Tastes like hell

For Mitch Omer, the brilliant -- and bipolar -- chef behind the hit Minneapolis restaurant Hell's Kitchen, food has been both a dark obsession and a lifesaving blessing.

Published March 27, 2007 11:32AM (EDT)

On the southwest side of downtown Minneapolis sits an old, smoke-darkened brick building. It's home to an appliance mart, a nail salon, a violin repair shop, and a long alley-shaped restaurant identified only by a sign that reads: Hell's Kitchen. Just blocks from the city's busy convention center, somehow the corner manages to look deserted even on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Inside Hell, however, it's another story.

The blood-red walls are hung with black fixtures and artwork by Ralph Steadman, whose leering skeletons and cartoon crows are like the "Bloom County" of the underworld. Behind the maitre d' station, handing out pagers, stands a tall, dark Elvira wearing Goth makeup -- whiteface, inch-thick eyeliner, some kind of bolt through her lip -- and a silk kimono with puffy Shrek slippers. She's scowling. The room is mobbed, she's running out of waiting space, and the post-church crowd is getting mean.

Meanwhile, a server in pink Winnie the Pooh pajamas hurries from the kitchen in back, her tray loaded with bison benedict, lemon-ricotta hotcakes, scrambled eggs with shrimp, and foie gras in black truffle sauce, plus a basket of bread and a glass pot of homemade peanut butter. She's headed for a table by the window. But as she tries to cross the entryway, a bulky guy with a mustache steps out and blocks her way.

"You're not getting through until I get my table," he says. Then, turning toward the maitre d' station. "Just seat me now, and your waitress can go deliver her food."

The server starts to cry and mascara runs in rivers down her cheeks. But the hostess is unfazed. She's seen this before: Customers who come to Hell's Kitchen never give up and go elsewhere; there's not another restaurant in the world that serves sweet sausage bread stuffed with buffalo meat, pecans, currants and black coffee.

She tells the customer she'll find the owner, who will see to him personally. The man smirks and steps aside; the server sniffles and delivers her meals. Everything is pacific for a moment.

And then a collossus in a chef coat comes lurching from the back of the restaurant. Six and a half feet tall in steel-toed cowboy boots, with thick white hair and tiny gold spectacles, he moves through the crowd headfirst, like a bullet, apologizing politely as he goes. His voice is loud and reedy, like a bassoon. "Excuse me, excuse me."

At the front of the restaurant, he stops and his face twists, a Steadman character come to life. "OK, where is this asshole?"

The server, returning with her empty tray, nods in the direction of the mustachioed man. Mitch Omer, Hell's Kitchen's owner and chef, pivots, reaches out. "No one fucking treats my people that way," he says calmly, yanking open the front door. Then, glowering down at the man, his volume rising. "Now get the hell out of my restaurant and do not come back again."

It's clear to everyone in the place -- including the ones who applaud -- that he means it.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I first met Mitch Omer in late summer of 2004. I was a Minneapolis food editor with pages to fill when a woman called, telling me that her husband had auditioned for a new reality cooking series because his restaurant had the same name as the show: Hell's Kitchen.

It was a pretty slim hook for a story. But I was desperate and the restaurant was around the corner from my office, so I grabbed a notebook and walked over.

At 11 a.m., Hell's Kitchen was mostly empty. And the man I'd been sent to interview didn't seem at all happy to see me: His hair was wild, his face creased. He looked as if he'd been sleeping somewhere in the recesses of this blood-red cave. Still, he sat and offered me something to drink.

"I heard about this TV show called "Hell's Kitchen," he began. His voice echoed with energy. "I hate reality TV. And I have proprietary rights over the name Hell's Kitchen -- at least, I do here in Minnesota. So I started making phone calls." Then he discovered the show would offer a fully equipped high-end Los Angeles restaurant to the winner, and that tryouts were going to be held in Minneapolis. He went to the casting call, completed a videotaped interview, and filled out a 25-page application. But no one from the show "Hell's Kitchen" ever called.

Dead end, I recall thinking: He tried out, he failed. No story here.

But to be polite, I scribbled some notes and poured my tea. It was an umber Asian blend that tasted of lavender, thunder and earth. Omer leaned back in his chair, peering at me over his little glasses.

"They probably thought I was too old, which is shit," said Omer, who had just celebrated his 50th birthday. "But I think I had about a dozen other factors working against me, too, not the least of which is my foul language. And I probably shouldn't have told them I'm manic-depressive, or that I was treated for alcohol abuse last summer. I said that I own handguns. They asked if I'd spent time in jail and I said, 'Yes, I have, actually.' A studio executive sees someone with my profile, he might think I'm a risk."

I looked up to see if he was joking. His blue eyes were as clear as a baby's.

"Hey, you want something to eat?" he asked.

