There Are No Thorns With These Fine Roses
September 11, 2021
by Jeff Olsen
Larry Rose, a southern Minnesota import who became a local institution and cooked for kings and paupers, muleskinners and plumbers, first arrived in Roseau in 1970.
Except for two years as an Army draftee when he served as a chef's assistant at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania from 1971-73, the Morris native has been a mainstay at Nelson's Cafe for a half century.
For any number of newcomers to the cafe, he was Larry Nelson.
He finally walked out the door for the final time on Tuesday afternoon, August 31.
For a total of 49 years, Mr. Rose and his wife, Donna, were like family to everyone who came into the cafe.
Basically, it was fate that he ever came to Roseau. He'd never even heard of it.
Credit Ed Turenne, who bought Nelson's Cafe from Emil and Marie Nelson in 1969, for recruiting Larry out of college to work at one of his restaurants.
Had there been no Ed Turenne, who hailed from International Falls, it's unlikely Larry ever would have made it to this neck of the woods.
A Little History
Here's the scoop on his much cherished dumplings.
"I learned how to make potato dumplings from the ladies working here when I first arrived," he said, adding that he hasn't been making them for the last month or so.
"Holly Sampson has been making them. She started job shadowing me when she was taking culinary classes online and left briefly to work at Polaris before returning," he said, standing in the cafe kitchen frying eggs and hash browns.
He's had a lot of faithful customers. He just can't place a name to many of the faces.
"I can tell you when I see them what they eat, but I can't tell you their names. And most of them call me Larry Nelson. I don't even correct them anymore."
The plumbing Beito brothers know his name. They've been eating in the joint for many decades.
The old chef grinned when it was mentioned that he can bake or cook just about anything.
"For the most part I can if I have an idea what goes into it. Or, I look at a recipe and then I do it my way just so I get the same ingredients in it. I'm not real good at following recipes to the letter."
He's happy to share his recipes.
"When people want a recipe, I always tell them it's dump and pour. You dump some of this and you pour some of that."
As a high school student, he had worked in a nightclub at a golf course outside of Morris.
He started out washing dishes and moved up to short-order cook before attending Moorhead Tech.
"Ed Turenne came down to the school and hired me. I went to The Rex in Thief River for a week, and then he brought me up to Roseau. I had no idea where Roseau was."
Uncle Sam's Man
He has good memories of his two years in the Army when he served as what he calls a "glorified houseboy" to Major General Franklin Davis and his wife, Erma.
"They were really nice to me," he said recently, adding that they had suggested that he stay at their house when they were out of town.
It was like a mansion with eight bedrooms.
He was told to make himself at home and enjoy the food and beverages, which he most certainly did.
They even recommended that he stay in the Army and make it a career.
That was never in the plans since there was a special gal back here.
The former Donna Olson, a Wannaska area farm girl with spunk and spirit, grew up with a two-seater outhouse and few other plush amenities.
She was destined to be a waitress. She's as outgoing as a chorus girl and can brighten up a hangover. If any customers came in crabby, they left with smiles.
"I started at Nelson's Cafe at 16 and was here before Larry arrived in 1970," she said.
About the time they became a steady pair, Uncle Sam had him in his sights.
It was the Vietnam War and cooks are important.
"He went into the service the day before I graduated from high school," she said, noting that their relationship had started rather casually.
"He asked me to the show and didn't even know what the show was. So, I knew he was interested in me. That was our first date and I made him pay."
What was the movie?
"I don't remember," she laughed, recalling that he held her hand and maybe even kissed her.
Larry has always been low key.
"I didn't know if we'd get married. He hadn't proposed," she said, adding that he encouraged her to move to the Cities for a couple of years.
"I didn't enjoy it down there. I worked at the Minneapolis Credit Bureau, and I was writing to him almost every day."
Whether he wrote back as frequently, she didn't say. He came back to Nelson's Cafe in May 1973.
"We got married on April 19, 1975," she said.
They've always had their routine. He's the first one at the cafe by 5:30 in the morning and has been doing his potato dumplings at Nelson's Cafe since 1970.
She calls him Lar, which rhymes with wear.
"He just calls me Donna. Sometimes he calls me Donna Dear, but not very often," she said, giggling like a teenybopper.
For the last couple of years, she had cut wsBut she hasn't forgotten.
"We had the best customers - loyal and happy. That's why I loved being a waitress. Everyone was so nice and kind. They're my friends, and I love them."
She is renowned for her hugs and should be called Mama Rose for making her customers feel like family.
The Old Pro
He's 70 and she's 68.
They finally found the right buyer - The Brickhouse in Roseau.
Seeing Larry leaving the joint is like watching the great ones like Hank Aaron and Stan Musial retire.
Larry is the Larry Bird of cooks and the Ted Williams of bakers.
Nobody wants to see him go.
"But there comes a time when you just can't do it anymore. It's a physical job," said Donna, noting that they always had good help.
More Army Memories
After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Larry worked long hours at Carlisle Barracks where Major General Franklin Davis and his wife, Erma, entertained the visiting dignitaries and colonels.
"There was a sergeant who worked with me in the kitchen. I didn't do the main cooking. The sergeant did," he said, adding that their hours varied.
"If they had guests at the house, we were there early. It was the war college where all the colonels went to school for a year to become generals. All the parties were done through their house," he said, recalling that they served over 5,000 guests during those two years.
"Most of them were sit-down dinners of 12 to 18 people two to three nights a week. We had to serve all the people, clean up afterwards, and do the dishes."
But they ate good.
And they served fine booze and sampled that, too.
"I developed a fondness for Lord Calvert," he said smiling.
He's a Roseau legend.
Forever, most of his customers thought he owned the cafe.
"We didn't buy it from Ed Turenne until October 1998," he said, explaining that Mr. Turenne had basically leased the cafe to them.
Not even four years after they bought it, the Roseau flood of 2002 did extensive damage to their cafe.
Larry didn't hire a crew to clean out the muck or remove the linoleum and sheetrock. He and friends did the dirty work.
It was back to square one, according to Donna, who noted that they had to borrow from the bank again.
Every day now is his favorite day. He and Donna park their camper at Cass Lake.
"I don't do any fishing. I just sit there and do nothing. I like eating walleye, but I like it even better when somebody brings me the walleye. I'll never turn walleye down."
He's a happy camper!
A week ago Wednesday outside Nelson's Cafe, a gentleman strolled up to the cafe, which was closed and under new management.
It reopened after Labor Day.
He was asked if he ever ate Larry's potato dumplings?
"Hell, yes! Whenever I could," he said.
Shortly, Normie Flagstad, the former owner of Coast True Value who still works there four days a week, summed it all up.
For Mr. Flagstad, 79, it's the end of a great half century.
"He absolutely will be difficult to replace. Nobody will work as hard as he did, and nobody will get as good at cooking specialties as he was," he said, adding that Larry had three or four items that everybody just always craved.
"And, of course, Dumpling Day filled Main Street, and you couldn't even find a parking place."
He's hopeful that the new owners will have the recipes to keep the customers satisfied.
"He had great food and his hot beef was wonderful and everybody talked about his food. He's going to be dearly missed."
He wasn't leaving out Larry's better half.
"His wife was the best hugger in the world and a hard worker, too. They came every morning and worked until they were done. It's going to be tough to replace them. You know, maybe, if they can keep a cook. A good cook is hard to find, and it's tough to keep them."
Take it from Normie.
It's hard work that makes a successful joint, and the Roses set a very high bar.