Walking in the kitchen, there is a comfortable focus. As I pass through the metal swing door to hear some Oxford Comma from Vampire Weekend from the record player in the corner, I turn to see heads down, working away, focused, and it takes a few steps before I’m noticed.
I don’t mind though. I’d been a beneficiary of that focus a couple months prior. On a cold February evening, I had parked the car, walked through the front door of a place called Nighthawks, weaved around the bar, passing through that same metal swing door and landed in Birdie. I was a diner back then and I was a newbie. Chef’s tables sounded fancy, so I wore a blazer, I took a seat, requested a beer, unfortunately having to pass on the wine tasting menu because I was driving afterward, and took a deep breath. And if I remember correctly, Oxford Comma was playing then as well.
Today, back in the kitchen, yet to be noticed by Chef Landon Schoenefeld who’s stirring some duck fat in a pot, or Chef Jessi Peine who is delicately cracking eggs to preserve the shell, I’m metaphorically drinking in their focus, reminded of how each dish I had the February night heightened my senses, baffled my left and right brain, and left me full–in more ways than one.
The place is intimate, I stride past the stools of the 14 seat dining area to make my presence known, unfortunately interrupting what feels like brilliance at work.
A nice smile from Chef Landon and a handshake brings me back to why I’m here. I want to know how this started and more importantly why. Why start a chef’s table when you have a successful restaurant already in Haute Dish? Why serve as many courses in a night as you’ll have guests? Why the record player? Why the silverware? Why, why, why?
Fearing all of these questions will fly out of my mouth simultaneously, I stride over to Jessi to see what the egg dish will turn into. Perfectly arranged in a row, I notice each egg shell has a different color. I see a couple in light tan, a few in sea foam green color and one bright white with brown speckles.
Just as I’m about to ask about them, Brittany St. Clair and Tlanezi Guzman join as well. Known as Brit and T respectively, they are the final pieces of the Birdie puzzle. Brit’s the youngest, T does the pastry, Jessi is the experienced one who runs her own food truck on the side, and Landon is the one who assembled the three ladies and started this place.
Soon I begin realizing that my presence hasn’t really disrupted the nucleus in the kitchen at all. It’s always there. Although extremely personable, making eye contact here and there, Jessi can answer any question I have seamlessly while continuing on with her work. I also know she can hear a waiter from Nighthawks pass through the other side of the kitchen and she’s likely humming to the current song in her head. It’s masterful to watch her work, which I gather is why Brit and T have joined me in doing so. Focused, and within minutes there are illustrations of each member of this group doing things just like it.
Finally, the question escapes my lips about the egg shells. “Why the different colors?” I ask.
“Well these eggs are from my backyard. I have 7 hens laying right now,” replies Jessi.
“I’m guessing they have names?”
Jessi smiles, Brit laughs and T grabs her water and straw, making sure not to spit it out.
“They do,” Jessi says, “That’s a Brownie egg. This is a Sylvia egg. This is a Snow White egg,” as she points to each one.
T and Brit continue to smile, “I’m guessing you knew the names too,” I suggest.
A nod from Brit. “Yeah I talk about them a lot,” Jessi says. “I’m a crazy chicken lady.”
Saving us from any further laughter at Jessi’s expense, Chef Landon strides back into the circle we’ve formed. “Something like this, in a nutshell, is what makes Birdie unique,” he explains. “We’re small enough where we are only trying to serve 42 covers a week so we can still do things like this. If we were a 50 or 60 seat restaurant, we couldn’t offer something as special.”
Now, drying his hands with the ubiquitous towel, he continues, “Y’know, we’re going to be growing a lot of herbs and vegetables at Jessi’s house too and in peak season, we’ll be doing farmers markets and our herb garden upstairs on the roof. We’re basically offering a hyper-local experience where everything we mix that day never gets refrigeration. That’s a hard feat to do in the restaurant.”
Jessi uses a device that looks like a pinball plunger on top of a new egg, to expertly break the shell’s top. As she slides out the yolk and the white into a plastic dish and delicately places the shell into some sort of water and vinegar mixture (I’m guessing) she tells me about the garden. “Landon’s helped me for a number of years. He came over five years ago in the middle of the night to help me haul all of the old dirt out of the backyard because we wanted good soil.”
Landon tilts his head back and rolls his eyes, “It was like 2 a.m.,” he says.
“We had wheelbarrows of dirt going back and forth,” she continues, “Y’know, drinking beers at 2 in the morning. I always had a dream of that and so did Landon.”
“How much do you all hang out outside of the kitchen?” I ask.
T and Brit instantly look towards one another. They hang out about every single day, T explains. They’ll go hiking together, bring Jessi, forage and go out to lunch to talk about future menu ideas.
And the ideas come from everywhere. Landon tells me how he’ll have something pop into his head on a day off or how it takes him at least an hour to unwind after a night of service. How sometimes he’ll open up 6 cookbooks at once or one old book juxtaposed with a new book to begin thinking about ideas for a terrine, a Thai dish, anything.
