Lake Minnetonka’s majestic blue waters reflect the sunlight back through the windows of Vann, the buzzed-about Spring Park restaurant that opened in August. It’s a labor of love for hometown culinary hero Erik Skaar. The Twin Cities native is a renowned chef who, after working for several years as the head of private dining at the Bachelor Farmer, finally set out on his own to open his new place.
“Norwegian is my heritage. Vann is Norwegian for ‘water,’” Skaar says. “I always had an affinity for seafood and aquatic foods. The ocean and the lakes have so much to offer. It’s the way I like to eat. It’s the flavors that excite me.”
But Skaar insists he doesn’t want the Norwegian name to fool anyone.
“I try and weave my Norwegian heritage into this as much as I can, but it’s not a Nordic restaurant or a Scandinavian restaurant, per se. The name may lead you to believe so, but it’s all about the water here. It’s a personal endeavor,” he says.
“We focus on water as an ingredient and not just through fish and seafood, but how our produce is grown … Water is the one thing that brings everything together. If it wasn’t for water, there wouldn’t be all this culture and diversity. Water is the main highway—how continents connect. Before planes, before any modern technology. You got on a boat.”
The menu is a mélange of coastal regions from around the world.
“We describe it as coastal regions. Island regions—and not just, like, Southeast Asia but also Iceland, anything that’s heavily influenced by water and the coast, and in no particular geographic area, but globally,” Skaar says.
Menus are printed daily because dishes depend on what Skaar calls the “three Fs.”
“We try to not force a menu,” he says. “Our three Fs are our foragers, our farmers and our fishermen. They are what write the menu.”
But Skaar is being modest. It’s his culinary genius that transforms the ingredients into delectable dishes. Vann’s signature dish that Skaar says will always be on the menu is hamachi, a Japanese yellowtail fish that is used in much the same way as tuna, but with a different flavor palette.
There is also another fan favorite, sea urchin with sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit) and ginger. He also recommends the octopus with fermented radish and lemongrass puree.
“We’re authentic. We take great care with all of our products. We don’t cut corners here,” he says.
His kitchen mantra is a play on the words “third eye.” A sign in the kitchen says, ‘The Third I.”
“It’s integrity, intuition and intention. Everything we do has to fall into that criteria,” he says.
The journey toward discovering the third I and the three Fs began when Skaar was 14.
“On summer break, I was home alone. The only thing that was on TV was Emeril or Galloping Gourmet, or old reruns of Julia Child,” he says. “It was either that or soap operas, so I gravitated toward cooking.”
Skaar spent the summer holidays trying recipes at home.
“My parents divorced when I was really young. Sitting around the table was never a thing for us on either side,” he says. “Maybe I wanted to fill that void, whether it was subconsciously or because of the creativity involved in cooking and the never-ending possibilities of food. That really spoke to me. The subjectivity of everything: there’s no right way to do it. It’s all perception.”
His desire to learn the ins and outs of cooking landed him at a few local restaurants washing dishes or helping out with food preparation. After graduating high school he decided to go to college for music production and audio engineering.
“I felt like I had a basic grasp of cooking through trial and error and taking on odd jobs, so I couldn’t justify paying for culinary school,” he says. “Nothing came up out of it after I graduated and I found myself back in the kitchen and devoted myself to cooking.”
The Traveling Chef
Skaar took a roundabout way to landing at Vann in Spring Park. In his early 20s, he moved to Tampa Bay, Florida where he worked for Bonefish Grill as a corporate trainer and assistant culinary director. Two years later, Skaar moved to Denver to help a friend open a restaurant. But his natural talent for cooking and creating innovative dishes propelled his career into overdrive.
“I ended up taking over as chef de cuisine for a restaurant called Olivéa,” where he worked in that position for four years under chef John Broening. He left in 2011. His wife, a Seattle native, decided she would like to move back home.
“We just went out there and figured it out. I landed at a restaurant called Crush, which was a fine-dining, tasting-menu restaurant. I was there for a few months, ended up taking over as chef de cuisine there as well, and I was there for almost four years,” he says.
While in Seattle, Skaar also did stage (internship) stints at Modernist Cuisine, an artistic food lab that concentrated on the science of food.
“It really lent itself to Crush really well. It was a progressive modern restaurant,” he says.
After making his mark on Seattle, Skaar and his wife decided to move their young family to the Twin Cities. “I always hoped that I would come back home and open up my own place. I came out here.”
Skaar worked at Tilia and the Bachelor Farmer. About a year ago, he found the ideal location for his own restaurant right across from Lake Minnetonka in Spring Park.
“I always thought I’d do something downtown or South Minneapolis, in the city. I love Minneapolis, I love the hustle and bustle.”
But he loves the location of his Spring Park restaurant.
Water Permeates Everything
Besides cutting-edge culinary delights, Vann’s unique take on water translates to its wine list.
“We like the obscurity: the lesser known, the more obscure,” he says. “There are some familiar items on the menu, but we’re not traditional. We want really delicious, unique wines. And they’re pretty affordable; especially with our bottle list, you can get some great stuff for anybody’s budget.”
He stresses that Vann is all about an exercise in food and drink and its relationship to water. He wants people to think about the where and the how.
“How does water influence? Whether it’s rain, rivers, ocean, sea?”
Vann is open Tuesday through Saturday in the winter. Sunday reservations will begin again in the spring.
4016 Shoreline Drive,