The Curious Chef
- By Colby Wegter- It’s a curious thing, to stay curious. Constantly propelling oneself forward with an eagerness to learn new things, failing a few times, attempting to get it right, failing some more and beginning to master it. All for the sake of being curious about something.
It’s one of the first things Landon Schoenefeld told me. As the chef of the effectual Birdie, a chef’s table experience attached to the popular Nighthawks Diner & Bar on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis; it’s the curiosity of the next service, plate, ingredient or technique that drives his love for his craft.
Curiosity, he tells me, is what makes him successful.
Around 20 years in the restaurant business has taught Landon there’s little separating those who find themselves successful in the industry and those who don’t. They get the same scars, sweat the same sweat, and enjoy a good joke all the same. The community welcomes any and all–high school kids looking for their first job, former servers, retired military, culinary school graduates and anyone in between.
The microscopic distance between the success and mediocrity in such a diverse group might boil down to one desire–eagerness to learn more.
“When you think you know everything, you shut your mind off.” Landon tells me this over the phone, right after I asked him his favorite simple dish to make at home. It’s chicken and rice. Landon’s key is boiling the chicken in the broth, deboning it and then cooking the rice in that same broth. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, knowing that my chicken and rice will never taste as bland as it has before.
Months prior to our phone call, I was a patron of Birdie. I didn’t know who Landon was, or his talented team of ladies that made the Birdie experience truly unique. I hadn’t attended a chef’s table before. What was the protocol? Do I wear a dinner jacket? Do I own a dinner jacket? Was this a pinky out while you sip your chardonnay sort of place? Do those places exist or had I just made that up in my mind? I was like a freshman going to his first prom after being asked by a senior. I didn’t know what I was doing but my anxiety was quickly dispelled when I walked through Birdie’s doors.
It was classic Minnesota, welcoming me with open arms. A record player spinning vinyl in the corner, a handwritten menu, candles, wooden tables. Classic Minnesota, however anything but ordinary.
A treasure map to ultimate satisfaction was laid before us in the form of 13 courses that night. Uni, a parmesan crème brûlée with marinated artichoke heart, a smoked beet dumpling with carrot broth, a grapefruit sorbet and many others fortified and wowed us. Maybe other chef’s tables are like this, I thought for less than a second, but this feels special. It wasn’t long before I was reaching over to Landon, shaking his hand, and asking for his card.
I needed to know more.
He and his team agreed to meet and I began flooding their minds with questions. What’s the goal? How’d you get here? What will it look like in a few years? Why the record player? Why the silverware? And a whole bunch of other why’s and how’s.
But no matter how many questions I asked, his comments still stuck with me. The first thing Landon had said about staying curious.
“We’re in the business of making snowflakes,” he told me. “Every night is a different experience. A different crowd, music, ingredients and menu.”
It’s an elegant way to explain his mission. Although Landon considers himself successful, he’s never satisfied. Wrestling with success and satisfaction is another act Landon is performing that is as balanced as his next dish.
In our most recent phone call, I asked him what it all meant and how it made him feel.
“It’s weird,” he says with a deep breath. “It’s weird when you achieve your dreams. It’s surreal when you have an idea and you’re actually doing that.”
And then I start to think. Landon’s success, achieving his dreams, it’s not running a restaurant. It’s not the notoriety. In some ways, it’s not even about about the food. His dreams started coming true the day he made the decision to never stop learning. To never accept that there wasn’t anything left to uncover. The day he figured out, there is so much more to do and learn.
What makes Landon successful isn’t the perfect execution of a complex dish or profitability of a restaurant. What makes him who he is...well you know it by now, right? Curiosity.