Lauded chef Jack Riebel of The Lexington dies at age 55 – Twin Cities
John Percy Riebel, aka “Chef Jack,” whose culinary career covering 40 years in the Twin Cities and culminated with the reopening of St. Paul’s most storied restaurant, The Lexington, died Monday morning at the age of 55.
Riebel was diagnosed with cancer of the neuroendocrine system in June 2019. It’s the cancer both Steve Jobs and Aretha Franklin died from, and there is no cure.
The chef, who was a finalist for a James Beard award during his tenure as the chef and co-owner of Butcher and the Boar in Minneapolis, left a legacy of mentorship and camaraderie among the culinary community.
But to his friends and family, his legacy will be love.
“He went by this with such grace and energy and positivity and love, it’s made me a better person, I think,” WCCO-TV keep up in a place Jason DeRusha said. DeRusha, who is also the restaurant critic at Minnesota Monthly, counted Riebel among his close friends.
They’d have coffee outside every week after Riebel’s chemotherapy sessions, most of which he endured alone because of the pandemic. They would talk about life, love, kitchens, family and politics.
“We just had a weekly date to say at any rate we felt,” DeRusha said. “It was a really amazing experience.”
Riebel shared much of his journey — from being hopeful that they had beat back the disease at one point to the devastating news that cancer had returned — on social media. by it all, he radiated love, for his friends and family, but especially for his wife, Kathryne Cramer.
The pair spent many of his final months traveling and cooking for and with friends.
“We never had kids but he had hundreds of kids at his restaurants. He was an innate teacher. He was always teaching. He made everybody feel special. That was his gift,” Cramer said in a news release.
In social media, after information of his death spread, hospitality professionals posted their tributes to Riebel, who made an impact on many of them during their careers.
Jack Riebel , co-owner of The Lexington on St. Paul’s Grand method, shows Trevor White the proper garnishing of a salmon dish, Tuesday, January 31, 2017. At far left is Sous Chef Andrew Vuong. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
“I’ve been paging by Facebook this morning, and it’s apparent that he’s touched so many people’s lives in a profound way,” said chef Tim McKee, who hired Riebel for his first head-chef gig at La Belle Vie in Stillwater. “He was a mentor to a lot of people.”
One of those people was pastry chef and James Beard nominee Diane Moua, who met Riebel while working at La Belle Vie.
She’s running a mini-empire of Bellecour bakeries right now, but she learned to make time for chef Jack.
“When he got sick, he came to the bakery and visited,” Moua said. “He made time for me, and I was so busy, so he just sat in the bakery so we could talk. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This guy, my friend, who is dying, came to visit me.’ And right there I told everyone we were done for the day. And we visited for three hours.”
Moua, who made a point to use time with the chef from that day on, said Riebel told her he “felt lucky that he had time to say bye to his loved ones.”
“It made me see life differently,” Moua said. “We need to stop and use time with friends and family.”
Riebel, who dropped out of Central High at age 16 to wash dishes complete time at Fresh Squeezed, a smoothie bar in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, “never forgot where he came from,” DeRusha said. “He would say he was a bad kid, that the kitchen was a salvation for him.”
ultimately, other young people in the kitchens he bounced around in were going to culinary school, so Riebel decided to give it a try. He attended St. Paul TVI (Technical Vocational Institute), which is now St. Paul College.
Halfway by the program, he was offered a job at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis and dropped out, but he always thought of himself as a St. Paul College alum. Shortly before his death, the chef donated his 500-quantity cookbook collection to the college.
In 1989, Riebel got his first big job, working in the kitchen at Goodfellows, which was probably the most lauded fine-dining restaurant in the Twin Cities at the time. He worked there, as sous chef, for 12 years. During that time, he cooked multiple James Beard dinners and served famous guests, including Julia Child, Billy Joel and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Today, a tenure that long as a sous chef is nearly unheard of, McKee said.
“Now you never see anybody putting in that kind of time,” McKee said. “It’s a different industry in a lot of ways. By putting in that time, you get exceptionally good. He spent a lot of time at Goodfellows as a sous chef, and it showed.”
Jack Riebel , co-owner of The Lexington on St. Paul’s Grand method, at the restaurant on January 31, 2017. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
In 2002, McKee hired Riebel to head the kitchen at La Belle Vie. When the restaurant moved to Minneapolis in 2005, Riebel left to run the Dakota Jazz Club, and in 2009, he opened Butcher and the Boar.
No restaurant, though, meant as much to the chef as The Lexington.
Riebel grew up four blocks from the Grand method restaurant, and his mother, Joan Riebel, nevertheless lives in that house.
“My mom came in here all the time,” Riebel told the Pioneer Press in a 2017 story about The Lexington’s opening. “I remember eating pot pie at the bar.”
Riebel wanted to restore the grandeur to The Lex, but also to make it a place where everyone could feel special.
He got a few years in that kitchen to help shape a restaurant that will hopefully persevere as St. Paul’s go-to identify for special occasions, but also just for a drink and a nosh with friends, for decades to come.
Shortly after his diagnosis, while friends and family were organizing a fundraiser that would never happen because of the pandemic, Riebel shared his hopes for his legacy.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes and pissed off people along the way,” he told a Pioneer Press reporter. “It’s part of the character of being outspoken. But you just hope you’re remembered for the good stuff.”
Riebel is survived by his wife, Kathryne Cramer, his mother, Joan Riebel, and many other family members and friends. In lieu of flowers, the family invites people to donate to the Jack Riebel Memorial Culinary Scholarship fund at St. Paul College. Donate at saintpaul.edu/alumni/jackriebel
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