#017 We walk on air when we get letters like this


(Republished with permission; names changed for son’s privacy)

Hi Mr. Omer,

My name is Mary and my 16 yr old son John has autism. He is having a very rough transition freshman year into high school. John had many turn away from him because of his behaviors this year, which has led to further poor choices on his part, too. We have struggled many tough situations, so I have been trying to find things to get him out of the house and explore new things. Last night, we made reservations at your restaurant (he likes to swear –not too fond of that as a mom, though!) and I thought… just to try to connect more… oh, what the hell…let the swearing go for one night. We came in and the first thing he noticed was your sign, “Are we open, Hell yea!” and laughed. It is good to see him smile and laugh (Yep, as a mom with a special needs kid, still trying to let go of the swearing thing!).

While we were waiting to be seated, I noticed your cookbook and started reading it. Your story was quite amazing through the trials, but it gives me hope for John. We also recently got him further help as his behaviors are getting hard for others to understand, especially teens his age.

Then I also noticed you’re planning a fund raiser for PACER next week. This organization has been such an amazing gift to me. My son had so many issues at school, they helped me navigate through a tough time. I was so thankful for them and glad to see your support. John also has low athletic abilities, he’s not quite interested, but we are thinking of Special Olympics, too, so it was great to see you support a part of a community that doesn’t get noticed very often.

So, John just woke up and I told him that I was writing you this note and asked what he wanted to say about your restaurant in the email. He told me to tell you, “I thought it was GREAT!”

Thank you for what you do! Love from the SW Metro, Mary and John.

#016: Inadvertently Insulting the Power Couple


Hell’s Kitchen recently received a note that stopped us in our tracks. A gentleman criticized us for not treating “power couples” as VIPs, explaining that “most customers at restaurants are generally pieces of xxxx,” and that we should “ignore most of them but swallow our pride” when we interact with people who are “worthy of special treatment.”

We honestly aren’t sure how seriously to take his attack –a quick online search hinted that he’s most likely a troll looking for attention– but it gave us a chance to explain how we’re almost religious in our intent to treat everyone who walks through our gates with the same level of respectful service.

Our customers vary from iron ore miners from Tower to beef ranchers from Avon, teachers from Worthington, shop owners from the Red River Valley, and Mayo Clinic medical pros from the world’s best hospital in Rochester. Here downtown, we’re honored that US Bank, Ameriprise, and Target HQ folks join us for lunch, happy hour and dinner. We’ve loved hosting the Miami Heat, Torii Hunter, and the Detroit Tigers as well as Bobby Flay, Jack White, Conan O’Brien, and food writers from Sweden, Italy, Japan and other countries. While we sure don’t meet every single person’s expectations every day, we do our best to treat everyone as VIPs, no matter what they do or where they’re from. A Roseau hockey mom is every bit as important to us as a Fortune 100 CEO, and we’re repeatedly told by celebrities, pro athletes and corporate cats that one of the reasons they keep coming back is because they’re not fawned over or bothered. Trent Reznor from 9 Inch Nails kept his head bowed down until he finally realized we wouldn’t hound him. A number of NY Yankee players politely asked if it would be ok if they got a table right next to a group in town for the recent National Shriner’s convention…they saw how much fun these Shriners were having and wanted to jump right in next to it.

So while we’re sorry we allegedly let down some “power couple” described as “a center of influence with a few thousand people,” we kind of wish we had a chance to personally explain that our center of influence has nothing to do with power and everything to do with everyday customers who blow us away and the rock-solid employees who knock themselves out taking care of them. And from the Facebook response (viewed by 45,024…”liked” by 1,948 and counting), we’re overwhelmed and grateful for the nods from customers in agreement.

“How in the hell did you get Corporate to agree with THIS idea?”


Whether you live in New York or New Prague, you might like this behind-the-scenes peek proving it’s not always about the money:

On Friday Jan 4, we dropped our jaws when we heard that Embarrass MN, up by the Canadian border, was facing a day that would actually be colder than Mars, according to NASA’s one-ton, nuclear powered robotic rover Curiosity. Minutes later, we spontaneously decided to lure Facebook fans from Embarrass to escape the frigid temps for a free toasty warm meal in Hell.

Just as we were about to post it on Facebook, with our usual “Go Big or Go Home” bravado, we decided to invite the ENTIRE TOWN for a free brunch, no strings attached. Our Bar Manager threw in a free Bloody Mary. Then the bakers up at Angel Food said, “We’ll make them our torched marshmallows and hot cocoa” so anyone who actually ventured down can head back home with warm bellies. And then the comments started coming. A few within 30 seconds, a bunch in minutes, a flood in the first few hours. Lottsa likes. Loads of comments that were fun to read. We were tickled to death that folks loved the idea. And several families took up our offer. But that’s not the story…there’s always at least one renegade in the bunch. Buried in a plethora of fun comments, Embarrass resident Jeannine Bjornrud (the wife of a preacher man, no less) threw out a cheeky Facebook comment, saying she couldn’t make the 4-hour trek, but if we want to come to Embarrass and cook in her home, she sure could hustle up a crowd of townfolk. That’s when the fun really started.