I shook my head. As a food critic, I'd found it was necessary to conserve, eating sparsely on my own time so I could go out and sample calorie-laden dishes all over town. That day, I'd already had my allotted apple for breakfast; lunch would be a cup of yogurt, after I ran a couple miles at the gym.

But Omer paid no attention. He stood, towering over me, and beckoned over a young man whose lips were studded with bolts. "Get her some Mahnomin porridge," he called out, then turned back to me. "You'll love this; it's my own recipe."

Not five minutes later, a bowl the circumference of a frisbee arrived and inside was a colorful, steaming stew of wild rice, roasted hazelnuts, dried blueberries and cranberries. I took a tentative spoonful and the taste was of nutty popcorn, sunlight, blueberry pie and chewy fruitcake -- all nestled inside a maple-spiked custard that had the mouth feel of gently whipped cream.

I ate while Omer talked.

He went to Iowa State on a football scholarship, but walked off the field one day when he realized he hated the sport. Then he hitchhiked around the country for a while, landing in Oklahoma and marrying at the age of 21. He and his 16-year-old bride moved to the Twin Cities, looking for work. He got a job as a prep cook and sent away for a clergy license from the back of Rolling Stone, becoming a minister with the Church of Mother Earth so he could perform wedding ceremonies on the side.

An explosive employee who was fired repeatedly, Omer partied hard and fought with his young wife. When they divorced in the late 1970s, he took a job as a security guard with traveling rock bands. The life suited him. He got to see the country, and the drugs were good. Somewhere along the line, he got married for a second time and had three children. But instead of settling down, Omer just got wilder.

Then came the Waylon Jennings tour of 1981. Omer found a concertgoer trying to steal some of the band's equipment. At roughly 300 pounds, Omer easily could have restrained him; instead, he kicked the kid nearly to death.

"That's when I knew I had to quit." I paused, spoon midway to my mouth. There were tears in this huge stranger's eyes and he reached out to touch my hand. "I was out of control. I was hurting people, and I didn't know why."

So Omer moved his family back to Minneapolis and went back to kitchen work because it was all he knew. But this time, he landed at the New French CafC) -- arguably the city's best restaurant at the time -- and the head chef there quickly realized Omer had talent. Suddenly, he said, he was "lit on fire to cook." And all was good for about a year. But then his behavior deteriorated again, his second marriage ended. Omer was fired from the only job he'd ever loved.

Lonely and broke, he began eating compulsively and gained 150 pounds. Morbidly obese, he moved to northern Minnesota, where he passed years working as a short-order cook and nighttime radio DJ. Mornings he would take saunas then run naked through the frozen forest, his long hair streaming behind him. Eventually, he quit at the request of law enforcement: skiers who spotted him kept reporting that they'd seen Sasquatch.

By then, my porridge was mostly gone and finally, I couldn't eat any more. But also, I was beginning to think this man might make a good story after all.

"So how did you get from there to here?" I asked.

"Two things," he boomed. "I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as bipolar with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And I had gastric bypass." Though the irony inherent in a starving chef was not lost on Omer, food -- more specifically, food in excess -- had been the constant through his loveliest highs and vilest lows. And so, in 1999 he underwent the procedure, and immediately lost 165 pounds. And once he was normal size again -- or what passes for it when you're a hair over 6-foot-4 -- and on a cocktail of drugs that successfully controlled his moods, he got a new chef job, a good one. Then he met Cynthia.

"You gotta talk to her! She's the best thing that's ever happened to me. And she's a monster of a businesswoman. It's because of her that I have...," he opened his arms wide, "this."

So I did. The following day I met Cynthia Gerdes, founder of Creative Kidstuff -- a $10 million Minneapolis toy company -- for a glass of wine. And she started telling the story where Omer had left off: In 2000, she was married with two children and a thriving business, but she wasn't happy.

"Oh, my first husband was a wonderful man." A small, round woman with curly, dark hair, Gerdes ate a green salad entirely with her fingers. "But we were so mismatched. I'm all crazy and tons of energy and totally ADHD, and he was just ... not."

She decided to divorce around the same time Omer posted a personal ad on AOL. Gerdes logged on, contacted him, and the two were engaged within months. "I said in my first note to him that I was looking for someone who was sane and insane at the same time." She rolled her eyes and laughed loudly. "Boy, did I ask for it!"

They married in 2001. Omer cleaned up and began slowly to repair his troubled relationships with his kids. Then, in 2002, he and Gerdes conceived and opened Hell's Kitchen, a unique spot that, ironically, played up all of Omer's old demons: rock 'n' roll, Goth culture, excess and rich food. And even as he settled down personally, Omer's manic past turned him into a raging commercial success. By the time I met them, the business was solidly in the black -- a rarity among new restaurants -- thanks to Omer's off-kilter gourmet recipes and Gerdes' careful management.

I went back to my office and the story practically wrote itself.

The truth: I'm not an unbiased source. I was, back then. But today, Mitch Omer and Cynthia Gerdes are my friends. Because when I met them, my life changed for the better in a multitude of ways, much as theirs did when they found each other. And I'm not the only one.

