Pine River area chef goes from brokerage to biscuits
A well-known Pine River area chef hasn't always been employed in the culinary arts.
In the Pine River area, if you know Brian Chaffee, it's likely through one of his food-related jobs. That wasn't always his calling.
Chaffee grew up in Clear Lake, Iowa, with two brothers - one older and one younger. Even then Chaffee said lakes were a big part of his life.
"We grew up on North Shore Drive," he said. "My stepfather was a doctor in town and we grew up in boats and fishing and all the lake activities."
" I enjoy the restaurant part because it's chaos and Bedlam and I enjoyed the social aspect of the people in the kitchen. They are people that go through heat and fire. "
— Brian Chaffee.
Back then he and his siblings were competitive, which led Chaffee to become an athlete.
"I was a three-year, three-sport athlete," Chaffee said. "I was in football, wrestling and track. I still love being involved with high school athletics. It's kind of a passion."
After he graduated, his family moved to Mission Township - Chaffee's first connection to the lakes area. He went to Spokane, Washington, where he worked in a brokerage business for 10 years until it was time for a change. He decided to return to the work he had done when he was in Clear Lake.
He returned to the kitchen.
" I love food, I have a natural talent for it. I've always said if you give me a knife and a flame and I'll make you something to eat."
— Brian Chaffee .
"I ended up owning a restaurant at Cheney, Washington, to the west of Spokane," Chaffee said. "That sold and I worked for seven years at Williams Lake Resort, which is a championship trout fishing, private lake in the canyon land of eastern Washington."
When his mother died in 1998, he decided it was time to move back to Minnesota.
"She left kind of a messy estate," Chaffee said. "I came back to try to handle that because my older brother was in the Army and my younger brother couldn't, so that left me. I knew Tom Johnson. He used to be a chef with Breezy Point (Resort)."
Johnson put in a good word for Chaffee at Piney Ridge Lodge outside of Pine River.
"I worked out there as a chef for (eight) years and became a partner," Chaffee said. "It went away in 2007."
He worked three jobs to recover from the loss of Piney Ridge, including at a restaurant in Ely.
"I didn't like the weather in the winter," Chaffee said. "I did not like 50 below temperatures. My wife, Kristy, left to be director of food service for Trout Lake Camp (in Pine River). She was here and I was up there thinking, 'If somebody offers me a job, I'm going home.'"
" We had buttercream. We had peanuts and caramel. Isn't that a salted nut roll? It's one of our top sellers we do almost every day."
— Brian Chaffee.
That offer came from Maucieri's Italian Bistro in Crosslake, and Chaffee gladly came back to the area. He worked there for years before moving on.
His catering business, Chowboyz Catering, is back in action after going on hold while working at Maucieri's. However, Chaffee is better known as the mastermind behind some of the most creative doughnuts at the Pine River Bakery, which his wife owns.
He's also the site coordinator for the CommUnity Meals, which provides free food each week through the Backus Senior Center and Riverview Church in Pine River.
The latter was inspired by Miller, who had noticed how much food went to waste in the camp setting. They worked together and with Simon Whitehead, Cass County's State Health Improvement Partnership health and nutrition educator, to secure more donations from commercial kitchens and funding from agencies and organizations. Since then the program has ballooned.
"We went from being a fun, kind of quirky little community meal serving 120-150 people to serving 700 meals per week during the pandemic," Chaffee said.
This created a new challenge in that the camps and other kitchens they worked with had closures and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, drying up part of their food source. In spite of that, there have always been options.
The annual Ideal Beef Feed has provided quality food, as has the Backus American Legion, Ruby's Pantry at New Life Community Church in Pine River and various farms and gardens in the area.
Most recently, the CommUnity Meals qualified for more donations, especially more protein, through Second Harvest, a Minnesota food bank that helps area food shelves and food-related charities to access resources.
Chaffee uses his extensive experience to come up with creative ways to cook meals or make doughnuts. Doughnuts are certainly easier.
"I have a pretty good knack for what flavors go together and I listen to customers," he said. "One day I was sitting with a doughnut. We had buttercream. We had peanuts and caramel. Isn't that a salted nut roll? It's one of our top sellers we do almost every day."
With the CommUnity Meals, he's more restricted to the ingredients that are available at any given time.
"The menu is driven by what's going to go bad," Chaffee said. "If someone gives me 60 heads of romaine lettuce, it's use it or lose it. The same with eggs and dairy products. Take an example from last week. We had five turkey roasts left, so I made penne pasta with marinara and diced, sautéed turkey over the top with mozzarella cheese. Every bit of that was donated. It wasn't ground beef, but it was protein."
Chaffee has always enjoyed working in the kitchen, in part due to the excitement of a busy day.
"I enjoy the restaurant part because it's chaos and bedlam, and I enjoyed the social aspect of the people in the kitchen," he said. "They are people that go through heat and fire. And I love food. I have a natural talent for it. I've always said, if you give me a knife and a flame, I'll make you something to eat."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.