Hell’s Kitchen surprised everyone by offering to throw a Fundraiser in Embarrass for their Fire Department (Mitch’s sometimes-illegal fascination with fire has been well documented). Diane Nelmark, the Town Clerk, scrambled to find a hall large enough to accommodate a crowd and enough kitchen equipment to cook hotcakes like crazy. By this time, word had spread, and the awesome firefighters asked if the fundraiser could also benefit the Regional Fair. Yup. And then it got bigger: nearby towns such as Tower, Ely and Aurora asked if they could come. Yup, yup, yup. Everyone’s welcome to snag a ticket and support 2 wonderful causes

So on Saturday, Feb 22, an army of volunteers will host a most unusual community fundraiser, Zups will provide bacon, and the owners of Hell’s Kitchen will be slinging their legendary Lemon Ricotta flapjacks. Starting Feb 1, tickets ($7 in advance, $10 at door) will be available from Embarrass firefighters, Embarrass Vermillion Federal Credit Union (Tower, Embarrass and Aurora), Northern Comfort B&B, and the Embarrass Clerk’s Office. Please spread the word to your friends in northern Minnesota.

P.S. By the way, we’ve gotten media calls from points all over, including The New York Times. Our favorite interview, however, was when an incredulous reporter from Washington asked, “How in hell did you get ‘corporate’ to ok this idea?” After apologizing for laughing out loud as his question, we had to explain that for feisty independents such as Hell’s Kitchen, it’s not always about the money.

013: Where the hell is my big vulture rubber stamp?

It was 10:23 pm, just 2 days before we rang in the New Year, and I was going crazy, tearing apart the restaurant AND our apartment, trying to find my big, wood-handled rubber stamp with the vulture on it.

Why was I so desperate for it? Because stacked throughout our little condo, on counters, tables, and wherever there was an inch of space, Mitch, the kids and I had 1,500 gift bags, the kinds with handles, waiting to be transformed into mini “swag bags” with goodies for our New Year’s Eve crowd. Once I stamped the bags with our ragged but lovely trademark vulture, they’d finally all be fancy ‘n pretty and ready to give away as a kick off our year-long 10th Anniversary celebration.

TEN YEARS. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we survived against immeasurable odds, and by all accounts should have closed our doors long ago (see earlier blog #007 for the candid story). Somehow, probably because our CPA and bankers believed in us (or bought our explanations), we kept trudging through crisis after crisis, from accidents to floods, forced rehabs, and only pennies in our piggy bank with payroll staring us in the face. (No worries; we’ve never bounced a payroll check, or ANY check for that matter). We even survived a tough IRS audit and got a refund because we run our shop clean as a whistle. The biggest hurdle came from closing our dear Duluth location –but we did it right by paying all our vendors, giving our employees three months’ notice and helping them find new jobs.

After all that, the owners of Hell’s Kitchen magically came out stronger, smarter, and far less naive than we were 10 years ago. Mitch, Steve, Kim and I are thankful beyond comprehension to our vendors and partners, but utterly amazed at the loyalty of our employees and customers. Without our supportive customers, we wouldn’t still be here. And without our hard-working staffers who take “ownership” in Hell’s Kitchen, customers wouldn’t be coming back again and again.

But why am I whining to you about that missing vulture stamp? Because the fact that our living room was overrun with these swag bags 2 nights ago almost defines what Hell’s Kitchen is all about. We’re homegrown, we’re anti-establishment, we don’t have deep pockets and thus do everything ourselves. And we’ve never ever played by the rules. That red hallway you walk through? We splattered that artsy paint on the walls while you slept. The awesome new sound system bands are getting woodies over? Tony and crew teetered on 14-ft ladders installing it themselves. Our “novella length” menus were written at home on my laptop. A former cook designs our signs and doubles as our webmaster. Last month, the founders were on hands and knees cleaning grout from the tile kitchen floor. Katy, our Pastry Chef, is scrounging Craigslist for used bakery equipment. And Mitch, who climbed out of bi-polar depression and over mountains of personal obstacles, still prefers yakking in the hallway with customers far more than networking at foodie events. While other chefs are neat and tidy with toques and medals on their coats, Mitch looks as if he just rolled out of bed and lumbers around the restaurant like a giant white-haired polar bear in search of good food. Like I said, we color outside the lines.

In this “guerilla” spirit, rather than a slick marketing campaign dictating how we celebrate our 10th Anniversary, we pulled together employees for their ideas, and now invite you to join us for an entire year of quirky, out-of-the-box ways to celebrate our survival in Hell. Others may think we’re making a big deal of this (I practically ignored the 10-year mark at my first company, Creative Kidstuff), but with this awful economy (hopefully behind us) and our umm, unusual group of renegade founders with junkyard dog scars and burns, it’s just starting to hit me what a remarkable milestone a decade really is for our one-of-a-kind underground lair.

