-written and photographed by Susan Powers
Tucked into a little row of shops on the corner of 54th and Penn, Chef Don Saunders is creating outstanding food inspired by and celebrating the seasons. A small space that is producing big flavors, his food is both innovative and delicious.
Cool, relaxed, hip, and chic with a hint of whimsy, the interior of In Season is the perfect backdrop for Chef Don Saunders’ exquisitely prepared, seasonal food. After providing Twin Cities’ diners with stunning cuisine at Au Rebours and Fugaise, Chef Saunders wanted a small, neighborhood place. He found the perfect spot in southwest Minneapolis.
Cleanly designed with surprising notes of little luxuries, In Season was a true labor of love. Doing most of the work himself (with interior design consultation from a friend), Chef Saunders’ vision has paid off. Oversized lamp shades above create a fun ambiance that is complimented by the art on the walls. The smooth leather chairs balanced by the opulent banquettes create the perfect background for Saunders’ food.
The patio in front is surrounded by plantings of herbs and sunflowers, providing not only food but a lush green wall for privacy.
Great care was taken with the layout of the seating. Plenty of room is available for guests to enjoy their dining experience whether sitting at the bar or at a table.
Chef Saunders’ story, unlike many top chefs, does not read like a romance novel or a spy thriller. He remembers in high school, making “real” food at a time when processed, boxed meals were quickly becoming the norm. He enjoyed working with real ingredients, making real meals.
When he went to college, it was the lure of the energy of restaurants that brought him to the hospitality program at Stout University in Wisconsin. He had been a server at a few of the top restaurants in Minneapolis and was interested in learning how to run the front of the house. He quickly grew bored and realized that what he really wanted was to learn to cook. His sister was living in London at the time and it made complete sense to him to get in some travel and attend Le Cordon Blue in London.
While studying in London, Chef Saunders did a stint at Chez Bruce, a Michelin-rated restaurant, under the eye of Chef Bruce Pooley. It was there that he developed an understanding of what truly good food was all about. When Chef Saunders returned to the Twin Cities, he landed in Vincent Francoual’s kitchen at Vincent a Restaurant. “Vincent taught me more about food than I learned in culinary school,” states Saunders.
There was time spent working in the kitchens of La Belle Vie cooking with Jack Riebel, then off to Au Rebour where his food started entering the spotlight. It was at Fugaise, when he came out on his own, that his classic French cuisine became a favorite for many Twin Citians and recognized as some of the best food in town. But as many good things come to an end, so did Fugaise.
When the time came to re-emerge, Chef Saunders’ greatest desire was to find a small neighborhood place where he could serve up his French based, regional cuisine. As with all great beginnings, the stars lined up and he found the perfect spot on the corner of 54th and Penn.
What happens in the kitchen at In Season is nothing short of miraculous for two reasons. Chef Saunders has a way with food that amazes the palate (honestly, I wanted to bathe in one of the dishes).
The flavor combinations, perfectly balanced, are based on an incredibly strong knowledge of cuisine whether it be French, Spanish or any other country that strikes his fancy yet he is not tied to any one cuisine.
While the food is amazing, how it is being made is even more so. On a regular night, Saunders is in the kitchen with only one other chef. That’s it. No dishwasher, no staff of five to prepare and plate. Dishes are done on the fly by whomever is closest. On the busier nights Saunders may be complimented by two.
As the pace of the restaurant picks up, the intensity in the kitchen rises. It has to. There is a lot of food being cooked and plated. The speech between the two reduces to a few words and they are now communicating by some kind of chef ESP. It is powerful and impressive to observe.
For Saunders, it is more about the ingredients than the type of cuisine. He also sources food locally when available but is not tied to only local. While he loves to know where his food comes from and who is producing it, he has an open mind as to what will appear on his menu.
On the front of the menu, you will see a list of fresh, seasonal ingredients that have inspired his menu. Changing with the season, you are assured of the freshest ingredients combined with Saunders’ brilliant vision. It makes for a very satisfying dining experience that you will quickly return to enjoy.
For Your Kitchen
Chef Saunders has graciously given us his recipe for Thai Style Raw Hamachi w/ Cucumber and Watercress. Join us in Stephanie’s kitchen where I shoot while Stephanie walks you through Don’s delicious recipe. This dish is literally bursting forth with fresh flavor, perfect for your end of summer menus. For the recipe click here: Thai Style Raw Hamachi w/ Cucumber and Watercress.
In Season 5416 Penn Ave South Minneapolis, MN 55419 612.926.0105
All images and text ©Susan Powers 2011