Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Gavin Kaysen at Spoon and Stable
A few months ago my good friend Gavin Kaysen gave me a hard-hat tour of Spoon and Stable, his new restaurant in the North Loop. After becoming one of the most internationally regarded chefs, he’s returning to his hometown to open a place of his own—his first. It’s safe to say that no Minneapolis restaurant has been this hotly anticipated since Aquavit came to town in 1999. Aquavit had a famous face attached to it—the brilliant chef Marcus Samuelsson. The food was world-class, the service was crisp, and it had integrity. Aquavit was also expensive, ahead of its time for Minneapolis, and didn’t generate the attention it deserved.
But in the decade since the demise of that Ghost of Sweden, a new vibe has permeated the local dining scene. A bucketful of James Beard Awards and nominations has established our corner of paradise in the minds of diners across the nation. What was considered fly-over country is now a national thought leader in the food space. At the same time, real estate in New York has become so expensive that Danny Meyer, the greatest restaurateur of his generation, can’t afford to renew his lease at Union Square Café in the neighborhood that, ironically, he made popular. He is not alone. And this, my friends, is what brings us to Spoon and Stable, opening this month.
Gavin Kaysen, who was practically a baby when he took over El Bizcocho in San Diego, Calif., has won accolade after accolade. He was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2007 and received the 2008 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef. He’s done everything from making Subway sandwiches in Bloomington, where he grew up, to working for Marco Pierre White in London. Most recently, he’s been Daniel Boulud’s right hand at Café Boulud in New York City. He is simply one of the best chefs in the world. And now he’s opening a restaurant in Minneapolis. His return is one of the reasons the next Brooklyn, the next Wicker Park, the next Portland, will be the Twin Cities (and truthfully, lots of other places in America). Most of the great cooks in the world hail from “somewhere else,” and global food capitals are becoming too expensive for artist entrepreneurs.
But Kaysen, who lives in Edina with his wife, Linda, and two kids, doesn’t want to talk about that. He’s a tough guy with the soul of an artist and an eye for design. He’s a bit of a Francophile and a repressed entrepreneur. He’s gritty and ambitious. And he is going to usher in the next generation of dining in Minnesota. We recently sat down to catch up. We could have talked for days. These are the highlights of our conversation.
What was it about your family and about Minnesota that got the food jones started for you?
It started when I was 15. My mom basically said, “You need to get a summer job. You’ve got to do something, because you’re driving me nuts.” I got a job at the Subway in Centennial Lakes, which is still there.
We had to cut our own lettuce, make our cold cut combo packages, and cut the tomatoes like it was the real deal. The line was really long, and I realized if I could memorize what your order was, because you came in every day, I could do more covers every day. Then this guy moves in next door named George Serra (he’s still here in Minnesota) and opens up a fast‑casual restaurant called Pasta Time. George would come in every Saturday, order a tuna fish sandwich on a bun. I’d make it. He’d pay, walk out the door, throw it in the trash, and go back into his restaurant. One day I said, “George, why do you bother coming in here if you don’t ever eat the sub?” And he’s like, “I just like to watch how you are with the guests. I think I need somebody like you. I’ll pay you a dollar more an hour than what you’re making now.” I literally took off my Subway shirt right there and said, “Done. Let’s go.”
A dollar an hour was big.
Huge. George is a French‑Italian guy, super spunky, and while George didn’t teach me how you braise, how you sear, et cetera, he taught me the bug—that passion.
I remember my mom and dad sitting down with George when I was 16 years old because he wanted to bring me to some event out of state, and my parents were like, “No fucking way. You’re not doing this. Are you kidding me?” They sat down with George and he said, “No, you have to understand. He’s got this gift. You’ve got to let him go with it.”
Were you good in the kitchen when you got to George’s? I’m not trying to degrade your lettuce-chopping or tomato-slicing skills, but . . . ?
No, not essentially. I didn’t understand how to sauté—I’d never done that. But as a kid, I baked cookies with my grandmother, I made meatloaf with my grandmother, I made pot roast and roast beef. I used to fill up our Crock-Pot with chicken or beef with vegetables and a broth, and then turn it on before I’d go to school and then come home and dinner was ready. Because my mom and dad were so busy working, somebody had to—it was either that or we were going to come home and eat bagels and cereal.
What happened after high school?
I went to University of Wisconsin Oshkosh for a year, and I majored in partying. And then I came back after that year and I sat down with my mom and my dad and I said, “I have to go to culinary school. I’m wasting time and energy and money going to college. I don’t have any interest in anthropology.” I knew that I wanted to cook from the day I started to work with George. I actually remember that day: I was driving to work and I thought, This is what I’ll do for the rest of my life. There wasn’t any question.
I find it interesting that you’re talking about cooking, but I know you’re very hospitality-oriented. A lot of chefs are focused on the plate—you’re the opposite.