So 2012 will be full of surprises, more behind-the-scenes stories, perhaps a new bakery, hopefully a block party, a few brutally honest rants about the industry, treats for those too far to visit often, and even a free vulture tattoo for a customer we’ll randomly pick from our Facebook Fans. It’s all in honor of those of you who helped get Hell’s Kitchen through a brutal decade and onto being named “Restaurant of the Decade” by VitaMn readers in 2010.

In closing, please do one thing: Invite just one friend to fan us on Facebook so we can win Mitch’s bet to reach 10,000 fans. The nano-second we hit that mark, we’ll announce a huge Customer Appreciation Brunch where you’ll get first crack at reservations and be fetted with extras and attention deserving of your loyalty to Hell’s Kitchen. We’ll even be flying in 2 out-of-state customers to the festivities, so thanks for a wondrous decade, watch for fun news, and cheers to a New Year from all of us even though I’m still pissed I never did find that vulture stamp.


012: S-F-D-NUTS from the Peanut Gallery

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

A brief, insightful, and truly sad summary of peanut butter 

by Mitch Omer

It takes 540 peanuts to make one 12 oz. jar of supermarket peanut butter; at Hell’s Kitchen, we use 603. No shit.

And just how do we accomplish this? Well, for one, we don’t take up any space with food modifiers. Two, we don’t add food fortifications, and three, we refuse to use any commercial “spreads” like glycerin and other good stuff.

Our ingredients are simple: roasted, salted, skin-on peanuts, a little honey and brown sugar to sweeten, peanut oil for resistance to rancidity, sweet cream butter for a smooth texture, plus a small amount of sea salt to balance flavors and prevent spoilage.

So take that, Bob “Skippy” Anderson. And that, “Jif” Jones. And you too, “Peter Pan” Pan. All three of you can just suck on salted (pea)nuts. [Cyn here: I really try to edit him, I really do. At least I took out the word “my.”]

Continued below….

When nut prices doubled, we decided to bite the bullet and hold our prices. In fact, Tony Perella, our fabulous GM, was interviewed on WCCO-TV, ironically telling the world that we’d somehow figure out a way to make it through. This week, however, we were slammed with more peanuty surprises; not only had the commodity prices shot up because of the DROUGHT, but peanut farmers then went through a devastating WET period which reduced their harvests further. Even then, we held on for the wild ride.  Now there’s a dire shortage of nuts, making it nearly impossible for us to get shipments. (I can’t even tell you how we scored enough to get thru the holidays, but we will say it cost us thousands to get our paws on them.) Farmers are so up in arms that they’ve threatened to switch next year’s crops to cotton, and that’s when we finally threw in the towel.Thus, now you’ve read probably the most transparent explanation possible to announce a modest price increase. 8 oz jars are now $7 (from $6) and 16 oz are now $11 instead of $9. A difficult thing to do is raise prices. We dodged a spray of peanut bullets as long as we could but in the end, the weather got us instead. And some still believe global warming is a hoax.


That said, peanuts aren’t even nuts at all. They’re legumes, as in beans and peas. However, 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches can be made from one acre of peanuts. No other legume can make that claim.

In all, there are no less than 8 days on the Gergorian calendar celebrating one type of “national” or other peanut recognition from March’s National Peanut Month to “I Love Reece’s Day” the 18th of each May. For the record, I’d like to find the guy that invented Reece’s and kiss him on his lips. I’m just saying….

But sorely lacking is Tuesday, August 16th, 1977…my Sabbath. “Black Tuesday” as I call it: Elvis dies on the can, and instantly peanut butter and banana sandwich futures are in the toilet. Wonder Bread temporarily ceases production, stocks fall when Skippy suffers a glut of product, and Chiquita Banana files for bankruptcy. The King is dead and a nation mourns, but long live the King’s death-defying Grilled Peanut Butter & Banana sandwich.

America ate more than 400 tons of peanut butter last year, enough to cover the floor of the Grand Canyon, which makes for some awkward donkey rides. It feels as if a ton of that was ours, because Hell’s Kitchen, now known around the world for its peanut butter, regularly ships it to every state in the union, to Canada, to Europe, to Japan, and even to our troops overseas.

But, and this is a big butt, a hot dry summer in producing states significantly shrank the U.S. peanut crop this year. And you’re gonna pay for it. From peanut oil to cookie brittle to peanuts used in everything used from cosmetics to nitroglycerin. Suicide bombers are going to have to pony up. The raw cost of peanuts has skyrocked more than 240%. You’ve already seen grocery store price increases in peanuts and peanut products across the board, and god damn it, I’m now forced to raise the price of my peanut butter too. Cyn made me do it, and I am really, truly, no-shit sorry. As for our troops overseas, hell….we always send that gratis.

011: If We Build It, Will You Come?

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

If we build it, will you come?

Cyn here. We’re thinking of adding a bakery, maybe an edgy counterpart to our underground lair.

