Erik Anderson and friend at Intro

It hasn’t broken through to citywide consciousness yet the way Next did a few years ago, but for me the most interesting moveable feast in town is the rotating-chef restaurant in the former L2O space, Intro. At least that’s my conclusion after dining there last week for its second seasonal menu, this one by Erik Anderson, a former Chicagoan (his father worked at the Drake Hotel and his parents ran a diner in Aurora) who became a Food & Wine best new chef along with cochef Josh Habiger at Nashville’s the Catbird Seat in 2012. You can see a slideshow of his tasting menu below—though at least one dish has already changed—but for me it’s clearly destined to be one of my best meals of the year. It’s short, exquisite, and full of classical French dishes dressed up in modernist ways. It gives a clear picture of what he’ll be doing at his upcoming Minneapolis restaurant, Brut, and it’s unlike anything else in town—a breath of fresh air and new influences in a town where upscale tasting menus can often seem to be doing the same things over and over.

Anderson is a breath of fresh air too, a gentle giant (you can’t help but identify him with the rented taxidermy that decorates the wood-paneled L2O space this time around) who is frank and funny about what he likes and especially what he doesn’t like on the modern food scene (pop-ups, Noma groupies, young chefs who are “full of shit”). At a base price of $75 for six courses (there are luxury add-ons which can jack that up quickly), Anderson’s menu is a fine-dining steal and well worth the experiment; we spoke about it a few days after I tried it.

Michael Gebert: How did you wind up doing a season at Intro?

Erik Anderson: I did a dinner here with Dominique Crenn [Atelier Crenn, San Francisco], Michael Laiskonis [formerly of Le Bernardin, New York], Matt Kirkley [L2O], and Bryce Shuman [Betony, New York] for Jeremiah Tower in September, and Rich [Melman] was there, and I met Matt and we got along well. And a couple of months later, Rich called me and said, would you be interested in doing this?

For me it was perfect timing because I had access to a beautiful kitchen, and I could get working on stuff for Brut. It was a great idea, it’s a great vibe, a great restaurant, and it’s been a lot of fun.

Well and it must give you more of a chance to develop and refine things than a single night’s pop-up would.

I never want to do another pop-up in my life. I spent the last year and a half doing that, and I’m done. Me and [his girlfriend] Jaime did them, and you don’t really get a chance to dig into the food and develop the food out, because you’re borrowing someone’s kitchen for a day. So the menus you write, it’s just stuff you’ve done before. It gets stale. That’s why this is so great, I have twelve weeks here and I can really dig into things a little more. Going to someone’s kitchen for a day, doing a pop-up for twenty people—it’s fun the first couple of times, but I don’t really get anything out of that. It’s not doing anyone any good—you want to do a new dish, you’re like, what am I going to do, do this at the house first for a week or two? It’s just—I need my own kitchen again!

I never ate at the Catbird Seat, so I don’t know what the food was like exactly, but I thought it was fairly modernist, a bit of Asian influence, etc., so I was surprised that what you’re serving now was so delicate and French. Was that where you feel like you were going all along?

It’s a good question. I look at a lot of the stuff I did at the Catbird Seat and it doesn’t apply to where I am today. Everyone’s kind of guilty of following trends, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think after I left there I just sat and took a long time to think about what I love about cooking, about what’s really important to me. And it always goes back to France, to French cooking. You just have to respect that. And to me that’s what I love, Michel Bras and modern French like that. And classic French, too.

But it took me a long time to really realize that and become comfortable with that, instead of like, here’s the guy with the new Nordic fucking cuisine book that’s so slick and shiny and he plates like that—I mean, it’s so easy to fall into that, you know? The last year and a half I’ve been very mindful about just trying to push that away and dig in deep and think about what I love about cooking and what makes me continue to do it.

