Chefs to Watch 2016: Erick Harcey, Upton 43, Minneapolis

Peter Gianopulos

Last year, Erick Harcey paid a visit to his culinary mentor—his then-81-year-old grandfather Willard Ramberg—seeking a little honest advice on a new restaurant project he was considering. Over the years, Harcey had become something of a local culinary hero, transforming an abandoned Minneapolis gas station into Victory 44, a beloved casual stop famous for its to-hell-with-the-rules approach to comfort food. Now, he had plans to convert an old hardware store across town into something decidedly un-Minnesotan: a sleek modernist temple to Scandinavian food brimming with gels, foams and other modernist technique hallmarks.

Grandpa Ramberg listened closely to the pitch—with that heat-seeking Swedish stare of his burning a hole through the pretensions of it all—then turned to his grandson and said, “Erick, why don’t you just cook your kind of food?”

The spell was lifted. In fact, Harcey had been harboring similar reservations, wanting to chart a path back to his Minnesota roots. So he decided to keep the yolk of his idea: He’d still open a Scandinavian restaurant named Upton 43. But instead of going ultra-progressive, he’d return to the dishes of his youth, tweaking the beloved Swedish meatballs, pickled herring, and smørrebrød his grandparents used to cook.

Because Scandinavian cuisine is an orchestrated affair—the sum of many parts yielding a balanced whole—Harcey knew he had to focus as much on the accoutrements as the main dishes, applying modern riffs to ancient pickling, smoking and gravy-making techniques. Which is why he fortifies his grandmother’s Swedish meatball gravy with porcini mushrooms for an extra jolt of umami and dresses up his pickled herring with fermented kohlrabi and a dill emulsion ($15, recipe).

But it’s Harcey’s pickled lettuce that turns heads ($11, recipe). He vacuum-seals the greens in a yeasty garlic-lemon brine. The flavors soak in, but the leaves stay crisp, and in just two or three days, he’s got full-bodied flavor. He then pairs the leaves with cured eggs—which are salted, dehydrated and pulverized—creating a Scandinavian salad that’s as rich and potent as any bowl of Caesar but with miles more personality.

“Good Scandinavian food tastes like the outdoors,” he says. “It should make you feel at one with the wild.”

Guests who enter Upton 43 will immediately feel Harcey’s love for the great outdoors. He keeps a fire pit burning constantly for aromatic effect, while also using it to grill salmon, pork chops and local veggies, just like his grandparents before him.

Harcey says his only regret is that his grandfather, who passed away months before Upton 43’s opening, didn’t live to see his vision come to life, to see his grandson come, in his words, “full circle.”

“I want to flip people’s emotions,” Harcey says, “to the point where at first everything feels different—the restaurant looks different, the smells are different and the menu reads different—yet once the food hits the table, people feel completely comforted. They say, ‘I remember this stuff from when I was growing up. It’s the same but different.’”

Q&A with Erick Harcey:

How do you describe your food?
Simple. It’s relatable. It may be striking in appearance, but in flavor and texture, you’ll relate to it.

What ingredient is central to your cooking?
Acid—vinegar, especially. I think any good chef should be balanced with the salt that they use, but salt enhances the flavor, whereas vinegar will bring out the flavor. You can properly season fish all day long, but a squeeze of acid over it takes it to a whole new level. Acid is imperative to building flavor.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
I don’t think you find calm; I think you make calm. It’s just in your demeanor. It’s constantly hard; there are constantly challenges; there’s constantly high stress, so either you get in front of that by directing your staff on how to be efficient, how to motivate them through and not make the stress bother them. At the end of the day, it’s just food. We’re not saving lives; we’re not doing anything big. We’re just making food.

If you had to describe your restaurant in one word, what would it be?

When did you realize that you loved food?
As early as I can remember. I remember eating my grandpa’s Sunday roasts with mashed potatoes when I was 6 years old. I’ve always been eating.

What meal changed how you feel about food?
The one that really opened my eyes was much later in my career; I had been cooking for quite a while. I was a new chef, but I made to one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants and I had a mussel dish. I just knew he basically heated a vessel up and put the mussels in there, and as they were walked to the table, they were cooking. I had never had something so perfect and simple. It shook my world, and I knew that new things and new techniques were out there.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I’d be a professional fisherman. I love fishing. It still gets you into food too, so I’d still be able to cook.

Who inspires you?
My grandpa inspired me a ton. But I’d say my family inspires me as well.

What’s on your cooking bucket list?
I would love to learn Japanese sushi butchering techniques. I think the mastery of the knife skills and just that absolute highest level of respect for the fish is something I’d love to learn.

What do you eat and drink on your night off?
That’s tough. I have four kids, but I love to eat at Piccolo. I think that Doug (Flicker) does the most inspiring flavor pairings and textures. He’s one of the guys who truly cooks with his soul. The guy just makes incredible food. I was recently cooking with him as a guest chef and he did part of this dish—it was a sunchoke—and he essentially slowly roasted the exterior so the skin was just crispy and brittle. He scooped out the core and then dehydrated it to make a shell, and then pureed the sunchoke filling and piped it back in there. It was this creamy buttery sunchoke filling in this sunchoke chip. It was just fantastic.

If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
Fäviken in Sweden. I just think it would be fun to be there. I got to hang out with Magnus Nilsson when he was in Minnesota and we went fishing together. It was kind of a nice departure from food. So I’d just like to hang out with him some more, whether I staged or not. I’d love to be there and see what he does; just hang, fish, look at his gardens with him and then if it inspired us to cook; we’d cook. If not, we’d fish.