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Published September 02, 2013, 10:00 PM

Back into the fire: HoDo's first chef returns for anniversary dinner

Fargo - After nearly a decade as one of the most adventurous and influential taste-makers in town, Andrea Baumgardner packed up her knives, hung up her apron and walked away from professional kitchens in March.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

Fargo - After nearly a decade as one of the most adventurous and influential taste-makers in town, Andrea Baumgardner packed up her knives, hung up her apron and walked away from professional kitchens in March.

After announcing the Green Market, the restaurant she co-founded six years earlier, would be closing, the month was a swirl of emotional goodbyes from patrons.

The outpouring of love and gratitude didn’t prepare the chef for her next step, her toughest customer, her most discernible critic and the one eater she goes out of her way and against her better judgment to appease – her 4-year-old son, Avi.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Then back into the pan.

She’ll don her chef’s jacket again Thursday night, going back to the restaurant she helped put on the culinary map. Baumgardner returns as the guest chef for the Hotel Donaldson’s 10-year anniversary dinner.

It’s already a triumphant homecoming: All seatings for the dinner sold out two weeks ago before the price ($65) or menus were announced.

Baumgardner is excited to get

back into a commercial kitchen and back to the HoDo, where she helped pave the way for the farm-to-table movement in town.

“When I started, a lot of suppliers rolled their eyes,” she says, mocking the gesture as she sits at her home’s dining room table.

It’s 8:50 on a weekday morning. She’s just dropped Avi off at day care and has an appointment in less than an hour. After that, she goes to her summer job as a family’s private chef, an engagement that will keep her away for the rest of the day.

So much for spending more time at home.

Over a cup of coffee, Baumgardner comes across as expressive and engaging as her cooking.

Suppliers may have rolled their eyes at Baumgardner when she said she wanted to serve locally produced food, but it made HoDo owner Karen Stoker embrace her as her first chef.

“Karen and I immediately connected on something local,” Baumgardner says.

Baumgardner had just returned from California, where she graduated cooking school and completed an externship at Chez Panisse in Berkley, Alice Waters’ pioneering restaurant famous for its locally grown and organic selections.

In the Golden State, the locavore lifestyle was easily attained. In the Peace Garden State, it was a rough ride.

But Stoker wasn’t rolling her eyes at locally sourced food. A beekeeper’s daughter, she was looking intently at its possibilities in such an agricultural area.

“On a real fundamental and value base, we clicked. I love her food,” Stoker says. “It means a great deal (to have her cook for the anniversary) because she laid the groundwork for the whole dining community. I think she’s our community’s combo of Julia Child and Alice Waters.”

Baumgardner and HoDo co-chefs Ryan Nitschke and Nick Weinhandl are still hammering out the details of Thursday’s menu, but Baumgardner says there will be nods to the restaurant’s early offerings with a tea-smoked duck. The five-course, prix-fix menu will also feature an Icelandic-style cured lamb’s neck, keta salmon, and a tomato tarte tatine with buttermilk ice cream.

“It is a fruit,” she says of using a tomato for dessert.

While using local food whenever possible is a goal, Baumgardner still has worldly tastes.

Currently, her palette is influenced by Icelandic and African food, the former a link to her own heritage and the latter because she just read “Yes, Chef,” the memoir by the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson.

“It’s what I love about food. It’s so loving and personal,” she says of the book.

At the Green Market, Baumgardner would often come out of the kitchen to greet guests, talking not only about the food, but books, politics, movies, travel or family.

“I love her intelligence and blend of humility,” Stoker says.

After starting at the Hodo, Baumgardner was uncomfortable with the title “chef,” saying she still had so much to learn. Today, she’s OK with the title.

When she returned to the area in 2001, the Fargo South High School graduate wasn’t sure how to meld her California training with her North Dakota roots. Before cooking school, her local food service experience was largely limited to working at Leeby’s, the deli/grocery in what is now Zandbroz Variety.

“How do you update prairie home cooking? I think we always had international influences but utilized what was found here,” she says.

“I’d never cooked in North Dakota, so that was a learning process. There were a fair number of missteps,” she adds with a laugh.

She credits her co-workers with helping her learn along the way, like former sous chef Eric Inscho, who developed the Wild Rice Burger, a menu staple to this day.

While she’s proud of what she started at the restaurant, she doesn’t feel any lingering possession when she dines there now. Instead, she’s more concerned with being a good guest.

“I don’t feel any ownership of the HoDo,” she says. “I’m so happy I got this opportunity and hope I didn’t screw anything up … It’s good to see something grow and see people I started with, because in this business not a lot of places keep you around for 10 years.”

Now, Baumgardner is changing businesses. In November, she starts working for a nonprofit, developing health and nutrition initiatives for kids. She is obliged not to disclose the organization’s name, but she willingly talks about one of her biggest test subjects in her quest for healthy home cooking.

“Brett (Bernath, her husband) and Avi were quite disgusted with my menu decisions,” she says with a mock frown.

“It’s good that there is lots of pushback. He’s not a green veggie eater,” she says, adding that her young son is not alone in his tastes. “Commercial kids’ foods are sweet and salty, but not strong tasting, like the natural taste of food. It’s hard to introduce strong vegetables. The things I crave are icky to Avi.”

While he may grow up to appreciate, even brag about mama’s home cooking, for now he, like many kids, would much rather dine with Ronald McDonald.

“They like Chicken McNuggets. It makes them super happy. Avi is most loving when I take him for a Happy Meal,” Baumgardner says with a shrug. “What parent wouldn’t give in to that?”

While she enjoys time with her own family – even if they don’t share the same tastes – she misses her restaurant family.

“I so miss the customers and the people I worked with. I miss the interaction. I got to meet a wide swath of Fargo-Moorhead,” she says.

She recalls in the final days of the Green Market, getting a call from the daughter of a patron who died unexpectedly. The daughter asked the staff to cater the funeral, something Baumgardner found touching and rewarding.

“It helps you feel connected to the community,” she says. “Food is intimate. You’re not the main event, but you get to participate with meaningful things that happen in people’s lives.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533