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The Weekend Shift

Having Fun, Making Magic in the Kitchen

Michael May

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Ian Pierce in Cafe 128's kitchen
(Michael May)
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Chef Ian Pierce runs the kitchen
(Michael May)

It's Saturday night and chef Ian Pierce is still running around this small kitchen finishing prep work for the coming rush. "We got 60 people in the restaurant, 40 people eating between 5 and 6 o'clock and another hundred after that..."

I've known Ian Pierce since high school. He was sort of a hippie and class clown. It's fair to say he never lived up to his potential as a student. So I was a bit surprised when I read the reviews calling him one of St. Paul's best chefs. I guess we all grow up -- sort of.

In the kitchen, Ian breaks in with a rousing chorus. "I wanna be your lover, lover, lover boy... Got any lemons?"

Yup, the prankster spirit is still intact and still serving the same purpose as it did in high school -- keeping everyone in good humor in the face of adversity.

Ian runs his kitchen like a pirate's galley, down to the stupid nicknames. "Charmin Ultra. BFO, Niblet," Ian says, pointing around the room. "Just tell him to get out of the way, Funkenstein."

That "him" would be me, in the way. And then to top it off, there's the one-handed dishwasher, Siggy Sue.

"I've had this guy here for six years. He's awesome," says Ian. "The guy's got one hand and he's better than any dishwasher I've ever seen."

Funkenstein is pulling toastee poos out of the oven. BFO is hovering over the grill. Siggy Sue is a blur of suds and hot water. The temperature in here feels like 90 degrees, everyone's sweating and they've got 40 entrees to get out in the next hour.

But things begin to unravel just as they're getting into the groove. Funkenstein "breaks" the Cajun cream sauce -- it's got be cooked at just the right temperature or the butter separates into an oily mess. And they're out of a key ingredient, Tabasco, so they decide to try harrisa, a Moroccan spice. "It's the best we're going to do at this point," says Ian. "It's the right color!"

Ian runs over to the stove, dumps the ingredients into a saucepan and starts whisking like a madman. "You could probably make more money doing something else," he says. "But it's a passion. It's a way of life. You have to have a bit of a masochistic mentality."

But this torture does have its own rewards. A recent review said the Cafe 128 should win an Oscar for good food. But Ian maintains that it's more about hard work than artistic genius. "You know, you gotta be kinda humble about it," he says. "It's not like magic. Someone wrote an article and said I have culinary magic. And everyone here makes fun of me, 'Oh yeah, culinary magic. He's a real wizard over here.'"

The brew in the boiling cauldron is giving off an intoxicating aroma of butter and spice. Just in time -- there are two grilled filets of organic salmon waiting for their Cajun compliment. "This Cajun sauce, which has now become Spanish cream sauce," he says, laughing.

"Here's the thing though: Some people might think that's blasphemy. But it's going to taste great. I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. If we're cooking kick-ass food, that's all that matters. Carmen, hit me up with some garlic here." The salmon gets sauced and heads out onto the floor.

The dinner rush is over and everyone looks a bit dazed. Dishes and ingredients litter the kitchen. "At the end of the night," says Ian, "after cooking and prepping for 12 hours, you look around and it's a mess. And you're like 'Oh my God, I gotta clean.' And you get through that, with a few beers, maybe a couple shots, whatever's hiding in Funkenstein's locker.

"And then we come back the next day and do it again. It's a lot of fun."

More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

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