Thanks, Dad

On Father’s Day, four Twin Cities chefs share stories and express gratitude and admiration for the loving influence their fathers have had on their careers, and lives.

Chef Hai Truong (right) was photographed in his restaurant Ngon Bistro with his dad Tang Truong (left) in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday, June 15, 2020.

Dad Tang Truong and son Hai Truong

Hai Truong has spent much of his life in a brown brick building at the corner of University and Avon in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. It’s where his parents founded Caravelle in the mid-1980s — one of the Twin Cities’ first Vietnamese restaurants — and it’s where he created his adventurous Vietnamese/French farm-to-table restaurant, Ngon Bistro, in 2006. “I always helped out at the restaurant,” he said. “My parents worked, constantly. Dad was in the kitchen, cooking, and Mom [Khen Lam] was out front.”

Learning through example: “My first job was busing tables during the summer. My first job away from my dad was making pizzas at Davanni’s when I was 13. I remember nights in college, where I’d work at Dad’s until 9, then I’d drive back to the U and work overnight at the Embers on University. I don’t know why I did that. I got that work ethic from my parents.”

Hai Truong as a child with his father, Tang Truong.

Role model: “I watched how hard my dad worked. It was about providing for us, and that was so obvious because Dad sold the restaurant and retired the year after my little brother was done with school. There were a bunch of Caravelles. He would start one, and then sell it to someone in the family, so he didn’t just provide for his immediate family, he provided income by handing off restaurants to his sisters and brothers. He taught me how to provide for my family, but I just want a different balance in my life. One thing that I wanted to change was that I made a conscious effort to be at home, with my son. My wife and I made that schedule work.”

Father knows best: “I bounce ideas off him. I get information from him. He was doing things from scratch at a time when everyone else was moving in the opposite direction. He helps me. I would say that he’s proud of me, but we’re not a family that says things like that. But when I get recognized by the newspapers and magazines, he gets very proud. The James Beard thing [in March, Truong was a first-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s coveted Best Chef Midwest award] was a big deal for both of us. It was a complete surprise to me. You know, ‘Why is Twitter blowing up with the #ngonbistro tag’? After I explained the magnitude of it — that it wasn’t a Minneapolis-St. Paul thing, but a national thing — he was very proud.”

Dining with Dad: “When I was growing up, when we went out to eat, it was mainly at Chinese places. Dad wouldn’t look at the menu; he would speak to the server in Mandarin or Cantonese, and we’d wait for the food to arrive. Whatever he ordered, we ate. That’s what was for dinner. It wasn’t a question of whether or not you were going to eat it. You ate it. We were always tasting new things, and over the years that slowly became a base for me. He’s had a big hand in developing my tastes, and now I’m giving that same base to my son.”

A tribute to Dad on the menu: “In the beginning of Ngon, Dad and I would go back and forth. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you throw a little Chinese food on the menu?’ And I went the exact opposite way for the longest time, which is why we didn’t have chicken wings on the menu. Now I’ve circled back, and I want to do chicken wings, so I’m doing them my way. I develop my own spice blends, and he helps me out with the flavors. It’s fun, working with my palate and his palate, and learning from him, and showing him what I can do.”

Chef Nettie Colón was photographed in her backyard at the Puertro Rican Chinchorro her dad helped her build a few years ago in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

Dad José Colón and daughter Nettie Colón

During the time she was growing up in New York, Florida and Puerto Rico, Nettie Colón, chef de cuisine at the Lynhall in Minneapolis, has no memory of her father in the kitchen. “When he retired, I found out that my dad was a closeted cook,” she said. “I didn’t have an inkling. When I was growing up, my mother [Aida Colón] did the cooking. Now, my dad is the full-on cook in the household. I think he might be better than me.”

Role model: “I have a decked-out outdoor kitchen. He helped me build it two years ago, and it’s modeled after the one in his yard in Florida. He’s always outside, at his little two-burner stove. In Puerto Rico it’s called a chinchorro, and it’s basically a roof, four poles, maybe a wall if you want one. It’s traditionally very humble, just a shack with cooking equipment. He drew the plans for our chinchorro on a napkin — my wife still has it somewhere — and then we went to Home Depot and bought what we needed and we started putting it together. Whatever equipment I have here, he has the same equipment down there to use. I take him to Restaurant Depot, and he’s like a kid in a candy store. Every time I look in our backyard, I see a little bit of Puerto Rico and my dad, and my mom.”

