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Minnesota chef Sara Watson cooks up a good read with her first cookbook

The restaurateur collaborated with regional artists to create her colorful first cookbook, which was published in November 2021.

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Sara Watson's Mediterranean tuna salad was inspired by a classic tuna salad from the old Dayton's deli in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Scott Thuen / Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD, Minn. — The holiday season can be a busy time for everyone, especially a chef. Restaurants are packed, caterers are booked and that doesn’t even take into consideration fixing meals for family at home.

Somehow, in the middle of all of this, Sara Watson is the most relaxed she’s been in months.

Her restaurant, Blackboard, outside of Vergas, Minnesota , keeps her busy, as does steady catering gigs. And then there’s keeping up with her kids’ schedule. The workload is the same as any other holiday season, but one thing that’s no longer on her plate is creating a cookbook.

Watson published her first cookbook, “Cabin Chef,” late last month, a project that occupied most of the last year.

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Sara Watson says squash, like this stuffed acorn squash with roasted vegetables, is good year-round. Photo courtesy of Scott Thuen / Special to The Forum

Watson loves cookbooks and had discussed the idea of creating their own with her husband, fellow chef Eric Watson, who said it would be a lot of work on top of their day jobs.

The culinary power couple started out with a catering company, then opened their own restaurants, Mezzaluna in Fargo and Rustica in Moorhead, before selling them. In 2020, Sara and her longtime friend Terri Trickle opened Blackboard.

Still, when Detroit Lakes-area real estate broker Dirk Ockhardt came to Blackboard in January and asked Watson about creating a cookbook called “Cabin Chef,” she was interested.

As someone who likes to read cookbooks, she knew what she wanted in her own collection. Size mattered. She usually carries one with her while she’s waiting for her kids’ events to wrap up and while she loves coffee table cookbooks, she wanted something she could fit in her bag.

She was impressed by Amy Thielen’s “The New Midwestern Cookbook,” appreciating Thielen’s ability as a writer to tell her story as well as succinctly describe a dish and its preparation.

“You get a glimpse of the author and the recipes, but also the region,” Watson says over coffee at Moorhead’s Twenty Below.

When she looks at a cookbook, she looks at photos first.

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“I’m very much a visual person,” she says. “Presentation all the way around. That’s my art history degree. That degree is not being wasted because I became a chef.”

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Sara Watson partnered with designers Miss Amy Jo and Dale Flattum for her cookbook, "Cabin Chef." John Lamb / The Forum

She also liked the layout and design of Thielen’s book, so she was happy when Ockhardt assembled a creative team of designers Miss Amy Jo and Dale Flattum , photographer Scott Thuen and writer Amanda Henke to help tell Watson’s story.

“I’m not a pastry chef and I’m not a writer,” Watson says.

She says the final product was a team effort as Henke and Hendrickson would catch some mistakes in proofreading.

“I don’t like it that my name is on the front cover. I just cook the food,” Watson says with a laugh. “A cookbook was more work than I thought it would be.”

The book is broken down into food for each season, with an emphasis on regional fare, though some seafood is included.

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In the book’s introduction, Watson discusses her journey from growing up on a farm in Glyndon, Minnesota, to running her own restaurants, opening with the line, “I did not plan to be a chef.”

Watson graduated from the University of Minnesota with an art history degree and then worked in downtown Minneapolis. Her favorite spot for lunch was the Dayton’s deli where she would religiously get the tuna pea pasta salad. Her own twist on a tuna pasta salad is included in the book.

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Wild rice, like the classic Minnesota wild rice hotdish, a hit at Blackboard, is something Sara Watson couldn't live without cooking. Photo courtesy of Scott Thuen / Special to The Forum

There’s also a pheasant recipe she learned while attending culinary school in Colorado, where she threw herself into the kitchen.

Many of the book’s recipes reflect her work at Blackboard, where she would prepare the meals for Thuen to shoot, as many as 12 to 15 dishes a day.

“We always had a lot for everyone to eat,” she says.

Creating a cookbook was a learning experience, even for a veteran chef like herself. She shakes her head thinking of prepping food this past summer during prime lake season at Blackboard.

“What was I thinking?” she says.

She says Ockhardt was like a director, keeping her on task and keeping the project moving.

“He’s also pretty good at doing dishes,” she says.

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A brined roast chicken is one of the featured recipes in Sara Watson's cookbook, "Cabin Chef." Photo courtesy of Scott Thuen / Special to The Forum

She’s already thinking of what another cookbook might include. A collection of soup recipes would be good, she says, or a whole book on hors d’oeuvres.

“This whole experience was fun. I’d do it again,” she says.

One thing you won’t find in “Cabin Chef” or any of her cookbooks is a dessert section.

“That is the thing I hate to cook most. I can do it, but it won’t turn out,” she says. “ I have great respect for pastry chefs. I just won’t do it.”

Without a need to do any holiday baking and without a cookbook to write, Watson finds herself with a little downtime.

“Maybe I’ll read a cookbook,” she says.

Related Topics: BOOKSRECIPESMINNESOTAVERGAS
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