My article about Mitch Omer hit newsstands in November of 2004, and readers responded in droves. Business at the restaurant hit an all-time high, and letters poured into the magazine. "It's so wonderful to read about someone who figured out his life and found true love at 50," one person wrote. "This gives me hope."

It gave me hope, too. At 39, I was tiring of the restaurant beat. I loved the personal stories, like Omer's, but loathed the politics of the job. I'd never been a foodie, but my publisher was, and he sometimes tried to steer the course of my reviews. Worse, my three children spent most evenings in front of the TV, eating things they'd heated up in the microwave, because I was always out. My friends had given up on my ever being available for a Friday night movie. I hadn't had a real date in months.

And I had bigger worries. My older son, Andrew -- long autistic in a gentle, ethereal sort of way -- had become at 17 suddenly volatile and depressed. If I was lonely, he was isolated. But everything I tried to get him out into the world failed miserably: He was too inhibited for school groups, too stilted during interviews to land a part-time job.

None of this was in the front of my mind when I got a call from someone at National Public Radio, asking me to recommend some spots for Jane and Michael Stern -- the "Roadfood" duo -- to try when they visited Minneapolis. Then, I was thinking only of the heavenly Mahnomin porridge and Omer's sausage bread, smoky, sweet and so dense that a single slice could be used to tack down a stack of papers in a stiff wind.

But when the Sterns' review came out a couple months later, calling Hell's Kitchen "inspired and inspiring" and referring to "huevos rancheros of the gods" and "the best peanut butter we have ever sampled, anywhere," business went through the roof. And Cynthia called me.

"It's all your fault," she said. "People are calling from all over the world to get our peanut butter! We need to put together an assembly line, fast. What's Andrew doing this summer? Tell him he's got a job."

With anyone else, it might have seemed like quid pro quo. But that's just not how these people work. At Hell's Kitchen, where customers can get a free cinnamon roll if they come for breakfast still in their pajamas, my eccentric, mostly silent child somehow fit right in.

When I left the magazine in late 2005, publishing an exposé about the reviewer's life and taking a job in corporate marketing, most of the people in the food world promptly forgot my name. Mitch and Cynthia threw a holiday party in my honor, toasted my ethical stance, and offered to employ my other son, as well.

"I'm so glad you're out of that job," Cynthia said, hugging me. "Now it's time to get online and find you a man."

We'd been having this conversation for months: Internet personals had worked magic for them. "There's no way we would have met otherwise; our paths never would have crossed!" Cynthia argued. I maintained that their relationship was a fluke, bizarrely lucky in a way that could never be duplicated.

But one cold, dark winter night, I capitulated. Sitting in my office with a laptop and a glass of wine I logged on, dashed off a cuttingly honest profile and wrote to three appropriately aged men, mostly based upon their taste in music and books.

One of them answered: someone I never would have met otherwise, whose path I never would have crossed. Six weeks later, we were engaged.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

After a wrenching divorce and six years spent swearing I'd never marry again, I find myself one cool, bright day in fall, floating on a 48-foot cruiser off the shore of Lake Superior, holding the hand of a gentle, long-haired biker I've come to love. Cynthia is driving the boat. My three children look on, swaying in time with the waves. And Mitch looms over all of us, his white hair haloed by the early afternoon sun.

This boat belongs to him, and it sits just three miles from the site of what will -- on June 1, 2007 -- become the second Hell's Kitchen. A cavernous old antique mall on Canal Park, the jewel of tourism on Duluth's North Shore, the building will soon have massive red cathedral-domed doors and a 12-foot gate covered with chains and iron bric-a-brac. Inside, a kitchen nearly double the size of the one in Minneapolis will serve a 140-seat restaurant three meals a day. There will be an area set aside exclusively for the manufacture of Hell's now world-famous peanut butter. And this once depressed, lonely, obese, mentally ill and impoverished man will -- together with his woman at the wheel -- launch a restaurant empire.

Today, however, Omer's menu is simple: satin slices of beef tenderloin with sharp, creamy horseradish sauce; garlic crostini cooked golden to their tips; grilled shrimp, lined up like bass clefs on a doily-covered platter; strawberries dipped in bittersweet chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar. We all hold glasses of Korbel, even the 12-year-old, and Mitch raises his so it sparkles in the dazzle of water and sky and light.

"I'm honored by the opportunity to unite these two beautiful souls," he begins. Then his voice cracks and he takes a step back, tilting us northward, to wipe furiously at his eyes. "Ah, fuck ... I promised myself I wouldn't do this. Give me a minute, OK?"

And we wait, while the boat rocks and slows and settles, for him to go on.

By Ann Bauer

Ann Bauer is the author of three novels, including "Forgiveness 4 You," which the Overlook Press published this month. Follow her @annbauerwriter


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