Tyler Johnson was called to a life of cooking—literally.
In 2014, the former Army specialist had just gone through a divorce. He was sleeping on a friend’s couch when the phone rang: An old Army buddy, now a chef de cuisine in Los Angeles, wanted to invite Johnson to the City of Angels to try his hand at cooking. Four years and one prestigious Culinary Institute of America degree later, he’s a chef at Bar Brigade in St. Paul, where he crafts artsy entrées like rabbit with roasted pickled carrots and a ramp and prosciutto mash, or Parisian gnocchi with arugula and cream sauce.
Still military-fit, with dark, curly hair and a full beard, the 29-year-old chef sees similarities between his Army duties and restaurant life. The kitchen milieu’s work-hard, play-hard attitude is similar to that of the military. (So is the harsh language, and the humor.) “I love the stress. There’s a constant deadline. You have to be quick,” he says through an endearing, gap-toothed grin. “Almost like the military, the guys are fighting for each other. Not to that extreme, but when you’re busting your ass for 10, 12 hours together, you create a bond. You better learn to like each other, or you’re going to be miserable.”
When he enlisted in the Army at 18, Johnson says the adrenaline-drenched experience felt fun. In hindsight, however? It was “actually pretty terrifying.” During his seven-year military career, Johnson completed two deployments to Iraq and another to Afghanistan within five years. His did missions and base defense, shouldering tasks like running food, water, or gasoline between bases. As part of the Quick Reaction Force, he and his comrades were backup for fellow servicemen who got caught in firefights or whose vehicles broke down. At all hours of they day, they were called upon via walkie-talkies to drop everything and run to their trucks to help out.
He didn’t know what was next when he left the military at 25. What he did know was that he needed to get out. “I just kind of wore myself out too fast, to the point where even my higher-ups in the military were like, ‘You should probably just go home. You’ve done enough already. You should just go ahead and call this a career.’” His knees and back were killing him, and there was a psychological toll, too.
“You talk to any vet, they walk into a room and they assess who’s the most dangerous person, where all the exits are, things like that,” he says. “Sleep is very hard to come by. Anxiety. Lots of anxiety. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to take something back, especially mentally, from war. Because it’s not normal.”
After moving to California, he threw himself into line cook work at Pasadena’s Vertical Wine Bistro and Animal in L.A., prepping salads and desserts for around $10 an hour. Thanks to the GI Bill, he enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of North Hollywood, where an instructor noticed the intensity of his passion and encouraged him to transfer to New York’s Culinary Institute of America instead. Johnson did.
During a school break, Johnson journeyed to the Twin Cities to visit a friend who insisted they dine at the (now defunct, dearly missed) Strip Club. Johnson ate steak (of course), but it was the beet risotto with truffles that blew his mind. He tweeted as much to Strip Club co-owner J.D. Fratzke.
The two corresponded, eventually leading to an invitation to do a two-day “stage” with Fratzke at Red River Kitchen in 2016. A year later, the freshly minted CIA graduate moved to Minnesota and completed a stint at Strip Club before stepping into the Bar Brigade kitchen, where he and Fratzke now bat ideas for dishes and specials back and forth.
Johnson’s cooking is a mélange of influences. He grew up on the East Coast eating Pennsylvania Dutch fare: heavy, rich foods like lasagna, stew, and shoofly pie. “That’s how you stayed warm: You ate thick food and drank beer,” he says. He also savors Mexican flavors, a predilection developed in his adolescence in Arizona; Caribbean eats are another favorite, an ode to his mother’s home in the Virgin Islands.
Factor in the technique and finesse he learned in fine dining, and you get the chef’s “rebellious classical” cooking style, which sometimes finds him butting heads with Fratzke. “J.D. will say, ‘Let’s do classic like this.’ I’m like, ‘No. Tell me the classical way so I can completely obliterate it,’” Johnson says.
But Fratzke has a reputation for genuine caring and treating staff like family, and Johnson has benefited from that paternal influence. “I call him Dad,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life with a guy who is well-respected in the Twin Cities and has been sweet enough to take me on and be my mentor.”
And Johnson needs the support, because he’s his own harshest critic. He’ll tell you he’s never good enough, that he’ll never make a great dish. Even when he crafts something universally beloved, he thinks: “It could be better.”
But who wants mastery? That’s boring. Cooking is a never-ending battle, and this one, Johnson is all too eager to wage. To solidify his commitment to the kitchen, he had a knife tattooed on the right side of his neck. Beneath the blade are the letters MEP, for “mise en place,” the French phrase that refers to the strict organizational setup of the kitchen.
When he’s not wielding knives and stirring sauces, Johnson takes in the bountiful flavors of his Cathedral Hill neighborhood, where he ricochets among watering hole the Happy Gnome, Southern food-inspired Revival, and Mississippi Market. But he devotes the lion’s share of his time to Bar Brigade, his culinary home. And a fitting home, indeed: Bar Brigade’s name is a nod to the “brigade de cuisine,” the kitchen hierarchy system inspired by the military.
“This is as close to the military as I’m going to get,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t do anything else.”