Is a Minnesota church-basement grandma pie a thing that brings international culinary stardom?
If you live in Minnesota, your first thought, reasonably, is probably, Nope, never. A grandma pie is a humble thing, a quiet thing, a thing that does not go into international culinary combat. It rests toward the back of a table covered with a vinyl-coated cloth, usually between the seven-layer bars and the small haystacks of chow mein noodles fused with chocolate, and it ducks its head because it is humble. It knows it is not important to anyone—except to Karyn Tomlinson, chef and owner of new St. Paul stunner Myriel, for whom a Minnesota grandma pie is so important it has kicked down doors and changed the world—or at least one little corner of it.
This tale begins in the small town of Dassel, Minnesota, one of those western farm towns built around the church and pie.
“Apple, it was almost always apple,” recalls Tomlinson now as she thinks of her grandmother’s pie. “Pie was apple pie, except if peaches were in season. She’d get Haralsons from the orchard at the edge of town. Cinnamon, apple, really simple. She taught me to use lard in the crust and handle it very, very lightly. It has to be rustic, ugly—maybe it will even crumble apart when you’re cutting it because you haven’t handled it hardly at all. She was always, always making pie. She’d bring a pie to anyone who got sick, who had a baby, and of course to any funeral.” Little Karyn worked beside her grandmother in Dassel, and at first she started, as all babies in a kitchen might, bobbling and poking scraps of dough with the little pins of her baby fingers. “I’ll never forget the Christmas she got me my own pastry cutter and pie pan and rolling pin.”
Sitting in Karyn Tomlinson’s new restaurant, Myriel, in the famed former Ristorante Luci space across from the St. Kate’s campus, you get the sense that no one in the local culinary world will forget that Christmas either. Tomlinson’s ascent to culinary stardom is pretty well known in chef circles: culinary school in France, pastry chef at Borough, a few years at Meritage, a winter cooking at Sweden’s Fäviken, a return to Minnesota for a turn as chef de cuisine of locavore palace Corner Table, where she became the first solo woman in history to win the nationally prestigious Cochon555 whole-hog cooking contest. With that career arc, you could reasonably anticipate that her restaurant would feature massive slabs of pork belly on biscuits, but new Myriel is oriented toward a very different world.
You don’t merely sense this in the pie—which was peach when I tried it, and both light as air and satisfying as bacon, just what you’d hope for in a lard crust. But more, that firm rooting in a place and time comes through in other dishes as well: in the smoked lamb tenderloin on fresh birch-infused cream, or the soup of pureed farm cucumbers given texture with more cucumbers, or the very room that is Myriel—white as a Swedish church interior, stripped bare and whitewashed to prevent anything getting in the way of pure contemplation.
“These are Muscovy duck eggs,” explains Tomlinson as she visits each table at Myriel between courses, showing four oblong slightly golden eggs in a silver dish. You lean in and hear a story about the eggs, which, like much that’s on the plates at Myriel, come from a farm near Dassel. Tomlinson has been cultivating relationships with farmers and foragers out that way after the Dassel Area Historical Society invited her out for a dinner. Perhaps they had heard about the way Tomlinson had used her grandma’s pie to kick down doors internationally.
Highlights: In 2016, Tomlinson used the kitchen in her Trondheim Airbnb to make Grandma Jeanette’s pie, which she then presented to chef Magnus Nilsson’s staff at Fäviken as a thank-you for squeezing her in last minute for dinner. He liked the pie so much that he offered her an unpaid internship, and she spent a season living in a tiny mountainside cabin, foraging and thinking about birch cream. In 2018, Tomlinson got a whole hog from Hidden Stream Farm for the national Cochon555 pork-cooking competition, butchered it, rendered the lard for the pie crust, and won it all—and that grandma pie was the fireworks that closed the show. For that, Tomlinson earned a great deal of press anointing her the Queen of Pork—though no one seems to have noticed she won by bringing a pie to a pork fight.
“Grandma Jeanette Tomlinson . . . pie was her love language,” remembers Tomlinson as we talk on the phone and she drives to meet the forager who helps supply Myriel with flowers and unusual greens. “To me, her pie is all good and loving associations.” Not that making grandma’s pies is without pain. “I ended up making a bunch of them for her funeral two years ago. But I’m not a grandma cook.”
