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Lucia's final year, through chef Alan Bergo's eyes

Spoiler: Twin Cities restaurants are a difficult business.

When I reach Lucia's chef Alan Bergo, his wish is to already be elbow deep in beef ribs.

Bergo is now in his final week at the helm of Lucia's kitchen, a position he took over just last year. The beloved locavore restaurant that helped define the farm-to-table approach in the Twin Cities will open and close for the last time on Sunday, October 15 after 32 years in business. 

Related:Farm-to-table restaurant Lucia's is closing after 32 years

The beef hasn't arrived yet, and it's his one day "off." Once the ribs arrive, he'll be cleaning them for hours. None of the pastry chefs that the restaurant was once known for remain on staff, so Bergo has been doing triple duty as chef, line cook, and baker. 

This reality is a symptom of restaurants all over the Twin Cities and beyond – a lack of staff that leaves the burden of endless work on what is often the one salaried employee – the chef. "I never want to make my employees come in extra early and kill themselves to work," he said.

The chef's "timeline"

He described a "timeline" of his experiences since taking over a restaurant that still had the name of its founder attached. In addition to being expected to "be the new Lucia Watson," he ticked off a laundry list from the timeline. 

The refrigerators did not hold temperature. Rashes of staff were fired, which resulted in "extreme losses of mental capital." There was a mass exodus of guests who left right along with Lucia, the demise of the parking lot, managerial changes of purchasing practices, the hiring of a corporate manager, and on and on. 

Whenever we lose a beloved local restaurant (and lately we've lost La Belle Vie, Heartland, Birdie, Saffron, the Strip Club, Victory 44, Upton 43, Haute Dish, Brewer's Table at Surly, Brasserie Zentral, Toast Wine Bar, Piccolo, Nye's, and the original Dulono's and Savoy) fingers are pointed. It's the city's fault! It's the diners' fault! It's the state of parking! It's the cost of food! It's the culinary shortage! 

But what if it's none of those things? What if, instead, it's all of them? 

I asked Bergo to send me a snapshot of his timeline, but he refused, saying I'd never be able to decipher his "Cro-Magnon writing." But it's too bad. It'd be a strong visual of what's at play when a respected eatery flames out. Or, as Bergo put it, "When you move into your dream house and realize the basement is on fire." 

Good restaurants are businesses that are kept alive by dreamers, and dreams by definition are ethereal. Bergo almost wants to tell his staff to go do something else, perhaps something on the ancillary side of restaurant work, so that they can still have a life. He's not complaining, but how does the industry remain viable if the daily reality is an absence of life outside the kitchen?

"I don't have any idea how to fix that," is his only answer.

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