully to fix the spit using my car jack, and then proceeded to have a complete meltdown in the park – oh the poor morning joggers that had to listen to my colorful sobbing tirade! But help came, we turned the pig over, and it was fully cooked in time for the wedding lunch. It’s amazing that I continued to cater after that!

Secret food indulgences?
Burgers. Big fat juicy burgers. I love stopping at little diners when traveling and having a burger with lots of ketchup, mustard and pickles. That has been probably the most difficult part of living gluten free, that I can’t have my indulgences sated at these little greasy spoons in small towns…or at least not with the bun. But I still eat burgers.

What’s your favorite:
Parsley. Such an underdog, this potent green bitter gives both depth and brightness to any dish. A close second and third would be nutmeg (which I add to almost everything) and leeks for their savory-sweet creaminess. These three buddies make everything taste better. But then again…so does bacon!
Dish: It’s a tossup between real sauerbraten and a savory sweet potato pie with smoked cheddar. Though I’m pretty sure they would go well together.
Cookbook: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. I am by no means a vegetarian, but she has such simple and elegant combinations that have become some of my staples.
Random kitchen tool: I love my knife, but it is not random so next to that would be the food scoop ‘prep taxi’. I like to keep my gadgets to a minimum but I’ve come to love these little scoopers to transport a pile of chopped veggies from the cutting board to the pot or container.
Vegetable: Beets. Beets beets beets. Fabulous color with that deep rich earthy sweetness. Roasted or in salads with a little reduced apple cider syrup drizzled on top –divine!
Fruit: Raspberries – I’m not really a fruit person but I’ve been known to gorge myself during raspberry season. Raspberry puree can be served on nearly anything.

Chef On The Block : Stephen Larson

Chef Stephen Larson and his wife, Lisa Flicker, opened the doors of QUARTER/quarter Restaurant and Wine Bar in Harmony, Minnesota, in January 2010. Inside you’ll find a décor that’s both comfortable and modern – with a Scandinavian flair, of course – and a menu full of fun, unique, delicious dishes starting with bite-sized appetizers like house-made chorizo meatballs, white bean paté, or fried mozzarella; entrees ranging from Sketty Meatballs or Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf to a New York Strip or Lump Crab Cakes; and desserts like the Lucky Boy Sundae (chocolate cake topped with vanilla gelato, warm peanut butter fudge sauce and chopped peanuts).
The name, QUARTER/quarter, also has historical and playful significance. A quarter/quarter, in rural terms, is 40 acres of land. That size parcel became entrenched in American mythology, commonly referenced in history. “To our ancestors,” the QUARTER/quarter website reads, “40 acres was synonymous with the word opportunity. A quarter/quarter was the opportunity to earn a living, become a productive part of a farming community, and provide for your family.” The playful part? Their address is 25 CENTer Street.

Name: Stephen Larson
Age: 46
Restaurant: QUARTER/quarter Restaurant and Wine Bar
Number of Years Cooking: 30

Formal training or live-and-learn?
Both! I went to St. Paul Technical College (class of ‘84) for my formal training, but going to chef’s school only provides a basic background of culinary training. I started cooking fulltime when I was 16, which allowed me to learn a great deal about professional cooking before I went to culinary school. Then, after formal training, learning on the job is where a chef is exposed to the new ideas and techniques that allow him or her to develop their own cooking style and make the discoveries that shape the direction of their own personal culinary journey.

What’s your earliest or most significant memory of cooking or being cooked for?
As a young child my family was very poor. Consequently there was only one night a week when we could eat all we wanted and that was “Saturday Spaghetti Night.” My father would spend hours making the sauce, then boil the noodles and heat up the garlic bread in the oven (you remember the split loaf that came in the foil bags don’t you?). Then the whole family would sit down together and absolutely pig out. There were rarely any leftovers.

Why did you decide to become a chef?
Three reasons really. On a practical level, my older brother is a chef and it seemed natural to follow in his footsteps. The security of knowing you’ll always have a job and at least one good meal a day offers a very strong appeal. On a psychological level it is a career that creates very strong bonds of camaraderie. The apprenticeship in Minneapolis that I went through when I was 16 was a hard-core physical and emotional nightmare, but I learned and I persevered and I flourished. After that I was one of THEM, I belonged like I had never belonged to any group before; I was accepted. On a spiritual and emotional level, I’ve always enjoyed feeding people. As humans food is our main source of nourishment and I’ve always felt that my food truly nourished the people that ate it. It is extremely gratifying and humbling to have people tell you how wonderful the food is that they just ate.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
Hard question to answer! My current favorite is the Heart of Darkness Chocolate Torte. It’s on our dessert menu right now. It starts with an ultra moist dark chocolate cake that uses beet purée and extra cocoa, then spread a milk chocolate mousse between the layers, then coat the whole thing in a blanket of bittersweet chocolate ganache. Heaven.

Do you have any monumental food fails you’d like to share with us?
Back when I had my cooking school open, I was going to make ladyfingers in order to teach my students how to make a traditional tiramisu dessert. Over two days I must have made a dozen batches of ladyfingers, none of which turned out like I wanted. Ladyfingers are essentially just a sponge cake batter, which isn’t the easiest thing to make, but come on! I was throwing my failures out the front door and discovered a raccoon eating them. I’m sure after the second day of eating “failures” the raccoon ended up in a diabetic coma somewhere. In the end, I just made the batter into a single sponge cake that I then cut into wide strips and the “Tiramisu Torte” was born.

How about secret food indulgences you don’t normally talk about? Will you tell us?
For the record EVERY chef has a secret junk food favorite, any of them that tells you different is lying. For me, Chili Cheese Fritos are the most delicious pure evil you can buy, but like all indulgences, no harm no foul if one indulges only occasionally.

What’s your favorite:
Ingredient – Really good extra virgin olive oil.
Dish – Fish tacos. Blue corn tortillas, fried fresh tilapia, finely shredded cabbage with lime juice and cilantro, green chile mayo. ‘Nuf said! (I am soooo going to put that on the Summer menu) – cookbook – The Art of Cooking Volumes 1&2 by Jacques Pepin.
Random (or not so random) kitchen tool – Shun Japanese 8-inch cooks knife.
Vegetable – The carrot. So versatile, so tasty, so essential.
Fruit – Just picked strawberries warm from the garden sun.