The average dinner plate is a functional kitchen staple — it holds whatever you put on it, catches your crumbs and is most certainly, an afterthought to the meal that’s being served.
Quaid Fetkenheuer, the Executive Chef at Minnesota Discovery Center’s (MDC) Rustic Pig Restaurant views the the dinner plate is a blank canvas, waiting to be painted with a picture-perfect entrée. “Everything has to be perfect,” he said about the presentation of the food.
It’s been one year since Fetkenheuer assumed his post at MDC and has forever changed the way Rangers view their food. Fetkenheuer’s unique approach to crafting an ever-changing menu for the Rustic Pig has been the perfect blend of exclusivity and success for MDC.
The Rustic Pig, located within the museum at Minnesota Discovery Center is currently open from 4-9 p.m. on Saturdays only. The menu is limited to a few standards including appetizers (small plates), and a selection of sandwiches, wraps and desserts. The entrees, however, change weekly and folks around here can’t get enough.
Fetkenheuer changes the menu at the Rustic Pig every two months, explaining that maintaining a seasonal menu is something he’s always wanted to do. “It keeps me on my toes,” he said, laughing. “I keep a notepad with all these random ingredients and when I make my menu, I always include a protein, a veggie, a starch and some sauce, however we like to put it together.”
By using in-season ingredients, Fetkenheuer maintains that he’s able to maximize on the growing season and deliver food that has the fullest flavor. He hopes to start growing some of his own ingredients at MDC this summer.
Sitting in the center of his restaurant, he points over his shoulder to a window just outside the restaurant’s entrance and says, “I want to start growing some herbs and peppers in the summer over there. I’ll start with some easy stuff to grow, and then maybe try some nasturtium too — they’re edible flowers.” With that, he swings his arm around and points at an interior wall adding, “and bring some grow lights in here and start growing things indoors too where people can see.”
“I like to cook out in the open,” Fetkenheuer said. “I’ll do a chef’s table and set up in here and cook in front of everyone and give them the recipe cards too.”
Last summer, under Fetkenheuer’s direction MDC rolled out a summer food and music series called “Bands, Brews and Barbeques,” it was a way to test the waters so to speak as the event operated similar to the Rustic Pig — open only once a week with a different entrée weekly. Like the restaurant, the summer band menu also had some standards. “I had a menu of sides,” Fetkenheuer recalled, “They were my safety net, things like hot dogs, brats and coleslaw that I figured kids would enjoy. We started selling out of the entrées when I had eight-year-olds coming up and ordering my Cornish Hens, it blew me away,” Fetkenheuer said. At the close of summer, MDC rolled out a couple of flavor events — foods paired with different beers one night and wines on another night — and they were well received.
All of these baby steps led to the opening of the Rustic Pig in November. “We’ve had a really good response to it so far,” said Donna Johnson, executive director at MDC. “It’s been exciting to hear the public’s feedback and to know that we’re providing a different food experience — a higher level of creative food and ambience. We’re also having people walking through our museum that have admitted they haven’t been here since they were here as children on an elementary school field trip, so it’s been great to have these folks in to see what’s new,” she continued.
And word of the food is spreading fast. “We’ve had to turn people away because we’ve been full,” said Johnson, adding that the Rustic Pig has been called a destination restaurant. “We definitely encourage people to make reservations, but they are not necessary.”
Johnson continued, “We’ve really just let Quaid use his talents and be creative. I’ll read through the menus and wonder how these foods go together and then he serves it and I’ll think I’ve never seen food like this, it’s fantastic.”
Mara Brownlee, MDC’s Sales and Event Specialist has taken note of the customer’s appreciation for the artful presentation of the food as well. “As soon as the dinners are served, the phones are coming out and people are taking pictures of their plates. And the reaction is like ‘Ohmygosh, this is on the Range?’”
“You don’t want to eat it it’s so beautiful,” Johnson added.
Fetkenheuer said, “That’s the goal! Every ingredient has a pretty side, we just try to show it off.”
Laughing, Johnson added, “Half my phone is full of food photos, it’s great marketing for us, when our visitors are taking photos and sharing with their friends on social media.”
And the food is as good as it looks, so good, in fact that the Rustic Pig will be open for extended hours beginning this summer. “We’ll be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner starting on Saturday, June 15,” Brownlee said. “And Bands, Brews and Barbecues will be back too. Watch our website and follow us on Facebook for more information.”