Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Conversation with Chef Gavin Kaysen

"I'm going to Minnesota" I told people when they asked about my summer travel plans. "Why would you go there?" was often the response. Besides a friend getting married at a lakeside resort just south of the Canadian border, I would also be visiting family in Minneapolis. Until May of this year family and friends would have been my only reasons to travel to this state of 10,000 lakes.

What happened in May that suddenly made Minnesota more interesting to me? I heard Chef Gavin Kaysen speak at Terroir Symposium in Toronto. Terroir's program has many compelling speakers on topics relating to food, but it was the passion in Chef Kaysen's voice when speaking about his Ment'or BKB Foundation that had me intrigued. When I found out his restaurant was in his hometown of Minneapolis, I was excited about adding a bit of culinary tourism to my trip.

Little did I know that visiting Minnesota and getting to know Chef Kaysen would actually make me feel quite at home, and not like I was traveling at all.


The glass doors come up and seating is created outside
resulting in a relaxed patio atmosphere for guests.

When I arrived at Spoon and Stable in the trendy North Loop neighbourhood of Minneapolis that sunny Tuesday afternoon, I felt a bit like I was in the Distillery District in my former home city, Toronto. Historically a warehouse district, the North Loop has an industrial vibe, mixed with modern amenities to please any thirtysomething hipster: yoga studios, coffee shops, high end boutiques filled with handcrafted pieces by local artisans, and of course, fantastic restaurants that focus on local, seasonal, sustainable cuisine. Spoon and Stable has been open for two years, and it has not had a slow night since. The popularity of Spoon and Stable could be due to the hip neighbourhood; or it could also be because of Chef Kaysen's pedigree, having trained under Daniel Boulud, won silver with Team USA in the Bocuse D'Or, and been a guest judge on Top Chef (I must admit that's how I first came to know him); but something tells me the food and service is in large part the reason why the restaurant had reservations for 180 on a Tuesday night in August. Read the account of my dinner at Spoon and Stable here. 

I loved this vintage mailbox detail in the foyer.

Walking into the restaurant I was greeted with a smile by the friendly staff, and while I waited to speak to the chef, I spied the bartenders prepping beets for a specialty cocktail they would serve later that night. As I walked over to the banquette where Chef Kaysen was sitting with his computer and paperwork, I noticed the open kitchen with chefs bustling around testing a tomato, feta, basil, saba vinaigrette and compressed watermelon appetizer. The dish was plated and photos were snapped, and then forks dug in for a taste.



After a warm handshake and a smile, I sat down with Chef Gavin for our conversation. I instantly felt welcomed and relaxed. He had an ease about him, and we instantly started talking about food. Like many who have written about him, I also wanted to know why he moved from New York back to Minneapolis, but I made the decision not to ask that question right away. I decided I'd like to know more about him as a person, a chef, a family man, and a Minnesotan.

Gavin's desire to become a chef first sparked when he baked Christmas cookies with his grandmother Dorothy. He was 7. When he saw the smiles on his brothers and cousins' faces when the cookies were served to them, he was "excited and inspired by something as simple as Christmas cookies". "That was when I knew I would do something to do with food with my life", he said. Today, Gavin continually honours his grandmother and the effect she had on him and his culinary career. You can see her in the pillows, which are covered in fabric with her handwriting on it. You can see her in the coffee, which is also named after Grandma Dorothy.



Family played a big part in Chef Kaysen's journey to becoming a chef. Growing up, his parents rarely cooked, and since the age of 12, it was his and his brother's job to cook dinner two nights a week each. "Since I was the youngest I ended up cooking more", he joked. On his cooking days, he would wake up in the morning and mix up what he called his "potions", often using a crock pot and Betty Crocker's cookbooks. He made pot roast, meatloaf, chicken dishes, and a leg of lamb marinated in yogurt. Friday nights were pasta nights, as they often had hockey games on Saturdays and they needed the carbo-load.

His brother created this beautiful spoon-themed art piece.


These days he's still the main cook in the household, although his wife and kids also enjoy cooking. Recently he made pork chops marinated in harissa paste with coconut milk, ginger, scallions, and fish sauce, and served it with a succotash of corn. I asked him if his kids liked his cooking, to which he told me that there is one rule in the house about food "You have to try what Daddy cooks". His kids love food and will try everything once, but like most kids they have their mac and cheese type favourites. Family meals often start with what's fresh and growing in the garden: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, herbs and cucumbers are summer staples.