Definitely not. With the technical skills of a three-Michelin-star chef, Tomlinson is in no way making home cooking. And yet, there’s a churchgoing grandma in the mix that makes Tomlinson’s food feel different than every other international elite tasting menu.
Tickets to the Myriel tasting menu, at $135 a person, were not easy to get in the first weeks Tomlinson offered them. She’s got a lot of fans, mainly from her years running the kitchen at dear departed Corner Table but also from her Instagram presence, @katomlinson, running the pandemic cooking show Karyn’s Quarantine Kitchen. The night I managed to score a few, the guests were nearly all women, dressed up, girlier and sparklier than the general population, bowing forward to photograph their food and their friends and their cocktails. A synchronized show unfolded with silver bowls emerging in parade at once from the kitchen, since all guests eat the same meal for the tasting menu at the same time. This meal was half classic jet-set-restaurant tasting menu, half grown-up fantasy tea party, and not like any meal I’ve ever had.
The first course was foraged sumac tea and a trio of quarter-sized amuses-bouches: duck liver pâté supporting a tiny canoe of pickled onion on a house-made saltine, translucent-thin slices of radish and fennel on a Gouda cracker, and trout tartare on a perfect circle of kohlrabi. The tea and treats arrived on that sort of old-fashioned plate that used to be called a bridge set, the kind big enough for a sandwich when you’re playing bridge, with an offset divot for a teacup. The plate was ridged, covered with delicate whorls of gold, and instantly transported you into a different headspace, one where fine, delicate treasures come and go to quiet exclamations of delight.
A dozen courses followed. A tiny slice of applewood-smoked lamb tenderloin paired with thickened cream infused with birch, resting on a circle of beet. A bright green soup of liquefied cucumber, house-made cottage cheese created from local farm milk, and fresh tarragon oil. Bread made from house-milled grain and a starter Tomlinson has been tending for a decade. A salad in a silver bowl that lives in my memory as the most charming I’ve ever eaten: full of flowers and bright handfuls of carrot greens concealing a rainbow of carrot discs—lift the greens and flowers, find the carrot jewels. The salad was accompanied by a cylinder of buckwheat containing a tomato and chèvre tart, and all of it came together vital and blooming, like you were eating the very summer itself.
All told, there were 16 dishes, including the reverent tiny omelet that followed the presentation of eggs. What an omelet it was! Pure, trembling, fresh as a sunrise. Wowza.
If a tiny omelet and a silvery bowl of flowers don’t sound like your thing, try the à la carte menu, which offers equally appealing bigger dishes. I was particularly charmed by the lentils, a French preparation with firm legumes boasting a very meaty, savory taste. Add a poached egg or a duck confit leg to make it dinner. The Parisian rye gnocchi—that is, gnocchi that are dough dumplings made without potatoes—are particularly delightful, crisp, and light but also toasty with cheese. My friend, who doesn’t much like meat or seafood, crowed with joy on tasting them: “Oh, they’re like tater tot bar food, for fancy people!” And then she scarfed the whole plate. That’s easy to do beside Myriel’s well-chosen vest-pocket wine list and wildly appealing semi-savory cocktails.
What’s not to like? It’s a novel chef’s palace in a rare voice, anchored somewhere specific, a draw for both ticketed-dinner foodies and neighbors who want nice bar food. One thing, though—don’t ask for Myriel.
“I can’t tell you how many sweet old ladies have come in saying, ‘You must be Myriel!’ ‘No, I’m Karyn,’” says Tomlinson. “Myriel is the bishop in the beginning of Les Misérables who invites Jean Valjean in for a meal, and when he hears all the bad things he’s done, he sets the table even nicer.” Later, when Valjean steals Myriel’s silver, the bishop tells the police he gave Valjean the silver as a gift. “That’s the act of grace that sets Jean Valjean on a different path. That’s hospitality, the kind with biblical implications, how Jesus showed hospitality in the way he lived,” she adds.
“Before we opened, I read two chapters of Les Misérables to the staff,” she says. “They still tease me about it—story time with Karyn. But it’s really important to understand if you’re working here. This isn’t like other restaurants. It’s like me. When the chips are down, I’m thinking about hospitality in Les Misérables and in the Bible, and I’m using my grandma’s teapot. When I first became a chef, the only women chefs I saw were, like, covered with tattoos, knives crossed, scowling. Which is great if that’s who you are, but it wasn’t me. I wondered, Can someone like me have a restaurant?”
The answer is Myriel, and the answer is a very original Yes.