The story so far: I’m squeezed in the middle row of an airplane, elbows scrunched tightly, knees bumping against the seat in front of me (and I’m only 5’2″) just coming back from a weekend bakery seminar in Chicago. The plane’s so crowded that they thew my little roll-on suitcase into the belly of the beast at the last minute, so now I’m left typing these notes on my little cell phone instead of a laptop. (How do the rest of you type so fast with your thumbs?) Another question: how do other restaurants afford to send their chefs skipping through various countries doing research on “new trends” while I’m sleeping on my ex-brother-in-law’s sofa to save money and stuck on the red eye from Chicago instead of luxuriating in some Paris bistros and bakeries??? Can you spell jealous? I can.

Anyway, our Pastry Chef Katy and I are heading back home with our heads clouded full of ideas. The main thing we’re after is some industry statistics to help us decide whether to add a bakery up above us or not. Checked out Chicago bakeries also, but didn’t see anyone doing our secret idea. (Nah, can’t spell the beans yet on that part but you’ll be the first to know.) The seminars were awesome, but left us with more questions than when we started. Here’s a surprise: all of the bakeries that gave presentations (even fancy-ass-high-end snoots from L.A.) use bagged “cake mixes” for their creations. We were dumbstruck. Don’t they do everything from scratch? Real scratch? As in “cracking open eggs and adding pure sugar” scratch? The last thing we intend to do is open a bag of mix with scissors, even if you don’t know.

Continued below…

Hells Kitchen Blog, Bite Me, Katy Heart DecoratingWhile we envision a full-service bakery offering breads and sweets, we realize we can’t be everything to everyone, so the first thing we agreed on is to let the big bakeries keep the “character cake” business. Can’t draw Smurfs or Transformers anyway. See this pic below of Katy Gerdes, our Pastry Chef, smiling with clenched teeth amongst the lovely characters? She certainly loved “My Pretty Pony” when she was 7 but cringed at the thought of having to ice a sheet cake with computer-generated images. We’re thinking more along the lines of simple elegance, such as a cake with a cascade of rock candy as its only decoration. (Or hey Target, how about if we do awesome birthday cakes for ya with the bullseye made of crystal red rock candy?)

But back to our research.

This isn’t an easy decision. On the one hand, our kitchen crew is elbow-to-elbow in a tightly packed space and could really use some breathing room. Pastry chefs “patiently” have to wait for oven space…guys making peanut butter have to wait for big mixers to become available…prep cooks sometimes have to balance a cutting board across a sink space in order to clean and prep fresh vegetables. Things get so tight around here that we even added an overnight shift to keep caught up on prep work. So we could certainly use the extra space and equipment a bakery would bring.

On the other hand, our rent is already astonishingly high, at least for independent owners like us who have no deep corporate pockets to reach into. Writing a check for tens of thousands each month is hard, and adding even more to that rent check makes my sleep fitful. We’re thrilled that our business has been so good, but we’re also shouldering a massive loan from closing our Duluth a year ago (walking away from that debt simply is not in our vocabulary or makeup).

Yet the thought of selling super-fresh donuts, just out-of-the-oven breads, warm cookies, simple but elegant cakes, swoon-worthy cupcakes and other decadent goodies still strongly beckons us into temptation. (And the chance to play with words is wildly appealing to a wordsmith.) Sigh.

All these hot dreams, though (I said hot) do not make a smart business decision. (Ha! Got spanked big time by venturing into beautiful Duluth 12 weeks before the economy crashed). For this potential bakery, we’ve researched the hell out of costs, margins, leasehold improvements, staffing, marketing, recipes, equipment, venting, health code requirements, flooring material, price points, competition, food traffic, yada yada yada…as promised, this is a peek behind the curtain revealing the kind of things that keep me awake at night.

So now we’re finally ready to ask for YOUR input: if we build it, will you come? If you’re a frequent downtowner, please click HERE to take our 1-minute survey and let us know. And if you want to weigh in on bakery names, please click HERE for a different short survey.

As always, thank you.

010: BEER is my LIFE

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

This is Summit Brewery’s tag line, but it falls woefully short. You owe your life to beer. And you. And you. And you. Without beer, life as we know it would not exist. Personally, I could end this story right there, and feel that I had covered all the bases. The oldest known recipe on earth is for beer, carved into a Sumerian clay tablet. It is because of beer that our knuckle-dragging Neolithic relatives went from being hunter-gatherers to developing as an agrarian society; farming grains to make beer. And bread. But for the most part, beer, and the invention of the sports bar was born.

But it was the Puritans that first brought beer to America. According to ´Mourt’s Relation,’ of 1622, an accounting of the proceedings of the English Plantation at Plymouth in New England, the Mayflower Pilgrims settled because supplies were drastically short, most importantly, beer. Beer was a dietary mainstay, much as it is today, for some of anyway, because, having been boiled, it was purer than water.

As Bohemian hops were so valued, Good King Wenceslas; Saint Wenceslas, (b. 907, d. 929), Patron Saint of Brewers, ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings.

For centuries, for millennia, any manner of shit was thrown into the mash to adulterate the brew; from flowers, to spices, to fruit, to vegetables, to different woods; beechwood aging of beer is still popular today, for some fucking reason. Thankfully, in 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot, known universally as the German Purity Law, possibly the oldest food quality regulation still in use. According the Reinheitsgebot, only three ingredients could be used in the production of beer; water, barley, and yeast. Later, hops were allowed as they acted as a preservative for the beer.

