If you're a local foodie in the Twin Cities, you probably already know about Corner Table. How could you not? Since it opened in 2004, Corner Table and its owner, Scott Pampuch, have been written up in every Minnesota restaurant directory, magazine, and website worth anything. Scott is well known for his commitment to local farmers and seasonal ingredients (last time I stopped by, he practically forced me into his freezer to see how many of the ingredients came directly from his farmers), and for being one of only a few chefs in town (yes, I'm also thinking about you, Mr. Russo), who freely, boldly, and constantly comments on the things that matter to him -- Minnesota nice be, um, darned.
In a country where celebrity chefs are celebrated for being bold, ruthless, and obsessive, Scott is, in reality, a pretty mild guy. He likes to talk, so he's prone to putting his foot in his mouth, but he's also warm, friendly, and charming -- like any good restaurant owner, Scott understands that hospitality is his business, and he's good at getting people on his side.
Regardless of how you feel about him, Scott is an undeniable force for good food in Minnesota. So instead of focusing on the things that make me crazy, I thought I'd focus on three things about Scott that I love. Here goes:
Number One: The Guy Works His Butt Off
Just two years ago, Scott decided to take an idea that had -- by all accounts -- been floating around town for a while, and make it his own. Outstanding in the Field, a super-high-end ($150+) farm dinner, produced using local ingredients, had an annual stop in Minnesota, but interest in farm dinners was building and the market was growing. Could Minnesota support Outstanding-type farm dinners each month, instead of each year?
Recruiting farmers, chefs, and other partners, Scott worked tirelessly to create a series of events that would be every bit as great as the ones that served as his inspiration. And so, Tour de Farm was born.
Tour de Farm (co-hosted with Scott's frequent collaborator Kris Hase) has become a good food fixture in Minnesota. I was lucky to attend one of the events and it was everything I had hoped for -- great food, a beautiful setting, lovely dinner guests, and a strong farm to table connection. It was a night to remember. I have hosted events, mostly in restaurants -- where the tables are solid, the wine glasses don't blow over, the rain doesn't bother guests, and the stoves cook in predictable ways -- and they're still a lot of work. However much money Scott makes from Tour de Farm (and the tickets are expensive), he's not doing it for the cash. No way.
One more quick story: I once had a group of dinner guests coming to town for an important business meeting, and I needed -- on six days notice, on a limited budget -- to create a unique, memorable dining experience. Although Corner Table was open that night, Scott eagerly set up a restaurant in the back of a bread shop; created a seasonal, regional menu; decorated a completely unique setting; entertained the guests with great food, wine, and stories; and made me look a like a rock star.
Maybe he likes a challenge. Maybe he sees every interaction as a chance to promote himself and his restaurant. Maybe he's got a colicky baby at home he's trying to avoid. Maybe he's really ADD, as he claims each time I see him. Maybe he just really, really loves what he does. Either way, the guy works his butt off.
Number Two: He's Got Chutzpah
Scott likes to try lots of things. (His excellent and capable assistant Meghan Likes keeps him well organized.) "One of my strengths is the creative foods side," he tells me, "I want to engage people. Eating is a big party, and I want to throw a new kind of food party."
Case in point: this month, Scott is launching something called a Farm & Table Community Supported Kitchen, or CSK, selling boxes of lightly prepared meats, sauces, and assorted goodies right out of his restaurant (ever the savvy business man, he threw a literal party for Minnesota Food Bloggers to announce it). The boxes, which start at $95 for a family of four (with smaller shares available, and discounts if you sign on for multiple weeks), are intended to help people cook more farm-direct food at home. It's a great idea that's already working in other progressive cities, and I admire Scott's desire to make it work in Minneapolis too.
Here's another example of Scott's chutzpah (my grandmother would be so proud to see me using the word): after more than six years in business, during which he has proudly, loudly, and accurately proclaimed himself to be one of the most dedicated local food fanatics in town, Scott now moonlights as a celebrity chef promoting General Mills' Muir Glen organic, canned tomatoes. Scott describes the arrangement, which has already been covered by Food Service News, City Pages, and others as a way to "reach thousands of new customers," and to "see big ag up close." If working with "big ag" exposes Scott to more customers, he reasons, and these new customers eat at Corner Table, then he'll need to buy more food from the farmers he loves. So working with big ag actually helps local farmers, right? I disagree with Scott here, but I understand that the issue is complex, especially for a small business owner like him, who needs to make a living regardless of his ideals. Chutzpah, right?
When I ask Scott whether his reputation as an egomaniac is deserved, he says, "I'm not a self promoter, I'm a small business owner. If it was about me, Corner Table would be called 'Scott's Table.' It's got nothing to do with me. We are not a chef-driven restaurant, we're a farm-driven restaurant."
So there you have it.
Number Three: He Knows How to Cook
Last year, the City Pages named Corner Table the Best Restaurant When Someone Else is Paying. Here's what they wrote:
For $125 a person, diners [at the Corner Table's kitchen table] get to watch chef-owner Scott Pampuch and his crew in dinner-service action and receive their own parade of courses—delicious tastes of everything from, say, gnocchi with mushrooms to pork shoulder in miso broth with braised cabbage and pickled carrots—until they decide they're stuffed. Since Pampuch likes to cook with what's locally available, the restaurant's menus are constantly changing, spontaneous, and creative.
I've tasted Scott's sandwiches at Rustica, I've eaten dinner at Corner Table, and I've sampled food from his shiny new deli case -- it's all very good. Scott is talented, and he knows it. He's recognized for his emphasis on local food; for working with farmers; for creating terrific, unique food experiences; for butchering; for teaching classes (custom classes are now being offered at Corner Table every other week), and more.
Best of all, Scott is deferential when discussing other local chefs he admires, mentioning lots of them by name. In our recent conversation, Scott called out Lucia Watson, Lenny Russo, Alex Roberts, Mike Phillips, Stewart Woodman, and Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer (from Chef Shack), noting their talent, tenacity, business sense, focus, and commitment. "These people are out in front," Scott says, "they see ethics, and farming, and humor in food. I admire them."
Scott Pampuch is a talented, talkative, opinionated, frustrating, ambitious, extroverted, interesting fella. He works hard and does a lot of things, so there's always lots to talk about -- and, as I mentioned, he loves to talk. As a local food writer, how could I ask for more?
(I'm expecting a call from Scott to "set the record straight" on one or two things in this article, but I can handle it.)
Photos of Scott Pampuch provided courtesy of Kris Hase.
Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.