So this menu—I always love oysters. I always love foie. Oysters will probably always be on any menu I put together. I just do stuff I like to eat and piece it together like that. I wish I had some crazy answer, oh, I was walking in . . . it just doesn’t exist for me like that. It starts in my head and it goes on a piece of paper and it might sit there for a while and there might be a million things scratched on it, and eventually it makes its way on the plate. And usually the original idea is so far away from what’s actually on the plate—not in a bad way, but very few times it’s been exactly what I had in my head. It takes twists and turns along the way. But I think that’s what’s fun about it.

I read a couple of past interviews with you where you said, I don’t know what my food is yet. And I thought that was such a great attitude—because it’s true of all of us. Nobody really knows where they’re going!

I think the twentysomething chef who says, this is my style—I think they’re full of shit. I think it takes years and years and years to hone your style. I mean, who doesn’t? Obviously Thomas Keller and Daniel [Boulud] and Rene Redzepi and Ferran [Adria]—those are the really distinct styles of food that are all their own. But I find it really hard to swallow and hard to believe [from a young chef]—especially with this job, because you’re constantly learning. There’s never a time to say I know everything there is to know here. You’re constantly a student; you’re constantly learning new things.

What Doug Flicker [Auriga in Minneapolis] taught me is that it’s not really a job, it’s a lifestyle. If you’re a cook—if you’re a good cook, you don’t punch out the clock at the end of the day. And it’s true! I constantly have a notebook, you’re constantly thinking about food. I’ve never really had an off switch. I learned that from him, and sometimes you learn more from mistakes. It’s just a problem if you keep making them.

So you’re making fun of the Noma-head who walks into kitchens these days, but you spent some time there, at the foraging based Copenhagen restaurant ranked one of the best in the world. What did you get out of that experience?

I just went there because I was really curious about it. We had already begun building [the Catbird Seat] and I had a few months to kill, so I just went there, and it was amazing. Do I think it’s the best food in the world? Certainly not. Those lists [of best restaurants in the world] are just ridiculous. There was some great food there and some really bad food—I shouldn’t say bad, but it was not for me. I think just because you can eat something that grows outside, doesn’t mean you should.

But I hand it to Rene [Redzepi]. I think he’s created something that’s very, very, very unique, and I don’t think a lot of people can say that. I don’t think since Ferran Adria, anyone can say that. And it’s an absolutely fascinating kitchen to work in.

But what do you bring back from a place like that to the U.S.?

That’s a hard question, because what he does is so specific to a place—that’s what irritates me about anybody who tries to imitate that, oh, let’s just get some unripe strawberries—it doesn’t work like that. The reason they can do that is that in the summertime, it’s sunlight until midnight. So their berries, even unripe, are absolutely incredible. You can’t—you have to go there to experience, you can’t just look at it visually and think you can recreate it by just looking at pages on a book. And that’s what all these people—they’re looking at things in cookbooks and recreating it aesthetically, they’ve never actually experienced it. Anyone can look at a cookbook.

Zipping back across the world, when you went to Nashville—you’d been at the French Laundry, you’d spent time at Noma, how did you reconcile that with the expectation of some kind of southern-ness in your food?

I would always say in an interview that we weren’t a southern restaurant. There’s a few kind of nods to the south that you have to have, just to respect where you’re at. We’d use southern ingredients because they were around us. That two and a half years was an interesting process—I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do about opening a restaurant.

Well, and you had feedback right in front of you—the whole restaurant seated at a bar, where you’re cooking in front of them.

It took me a long time to get used to that, and then you don’t think about it anymore. But it was great—having the ability to see right in front of you what impact the food is having. I don’t think I would go back to a closed kitchen—Brut will be wide open, nothing blocking the sightline.

So how have people responded to your menu here at Intro? Do people know what they’re in for?

The menu’s online, but—I haven’t heard anything supernegative. Some people said it’s not enough food, so we added the supplements. So we do like a duck for four, there’s a Wagyu steak supplement for four. So there’s the option, though I kind of strongly disagree. I think it’s paced out well—I’m not going to raise the panic alarm just because a couple of people wanted more.

Correction: the base price for Intro has been updated and it was Habiger, not Anderson, who worked at Alinea, so a reference to that restaurant has been removed.