Violators were fined or imprisoned. In the United States, laws presently allow up to 22 adjuncts that can be added to a beverage and still be called “beer.” So, let’s get this straight right now, Budweiser is not beer! Not according to the Reinheitsgebot. It is a malted beverage, made from more rice than barley, and hop pellets rather than fresh hops. And, not to simply pick on Bud, but nearly every mass-produced “beer” in America follows a similar recipe.

It is in the spirit of William IV, and the purity of the Reinheitsgebot, that craft breweries started popping up around the country in the early eighties. This wasn’t a fad. This was a movement, and it continues to this day. Beer made by real craftsmen, not regulated by computers. Even with the restrictive four ingredients, there are innumerable variations and methods to make beer. Real beer. Regal beer. Mark Stutrud and his Summit brewery were the standard bearers in Minnesota for decades, and for the most part, the only show in town. Now there are dozens of micro-breweries following with the same passion and perseverance, and pride. (Continued below)

Interesting side note: hops are a member of the cannabis family. Rub some fresh hops together in your hands, then take a whiff. I’m told it smells of ganja. The two are so closely related that in Mendocino County in California, pot growers are grafting plants onto hop vines. I’m told that once the wort has boiled, and your alcohol content is up, some people will dry hop with marijuana. I’m told it works. It’s called High Brew, by some…I’m just sayin’…it works.

P.S. A most amazing site called “The Captain’s Chair –A Twin Cities Craft Beer and Home Brewing Site” gives you a wealth of useful information in learning how to brew your own beer. You’ve thought of it again and again….just go for it already.

Here’s a good start:  Don’t live in the Cities? Pity. Google “best home brewing supplies” in your own area; if you don’t find a similar site nearby, this one’s still a gem no matter where you park your ass to drink.

“Don’t drink the water, drink the beer” Saint Arnold of Metz (b. 580 d.640)

I am a former brewer, having worked with two of the best craft breweries in California in the mid-eighties. First with Devil Mountain Brewery in Walnut Creek, and then Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, arguably the first micro-brewery in the United States. I’ve also been fired by two of the best craft breweries in California, (but that’s another story). At Hell’s Kitchen, we offer a few of the finest Ales and Lagers in the country, with St. Paul’s Summit, Michigan’s Bell’s, Surly from Brooklyn Center, Magic Hat from Vermont, Lagunitas from Petaluma, California, and, brewing for more than 150 years, Murphy’s Irish Stout from…Ireland. These are the real deal; great beer made by master craftsmen. No rice, no corn, no torrified cereals, no refined starches, no syrups, no shit!

For centuries, brewers have invoked the names of patron saints to bless and protect their beers.

Saint Luke the Apostle. Saint Arnou of Oudenaarde. Saint Nicholas of Myra (yes, the ‘Christmas’ St Nicholas). Saint Benedict. Saint Barbara. Saint Medard of Noyon. Saint Adrian. Saint Veronus. Saint Brigid. Saint Amand. Saint Arnold of Metz. Saint Arnold. Saint Arnold (yes, there are three). Saint Boniface of Mainz. Saint Cthbert. Saint Florian. Saint Lawrence. Saint Hildegard von Bingen. Saint Columbanus. And Good King Gamrinus, “The King of Beer.” All patron saints of beer, brewers, hops, or barley. So we got that going for us. And t

Since the early brewing processes were not well understood, often the batch of beer were not fit for drinking. The poor quality was mystically blamed on evil spirits and, specifically on “brew witches” or “beer witches,” but no worries; the last known burning of a Beer Witch was in the late 1500’s.

Here, I’ve included a simple recipe to make your own beer

“To Make Small Beer”

Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran Hops to your Taste. – Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall [ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Melasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask – leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working – Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”

George Washington


“It is my design to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring so that when the choir of angels come, they may say, ‘Be God propitious to this drinker’” Saint Columbanus (b. 612)

009: Gotta Get Steve

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

Within moments of deciding to open our own place in 2002, Mitch looked me squarely in the eye with only one demand: “Gotta get Steve.” This would be Steve Meyer, an industry peer Omer has worked alongside longer than he’s lived with his 3 wives.

Talk about an odd couple: Mitch, an imposing polar bear, towers over Steve, a dead ringer for Nintendo’s Dr. Mario. See the picture here? Check it out for yourself.

Whenever Omer would park himself at yet another job (hopefully you’re aware this happens a lot in the restaurant industry), he’d cajole his talented sous chef into packing up his knives and following along. (Cooks never leave their coveted tools of the trade behind.) Together, these two characters would rumble through another kitchen, putting out some seriously good food and improving the lot of their new bosses.

Mitch, the Executive Chef, would engineer a new menu while Steve, the Sous Chef, would handle the heavy duty cooking (aka “Line Dog,” a term of “endearment” we give to the Sous). But don’t get confused: I did not say Steve was Mitch’s bitch. At least I didn’t mean to say that.

