Chris Dmochowski, executive chef at Eden Prairie’s Campiello restaurant, came to the highly respected D’Amico family after a varied culinary career that took him all over the United States for the past 16 years.
“I was a bit of a gypsy,” he says. Raised in Michigan, he moved to Arizona to attend Scottsdale’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. After a stint in Minnesota, he worked in Florida for a while before moving back to the Twin Cities and taking a job at Tejas. But even with a number of family members who had migrated to the Twin Cities by then, he still wanted to experience other parts of the country. “I got happy feet and went to Florida,” he says, adding that he spent six days and 80 hours a week working in a small bistro in Orlando.
“Orlando has a great food scene,” Dmochowski says. “People don’t realize that. They think it’s all Disneyworld. But the food scene here in the Twin Cities is better now.”
This made it attractive for him to return from the Sunshine State to the land of potentially long, cold winters. His most recent return put him into the Campiello kitchen, an opportunity he didn’t take lightly. “D’Amico Cucina (the flagship D’Amico Italian restaurant that had a stellar 22-year run in Minneapolis) still has respect in this community,” he says. “The culinary community remembers it well. How many chefs are out there who started at D’Amico Cucina? The lineage is extensive.”
He started as a line cook, but has been the executive chef for five years. One of the things he loves about cooking at Campiello is the latitude the restaurant gives him, including the ability to develop new dishes and menus regularly. Even though Campiello has been part of Eden Prairie for many years, and has some dishes that remain staples, Dmochowski still has considerable freedom to explore his culinary creativity. “The menu is completely mine,” he says. “I cater to my audience here.”
He also caters to the seasons. Minnesota’s cycle through the year gives him ample opportunity to work with different ingredients. “In summer, I’m thinking herby, vibrant, fresh, produce-inclined dishes,” he says. “Then in winter, I’m looking at hearty, soulful dishes with rich flavor profiles.”
New winter dishes include items such as winter agnolotti with winter squash, sage and brown butter, or a filet with white truffle potatoes. “These are very warming dishes, very comforting,” he says.
Which is not to say they’re a snap to develop. “A lot of thought goes into these dishes,” he says. “It’s creative and scientific. What works well with cauliflower? Butter is good, lemon is better, bread crumbs are even better. You have to follow your heart, but you can’t force it. I used to want to put fruit in everything. But it’s better to let the food come naturally.”
That includes not only understanding the seasons, but understanding local palates. “At the Naples [Florida] Campiello, the diners will look for lots of fresh fish, like snapper or grouper,” he says. “I can’t get that. By the time it’s flown here, it’s not going to be nearly the quality of something just freshly fished off the coast of Florida. But on the flip side, I get much better produce. You can’t beat Minnesota tomatoes.”
When possible, he works with local producers, especially in the height of the produce season. “I get hydroponic tomatoes from Living Waters, our pork is Minnesota-raised, our lamb is from Iowa,” he says.
But when something isn’t grown or raised in Minnesota, he’ll look for the best source elsewhere, such as getting fava beans from California. Yet whatever he’s using, whether from central Minnesota or from California, it’s not mass-produced.
“Ninety percent of what we serve is made from scratch within one day of its being served,” he says. “I take pride in quality and execution of what we prepared. So if someone orders the bucatini with cauliflower, what they’re going to get is this: freshly extruded bucatini with freshly prepared cauliflower, pine nuts and capers, all made to order, all prepared in a certain, exact way.”
If there’s any limit to what he does, it comes in the form of Campiello’s Italian roots. Dmochowski doesn’t see that as restrictive. “Rustic Italian is where I start,” he says. “I have to keep that in mind. But from there, there’s a lot of room to expand. Italy has such a vast flavor profile that varies from region to region, but the regions are very strict in the uses of those profiles. You just have to make what tastes good.”
One way he does that is to rethink traditional preparations. “It’s just a matter of differentiation,” he says. “I’ve done a beet salad where I used shaved raw beets rather than the traditional roasted. Or in fall, I’ve done a butternut squash salad the same way, raw and shaved, rather than roasted.” The variations are delicious, and discerning diners appreciate the creativity.
“You have to love making food in a way that’s going to surprise and delight people,” he says. “When I see someone chewing slowly, eyes rolling back in their head, very focused, I know I’ve provided delight.”