Alumna Lucia Watson finds communities of local-food lovers at home and in France
By Kelly O’Brien
Lucia Watson always knew that she wanted to cook, but buying a house in France was never part of her plan. “It was a serendipitous, impulsive thing," she says, having said yes to a pair of friends who were looking for a partner to buy a 400-year-old house in Brittany. After seven years, four of them spent under major renovation, Maison de Granit is a second home, a place where Watson practices her French and finds inspiration in centuries-old French food practices.
Watson is known far and wide as the owner and chef at Lucia’s, the restaurant she opened in 1985 in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. Her commitment to locally grown, “honest" food has made her place a favorite among Twin Cities food lovers, and no less an organization than the James Beard Foundation has nominated her for a Best Chef in the Midwest award three times. In 2006 the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) awarded her its Commitment to Community award for her work with local farmers.
It’s this commitment that set her apart at the beginning of her career. Besides being one of the first restaurateurs to go local, she was among the first in the Twin Cities to open a wine bar. Her latest “opening"? A first-of-its-kind dog bar. Yes, a dog bar. On the sidewalk outside the wine bar sits an artist-designed tiled drinking fountain for dogs—a perfect addition in this pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.
Lucia is excited about the dog bar, but she really lights up when talking about her new Lucia’s To Go, essentially a deli featuring many of the foods that have helped her make her mark. She proudly shows off the homemade jams, hand-harvested wild rice, and sea salt from Brittany (more on that later), along with cases of tiny cakes, huge quiches, salads, and sandwiches—all sourced locally and made in the shop. Her two cookbooks—one on fresh fish, the other on cooking in the heartland—are also available. “I wanted it to feel like a Paris bistro," she explains, and it does, with its casual tables, high-quality food, and fabulous white marble countertop.
“I’ve always loved languages," says Watson. She came to the University of Minnesota to major in French after taking “a lot, a lot" of French and Latin in high school. Thinking she wanted to be a translator, she also took some Norwegian. Since college she’s added Spanish, and in one of her latest roles, as IATP board member, she hopes to put her language skills to a new use. “They go on global investigations, and I hope to go along to learn more about their work but also contribute" as a trilingual interpreter.
When she stays at Maison de Granit, she immerses herself in the culture of this unusual place, where all of the road signs are in both French and Breton and the villages have Celtic-sounding names. “I would love to learn Breton," she says. “I’m taking it on two words at a time, while still improving my French." The Web site for the house includes Watson’s accounts of Brittany’s festivals, unusual sites, and of course cooking for friends.
Clearly, one of the most exciting aspects of her second home is the community of like-minded people she has found in France. “One of my new friends in Brittany speaks Breton and harvests salt from his ancient marsh. He is passionate and knowledgeable about the ‘old ways’ of Breton and the simplicity and purity of cooking with what is available and seasonal. To be immersed in these traditions inspires and confirms what I am already doing."
Watson finds these practices affirming, especially coming from a country with such ancient cultural roots. “They have certain ways of making cider in Brittany that have been practiced for centuries, and that’s very precious. That’s what I’m about too—being true to the food."