They’re sometimes referred to as “birds of flight” –chefs on the lookout for more experience usually had to change jobs to upgrade their talents. But they don’t always leave on their own accord:

At a very tired Inn located in Stillwater, Mitch and Steve actually managed to turn things around and quickly win some “Best Of” awards from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Then the popular Inn was sold, and the new owners swaggered in ordering Mitch (the Executive Chef) and Kristine (the Front of House Manager) to fire their staffs because the owners would soon bring in their own crews.

It’s a fairly common scenario (“Hey, they paid big bucks for the place; it’s their prerogative,” says Omer), but when he asked if they’d consider keeping on John, a special needs 25 year old who worked happily in the hot, dungeon-like basement washing dishes for 7 years, the new owners had the gall to say “Get rid of him, too. The last thing we need is paying someone who can’t wipe his own ass.”

So much for class. So Mitch and Kristen were forced to lay off the entire staff –from waitresses who had worked there over 30 years to dear John who took immense pride in his dishwashing job– and then the next day, after the dirty work was done, the new owners came in and canned Mitch and Kristen, too.

Regardless, that’s when a defeated Mitch came home saying, “I’m so tired of making money for other people” and was encouraged to put his money where his mouth was…and that’s when Hell’s Kitchen was born.


Anyway, Executive Chefs create recipes; Line Dogs make them happen night after night after night after night. Executive Chefs get the glory; Line Dogs get the work. Executive Chefs rule the menu while also constantly dealing with vendors, price fluctuations, recipe development and management; Sous Chefs rule the kitchen while also constantly hunched over hot lines, reaching over grill flames, dealing with chits (hanging tickets of diner orders) and slaving over the details to ensure food comes out right every time.

Mitch has always credited Steve as “the hardest working man in food service” and here’s proof: During one busy brunch, Steve fried, scrambled, and poached his way through 1,361 eggs singlehandedly. That’s 3.78 eggs a minute, possibly while Omer was out front getting his photo taken. But Mitch is the first to point out Steve’s amazing contribution to the partnership. “Guys like Steve are the first ones in and the last ones out of the kitchen,” explains Mitch. “And without Steve, it wouldn’t be Hell’s Kitchen. It would just be hell.”

So here’s to you Steve, our fantastic partner. Cheers and bottoms up. Oh, ah, that’s right. None of us drinks any more. Even more to celebrate for Cyn and Kim; you’ll have to ask the guys themselves how they feel about that.


008: Food of the Gods

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

I’m from Iowa; corn isn’t just a vegetable, it’s a religion. Actually, corn isn’t a vegetable at all, it’s a grain. But don’t tell that to the New York State Legislature, who passed a bill calling sweet corn the official State Vegetable. This is just stupid, squared. Yes, you can call it a vegetable, but the New York State Legislature? This like calling Rachel Ray a chef. You might watch her prepare food on television, but really, deep down, you know she’d spontaneously combust in a commercial kitchen.

And, who the hell are they to call it their official State Vegetable? It’s Nebraska that calls itself the ‘Cornhusker State.’ I don’t think so. You can both just eat this: Iowa produces more corn than anywhere else on the planet. Go Hawkeyes. I do remember being out in the corn fields on hot, muggy summer days, and you could literally hear the corn grow.

Corn originated as a tall grass growing on the slopes of the Andes. However, Pueblo Elders take its origin straight back to the beginning of time; they say that in the beginning, when people were just about ready to step upon Mother Earth, their Creator gave them one last gift – corn. Even so, cultivated forms of the Andes grass spread throughout all the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Ears on this corn were only an inch or two long. It would take another 600 years before corn had developed enough to be served at the state fair.

Hopi legend has it that the First People understood that the earth was a living, breathing entity, like themselves. The corn plant was also a living entity, with a body similar to man’s in many respects, and the people built its flesh into their own. Hence, corn was also their mother. Thus, they knew their mother in two aspects which were often synonymous; as Mother Earth, and the Corn Mother.

A little closer to home, the Chippewa legend of Mandamin is known as the spirit of corn. The Ojibway always portray him as a male. His name is pronounced mun-dah-min, and literally means “Corn.” For those of you actually paying attention, there is no difference between ‘Chippewa’ and ‘Ojibway,’ they both refer to the same people. In Canada, ‘Ojibway is more commonly used.

Goddesses of corn appear in almost every indigenous people’s folklore; The Aztec had Chicmecatl, Maya had the Tonsured Maize Goddess, Cherokee had Goddess Selu, Yellow Woman, and Corn Mother Goddess Iyatiku. And, right here, we have Michele Bachmann, Patron Goddess of Corn Dogs. The reason corn deities are (almost) all women, is because they represent fertility.

(Continued below. But if you stop reading now, you’ll miss the sexy part.)

Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard about the Sever’s Corn Maze down in Shakopee, but have you been there? It’s a total trip! Different every year, it’s billed as “family” fun, but fuggedabout the kidz and hightail it down there with your cronies–finding a way out will drive them absolutely nuts. (Last one out buys everyone a beer?)

