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.

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