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Chef Speak: Scott Pampuch - The Iron Horse Hotel

Photos by Dan Bishop

January 2013

Scott Pampuch, top chef and beverage director at The Iron Horse Hotel and founder of the award-winning Corner Table restaurant in the Twin Cities, grew up in Winona, Minn., where his culinary training really began. Being on the Mississippi River was a huge influence on him, particularly since he spent a lot of time laboring in his grandparentsí large garden there. The family pickled cucumbers and beets, froze all sorts of vegetables, "put up" stewed tomatoes and made their own sauerkraut.

When Pampuch (pronounced "pam-poo") was 16, his first job was at his godfatherís grocery store. It had a meat counter in the back where he went every Saturday to clean the cooler and move what he recalls were "too many cases of Arcadia Fryers." His first kitchen job was as a dishwasher, then cook, at a Happy Chef restaurant in his hometown.

For Pampuch, necessity drives people to try things. If they are lucky, they find what they are supposed to be doing. "Ultimately, having to figure out what I love to do brought me to where I am. Iím doing what I am supposed to be doing," confides the sustainable food advocate, one who is passionate about fresh ingredients.

To Pampuch, there is a huge difference between a great chef and a great kitchen manager. "A Ďmanagerí is a job, a title," he says, adding that itís a stepping stone for some, the destination for others. Yet being a "chef" is something that is worked for, desired. It is a way of life, a thought process, a different perspective, he says. "A chef is not a job. It is something that either you are or are not," Pampuch emphasizes. "I feel it has to be in you in order to be great at it. The coat and the title have to be earned," Pampuch says.

Although his life revolves around ingredients and cooking, getting people to become adventurous at the table actually has nothing to do with food, he says. "This is human nature. What you are asking someone to do when you are feeding them is to trust you. Trust has to be earned, it has be retained and given back. Kitchens need to respect those eating and vice versa," Pampuch says.

"It is a handshake that happens, a nod with no words. Then, and only then, will someone truly become adventurous in their dining habits. Then they will approach something that is different. You are asking someone to change a habit. Right? That is simple. Itís just not easy," he says.

Pampuch is finding more diners who subscribe to the "eat to live, live to eat" philosophy. "Every time you eat something, it affects you. It gives you energy, nutrition, happiness, sensation, memory, a new experience. The list is so long," he says. With dining, there is an inherent respect for the land, water, animals, other people. "I get asked a lot about food, and I have a hard time giving a simple answer because food obviously ties into everything that I do and am," he says.

Pampuchís favorite dishes share one ideal: honesty. "It isnít about specific dishes, itís more of concept. I love the idea of eating together with people. Looking back, my dad had a yearly family reunion where we rented campers and had T-shirts printed," he recalls. "Maybe thatís why I love doing farm dinners so much; the feel of great open spaces with everyone being together and relaxed," he says. While in Minnesota he organized Tour de Farm, a dinner series that celebrated local farmers and food artisans.

When he presents a meal, Pampuch asks his diners to think. He encourages engaging in a meal, seeing it in a different way. "Every ingredient has a Ďperfectí way for it to be cooked. How do you get the essence of the ingredient to come out and reveal itself and become part of a meal? You need to just cook, you have to cook and cook and cook, over and over. Youíll make a lot of mistakes, and a lot of bad food. Thatís the only way youíll learn," he says.

In his mind, cooking is much more deliberate than being merely a production process. "Someone asking you to feed them is a lot of responsibility; you better know what you are doing," Pampuch says. He gets suggestions all the time, citing the valuable input provided by hotel owner Tim Dixon, along with his own kitchen crew.

"I love learning about other cooksí tastes and styles. I always enjoy working with those that love to cook and want to learn and talk about food all day," Pampuch says. "It all comes together, and then we have to taste and test it, do more tasting and adjusting, and then it gets to a menu. Sometimes, ideas come into my head. I make it once and it is perfect and other times itís like pulling teeth. You never know," he laughs.


This story ran in the January 2013 issue of: