When Matt Steigerwald decided to close the Lincoln Cafe, Mount Vernon native Rachel Sauter took the opportunity to pursue her own aspirations of owning a restaurant. Her close ties to the community and former jobs at area restaurants (including Augusta in Oxford and the Wine Bar in Mount Vernon), helped inform her decision to re-open the Lincoln. Some things about the cafe will change (It will now be called Palisades Cafe, for one) but others will remain the same, including an emphasis on fresh, local food and the oft-touted philosophy that “food is important.”
Little Village: Where are you originally from?
Rachel Sauter: Mount Vernon — I grew up in a farmhouse in the country outside of town and then we moved into town when I was 11.
LV: What were your first jobs growing up?
RS: I’ve pretty much exclusively worked in restaurant kitchens since I was sixteen, with the exception of grading tests at Pearson and running the wine bar in mount Vernon. I worked at what is now the Lincoln Wine Bar when it was Devine Wines and then my ex-husband and I purchased it, ran it for a few years, then we sold it to Matt Steigerwald. I learned a lot from all the restaurants I’ve worked in. It’s not something you do for the money, you do it because you love to do it.
LV: Were any of your jobs horrible?
RS: There are always nightmarish aspects to working in a kitchen, but that’s kind of par for the course. In general, I have been lucky to have had mostly positive working experiences.
LV: Can you talk a little about what working at Augusta Restaurant was like?
RS: Yeah, I made bread there and worked the line and helped with prep and catering. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there long enough to really feel like I’ve incorporated a lot of [owner and chef] Ben Halperin’s particular style, which is certainly influenced by New Orleans’ style. I only started working there six months or so before this opportunity [with Lincoln Cafe] came up. But there’s no way you can work in a kitchen with a talented chef and not learn a lot.
LV: Have you gone to culinary school? Where did you learn all your skills?
RS: No. Culinary school was certainly something I considered. But it’s kind of nice that in this industry, it’s not necessary to get some kind of degree or certification to advance.
LV: Any chef heroes?
RS: Off the top of my head, I really like Julia Child, Ina Garten, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali. But all the chefs I’ve worked with are also huge inspirations — Matt and Ben, and Kamal Hammouda (who is the chef/owner of Relish in Grinnell, Iowa) and Judy Gates, and all the women at the Cottage in Iowa City.
LV: Do you have any favorite cook books?
RS: I have so many. I’m amassing a weird collection of mid-century community cookbooks. They’re full of everything from Jello salads and casseroles to head cheese and pickles. They’re charming and fascinating. I also love Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and Memories of Philippine Kitchens by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. I just got Yotam Ottolenghi’s book, Plenty, which is really inspired and beautifully put together.
LV: Do you watch cooking shows?
RS: I don’t actually watch a lot of them, but when I do, I love the ones where people are put on the spot to creatively use surprise ingredients. like Chopped and Iron Chef (the original one, not the American version).
LV: When did you first start cooking?
RS: There was always a lot of cooking going on in my house growing up — nothing fancy, just things that were simple and homemade.
LV: What is the first thing you remember cooking?
RS: I think the first thing I remember making is chocolate chip cookies. I remember being offended that my mom remixed the cookies after I had tried to mix them because I hadn’t incorporated the dry ingredients thoroughly enough.
LV: Do you remember ever having a cooking related disaster?
RS: Part of working in the restaurant business is constantly avoiding small disasters. Nothing stands out in my memory, but the worst disasters usually involve knives, fire, or dropping painstakingly prepared food on the floor and having to start over.
LV: If you could cook a meal for a celebrity, who would it be and what would you make?
RS: Well, I owe John Hodgman a hand-pounded fried pork tenderloin, so I guess it’d be that.
LV: If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
RS: Peanut butter, tomato, and bacon sandwiches. It sounds weird, but it’s delicious. They’ll be available to the adventurous in my restaurant come tomato season. Either that, or a really good cheeseburger (which will always be available in my restaurant).
LV: Can you talk more about your particular twist on cooking?
RS: I think that is kind of to be determined, but I do consider myself to be fiercely practical and efficient, at least when it comes to matters of food. Hopefully that will translate into a smooth-running operation.
LV: Will you be cooking at Lincoln mainly, or who will be your chef?
RS: I hope to hire a talented team where people can be creative and contribute a lot, but yep, I’m head chef.
LV: do you have a lot of special equipment in the kitchen or a favorite tool? Why is it your favorite?
RS: I purchased lots of cool specialty equipment from Matt, some of which I have to learn how to use. But in general I’d say that the most useful tools to me are a good knife, a cast-iron skillet, a microplane and a food processor. You can really do a lot with those high quality basics.
LV: Anything you particularly love preparing or cooking?
RS: I really like making soup. Or playing the game “What delicious thing can I make with random stuff in the kitchen and pantry without going to the store?” It’s like the layman’s version of Chopped. There is also nothing quite like cooking a steak in a cast-iron skillet.
LV: Anything you particularly hate making or preparing?
RS: Chocolate-covered strawberries. Especially when strawberries are out of season. I’m just, like, why? They’re a cliche and they’re a pain in the ass.
LV: You have a son right? How has cooking for a “younger audience” shaped how you prepare meals?
RS: Yeah. He’s five, and he is the toughest critic. If I can get him to try something even remotely unusual that I’ve made and say that it’s “ok,” then I know it’s going to be palatable for a wider audience. Right now we eat a lot of chicken, noodles with butter, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, french fries, and spinach casserole. All of which will probably end up on the kids menu at the new place.
LV: What was the deal with the “fries for life” controversy and how have you resolved it?
RS: Oh, I don’t think that it will be much of a controversy. The “food is important” thing is definitely part of Matt’s brand, so in an official capacity, that promotion is his thing. But as I understand it, there are only thirty or so [“fries for life”] tattoos out there. I’ve got one. And I believe food is important and I respect others who do. So in an unofficial capacity, I’ll probably give the people their fries as an act of goodwill and camaraderie.
LV: Was there a reason beyond “fries for life” that you got your tattoo?
RS: I had always intended to get the tattoo, but I ended up getting it after the restaurant sale was complete as kind of an homage to my history with the restaurant (I worked there the summer they opened after my senior year of high school and during some college breaks) and as a kind of inspirational reminder about why I am doing this.
LV: Why do you believe that food is important?
RS: I grew up in a family that loves cooking, loves eating, loves traveling and trying new foods.
LV: How do you think Lincoln Cafe will differ from what it was before? Are you trying to pre-serve certain aspects?
RS: For starters, it’s getting a new name, Palisades Cafe. Palisades is a park outside of Mount Vernon, so it continues the tradition of reverence for things local. As far as menu and philosophy go, there will be lots of parallels. Matt grew up in the south and I’m from the Midwest, and I think that has really shaped our respective styles. [Matt] got kind of into fancier, higher price-point dishes, which I may do at some point, but I’m gonna start simple. Good, fresh, pub-style fare with some whimsical twists. Like, I’m gonna do a regular cheeseburger and fries, but you will also be able to get a burger with kimchi, Korean bbq sauce, and a fried egg. Stuff like that.
LV: What made you decide to take over the Lincoln Cafe? How did the opportunity arise?
RS: Well, when Matt first moved to mount Vernon and opened the Lincoln, he hired me in the kitchen and we had good rapport. And since the restaurant is in my hometown, I’ve eaten there a lot over the course of its existence and he knows my whole family, etc. Then, when I was running the wine bar, it kind of served as a holding place for people to wait for their table at the cafe, get a snack, buy a bottle of wine to take to dinner, etc. the relationship was always symbiotic and friendly and cooperative between the two businesses. So after I sold him the wine bar he expanded it to include pizza made with this great oven he had shipped over from Italy. The wine bar is sort of a simpler, more fun business to run, so I think he was just ready to focus on that and pass the reins of the restaurant to someone younger with a fresh perspective. And I’m really hon-ored that he approached me first. It seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
LV: What has been your biggest challenge so far in taking on this venture?
RS: [laughs] Ask me again in six months. My biggest challenge thus far is getting my head around the whole thing and developing a plan of action. Luckily, since I ran a business before, I am familiar with all the things that need to be taken care of just to open up, like getting loans, licensing, etc. But then there’s gonna be staffing, ordering, dealing with customers and just lots and lots of hours of physical work. In the first year that we are open, I’m probably pretty much gonna be there all the time. So I guess the other main challenge is just encountering a big lifestyle change.
LV: What is the most unusual item you’ve ever cooked?
RS: Frog legs, various organ meats.
LV: What will your initial menu look like and how do you make decisions about what goes on it?
RS: It’s gonna be a similar formula — appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, maybe some home-made pastas and daily specials. I’ve been writing menus my whole life. I think for a chef, writing menus is like what sketching is to artists. It’s the easy part. The challenge is in the execution, development and response to critiques.
LV: Will you still have ties to the wine bar?
RS: Nothing official, but it’s always been a friendly relationship between the two places, and I’m sure it’ll stay that way.
LV: When is your grand opening?
RS: I’m hoping for March 1. I might do a few prix fixe dinners in February, but that is subject to change.
LV: What are you most excited about regarding the cafe’s opening?
RS:Well, it’s great to be your own boss. I’m excited that I pretty much have the final say in all creative aspects of the business, and it’s a great challenge for me personally and professionally. But it’s a double-edged sword in that anything that goes wrong, I will have to take responsibility for. So hopefully nothing goes wrong. Ever.
LV: What are you most afraid of?
RS: At this point, it is finding and keeping good employees. I am also afraid of disgruntled, ignorant, and/or impossible-to-satisfy customers.
LV: How important are adjectives like “local” and “organic” to you?
RS: They’re important to me. I’m going to try to use as many organic and locally sourced ingredients as I can. But I’m also not super hardcore about in my day to day life. I love a garden fresh tomato with artisan cheese, but I also love Cheetos and Ramen noodles. Those probably won’t be incorporated into any dishes, but never say never.
LV: What should people think about before taking that first bite of anything?
RS: Nothing. Just enjoy it.
LV: What kinds of things will you get locally?
RS: Anything I can. That will always be a priority. If I can find a product locally, I will always choose that over something that had to be shipped across the country.
LV: Outside of the storefront, are you involved in any other projects (music, crafting, etc.)?
RS: Yeah, I’m in a three-piece all-girl band based in Iowa city, and I’m a printmaker. I have a really nice press I’d like to keep in the basement of the restaurant in case I ever have time to do that again, but pretty much the only prints I’ve made in the recent past are to promote other projects. Like, I did a print for the cover of my former band’s album (Emperors Club/Killer Companion) and I screen printed some shirts and stuff. And now I’m working on a linoleum-cut that will be the logo for the restaurant.
LV: what advice would you give to your younger self?
RS: Oh god. That’s between me and my younger self.
LV: Do you have any personal websites you’d like to share with Little Village readers?
RS: I’m still in the process of purchasing a website for the business, but in the meantime and totally unrelated, check out www.emperorsclub.net for some great Iowa pop music!
LV: Any easy favorite recipe you’d like to share?
RS: I just want everyone to try a peanut butter tomato sandwich sometime in their life.