For Beard Award Winner Alex Roberts, it’s All About Respect

Alex Roberts Photo by Kate NG SommersAlex Roberts Photo by Kate NG SommersChef Alex Roberts is a low-key kind of guy. He doesn’t yell or throw temper tantrums, a la Gordon Ramsay. He doesn't have the legendary ego of a rock star chef ("I don't feel that I'm the best at anything," he recently told the Star Tribune's Rick Nelson). He's as nice a person as you'll ever meet, quick with a warm smile and eager to tell stories about his family and his farmers (like his dad Don, who has been providing produce to Restaurant Alma for ten-plus years). His three Twin Cities restaurants (Restaurant Alma, Brasa Minneapolis, and Brasa St. Paul) are beautiful and serve lots of local food that's consistently delicious, but none of them is particularly fancy or expensive (Alma's three-course tasting menu is just $45).

Did I mention that Alex Roberts is the winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef/Midwest?

Although Alex spent his formative years in Minnesota, his training at New York's French Culinary Institute opened doors at renowned New York restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Bouley, and the Union Square Cafe. When I ask how his New York training shaped his work, Alex talks about quality. "I had access to the finest ingredients in the world," he tells me. "I knew the difference between good foie gras and bad foie gras, for example, so when I moved back to Minnesota I made sure I got the good stuff." It shows.

As Alex describes some of the projects he's working on, from the forthcoming Peace Coffee "Brasa Blend" to helping his kids' Montessori school source good, local food, it's clear that the man is driven. But what exactly drives him? Why, for example - as I am asked at least three times a week in the Twin Cities - isn't Alex planning to open another Brasa in my neighborhood?

"Right now, I've got my hands full," Alex says (three restaurants and three kids, including a new baby), "and I can still make it to each one of my restaurants every day. I know what would happen right away if I tried to open another Brasa: someone would sit me down and tell me that my food costs are too high - that I don't have to buy organic rice, for example. That nobody will know the difference."

And this is when I get my first glimpse of what has become my overriding feeling about Alex in the months I've gotten to know him, that quality and respect guide his every decision, every relationship, and every recipe.

"My customers know the difference [between good and bad food]," Alex continues, "I'm not going to serve food that's not as good in order to save a few pennies." If you've eaten at one of Alex's restaurants, this may strike you as obvious. And yet, think about it for just a minute: would you be able to taste the difference between organic rice and non-organic rice? I wouldn't. Alex is a smart man, not nearly naive enough to absorb non-necessary costs for his businesses. But this incredibly caring, respectful approach to his customers, farmers, animals, ingredients, land, and friends has served Alex well. It shows in all that he does, and has helped Alex garnered not only national attention, but the respect and admiration of his peers.

Alex and I have discussed respect and quality several times now - the fact that local ingredients are often the best that are available; that we haven't tasted a great locally-sourced parmigiano-reggiano; that most beans grown in Minnesota are sent away to be packaged before we can buy them here; that even with the best intentions, people sometimes get upset about the fish he chooses to serve - and each time I come away a little bit more impressed. I feel good about the Thousand Hills Cattle Company beef, Kadejan chicken, fried yuca, cheesy grits (from Riverbend Farm polenta), collard greens, organic rice, and everything else at Brasa. And although I otherwise claim to have given up soda more than a year ago, I'll confess a soft spot for Brasa's homemade guava-lime.

While I'm on a roll, I might as well mention that Restaurant Alma - a neighborhood restaurant in the very best sense - is one of the places I love most. I've had at least two of my favorite-ever meals there, including a recent one that included black cod with marinated spinach, chives, pickled cucumber; crispy soft cooked egg with mushrooms, basil, ginger, shallot, and rice; and warm parmesan flan with crispy artichokes, black olive puree, and maple syrup. It's a place I'd take anyone, anytime - from a romantic dinner with my wife to a business meal with my partners.

Yes, the James Beard folks got it right this time.


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at or follow him on Twitter.