At Spoon and Stable, tomatoes are the star in late summer, and they get them, as well as many other vegetables, from a local supplier called Pork and Plants. The restaurant also sources fresh produce from local markets, and from their hydroponic herb garden in the basement.



Gavin tells me that the food philosophy at Spoon and Stable is all about "breaking boundaries, amending traditions, and redefining fine dining." His goal is to break down the notion of fine dining from white tablecloths and lofty prices to something more approachable. He wants to provide great food, service and ambiance for his guests. It's not surprising that having worked under Chef Daniel Boulud, his style is rooted in French cuisine, but it's also based on local, sustainable product. He tells me that in the midwest the style of cooking he adopts is often referred to as "fanatically seasonal fare" as the weather changes so often, chefs who choose to source ingredients seasonally are often bound to what's fresh and seasonal any given day.

After much of my own internal protest, I decide to ask him the question so many have asked before, "Why did you leave New York to return to Minneapolis, and what has the experience been like coming home?", and he graciously answers. "Being back is great," he says, as he humbly admits that it is wonderful that the restaurant has been successful, and been well received both locally and nationally. "My personal family life is awesome," he smiles and states that although he loves New York, "it's nice to be able to hear the trees swaying in the wind at home and see the beautiful green grass." Family closeness and continuing family traditions also played a large part in his decision to come home.

"Going out to eat is more about the people I am with than what I'm eating."~ Chef Gavin Kaysen


I reflect upon this and realize that he's right when he says, "if the food is good, people find you. Look at Faviken", referring to the remote yet wildly popular and critically acclaimed restaurant run by Chef Magnus Nilssen in Jarpen, Sweden.  With so many chefs vying for a successful career in the larger cities, it does seem to be becoming more popular for chefs to head home and open their own restaurants, bringing their culinary skills and experience back to the place where they grew up.

"You have to be true to who you are and believe in what you do", Chef Kaysen says. With this in mind, I ask him about his work with the Ment'or BKB Foundation. Inspired by the world famous international culinary competition, The Bocuse D'or, at which Chef Kaysen and the USA team won the silver medal in January of this year, the Ment'or BKB Foundation's mission is to:
"build a sustainable community of young American professionals that are knowledgeable and confident in their career pursuits and will be life-long ambassadors of quality and excellence in the world of gastronomy. The organization is dedicated to making the careers of serious young individuals more meaningful and successful by offering them unique educational opportunities, internships and access to a Culinary Council of established mentors(www.mentorbkb.org/about)."
 The foundation has three main programs, all focused on mentorship:
  • Offering Grants as continuing educational opportunities for culinary professionals looking to expand their education and skill set
  • Identifying and promoting young chefs through the “Young Chef Competition Series”
  • Selecting and training the most promising young chefs to represent the Bocuse d’Or Team USA at the world’s most prestigious culinary competition

I ask Chef Kaysen to tell me more about his involvement in the foundation. "It has given us an opportunity to take our training to a new level", he says. After winning silver in the Bocuse D'or, the foundation was created in order to give back to the national chef community, and "to create an organization to find, train and motivate better cooks." He mentions being grateful for chefs like Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud, who "laid the foundation for chefs of my generation." Giving back to the chef community what was given to him does not sit lightly with Chef Kaysen, as he asks himself, "What is my responsibility to give back to the next generation?" He works hard daily with his staff of 80+ to make sure that they are constantly learning, honing their skills and evolving. "We take care of the guests who dine here," he says, "Why can't I take care of the person I stand next to 16 hours a day?"

People and family seem to be a recurring theme with Chef Kaysen, something to which I can relate. As we wrap up our conversation, I ask him what's next for Spoon and Stable. He expresses a goal toward constant evolution and creativity in the restaurant, and continuing to "create food that is crave-able". I found out first hand how crave-able the food at Spoon and Stable is - click here to read all about it. 

My conversation with Chef Kaysen, my dining experience at his restaurant Spoon and Stable, and my visits with family and friends ended up making Minnesota feel more like home than a place to visit. Now when people ask me why I would go to Minnesota, I can ask them, "Why wouldn't I?

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