Nettie Colón as a baby with her father, José Colón.

Backyard refuge: “I have a decked-out outdoor kitchen. He helped me build it two years ago, and it’s modeled after the one in his yard in Florida. He’s always outside, at his little two-burner stove. In Puerto Rico it’s called a chinchorro, and it’s basically a roof, four poles, maybe a wall if you want one. It’s traditionally very humble, just a shack with cooking equipment. He drew the plans for our chinchorro on a napkin — my wife still has it somewhere — and then we went to Home Depot and bought what we needed and we started putting it together. Whatever equipment I have here, he has the same equipment down there to use. I take him to Restaurant Depot, and he’s like a kid in a candy store. Every time I look in our backyard, I see a little bit of Puerto Rico and my dad, and my mom.”

A tribute to Dad on the menu: “Definitely the sauces. He loves spicy, he’s always on the lookout for interesting spices. He loves those red, Creole-type sauces, the Spanish-Portuguese flavors. More than anything, the piri piri sauce that I have is an homage to him.”

Admirable trait: “Anyone who comes through the door, you feed them. That’s his philosophy, and for me that became a currency that was more valuable than money itself. He’s always wanting to go out and see what’s out there, foodwise. He’s very curious; he’s very much a Renaissance man. He’s an interesting character. He’s unassuming, he’s basically a wallflower, but he’s also charismatic. There’s a certain magnetism about him. He has an energy, and he’s always willing to lend a hand. He always made sure that he provided for us. They say that necessity breeds invention, right?”

Father knows best: “It’s not so much what he said to me, but it’s who he is. He just really sees the beauty in everybody. He has such integrity, he has this unwavering commitment to do good in the world. He came from extremely modest means, and for me that lesson is that it’s not where you came from, it’s the values you hold and the way that you treat others. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ he says, ‘Why not?’ He views the world as a glass half-full. That’s how you summarize my dad. He says, ‘Why can’t we do something?’ I just hope that I have a little bit of him in me, even if it’s just a little piece.”

Chef Alex Roberts was photographed in his restaurant Alma in Minneapolis, Minn., on Monday, June 15, 2020. Roberts' father, who became a farmer in his later life, helped supply food for his son's restaurants.

Dad Don Roberts and son Alex Roberts

In 1999, Don Roberts — working with his wife, Joni Cash-Roberts — capped careers in libraries and landscaping by starting an organic vegetable farm in western Wisconsin. “My father came to farming late in life. He was 68 years old, and he did it for 15 years,” said Alex Roberts. “There’s so much physical work to maintaining a farm. He’s really one of the most active and vigorous people I have ever known.”

Timing is everything: Also in 1999, Alex Roberts capped a six-year tour of duty cooking in some of New York City’s top restaurants and returned to his hometown to open Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis. “It was miraculous that Dad’s ambition and his wandering path to purchasing a farm could be part of the foundation of our restaurant,” he said. “The farm was known for its phenomenal greens, and his garlic crop was sensational, the best we’ve ever seen. We learned so much about each other, as father and son, during those 15 years. We learned to really respect things we didn’t know about one another’s work. My dad had to learn about the food industry, and cooking, and I was learning about the rhythms and the day-to-day processes of running a farm. Their skills grew, dramatically, and so did ours. It had its tough moments, too. It wasn’t always easy, but that’s the mark of a good relationship. You make your way through it.”

Alex Roberts with his father, Don Roberts.

Admirable trait: “His impulse is always to share. He always had an enormous garden here in the city, and he was a Master Gardener for more than 20 years. One of my earliest memories is of him sending me over to the neighbor’s to ring the bell and hand them some vegetables, and then march back home.”

Dad in the kitchen: “Early on, Dad wasn’t a particularly good cook. Mom [Jan Roberts] was and, after they split, I learned how to cook at a very young age because I would help my dad. We did it together, and that became a routine. We grew close preparing food, and we both became really good at it. Dad doesn’t cook much anymore, he’s 89. But over the years he developed some real winners in the kitchen.”

