A sense of place

Lucia Watson attracts national recognition for her culinary talents

Last month, Lucia Watson, owner and head chef Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, was nominated for the third time for a James Beard award.

This national award recognizes the best of the best in the food world – and it’s not the only national attention Watson has received. Fine Cooking magazine has featured her on its cover. Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine’s executive editor and a foodie’s foodie, is a fan.

But, if you ask Watson about the honor – while she certainly won’t pooh-pooh it – she will ask in response, “But did you hear about the IATP award? Now that, I think, was really the highlight of my career.”

On April 22 the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis-based organization dedicated to promoting sustainable agriculture, honored Watson at its 20th anniversary gala. More than 850 people from all over the world attended.

Now the IATP knows food. But its focus, generally, is not on the kitchen and table-service end, where Watson excels. Instead, it works on the farm end of things, building connections between local producers and local consumers.

And that, as it turns out, is a passion Lucia Watson shares.

Seasonal fare

When Watson started out in the restaurant business in the 1970s, she was committed to eating and cooking seasonally. And, when you think about it, buying foods from local producers as they come to market is a logical extension of that.

“I started broadening my sensibilities about local food,” she adds. “Most people in the Midwest, their sense of local food is going to the farmers’ market in the summer – it’s produce. But if you broaden that to include all your food – eating local dairy products or buying half a slaughtered cow or 20 chickens – you’d be eating even more local even if you didn’t go to the farmers’ market.”

Now, Watson tries to buy locally as much of the food for her restaurant as she can. Although it would be nearly impossible to stock a full restaurant kitchen with Minnesota foods, Watson has found some solutions to that, as well.

“Obviously, I can’t get local olive oil,” she said. “So I buy olive oil from a wonderful woman from Sicily who lives here. She and her brother have an olive grove in Sicily, and she imports it. We can’t grow olives in Minnesota, but Josefina can tell me what’s going on in the olive grove that her brother’s managing.”

When she buys from local growers, Watson can have even more control over the quality of her food.

She buys a lot of her produce from Greg Reynolds at Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minn. When it comes time for him to plan the next year’s crops, the two might even sit down together with the seed catalogues and talk about what worked and what didn’t. But the farmer, it turns out, does have the final say.

“We have a joke: He will not grow cardoons [a plant similar to an artichoke] for me!” she said. “This year before he even asked, he said, ‘I’m not growing cardoons!’”

Not all of Watson’s growers are seasoned farmers.

Nine or 10 years ago, a bunch of kids showed up at the back door of Lucia’s with a box of greens. Watson bought them. And she has continued to buy greens and garden vegetables from those kids and their eventual successors every week in the summers since then.

The kids were from Youth Farm, an urban agriculture program with gardens in the Lyndale and Powderhorn neighborhoods and on the West Side of St. Paul.

“Her love of local food and cute children made her an instant supporter,” said Gunnar Liden, Youth Farm’s executive director.

That weekly box of greens has turned into an even deeper relationship. Watson hosts fundraisers for the organization, allows participants to shadow chefs in her kitchen and has even hired a few after they graduated from Youth Farm. And, oh yeah, she’s now the president of their board.

“She’s just amazing,” Liden said. “I don’t think Youth Farm as an organization would be where we’re at [without her]. It’s a tough time to be a nonprofit, and she’s been instrumental in helping us keep momentum and energy. She does it because she loves the kids and loves the purpose, not for any personal vanity. That’s really inspiring.”

A culinary leader

Dale Wiehoff, IATP’s vice president for communications, calls Watson “the model of what can be done directly with the food system and providing really beautiful wholesome and delicious food that benefits local producers.”

That model, Wiehoff and Watson agree, is spreading beyond specialty stores and restaurants in wealthier parts of the city.

“You can’t go into a Cub food store or a Rainbow without seeing an organic section,” he said, “and it won’t be long before they start identifying locally produced foods. It’s not a question of what the retailers want, it’s what the consumers are demanding. Lucia recognized this market long before other people did. She’s a leader.”

And, maybe just as importantly, it’s proven to be a good business model.

After 20 years in business, Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar has become a landmark on the corner of Hennepin and 31st in Uptown. Last year, Watson expanded into the space next door, opening Lucia’s Bakery and Café, which serves entrees and treats to go, with the same sensibility as her sit-down restaurant.

But is this the start of more big plans to come?

Watson is adamant, “No. Uh-uh. This is it. Even that was a huge decision. I had the opportunity with that space many times and declined it. But this time it just felt right.”

Just the same way that being part of Minnesota’s food community feels right. Watson said she asked one of the young growers from Youth Farm to be the one to hand her the award at the IATP’s gala.

“That was the highlight of my career,” she said. “Because it was my community and my peers. It was much closer to my heart [than the James Beard nomination]. [The national judges] don’t know my work. But these are people who eat here every week and walk up to my back door selling product every day. So it’s very close to me.”

Tricia Cornell can be reached at can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4386.