"I’m probably going to give you some unexpected answers," Scott Graden tells me as we take seats at a window table looking out toward Lake Superior. I’ve just asked him about his approach to ingredient sourcing at New Scenic Café, the Duluth restaurant that’s about to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
With the farm-to-table mantra still a common refrain and the often-whimsical names of those farms populating many restaurant menus, Graden takes a different tack, one in which he eschews what he sees as marketing tools in favor of simply doing what makes sense for his business.
"Our method has not been to always have local sourcing but quality sourcing," he says. "If a restaurant up here opted to source entirely local, they’d be out of business. It becomes a question of bounty, there’s just not enough."
That’s not to say Graden doesn’t tap into the local harvests and farms when he can—he just doesn’t advertise it. It’s not the storyline that matters; it’s the food.
"I don’t call this the Wild Acres duck confit, I don’t call this the homemade brioche," he says, pushing up the sleeves of his cable knit sweater to point at the plate in front of me. "If I need to market my food values, instead of letting my food do it itself …" he trails off, then comes back around with an allegory: "I feel like, if you need to be adorned in jewels, you’re distracting me."
Graden does buy his poultry from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes and has amassed a collective of other local sources, explaining that when he opened New Scenic Café in 1999 it was a "duh factor" to purchase from area farms when items were in season versus buying the same product from a supplier across the country.
"To me early on, it was just what was logical," Graden says. "It wasn’t out of some altruistic value, it’s what made sense. Just like it makes sense to use blueberries in the summer when they’re in season, not in the winter."
Expanding on his blueberry example to illustrate how his sourcing needs changed as the restaurant increased its sales volume, Graden notes farmer Shari Zoff would drop off a flat of berries, "but that makes three pies," not nearly enough to supply the restaurant. Or, he continues, with a gesture toward the toasted Brussels sprout leaves accompanying the duck confit, "It’s peak season for Brussels sprouts, but we go through 100 pounds a week.
"The growing season here, the number of farmers, there’s just not enough."
Diners, Graden has found, don’t need everything spelled out for them on the menu but instead, if they’re really interested, will ask questions. This encourages curiosity and gives servers an opportunity to interact more with customers.
An artist’s mentality
Although his academic background is in chemistry, Graden’s interest in business and his artistic nature drew him to a culinary career. Before he and Rita Bergstedt—that’s his "hip and happening aunt"—opened New Scenic on North Shore Drive, 14 miles north of downtown Duluth, Graden was responsible for budgeting, management and menu development for Grandma’s Saloon. He likes that New Scenic is "small enough to maneuver" and that it affords him the ability to change with the seasons, an approach that also satisfies his artist’s mentality of not being bound to create only what others say they’ll eat.
"I’m not trying to make what you want, I want you to like what I make," he says. New Scenic can’t be all things to all people, he continues, and, thinking back to the restaurant’s opening, he adds, "We had to convince people."
He recalls a Mesclun greens salad that was on an early menu. "People said, ‘I’m not paying $5 for rabbit food,’ they wanted iceberg lettuce, something familiar."
That’s changed over the years, consumers’ tastes have evolved, and Graden has also made constant adjustments along the way.
He used to change the entire menu six or seven times a year before eventually learning that took an "insane amount of effort," not just on his part but on the part of his staff. It also eroded a sense of familiarity for guests, who wanted more consistency and to know their favorite dish would be on the menu throughout a given season.
"I hesitate now," says Graden of making thoughtful menu changes and considering their impact on the entire restaurant. "I used to have that, I guess I’d call it arrogance, when I would tell people to just figure it out. Now I’m figuring it out."
Inspiration is everywhere for Graden, from the striations he saw in rock walls of the Grand Canyon that prompted a different plating technique to "get food up off the plate," to drawing on his Swedish heritage for recipe development.
"I’m starting to look back a lot more at what did our ancestors do," he says, adding while originality is important it’s not the ultimate prize.
"I operate from the viewpoint that quality is what to strive for, that’s what we do."
New Scenic Café Brussels Sprout Leaves & Duck Confit
4 each duck legs, confit (see below)
4 each soft-center eggs (see below)
4 ounces Taleggio cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 each brioche discs, approximately 3-inch diameter, 1-inch thick (see below)
8 cups Brussels sprout leaves, trimmed & loosely packed
4 tsp rendered duck fat, melted
1 pinch kosher salt
1 pinch cracked black pepper
2 tsp cider gastrique (see below)
1 tsp truffle oil
4 tsp fresh chives
Kosher salt & cracked black pepper
1) Prepare the duck legs confit, soft-center eggs, brioche and cider gastrique ahead of time. (Note: The duck legs will take at least 2 days to prepare.)
2) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3) Place the duck legs in a sauté pan or sheet pan, skin side down. Place in the oven. Flip the legs over after about 10 minutes, continue to heat for 5-10 minutes until warmed all the way through.
4) While the duck legs are in the oven, heat a small pot of water just to a simmer, then turn off the heat and add the soft-center eggs to warm them without cooking further.
