Spoonriver's Brenda Langton: Chef Chat, Part 2

Spoonriver owner Brenda Langton outside the Mill City Farmers Market

Spoonriver owner Brenda Langton outside the Mill City Farmers Market

Today we bring you the second part of our chat with longtime Twin Cities restaurateur and chef Brenda Langton. (Here's part 1 if you missed it.) Langton talks more about her upcoming Spoonriver cookbook, the importance of simple cooking, and her fascination with Japanese cuisine.


How is the Spoonriver cookbook coming? The cookbook's great. One of our chefs, Nick Schneider, is now testing. We are also testing and finalizing and writing some little essays in it. My deadline is January 31.

What will the cookbook cover? I'm trying to simplify the recipes. For me, I really care about the people that don't cook. Wanting to get them into their kitchens, get them inspired to cook, because cooking at home is essential and our culture has moved away from it, and it is hurting our health. So for me, we're having a lot of simple grain dishes and vegetable dishes and beans along with some of the more complicated recipes that I have simplified. We have fish and beef and not a lot of meat--it's definitely not a lot of meat, but it will definitely cover it. Soups that are easy--a large section on soups. And our desserts are really healthy.

I'm printing it with the University of Minnesota Press, and we've hired a fabulous photographer who's going out to the farms, and we're going to have about 75 photos, which I'm thrilled about.

How does it compare to the Café Brenda cookbook? Included in it will be some simpler recipes. We've actually taken some of the recipes and simplified them, and meats will be added.

I just want to add over the many years that I've been cooking and eating vegetarian and healthy foods, it's very clear to me that there are a lot of very unhealthy vegetarians. It's harder. You do have to really be careful. We just have to be careful and really make sure we eat plenty of beans and nuts and whole grains, and it requires a fair amount of attention in your kitchen. The problem is not everybody spends enough time cooking when they choose to eat a diet that is vegetarian or vegan, so I like to caution people to really take it seriously and make sure they're getting the right fats and nutrients.

If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? I really would have enjoyed the opportunity to prepare a meal for the father of food as medicine, Hippocrates.

What is your best culinary tip for a home cook? Grocery shop once a week, and make sure your kitchen is stocked. That's the problem with so many people--if you don't have good ingredients in your kitchen, you open up your cupboards and there's nothing to work with.

What was your proudest moment as a chef? The last dinner we did at Spoonriver with the Pew Charitable Trust. The Pew flew in from D.C., and I got to invite 50 guests for a meal of all naturally raised meats. The bill that the Pew is working on right now is to stop the antibiotics in our factory farms, because so many people are antibiotic resistant to staph infections. It was just really terrific to bring together 50 people that are involved in healthy living. I was just really, really honored to have that opportunity to gather those people to have the conversation and to spread awareness. That was my most recent.

What are the essential qualities you require in staff? What's important to me is that they're inspired to learn more every day, because there is so much to learn. That's why this job, my career, there is never a dull moment. There's always something to learn with food, with herbs, with remedies, with healing.

I don't work well with and I don't hire people that have giant egos. It's a team effort. We teach each other.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Eric Ripert from Le Bernadin.

I have so many different books. I don't have one that I love. I love foods from all over the world, so I am generally drawn to books that are written on one specific cuisine. Right now I don't even have time to read that many books. I'm more trying to write my own books and teach.

For me, it's all about teaching really simple, basic, wonderful foods. When I used to be a judge for James Beard, a cookbook came by with a stack of 75 others one year, and it was three ingredients for every recipe. And I was just like, "Ha, ha, ha! This is ridiculous." And I was not at all interested, didn't really give it any merit. And now I think, if you can make something really delicious and good for you and it has three ingredients, right on. Let's have that. We need more of those recipes, because things can be beautiful with three ingredients.

Which celebrity chef do you think should shut up? I don't watch any of those shows anymore. I find a lot of those shows, it's just too much about the person, and it's not really enough about the content. Years ago when I used to watch Wolfgang, Wolfgang had a lot of technique. He knew what he was doing. He actually was a very good chef. You could see that in his moves and his techniques. He was a good chef. But nowadays it's just too much about celebrity. And the reality is there are few chefs that make that kind of money, so to glamorize it in that fashion, I think it's not really a great approach.

Years ago we pitched the Food Network. I did a video on natural foods cooking, healthy cuisine, healthy cooking, and they just said, "She's too ahead of it." This was like 15 years ago. They just said, "We're not ready for this. This is not widespread enough."

Would you pitch your show again to the Food Network? No, I have no desire. When you have shows like that, you are expected to pump out either cookbooks or pots and pans, or auxiliary things. That's the deal. I have no desire to come up with something like that. I have other ways to spend my life teaching.

What was your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen? When I was 18, my ring came back on a salad plate, and that was pretty shocking and embarrassing. But I must say, I was 18. You know, you're dressing a salad with your hands, and the olive oil slipped it right off.

What is your favorite dish to cook at home? We have dinner at home probably five nights a week, and I usually cook very simply. I do simple Japanese noodle dishes or gnocchi with spinach and tomatoes. We do just simple fish dishes with lots of vegetables. I'm not into sauces, just a little olive oil and lemon if it's fresh.

Do your husband and daughter cook often? I'm in charge, but they assist. It's just because I can do it quickly. It's a matter of time, and for me, I've been in a restaurant all day, I've been surrounded with customers and people, and I just want to go home. I have a very peaceful home that I can relax in, and I love my kitchen.

It's really important that people make their kitchens the center of their home, so you're drawn to it, so you want to cook.

Where have you traveled lately for food inspiration? Mostly I like to get out of the country when I travel. Japan was one of the last places I've been. Love Japan. Japan has the most sophisticated food where I've been. The Japanese had these unbelievably sophisticated foods to take home, prepared, in small kiosks in the basement of every department store in the major cities. It was unbelievable. Absolutely mind-boggling.

What do you think is the best food city? New York is a great food town, fabulous food town. Paris, Rome, all over Italy, all over Spain. Food is just part of their culture more.