Sever Peterson and his wife Sharon have been doing this for 14 years, so they must be doing something right. And yes, your little rugrats WILL enjoy everything from the Straw Bale Maze to exotic animals, a giant potato sack slide and even a giant Corn Pool with 10,000 bushels of the stuff to leap into. Nope, this isn’t an ad–they don’t even know we’re mentioning this–that’s just how much we like this goofy place.

(continued from above)

“Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn”
-Garrison Keillor

There are more than 500 different by-products obtained from corn; from flour, to bio-fuel, to synthetic rubber, to explosives, to moonshine, to crop circles and, finally, to soup. So…

Iowa Corn Soup
Serves 5

2 tablespoons corn oil
1 whole white onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2-pounds corn kernels*
2 cups rich chicken stock**
3 cups heavy cream
sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1/4 cup slivered chives to garnish

Heat the oil in a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, but before it begins to smoke, about 350-degrees, add the onions and garlic, and stir to mix well. Cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Reduce heat to minimum, and continue cooking another 3 minutes.

Add the corn, and stir well. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock, and turn the heat to high. When the stock begins to simmer (not boil), add the heavy cream. Cook, stirring frequently, until the coup begins to simmer, about 5 minutes.

Carefully ladle half of the soup into a food processor. Using a pulse action, process the soup until smooth. Pour the processed soup back into the saucepan, and stir to mix well. Cook the soup over medium-high heat until it just begins to simmer, (don’t make me say ‘boil’ again!) Reduce heat to low, if you need to hold it, or, duh, serve immediately. Garnish with fresh chives.

Note; if the sauce is too thick, add more chicken stock; too thin, more cream
*Corn Kernels: fresh is best, frozen is good. If you use canned corn, well, you’ve got no business being in
a kitchen
**Rich Chicken Stock: I’m guessing you’re not making your own chicken stock. You can reduce a homemade stock, and the flavor intensify as the volume lessens. Use a boxed or canned broth, they’re passable. DO NOT use those bouillon cubes, they’re just flavored salt.

So, has anyone noticed how crappy those boxes of frozen corn dogs have become? Walk right by that freezer case and make your own:

Iowa “Big Boy” Corn Dogs

2 cups cornmeal
1 cup polenta
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/4 cups water
1 large egg
Hot Dogs (All beef, Kosher, turkey dogs, whatever. Just keep away from that ugly stuff.)

In a large mixing bowl, blend all the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, add the buttermilk, water, and egg, and whisk until frothy. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (this allows the batter to tighten up and thicken).

To prepare the corn dog, warm the hot dog through in hot water, then pat dry. Insert a wooden skewer, and coat evenly with the batter. Hold onto the skewer, and dip the corn dog into hot (350-375 degree) oil; peanut oil is good, lard is best…I told you, the flavor is in the fat.

Once the batter has set, drop the entire corn dog into the fryer, and cook until golden brown, about e 3 – 5 minutes, depending on your preference.

Batter will keep, refrigerated, for up to three days…or make a bunch of Iowa Boys ahead of time and freeze.

Warmest Regards,

Mitch Omer

007: How we almost went out of business just after we opened.

Food Blog, Minneapolis Restaurant, Creative Food Blog, Minneapolis blog

Hey all you dreamers out there, if you’re hankering to open your own place, heed this advice: eyes W-I-D-E open, pockets V-E-R-Y deep.

On May 6, 2002, we opened Hell’s Kitchen after several months of banging around on our old knees, scraping paint and crap off the previous tenant’s floors and equipment. Apparently, the corporation who owned DuJours, the breakfast joint which preceded us, closed it down suddenly after 11 years. They never even had the decency to give their staff notice: doors were simply locked and that was that. We even found undistributed paychecks in the desk.

The space itself was a mess: grease laden walls, crap everywhere, broken equipment (The oven door literally fell off when Steve opened it.) But nothing prepared us for the abandoned food. When we ventured into the walk-in cooler, our jaws dropped. Slimy lettuce, rotten eggs, over-ripened fruit that exploded, and trays of bacon which had mold growing like an old lawn –about 4” deep of fuzzy gray stuff.

The work entailed months of deep cleaning, from having to bleach everything –including the walls—to tearing up the floorboards, which were so rotted that the radiators kept falling through. Our skin was wrinkled and water-logged and puffy from all the cleaning solutions that ate through our thick rubber work gloves. How DuJours managed to pull one over the Health Department, we’ll never know.

Our families were of course invited to join the fun. One day, Mitch’s sister Libby walked out of the kitchen holding a tray of what can only be described as tire treads. Huge thick black pieces of rubber curled up, like when a semi truck loses its retread on the highway. “Any guesses?” she asked, and we just stared in silence. No idea what that was. Turns out it was the black grease she had scraped off the griddle, so thick that it curled up as she labored away.

