August is a happy month in Minnesota, especially if “local and seasonal” is your mantra. “We have a short but very vigorous growing season, and August is when it peaks,” says Paul Lynch, chef at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar at the Radisson Blu, Mall of America in Minneapolis. Right now, he’s pulling in greens, zucchini, berries, green beans, yellow summer squash, corn and tomatoes. But Lynch also follows his mantra when it comes to menuing seafood. “We sit next to the largest inland seas—the Great Lakes—plus Minnesota has over 10,000 smaller lakes and many rivers. I make an effort to highlight the fresh water species of fish from these sources.”
Walleye is the best known of these species, and thanks to the rebuilding of the state’s Red Lake fishery into a model of sustainability, it is once again abundant. Over 450,000 pounds are harvested yearly. “We were the first to serve Minnesota walleye exclusively when the fishery re-opened nine years ago,” he notes.
Also on FireLake’s menu are local trout, blue gills and whitefish; striped bass is sustainably farmed next door in Iowa. Since consumers are confused by the name “whitefish,” Lynch calls it by its scientific name on the menu—clupea. He works with his purveyor, The Fish Guys, to custom cut the clupea into thick fillets or loins for grilling. “It eats like halibut or sea bass,” he claims.
When Lynch first opened FireLake, it took him a lot of work and time to realize his goal: to represent the best of Minnesota cuisine. “There were many criss-cross distribution systems to get local farmers’ products to chefs,” he recalls. He was instrumental in launching the Heartland Food Network to expedite the process, with funds from the state. Although it was defunded three years ago, farm-to-table is still going strong. In fact, Minnesota is ranked number two in the country in sourcing local.
“Minnesota has had a local mindset for many years, way before it was trendy,” Lynch reports. So much so, that broadliners like US Foods and Sysco have gotten on board to support and supply the foodservice community. As soon as farmers have a seasonal fruit or vegetable available, there’s a system in place to notify these distributors and get it into the hands of the chefs who want it. Bix Produce, a smaller player, keeps a running list of what’s on hand.
While “Lake” defines half of Lynch’s concept, “Fire” is the other component. “I use burning wood to give food the flavor of the land,” he explains. At any time, the restaurant’s pit smoker may be loaded with cherrywood, applewood, pecan, oak, hickory or a blend. “I try to match the wood to the meat I’m cooking, much as you would pair wine,” says the chef. “Apple and pecan go well with pork loin, cherrywood with lamb, oak and hickory with beef and buffalo.”