Adam Vickerman smiles down from the elevated kitchen inside Tosca, the Italian restaurant in Linden Hills. Behind him, the light from a window casts a shadow; he moves out from behind to address a diner before stepping back to the stove.
That shadow could serve as a metaphor for the history of both Vickerman and the restaurant. Who expects a small neighborhood eatery to turn the lights back on after years of darkness (it had closed in 2016)? It's a move as unexpected as the chef who resuscitated it, a man who had vowed to leave restaurant life behind.
To understand how both found their way to this moment, look further back into the annals of Twin Cities fine dining. Picture it: Italy, 2008. Vickerman, just a handful of years removed from high school, is traveling the countryside sampling world-class pasta and working in restaurants, steeping in the rich history and culture of the area alongside the prospective head chef for Trattoria Tosca. The two were on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to learn the secrets of great Italian cooking and bring all that knowledge home to Linden Hills and open the eatery for restaurateur Harvey McLain.
McLain was owner of Turtle Bread, a popular casual eatery known for its fresh-baked bread and comforting soups. He also owned the celebrated Levain, which eventually evolved into the more casual Cafe Levain. Vickerman worked at both.
After the Italian sojourn, the chef who was to open the restaurant left the project. Trattoria Tosca opened in 2009 with Vickerman behind the stove.
The raves poured in, with one local critic writing, "When Vickerman is behind the stove at Tosca, the restaurant is truly excellent." The spotlight of success shone on the young chef, his name highlighted at every subsequent job. However, the day-to-day realities of working in kitchens, and the nocturnal, ceaseless demands of restaurant life, chipped away at his physical and mental well-being.
After more than a decade in the industry, Vickerman left. He moved to a job with consistent hours, contributed to a 401(k) plan and reveled in a life that included health insurance. But here's the thing about hospitality life: It has a way of getting under the skin. We talked to Vickerman about the creative spark that still lingered — and that eventually brought him back to Tosca.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
A: I remember middle-school home ec, making fresh pasta among other things. That was probably my first big light-bulb moment of wanting to be a chef. I graduated high school in 2003, went to culinary school in 2004. My first internship was with Levain. I got hired there at 19. I was there for a year and a half before I left.
In between I had jumped around five or six places and had different experiences at different restaurants [Sea Change, Minikahda Club and Barbette] before coming back [to work with McLain].
Q: You've been frank about your mental health challenges in the era of idolizing a certain kind of chef — working from morning until late night and then partying all night.
A: It was very much that "Kitchen Confidential" era. That book had come out a couple of years beforehand and that lifestyle — I knew going into the industry that was part of it. I picked Levain because you look to the guys with the great résumés, knowing that there'd be the long hours and the relationships that would come with it. It made me stronger in the kitchen, but I knew that my leadership would be away from that style — that mentality. It's still apparent in some places these days.
The struggle for physical and mental health has been a part of this journey the entire time. It's important to reiterate the struggles and that this wasn't all success.
Q: Why is this a chapter you feel the need to revisit?
A: That chapter closed a few times. I think I left and came back three times. The first time I was the chef at Cafe Levain. I went to Tosca to open because ... the restaurant needed to open and I could step into the role. Coming back now, it felt like it was time to be 100% committed to that and see where that goes.
Q: This is after being away from the restaurant industry completely for years. What motivated that change?
A: Leaving was a big mental health decision. I left to run the Seward Co-op Friendship Store deli. It was about figuring out being sane and being healthy. You get to really dark places in kitchens. There were definitely suicidal thoughts, depression and then getting medication. In hindsight, five nights of dinner a week at Tosca when we opened — that's the dream for chefs, but what was wrong? It takes a long time of figuring what you want to do and how you do it.
Q: What brought you back?
A: There was still something missing. I missed the creativity and drive of restaurants. After working at a few other places, I came back to Turtle Bread to help with business things and was doing some Levain [pop-ups] — and then the pandemic hit.
Q: Suddenly working in a restaurant wasn't even an option.
A: The pandemic was a good time to reflect. The grass isn't always greener with bigger, better, more money and no line cooking. Seward was an incredible place to work at — especially for someone wanting a 401(k) and insurance, but the creative tank was completely empty. Turns out restaurants were always my calling. And I almost walked away.
Q: Why Tosca?
A: Tosca was something that felt a little unfinished. It's always nice to work with Harvey and the enthusiasm when I brought the idea of reopening to him. He's in his 70s and still working seven days a week. I think he loves the process of opening a restaurant and then sitting in the dining room. Linden Hills was his longtime neighborhood.
Q: How is that balance between the restaurant and your real life going?
A: Inside the head: It's been good. The situation is good. Mentally and physically I'm feeling great. I'm really taking my health seriously.
The pandemic was tough for a lot of people, but it gave me time to look back and think, if restaurants are my future, what will it look like? I'm taking what did work then and applying that to what I know now. I've learned so much to identify when mental health is not going well — and what causes those flares and taking those necessary steps.
A first look
Tosca is built for casual neighborhood nights out, with a well edited menu of Italian comforts highlighting locally farmed ingredients alongside a keenly appointed wine list of Italian varieties.
Location: 3415 W. 44th St., Mpls. 612-924-1900, toscampls.com
Hours: Open 5-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
The food: Being influenced by the food of northern Italy means a menu highlighting yolk-rich egg pastas are topped or stuffed with seasonal produce ($18-$24). There are also classic salads like Caesar or panzanella ($12-$14). Chef Adam Vickerman has built a reputation for having a way with chicken. At Tosca it's a riff on [Trattoria] Sostanza's famous butter chicken. Chicken is dredged and fried in a mix of butter and oil and served with a rhubarb jam and marinated vegetables over Riverbend Farm's toasty corn polenta ($25). Other entrees include swordfish and braised short ribs. On the side are a selection of vegetable dishes like crispy potatoes, caramelized carrots and white beans braised with rosemary ($9).
The vibe: A chill neighborhood eatery where dressing up and arriving in jeans are equally welcome. There are a few seats inside and more will soon be added to a small bar at the front of the restaurant. A handful of tables line the front sidewalk for neighborhood views and basking beneath the trees at sunset.
Parking: There's a lot across the street.