J.D. Fratzke tucks a brown paper bag under a small teepee of sticks. It’s been raining here, last night and early this morning. He searches for drier kindling, finding only a little. The chef will make do.
We’re perched at a campsite above the St. Croix River, surrounded by scraggly trees and a cool wind that barely tickles the newborn fire. The sky is stagnant, flirting with rain, unwilling to commit. The hovering gloom echoes in the water, lolling and listless, where it widens into a grey, riverine lake.
We’re a couple chefs and a couple writers, friends and colleagues, a small child, and an old dog. There’s a cast iron Dutch oven and few other pots, a small pile of firewood and a large pile of beer.
The fire just curls around the kindling. It takes time. Strands of smoke add more grey to the occasion, along with our cumulus breathing in the cool and the damp of late March. But more colors soon emerge—orange licks of flame, a multi-colored mirepoix, bags of green frisee, broccoli, and spinach.
For all its grey, the world is turning. The air smells of moss and fen. Loosened earth. Winter still hangs in the shadows but we’ve pounced on the first glimmer of spring to be outside, to build a fire, and to be together and eat. Soon that fire is raging and we begin to warm.
J.D. is prepping vegetables and tosses an onion skin onto the fire. It singes until the papery husk sprites into the air and floats away. J.D. is Winona-born, and grew up in the woods. He and his father bonded out on their land, cutting firewood in the summer and hunting deer in the fall.
“There’s nothing I love more than cooking this way, and being in environments like this,” he says, rubbing some pretty short ribs with salt and paprika. “It makes me want to cook like this more often. I’ve spent 25 years of my life in basement kitchens under florescent lighting, and doing this reminds me of why I love doing what I do so much. It gets to the root of everything.”
Out here, cooking times will not be exact, and we’ll eat with plates balanced on our knees, and the world is our napkin, and the sommelier is a box of wine strapped to a tree by a bungee cord, and the root of everything is that we are here, together, and we are eating.
J.D. hollows out the fire to make room for the vessels. “The fire needs to breathe,” he says. “Just like you do.” Two bald eagles screech along the river, diving into the woods that buffet us from the still St. Croix. The dog stands guard for just a moment, before eyeing the short ribs temporarily unguarded on the lid of the Dutch oven.
J.D. adds polenta to a cauldron of boiling water. He whisks long and hard, crouching near the fire, cranking the cornmeal into a steaming golden whirlpool. He relents and gives the cauldron back to the fire, where the flames climb its burnished walls.
It’s unpredictable, this fire, this way of cooking. On one spot, the polenta is motionless. Moved across a log, it roils and sputters, menacing from its muzzle. “Italian napalm,” J.D. calls it. He adjusts the pot away from the worst of the flames, and positions a lid to shield us. We drink more wine, some Pilsner, a few sips of barrel-aged Darkness. We’re getting warmer.
When J.D. is in the woods by himself, he’s not eating like this. He’ll paddle through the Boundary Waters fueled by braunschweiger and crackers, and instant ramen with his own seasonings. “I’ll bring up some curry mix or a bottle of Sriracha or something. I load that up. I love me a bowl of noodles in the morning.”
It’s the ultimate irony of a solo trip into the woods: you go there alone to clear your mind, to remove the distractions, to find your center. But soon enough you realize where your center is—your family, your loved ones, the ones you wish might be there to savor a meal with you around a fire.
The sound of hammering breaks the stillness. It’s a bottle of wine, holstered in the heel of a heavy shoe, thwacked against a tree. After several thwhacks, the cork becomes halfway dislodged, and is then fully removed with a yank of the teeth. Red wine joins the charred short ribs in a hotel pan on the fire.
J.D. tosses the gnarled white roots from a head of frisee on the fire. They brown and caramelize before sinking beneath the logs. A pot of bacon, onion, and butter hits the fire. It wheezes and whistles, garlic confit is added, then frisee and broccoli.
The fire is flagging, so the chefs get back to basics. Crouching over the pit, Jon Wipfli has a knife holstered in his back pocket and J.D. has a fish spatula in his. Jon fans the fire with a sheet pan, while J.D. does the same with a paper plate, sending a stream of ash high above the fire. It sprinkles back down, seasoning the greens and the polenta. The flames return. The cooking continues.
J.D. is in a strange position in his career. He’s stepping back from the line, leaving his home behind the range, to take a managerial role in multiple restaurants. “It’s a long game and a bigger picture,” he says, tending to the broccoli, checking the char on the florets. “It’s a huge challenge and I’m loving it. The best part is that I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t given me shots in the past, and now I can do that for other people. The next 10 years of my life, I want to give really good jobs to really good people, and hopefully those jobs involve giving people good food. That’s all. That’s it.”
And that is all. That is it. The longer we sit out at the fire, the more we realize that truism. It’s good people and simple food. Meat and flame. It isn’t complicated. What do we get out of complication? What do we really need to consume?
We spot misting clouds on the opposite banks of the river, and the beer is perfectly chilled to the temperature outside, and we flip the cooking grate over and now it’s a buffet, holding three pots of salvation just inches from the fire. We survey the river, each with a plate of short ribs, polenta, and greens.
And the grey light melts around us, into a ring of fire, into a bowl of steamy polenta, which seems haughty to call it that out here—should we call it grits? Cornmeal mush? Except it’s not mush, it’s cheesy and delicious, and it reminds me of the time in the Boundary Waters when I was young, amid three days of constant mud and the rain, hovering over the Coleman two-burner stove and a batch of instant mashed potatoes, wolfing them down so quickly they burned my throat.
“If cooks in my kitchen don’t understand that you’re not doing anything new, things that people have been doing for thousands of years, we usually don’t get along very well,” J.D. reflects. “To give yourself up to history, and be a part of it by cooking, and just being a vessel for the ingredient, that’s when you get the most out of the job. At the end of the day, it’s about other people’s happiness.”
He squeezes a half lemon into the greens, and throws the rind on the fire. It sizzles and smolders and smells divine. And we eat, and are now warm, and we’re suddenly quiet enough to hear the distant hum of traffic on the I-94 bridge. And just when it seems like the real world is about to creep back in on us, we pass around more beer, and the short ribs fall apart at the faintest fork, and just for a moment we don’t have anywhere to be, but here, together, being fed, eating a part of history.
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Photos by Wing Ta