I think that comes a lot from both my grandmother and my mom. That’s how my mom is—very hospitable and so amazing with her details. It’s insane. The flowers are perfect, the silverware is perfect, the napkin rings match the flowers or whatever’s on the table. I remember the simplicity of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother and then seeing my brother and all of my cousins’ faces light up over nothing more than just a little tin of cookies that we made. Seeing how easy it was to make somebody smile with some flour, sugar, egg, vanilla, and maybe some sprinkles—that’s what drove me.
Then culinary school. I went to New England Culinary Institute, and it was awesome, because it was hands‑on. It was seven students to one teacher—that’s a kitchen. I loved that pressure. Culinary school helps you see what you need to know in terms of the basics, but you still have to find out who you are as a cook, which you don’t find out for a long time, because once you get out of culinary school, you go work for a chef and cook his or her food. You might do that for five to eight years and then you’re a chef. That’s when you really have to sit down and say, “What is my food? I don’t know what my food is. I’ve always cooked X.” When I became a chef for the first time, my menu was literally pulling out recipes that I’d cooked the last 10 years and saying, “OK, how can I make it not look like their food but with all their recipes?”
How did you wind up in San Diego?
My first internship was in Napa Valley at Domaine Chandon. I worked there for six months and learned so much about food and wine. It was the first time I went out to a garden and pulled beets out of the ground, picked all of the micro greens with the farmer, went to the peach orchards. Those six months were an epiphany, because I realized where food came from. You look at a farmer’s hands and see how dirty they are—dirt under the nails. That’s an instant connection of: Don’t mess up the food because that person worked extremely hard to get it to you.
From Napa I went back to Vermont to finish school, then to Switzerland at L’Auberge de Lavaux for the international internship, then to London, with a quick stop in Sweden with Linda—Linda’s Swedish—and then San Diego. When I showed up in Switzerland, the chef asked me, “Are you coming to learn, or are you coming to make money?” I said, “Chef, I’m coming to learn. If you could just pay me enough to pay rent.” He said, “How much is rent?” I said, “It’s $400 a month.” He said, “We’ll pay you $450.”
We would be closed on Sundays and Mondays, so I asked what I should I do. Chef said, “You take the train to Italy, or you take the train to Paris, or you take a flight to London. You just go eat.”
Then you landed in London.
The chef I worked for in Switzerland said, “You have to go stage at this guy’s restaurant in London. I want you to check it out. He’s a friend of mine. He just got his third Michelin star.” I said, “OK. What’s his name?” He said, “Gordon Ramsay.” I had no idea who he was.
It was a beautiful restaurant on Royal Hospital Road, but I didn’t have a visa. He wanted me to go back to the United States for six months, wait for the visa, and return. But I didn’t want to wait that long. So he said, “Go down to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant, Piccadilly Circus. It’s not three‑star anymore, but that was his three‑star flagship.” So I go to Marco’s restaurant, and literally get pulled in through the back door by a friend of a friend who says, “This kid is American. He’s got no visa, but he wants a job.”
“Great, put him in pastries with the boys.” I did pastries for a while, and then the sous chef walks me to his buddy’s restaurant, L’Escargot, also run by Marco, and I do a stage with a guy named Tommy Rains, who we called “the bulldog.” If you lasted a one‑day stage with Tom, you were hired; that was the rule. I loved him. It was the most passionate kitchen and the hardest kitchen I’ve ever worked in in my life.
In New York in the ’80s, you’d make a side deal for your overtime.
We’d work 14 hours a day, but six of those hours were off the books for cash, or drugs, or a case of wine, whatever it was. It was an unbridled era. The second time Marco walked in the L’Escargot kitchen, we had pomme fondant. Pomme fondant was on my section. I had six pomme fondant left, and we had eight people come into the restaurant. So if six out of the eight ordered the tasting menu, which was very likely, I was good. Marco literally walked in and said, “Chef, how many left on the books?” I said, “Eight, Chef.” He said, “How many fondants do you have?” I said, “Six, Chef.” He says, “Do you think that’s enough?” I said, “I’m hoping so, Chef.” He says, “Do you have more?” I said, “I don’t.” He grabbed one and he ate it. Now I had five.
Did you say to him, “Hey, don’t touch my fucking fondant”?
No way. I just watched him eat it and melted inside and looked at the guy next to me and said, “Go get me more potatoes.” The next time he came in, he grabbed another one, and the second he put it in his mouth, I pulled four more from underneath that were already cooked and ready. He looked at me, winked, and walked away.
Then you and Linda hit San Diego.
