Who The Folk?! Chef Adam Eaton

Adam Eaton’s experiences working at some of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities would lead you to believe he’s far older than he is. At 28, he’s the executive chef at Saint Dinette in Lowertown St. Paul, but he’s also worked at The Strip Club Meat & Fish and La Belle Vie. Eaton talks food – including his new deli concept – and his culinary roots as we kick off TC Jewfolk’s “Latke Week” in this week’s Who The Folk?!

At what point in your life did you know this was what you wanted to do?

I think I always knew. I cooked with my grandmother growing up. Technically she’s not my grandmother, but I called her my grandmother. Grandma Ruth was the head chef at Sholom Home. I would hang out with her and watch Emeril and try and recreate the recipes. My mother was a terrible cook. Terrible. She’s still a terrible cook. I would always rely on my grandmother and godmother to cook.

When did you learn how challenging it is?

I like it. I thought it was not a place for complacent people. It’s always changing and getting stronger, and there are so many ingredients. You can never get bored, and you can find ways to challenge yourself. And I kind of like the chaos. I like the challenge of it on a daily basis. I realized that early on. I started at Keys Café when I was 15, doing dishes and cooking. All the people I’m working with are 25 to 30. I felt like an old soul so I liked being around older people.

What’s the favorite thing you cook?

Oh God. Probably deli things. That’s our next restaurant, we’re opening up a deli in Lyn-Lake area in Minneapolis. That’s always been my dream — I wanted a deli. Not a traditional deli: we’re definitely going to have a lot more twists in there. I’ve always loved it. Not just Jewish though; Italian and Russian, too. We need it here really bad and I like to cook it.

Why have delis struggled so much? Cecil’s has been around forever and it’s great…

Cecil’s is great actually.

But on the west side, it’s struggling. The east side has Cecil’s and Cossetta’s and it’s thriving.

I think it’s hard to label yourself as just a Jewish deli. That’s the issue with a lot of those places. Rye in Uptown, Lincoln Del, these were perceived as just a Jewish deli and I think that kind of corners you in a market that is smaller than you think. You need to broaden it to make it more accessible and craveable. You need to have enough menu items to make it craveable. Cecil’s does that. I think the ambiance is super old-school Chicago and hole in the wall, and that’s fine and it works really well for them. But the food, the sandwich is a sandwich but it’s executed well. It’s wet, which is what a sandwich should be, and the Reuben is out of this world. That’s where they succeed and other places fail. The menu is huge, which is kind of a no-no because it’s hard to execute quality food. There’s a market for simple food executed at a higher level. Our thing is under-promising and over-delivering. We’re going to do woodfired bagels too; that’ll be our big thing: Montreal style bagels. When people think of us they’ll say “oh they do bagels, and Italian beef, and Philly cheesesteaks, and Reubens.” They’ll think they’re just coming for a sandwich, and that’s our opportunity to just blow them away.

Before Rise opened and before St. Paul Bagelry had another location, there were no bagel places. We’ve been planning this concept for a long time. I’ve been working on the dough for three years. We knew places were going to open. Rise and St. Paul Bagelry are super even (in comparison) and I love both. They execute super well.

In the area we’re going in, it’s very dense and diverse, but it’s also really young and I think housing is pretty expensive. We need to give people reasonably priced, and more importantly, craveable food. Bagels are craveable for part of it but we want to give them more. We need to give them things they can’t live without.

When’s the opening?

We’re looking at early next year. The woodfire oven is the coolest: It’s a 10-foot by 10-foot hearth that they’re building from scratch.

Did your Judaism have a lot of influence on your cooking?

Not really when I was growing up. As I grew in the direction of chef I wanted to be, I think that it was pretty apparent that I needed to find my own style and going to your heritage is a perfect way. I love those eastern European flavors. I thought they were great. I love to eat them, I love to cook them. I just had to harness that. I love Montreal. It’s my favorite place on earth. I think that’s where my culinary desires come from: Eastern European and French. The food there is top notch. It’s amazing.

You taught a Jewish cooking class at Midtown Global market, right?

It was a Jewish deli series. It was a little tough to fill. It needs to be more diverse. The people who came really enjoyed it.

As a chef, how do you judge the restaurant experience elsewhere?

I don’t judge. I don’t really have high expectations or low expectations. I just kind of go in and I’m hungry like everyone else there. My biggest thing is seasoning. The balance of salt and acid is important and if you season it well, I’m probably going to enjoy it. If I go to a Michelin-starred or James Beard restaurant, I may have higher expectations. But if I’m going to place down the street and I get a burger or pizza that’s under-seasoned, I’m going to be disappointed. But if it’s seasoned well I’ll be super happy and probably come back. But I’m not much of a diner. I just want to eat.

We go on food trips a couple times a year where all we do is eat. On a day to day, I want to eat and move on. I eat all day every day, so I just like to go to the Cecil’s of the world or Brassa. Just casual and easy.

How do you balance food trips with being a chef?

It’s easier now with one than it will be two. I have good support. Jack, my sous [chef] is great and he takes care of the fort when we’re gone. I think it’s pretty manageable now. Once you get through the first year you have the systems in place to run it. Two days off a week. Quality of life is important. We established having a quality of life and the people who work for us.

How will you balance being an executive chef at both?

Letting go of control.

Is that going to be easy?

No. Not for me. But it’s necessary. You’re always learning I guess. Having a person in place at the new location I trust and floating back and forth. It gives people the opportunity here to step up. Employees want to work for a company that’s growing.

Favorite Jewish food?

Oh man! Probably the Reuben. Or Bagels. Smoked fish with the bagel. And then the Reuben.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Purim. It’s fun.

I have to imagine it’s hard to fast on Yom Kippur as a chef.

It’s very hard.

Check back in tomorrow for the review of Chef Eaton’s latkes — and the recipe so you can make them yourselves.

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