Laying the groundwork: “By the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I was definitely making full meals. It wasn’t demanded of me, I enjoyed it. When I started working in restaurants, I was washing dishes to make money. One day when the cook didn’t show up, they were looking for someone to help, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that, no problem.’ The next day they said, ‘You can be a cook now.’ I went toward the vocation because it was a skill that I had. We all like doing what we’re good at. I’m not good at basketball, so I don’t enjoy it. I still love cooking. When I cook, it’s one of the very most enjoyable things that I do.”

Father knows best: “In these uncertain times, I don’t know if we’ll survive the economic impacts of COVID-19. I might have to reinvent myself, and that’s hard when you’ve done one thing your whole life. I’m going to have to dispense with that worry and look to my father, because he’s reinvented himself multiple times and made a really good go of it, doing radically different things. I’m so grateful that I have that example. I know that he’s inspired other people with his ability to reinvent himself, and to survive and thrive. If he can do it, we can do it.”

Baker Solveig Tofte, right, and her dad Orton Tofte photographed in her restaurant Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis, Minn., on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Orton did much of the wood work in the restaurant and is one of her most loyal customers.

Dad Orton Tofte and daughter Solveig Tofte

Nine years ago, when Solveig Tofte and her husband, Martin Ouimet, channeled their farmers market stand into Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis, Orton Tofte temporarily transformed a nearby vacant storefront into a woodworking studio and got busy, as is his habit. Repurposing bleacher seats from a high school stadium — which had been recycled from the University of Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium — he built Sun Street’s tables, shelves and signage, even the dining room’s handsome ceiling. “Anything you see here that’s made from wood, that’s Dad,” said Solveig Tofte. “He’s always been a woodworker. He’s a cabinetmaker and furniture-maker extraordinaire. It’s his avocation, it’s what he loves.”

Dad in the kitchen: “When we moved to Minneapolis, I was in third grade, and he cooked dinner every Sunday. He would make the most elaborate meals. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes, about 20 minutes before dinner, he’d say, ‘Someone order a pizza.’ He baked Julia Child’s baguettes. He baked a lot out of ‘The Tassajara Bread Book,’ and that became my bread bible in college. He had this grainy bun recipe, it was Mrs. Elizabeth Ovenstad’s Bread, from James Beard’s ‘Beard on Bread,’ and he would make huge batches of them and that’s what I would eat for lunch. That bun got me through high school.”

Parental support: “We all have our areas of expertise. You can be beset with savage insecurities when a parent is good at something and you decide you want to try it. He knew that I loved baking and he knew that I had to figure it out on my own. He and Mom [Karen Tofte] were both so great to step back and let me figure it out for myself, because the joy of discovery is the main thing. Once I had my confidence established, then it was something that we could do together.”

A tribute to Dad on the menu: “Not anymore. Isn’t that terrible? Every year since late junior high, we go up to Lake Burntside, and there was this woman, she made these orange rolls, and they were my dad’s favorite thing in the world. When we first opened, I did Orton’s Orange Rolls, but I was never super-happy with the way they turned out, and I dropped them. Actually, I think the pasties are the true tribute to Dad. We sell a ton of them. He didn’t grow up on the Iron Range. His pasty memory comes from when he was at the University of Minnesota and a place in Dinkytown sold them. What’s super-fascinating is that some people will say, ‘Oh, these are just like the ones from the Range,’ but some people will say, ‘Oh, these are just like the ones I used to get in Dinkytown.’ ”

Father knows best: “When he was working in the printing business, he told me that the only job description is, ‘Make yourself useful.’ He said, ‘You’re a human. You can help.’ That’s my guiding light in everything that I do. If there’s something broken, you can fix it. If it’s ugly, you can make it beautiful. If there’s a smarter solution, you can figure it out. He’s curious and smart, and he’s reinvented himself, constantly, and that’s another good lesson that I’ve learned from him. He’s done a million things, and he’ll continue to do a million things, because that’s what makes life fascinating.”