(Still with us? More of our “cautionary tale of woe” continued below…)

While our blog tends to stick to some toe-curling stories about what it’s really like “behind the curtains” here at Hell’s Kitchen, some other Twin Cities blogs focus on more important issues such as world hunger. One favorite is ShefZilla, written by Stuart Woodman of Heidi’s. No idea how he manages to run an award-winning place AND tackle the world’s problems, but take a peek at his wisdom and insights. Good food for thought.


(continued from above)

In the end, nothing could be salvaged. Everything had to go. The oven, the griddles, the salamander, and yes, even the kitchen sinks. We even had to replace the kitchen walls and ceiling tiles. Not being able to reuse anything set us back financially from the start. We of course scrounged for and found some good used equipment, but Hell’s Kitchen was flat out broke before even opening its doors. (And did you hear how our very first customer tried to stiff us on the bill???)

Starting to panic, we did what any normal bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimistic restaurateurs-to-be would do. We sold everything we owned. Our cars, our belongings, almost anything of value except the Ralph Steadman original, which we donated to the new restaurant. Having already cleared out our savings, we borrowed from our parents and in-laws. Even our 9-year old son got in on the “opportunity” by giving us permission to wipe out the meager college savings. We did, however, keep Mitch’s Indian motorcycle, which was need to get back and forth from the restaurant. (Never mind that it couldn’t help during winter. Hadn’t thought that far ahead.)

The bills kept piling up, but we contacted each of our vendors and begged them to keep sending us inventory while we figured out our next move. (In turn, they’ll never be forgotten for their kindness.) As if things weren’t bad enough, on June 10th, just 34 days after opening, Mitch had a motorcycle accident one block from the restaurant. No, it wasn’t what you think….believe it or not, he was a very safe biker. Cruising down 10th Street at only 25mph, he heard a fire truck’s sirens behind him, so he pulled over and stopped to get out of the way. Once the fire truck –lights flashing and sirens blaring– passed him, Mitch was just starting to pull back into traffic when the fire truck unexpectedly turned onto Nicollet Mall just 20 yards in front of him. Startled, he immediately braked, slammed his foot down on the pavement, and in a freak accident, the bones in his knee crushed like a cookie. The bike didn’t get a scratch, the ambulance driver didn’t give a rat’s ass how slowly he meandered up to North Memorial (even though HCMC was 6 blocks away), and at this point, we felt the restaurant didn’t have a chance.

So that was the day a tortuous 3-months began not just for Mitch, but for all of us. It was the day Steve had to start running the kitchen without Mitch, who would be in traction for months. That was also the day Mitch learned to feel the joy of pain meds, which eventually threw him into Involuntary Rehab #1. (Advice: Do NOT mix Oxycontin and red wine.) And it was also the day we truly felt despair. Not only did we have no money, but we now had to pay another pro to come cook in the kitchen. Mitch and Steve were already working without pay, and the additional expense terrified us. Never mind the medical costs, which is why to this day we offer health insurance to employees.

The time finally came when I had to break more bad news to Mitch (as his leg dangled from medical equipment): I had sold his beloved Indian bike. Didn’t even get a decent price. Desperate for immediate cash to make Monday’s payroll, I practically gave it away. Thank god Mitch was high on pain meds or his reaction would have been much worse. Besides, I always think it’s a sign of character and strength when a grown man breaks down and cries.

$12,000 didn’t go very far even back in 2002, but it did help us write paychecks as well as pay off the Bix produce bill. Yet we still stared at our pile of payables as well as rent coming due. That’s when a fax rolled in at the perfect time.

“Need ca$h for your busine$$? Call now! No string$ attached! The an$wer to your problem$ is only a phone call away!”

I couldn’t dial fast enough. My heart was racing. But in my haste for money, I [unwittingly] made a deal with the devil: There are companies out there who offer cash up front in exchange for your credit card receivables. It’s above board and legal. So we happily took a check for $25,000 from this company, singing high praises for such a wonderful godsend. To pay them back, they would simply keep 80% of our future Visa or MasterCard receipts. Made sense to me….sort of like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, right?

Of course not. What we didn’t realize at the time was that being in central downtown with so many travelers and business lunches, most people use credit cards to pay for their meals, which in turn meant that almost ALL of our income was siphoned off before it even had a chance to hit our bank account . Which put us right back in the same damn boat: no money. And no way to get our paws on any more.

Unless…..unless we did the unthinkable. (No, we didn’t sell our bodies or kids.) We sold our last asset –our house– and moved near downtown, at the same time killing two birds (vultures?) with one stone. Now we live in a little 1-bedroom condo we love –downsizing was a complete blessing in disguise. Mitch hops a bus or walks to work (um, also for other reasons, which I may or may not get into later). We’re happy happy, happy. The restaurant got its desperately needed cash, the goofy (but legitimate) “credit card loan” was fully paid off, our parents were paid back with interest, our son just started at UMD, and Hell’s Kitchen survived an hairy cash flow experience we’d never wish on our worst enemy.

In another blog, we’ll tell you a hair-raising story about how we almost went out of business a second time.  Hey! We never said we’re smart. Subscribe (up there! on that top right link!) and you’ll be instantly notified when there’s another true tale from Hell.