Fabulous Fern’s in St. Paul has been one of Saint Agnes Baking Co.’s most loyal customers. So when they asked us to develop for them a unique table bread (which turned out to be a sourdough basil baguette), we jumped at the chance. And it also got us thinking: bread service at restaurants used to be ubiquitous—but these days, not so much. Chalk it up to the beating bread (and carbs in general) took during the Atkins Diet craze to the current “Paleo” fad, not to mention the intense focus on gluten. But for most restaurants, said Fern’s Executive Chef Mark Tufenk, the issue is simple: “It’s a cost issue for a lot of restaurants, but it’s about knowing your customers and we know they appreciate it at Fern’s,” he said. “Some things have changed, we bring it out for soups, salads, entrees and pastas, not for sandwich and burger orders. But if there’s two pastas and two burgers at a table, and everyone is helping themselves, if they want more, we’ll refill the basket.”
How long have you worked at Fern’s?
I’ve been here for 2.5 years, but it’s my second time with Fern’s. I was here from 1994-1999, starting as a line cook and was chef from ’95 on. Then I left to work around the Twin Cities, had some sous chef gigs in Minneapolis, and was the opening chef at Mississippi Mud.
What brought you back to Fern’s?
I measured other places against it, Fern’s was one of my favorite places to work, I liked the attention paid to service and the freedom and creativity in the kitchen. The customers in that neighborhood (Cathedral Hill)—even back in the day before the food craze—were really open to trying experimental things. When we’d try something new, we knew someone was going to try it.
It’s a food-forward restaurant that people don’t know about.
But, if people have been here, they always remember. I was out in my neighborhood in the south metro and was talking to some people who asked where I worked, and they said, “Oh, we were just there two weeks ago and it was really great.” It’s been around for more than 20 years, we have people who have worked here since it opened, and when you have that longevity, you can build something great.
With those creative opportunities, how do you look at developing a menu?
We try not to be too trendy, but we do look for things that are popular, or getting there. We’ll run a special, and if it’s received well, we’ll consider it for the regular menu. We kind of do internal market research with our customers.
I do read different magazines occasionally, but I don’t have the time for television. We put stuff out there…
What are the “signature” items at Fern’s?
Pecan crusted walleye with the lemon aioli—I introduced that as chef the first time around and it’s stayed on there. Then there’s the Mandarin salad, fettuccini del mar and the Dijon chicken I have as a sandwich at lunch and as an entrée at dinner.
And…you have bread service. Something of a rarity in today’s casual restaurant scene.
We used a vendor for 20 years for our table bread, and when that ended, you were the first ones we thought of. You’ve always been quick to help, and you really knocked it out of the park. I like it better than what we had. The best compliment one can get about a table bread is no complaints, and it’s just gone. You want something that fits well with a lot of dishes.