T cares a lot about a specific ingredient in her pastry when she starts and once she has an idea on how to use it, counterbalancing texture is where her mind goes next.
Jessi is sensory. Finding different things at the farmers market or in her garden and diving into divergent ways to use a specific ingredient.
Brit likes the sustainability of it. Using up as much of the animal and as much of the vegetables they can in new and exciting ways.
They all agree that Birdie is seasonally dependent, relying heavily on vegetables that may only be grown and ripe in Minnesota for a couple of weeks.
But they all have ideas, and while many dishes are conceptualized individually, there is an extreme level of collaboration amongst them in prep and plating. Not only is this group of four a collaborative unit, each member has genuine interest in the others’ ideas, techniques and successes.
As T talks a bit more about how her and Brit hang out, Landon asks, “What’s that smell?”
Brit points to the stove, “Is it the duck?” she asks.
Turned out I was more of a distraction than I thought. In our conversation time had past, duck fat had burned.
That was for the confit, Landon explains. With a genuine “Oh no” from the ladies, Jessi pops right back to say, “You can use chicken fat right?”
Brit chimes in, “I have some duck fat left in the freezer.”
I take a step back and analyze.
It’s the perfect illustration of ‘shit happens’ in the kitchen. They all have seen it, smelled it, felt the burns on their arms and the sweat on their foreheads. A little burnt duck fat was as quickly dismissed as it was discovered. Nothing worth crying over and within seconds, an alternate solution was found and a nice gesture given soon after that. It’s intangible teamwork that you don’t even understand how it happens so quickly as an outsider. They understand each other in the most inherent ways. It’s spellbinding to witness.
I begin to discover eye contact between them is more endearing. Expertly, through the noises and smells of the kitchen, they almost always know what the other is doing without ever looking their way, making the connection of eyes all the more special. Beyond a ‘we’re in this together’ attitude. Again as an outsider, it’s difficult to describe what the attitude is. But there is just a general feeling of implicit trust in each person’s abilities and dedication to the mission.
It’s things like burnt duck fat that make it all the more special though. Landon explains how important it is that they are always improving. How “when you think you’ve got it, you stagnate.”
“It’s important to evolve and stay relevant,” Brit agrees.
They’ve been told, when they expand they will be more successful. But expansion is the furthest thing from any of their minds. It isn’t the goal, it’s actually the antithesis of what they feed off of.
“We research things we’ve never done before and we do it,” Jessi says implying that it wouldn’t be the case with a larger restaurant. “Sometimes you think you might know how to do something and then you f*ck it up.”
“After like 3 hours,” T says laughing, soon after she finished explaining how tough it is to “turn the sarcasm off” in the kitchen.
And there is a lot of laughing.
Brit tells me how much bullshit cooking shows on TV are. “We don’t have catch phrases and stuff. We never say ‘BAM’,” she says laughing. “But it’s a lot of hours. In most places you can’t have a social life but this place is wonderful because our schedule is amazing.”
The pronouncement of how important Birdie is to their lives is clearly read on their faces, in their statements to me and their rapport with one another. It’s clear it’s something that someone in the industry would long for. Whether it’s Jessi or Landon who started at 14 washing dishes, or the 23 year old Brit who still has a long career ahead of her, it feels entirely possible that to all four of them there may never be a better place to work and that feeling is extremely translatable in the dishes they create.
It’s something I could sense when I first came as a diner and it’s something I needed to know more about.
“So is there a pinnacle to this career?” I ask.
“Usually the opposite,” T explains. “When you don’t like a dish” is when you end up understanding that there is always more to it.
Jessi and Brit say simultaneously, “We always say ‘Oh, I actually like that.’”
I instantly gather it’s an elementary question. The only pinnacle may be the constant pursuit of improvement.
“So there really is no satisfaction?” I ask.
“Nah, we’re pretty hard on ourselves,” Jessi responds.
“We’re in the business of making snowflakes,” Landon chimes in. “In food, nothing is ever going to be exactly the same. Even if the dishes look the same the ingredients are always different. If it’s not that, then it’s the music we play or the people we serve.”
To understand their common belief–that it is all about the food, creativity should be praised, shit happens, a good wine can help push a dish over the top and there’s no purer music than that which comes from vinyl–allows me to understand why the core of Birdie is so important to food in the Twin Cities and to educating the diner on what a true dining experience can be.
It’s many moving parts, an innumerable amount of ingredients and a variety of techniques that make it all worthwhile and it’s the camaraderie, willingness to never stop learning and supreme passion for the food that makes it all work.
It’s focused and it’s delicious.
I check my watch and see a few guests come into the dining room. Service is only a few minutes away. I thank them all for their time, give them each a handshake and commend their music choice.
As I pop out the back door of the kitchen, I see the chefs of Birdie working like I was only there a couple minutes. It’s been over an hour. Looking a bit further, I see some of the diners’ faces.
If only they’d had heard what I just did, I think to myself.
In in the end it doesn’t matter. ‘We’re in the business of making snowflakes,’ Landon said. What’s good today could be great tomorrow and Birdie will never stop trying to find that thing that makes it that way.