Two weeks before his busiest weekend of the year, Matt Brown, chef and owner of Estelle’s Eatery & Bar in Harmony, Minn., found out he had to take some time off from the business. His 1-year-old daughter Gabby had just been diagnosed with leukemia — a rare subtype at that — that would have him and his family living out of a hospital for five to seven months.
As Gabby underwent her first round of chemotherapy in mid-October, throngs of families descended on Harmony over MEA weekend. Since it opened in 2015, Estelle’s is typically mobbed that time of the year due to peak leaf-peeping season and time off from school.
“With all that’s happening, I could not be there,” said Brown, who with his wife, Heidi Brown, owns the restaurant they named after their older daughter. “I had to be with my little girl.”
Brown knew he needed someone to help his kitchen crew keep up over the busy weekend. So he called his little brother, who happens to be Mike Brown, chef and co-owner of Travail Kitchen & Amusements, the acclaimed Robbinsdale restaurant that has garnered national attention for its interactive tasting menus.
The Brown brothers worked together in Travail’s early years, along with their bar manager brother, Dave Brown, with Matt training in Travail’s kitchen and then comanaging the kitchen at neighboring Pig Ate My Pizza.
“He’s the one that taught me to how to cook. He’s my mentor,” Matt said about Mike. “But my brother is also my brother. He was the only guy I could ask.”
Mike didn’t have to think twice when it came to helping his brother or niece. “This is pretty much the way I can help,” he said.
That didn’t mean it was going to be easy. The Travail team is in the midst of expanding its barbecue operation into another Robbinsdale building. So in between grouting tile, Mike created a dish he could offer at Estelle’s as a weekend special. He combed old Travail menus from its earliest days as a pub, and selected a pastrami sandwich he’d made seven years ago. Then he came home, took off his overalls, packed up and drove three hours to Harmony so he could start cooking first thing the next morning.
Travail chef Nate Stefanski joined him.
“It was probably the busiest I’ve ever been as a cook in quite some time,” Mike said.
The pastrami sandwiches — 111 of them, in fact — sold out rapidly. Meanwhile, Mike had to quickly learn the Estelle’s menu, putting together the popular southwestern rice bowl among other dishes like salmon, scallops, steak and burgers.
It was exhausting, but he was proud to cook his way through his brother’s creations.
Estelle’s is “a diamond in the rough,” Mike said. “It’s one of those places that looks like a restaurant you’d walk into in south Minneapolis. It reminds me of a neighborhood eatery.”
Matt says he couldn’t have made Estelle’s into what it is without the help of his brother in the first place, since he first honed his skills at Travail.
“Everything that I do in my restaurant, they’re all plays out of that Travail playbook,” Matt said.
He opened Estelle’s on Harmony’s quaint main street three years ago, after he and Heidi relocated to her hometown. (121 Main Ave. N., Harmony, Minn., 507-886-1234, estelleseatery.com)
The eatery has become a draw for tourists to the Driftless region of Minnesota. So much of draw, in fact, that Mike couldn’t get a hotel room for the weekend he came down to cook. A snowbird stranger offered him her home right next to the restaurant.
“It’s kind of a small town and they all look out for each other,” Mike said. “They’re all rooting for Gabby.”
The family’s Harmony neighbors have hosted a run/walk fundraiser and a prayer vigil for Gabby, and a GoFundMe toward the family’s medical expenses has already raised $25,000.
With her first round of chemotherapy behind her, Gabby remains in the hospital while she rebuilds her immune system before undergoing the process twice more.
“The outpouring of love is overwhelming. It’s a little more intimate of a relationship anyway, because we feed them,” Matt said of his customers. “They come into our place and we take care of them.”
The support means even more to them now that Heidi is pregnant with the couple’s third child. She’s due in March.
Matt plans to be back in the kitchen soon, but Mike hasn’t ruled out another stint at Estelle’s.
Travail isn’t widely known in Harmony, Matt said. But there were some customers at Estelle’s who realized just who was cooking for them — once they figured out the burly, brown-haired and bearded man in the apron wasn’t Matt (they often get mistaken for twins).
“A lot of people said, ‘Hey it’s an honor to meet you,’ ” Mike said. “I’d say, ‘Hey, come on, I’m a cook, man.’
“They were grateful I was there because I love him,” Mike said of Matt, “and they knew that he needed some help.”