We literally put a map up of the United States, we threw darts, and we hit San Diego. I met up with a guy named Patrick Ponsaty, and he was the only chef to interview me in French, which I loved. I love that he challenged my language. Then, I had an interview with his executive chef who said, “Well, we don’t really have a position. I think you’re overqualified, honestly.” So I went back to Patrick and said, “Chef, it looks like I’m not going to work for you. Your executive chef just told me he doesn’t have room for me.” He said, “I have room for you tomorrow. Show up tomorrow.” So I show up the next day—there’s one less guy than the day before. When Patrick was let go by the hotel, I was 24 years old. I walked into the food and beverage director’s office and said, “Stan, I don’t really see you having many options right here for another chef. I think you should give me the job. Come upstairs tonight, at 7:30, and I’ll cook you a meal. If you find it sufficient enough to give me the chef position, I’d be honored to take the job.” It was a super naïve, cocky thing to do. I cooked him lamb loin with foie gras and spinach and fingerling potatoes, apple tarte Tatin, because I had made that tarte Tatin for Marco a gazillion times, so I knew it. He gave me the job.
We were six cooks. Brandon Rodgers, who’s now the chef de cuisine at Benu, was a cook. Sam Benson, who’s the second-in-command for Chipotle, was one of my cooks. We had an incredible crew of people that were just young, hungry, and talented. It was just such an exceptional place. Then we started to get press. Then Food & Wine magazine named me a Best New Chef in 2007, and that was the blast off.
It was around that time that you started your extraordinary friendship with Daniel Boulud. Did he bring you to New York?
I always said to my wife, “If there’s any person that I have to work for before I go off again, I have to work for Daniel [Boulud].” I was obsessed with how he motivated people, inspired people, mentored people, all of that.
What are the main things that you took from your experience there?
Spontaneity, hospitality, mentorship, drive, and community. If a new chef comes into New York, Daniel’s the first one to embrace that chef publicly. And he does that for the right reason. I could take a back seat and watch him in the spotlight to see how he handled it. How does he handle it when the new young cook comes into town? How does he handle it when one of his trusted chefs leaves? How does he handle it when a review goes wrong? It makes you realize that there’s more to it than cooking: it’s the relationship.
And you can put that into place with your first restaurant now.
About four and a half years into my post with Daniel, I sat down with him and I said, “Chef, I don’t know when, but I’m sure at some point in my life I’m going to want to leave and open my own restaurant. I have no idea when that is. I just want to have that conversation with you, because I think I can learn a lot from you now that you know that.”
Until you build something on your own from scratch, every box isn’t checked on your résumé? No question. And at the end of the day, there’s that one box that until it’s built, until it’s up and running, until it is successful, and until people applaud it, yeah, the box isn’t checked yet.
There’s a different vibe here in the Twin Cities chef community than in New York. What’s it been like for you coming back into it? What excites you?
What excites me about the food community in Minneapolis is that they’re equal to or more excited than I am right now about Spoon and Stable. Their support is amazing. Alex Roberts, Isaac Becker, Tim McKee, and Steven Brown all sent me their purveyor information—who their farmers are. Paul Berglund from The Bachelor Farmer sent me a great contact the other day for somebody who helps him get through winter with their vegetables. That’s really an incredible way of showing hospitality beyond just inside of a restaurant. That excites me. It excites me to see that they’re excited, and it really excites me to see that they’re willing to help us, because, you know, it’s a win‑win.
I believe that the Twin Cities has arrived as a food destination. With the opening of Spoon and Stable, and then when Brut opens, plus a couple more places, we will be a fully formed restaurant city. One of the things that proves it, I think, is that you’ve decided to come here when you could have opened anywhere in the world. Are you bringing in any out‑of‑towners or folks who have worked for you in other restaurants?
We received résumés from literally all over the world, which is absolutely absurd to me. To think that somebody’s out there looking and seeing what this is about and saying I want to be a part of it and that it’s in Minneapolis proves what you just said about it being a full‑on food town. Geographically, as a cook, you don’t care where you live because you don’t see outside enough to care. All you care is that you go to a place where you’re going to be educated and learn on a daily basis, that you’re going to get pushed and it’s going to make your career better than where you are today.
A very good friend of mine, who was a general manager for me in Café Boulud called and said, “Chef, I quit my job. I’m moving to Minneapolis to help you with this restaurant.” That’s crazy. It’s exciting, too, because it’s one of the things that is going to help separate Spoon and Stable from other restaurants. But more importantly, it’s going to help highlight what’s happening in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, because it’s more than just another B-restaurant community.
Last question: Where have you been eating and what have you been liking?
I’d say Heyday has stood out for me. I think Jim Christiensen is a good cook, but I think what he does differently is that he’s a very thoughtful, thoughtful chef with his food. Corner Table, probably some of the most consistent meals I’ve had in Minneapolis. I’ve eaten there a couple of times, and Thomas Boemer cooks with a lot of soul, and you feel that. And then another one of the meals that I really loved is Hola Arepa. They cook with good soul, and I think they’re still doing what they did when they had the truck. I never ate their food from the food truck, but to me it doesn’t feel as if they’re trying to be anything else. They are who they are.