5) Cut the Taleggio into small pieces and put them in a small saucepan. Add heavy cream and place the pan over low heat. Allow the cheese and cream to melt slowly—it will take about 10 minutes—and stir occasionally.
6) While the Taleggio is heating, gently toss the Brussels sprout leaves with the molten duck fat and season with salt and pepper. Spread the leaves on a sheet pan and roast them in the oven until the edges are dark brown, even lightly charred.
7) Toast the brioche discs in the oven for about 1 minute before immediately plating.
8) Place one brioche disc in the middle of each of 4 plates. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the Taleggio fondue over each disc. Divide the Brussels sprout leaves between the 4 plates. Rest a duck leg on the front side of each disc. Nestle one soft-center egg on top of each disc. Finish each dish with a drizzle of cider gastrique, a few drops of truffle oil, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a dusting of chopped chives. Serve warm.
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1/2 Tbsp cracked black pepper
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
2 Tbsp shallots, sliced
6 each fresh thyme sprigs
4 each whole duck legs
4 cups rendered duck fat
1) Sprinkle half of the salt & pepper in the bottom of a baking pan.
2) Evenly scatter half the garlic, shallots and thyme.
3) Arrange the duck legs in the pan, skin side up.
4) Top the duck legs with the remaining salt, pepper, garlic, shallots and thyme.
5) Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 days.
6) Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
7) Gently melt the rendered duck fat in a pot.
8) Brush the excess salt and seasoning off the duck legs.
9) Return the duck legs to the baking pan, skin side up, and pour the rendered duck fat until the legs are completely submerged.
10) Cover the pan and cook in the oven for 2-3 hours, until the meat just begins to pull from the bones.
11) Remove the pan from the oven, remove the cover, allow the duck legs to cool at room temperature for approximately 1 hour.
12) Place the pan in the refrigerator, uncovered, allowing the duck legs to cool completely while still submerged in the fat.
13) Remove the legs from the fat only when you are ready to use them.
4 each fresh eggs, chilled
1) Bring a medium-size pot of salted water to a rapid boil.
2) Keep the eggs in the refrigerator until you’re ready to put them in the boiling water. Also, prepare an ice water bath to drop the eggs in once they are done cooking. Have a timer set for 6 1/2 minutes.
3) Gently lower the eggs into the boiling water and immediately start the timer.
4) As soon as the timer is done, use a spoon or strainer to transfer the eggs to the ice water bath.
5) Let the eggs cool in the ice water for at least 1 minute before peeling them. Store in the refrigerator until ready for use.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp water
1 cup apple cider
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp cold water
1 tsp lemon zest
1) Combine the granulated sugar and water in a medium saucepan and place on medium heat. Gently tilt the pan from side to side as the sugar melts to evenly distribute the water and prevent any hot spots. Cook it until the sugar caramelizes to a medium brown color.
2) Add the apple cider and apple cider vinegar. The caramel will harden, but will melt again. Simmer the mixture over medium heat until it is reduced by half.
3) In a small bowl, mix together the cornstarch and cold water to make a slurry. While stirring the hot liquid, slowly add the slurry. Return the mixture to a boil. It will have the consistency of thick syrup.
4) Remove it from the heat and add the lemon zest. Allow it to cool and store at room temperature.
6 ounces whole milk
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
18 ounces white bread flour
3 tsp kosher salt
1 ounce brown sugar
2 Tbps honey
1 each egg
2 each egg yolks
3 ounces butter, softened
1) In a small pot, warm the milk gently to 80 degrees. Pour the active dry yeast into the warm milk, stir until it dissolves, then transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer.
2) Add the white bread flour, kosher salt, brown sugar, honey, egg, and egg yolks, and use a dough hook attachment to mix them on low speed until the dough is even and smooth. With the mixer running, add the softened butter in small amounts. Continue to mix the dough until the butter is incorporated fully.
3) Grease the inside of a bread loaf pan with butter, set aside. Place the dough on a floured work surface, dust your hands with flour, and use the palm of one hand to flatten the dough gently, pressing it into a rounded rectangular shape. Press out any large air pockets.
4) Fold one edge of the dough over to the center of the loaf, and press it down gently to seal the fold. Fold the opposite edge over the top so that it overlaps the first fold, and press down along the seam to seal the two folds together.
5) Using your thumbs, make an indentation in the center of the dough, along its entire length. Then bring the top half of the dough toward you, folding along the indentation. Use the bottom of your palm to press down on the seam gently, to seal it along the length of the loaf.
6) Turn the dough so the seam side is down. With firm and even pressure, use both hands to roll the dough back and forth, moving your hands to the outside slowly, until the loaf is even in thickness and a bit longer than the length of the loaf pan. Lift the dough up, with the seam still facing down, and tuck both ends of the dough under. Set it in the greased loaf pan.
7) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cover the bread pan with a towel and let the dough rise for 45 minutes, until it’s nearly doubled in size. Bake the brioche for 35 to 40 minutes. You will know it is done when the top is a deep golden grown and tapping the loaf with a fingertip produces a hollow sound. Take the brioche out of the oven, remove it from the pan immediately, and cool on a wire cooling rack.