“It’s fucking awful, just painful,” says Gavin Kaysen of the wicked sub-zero temperatures plaguing Minneapolis at this time of year. “But the summers are lovely.”
The James Beard Award winner, best known as Daniel Boulud’s longtime executive chef at Café Boulud, stunned loyal diners when he fled New York to open the white-hot Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood last fall. But for Kaysen, a Twin Cities-area native, the decision to return to the heartland, as well as his hometown’s budding restaurant scene, was a natural one.
“The initial hype was overwhelming. I never expected that much excitement or follow-through,” he says. “So, we’ve just been really busy every night, keeping the food consistent and delicious. Just like at any restaurant in any town in America, I still work 15 hours a day.”
The accrued knowledge of cooking with Boulud for more than a decade helped inform refined, Mediterranean-accented dishes like harissa-spiked bison tartare, and slow-cooked cod with black garlic and za’atar. At the same time, Spoon and Stable is a creative reflection of Kaysen’s childhood, which revolved around comforting, homespun recipes. With both parents working long hours, lavish home-cooked meals weren’t regular events. Instead, whipping up dinner became Kaysen and his brother’s domain. “My go-to was the crockpot,” he recalls. “It was a pedestrian upbringing. There wasn’t a lot of fresh produce. But I baked a lot with my grandmother and I was surrounded by foods like chicken and meatloaf.”
You dream of working with a guy like Daniel, but never do you expect him to believe in you the way you believe in him.
At 16, Kaysen “met the right guy at the right time” in restaurateur George Serra, who wooed the precocious teen away from sandwich-slinging at Subway to his own kitchen at Pasta Time. “I got the restaurant bug and wanted to take what I was doing to another level. I was the first person in our family who didn’t go to college for business. I did what I loved,” he says.
After graduating from the New England Culinary Institute, Kaysen cooked in Europe, including a stint in London at L’Escargot under the madcap Marco Pierre White. Next came San Diego, where he gained wider buzz as the executive chef of El Bizcocho. Cooking together at several events, he also caught the eye of Boulud, who ultimately hand-picked him to run Café Boulud.
“I didn’t try out. I didn’t apply. I never even gave him my resume. I knew that it would be a life-changing event, and it was. Working with him was my PhD,” Kaysen says. “He uses his power in a way that inspires and enriches so many lives. When he became an investor in my restaurant, it was like a stamp of approval. You dream of working with a guy like Daniel, but never do you expect him to believe in you the way you believe in him.”
With Spoon and Stable jammed nightly, it’s clear that Twin Cities locals believe in Kaysen as well. From puff pastry made by a master, to a memorable first brush with foie gras, these are 10 of the classic dishes that have given this hard-working Midwestern boy the encouragement to reclaim—and reimagine—his roots.
Crisp paupiettes of sea bass in Barolo sauce at Café Boulud (New York, NY)
I made this potato-wrapped sea bass at Café Boulud for eight years. It’s such a special dish because it has so much history. Even before I started cooking it, I knew Daniel had gone home to Lyon, saw Paul Bocuse’s potato-crusted rouget, and it inspired him so much that it led to the sea bass at Le Cirque. When they renovated Daniel and took it off the menu I asked him if we could put it on Café Boulud’s. He was flattered and happy. It has only three ingredients besides the fish: potato, leeks, and red wine. It seems so simple and correct, but it’s extremely difficult to cook a dish with such soul. No matter how many times we made it, around 40 or 50 a night, every time I saw it leave the kitchen, I got excited. That dish always spoke to me. (Photo: Thomas Schauer)
Salmon en croute at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, France)
I’ve had the pleasure of eating with Paul Bocuse at his restaurant several times. The first was in the kitchen, in his corner office, and they presented this iconic dish: a whole salmon cooked in puff pastry that is given scales with a ring mold. Until then, I didn’t realize how little I knew about cooking fish. I remember having dinner there with a group of people and he sent the salmon. Most of us were enamored with it, but some couldn’t believe this was a 3-star restaurant, and that the dish was too simple. They didn’t understand the complexity behind cooking something so classically perfect every night. (Photo: Foodspotting)
Fusilli with octopus and bone marrow at Marea (New York, NY)
As a chef, when you create a menu you think of how you can make something craveable. This is a craveable dish. It’s so fucking good. Even in Minnesota, I think about it at least once a week and say, I need to have it. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Cod brandade at Avec (Chicago, IL)
I love their chorizo-stuffed dates, too, but the brandade is just so, so good. For me it’s about the texture. Usually brandade is over-whipped or too starchy, but theirs is light and mousse-like. The olive oil is extraordinary and it brings the right bitterness and heat to the dish. I also love the simplicity of it. We focus too much on making food that’s new and original. Why not just execute something great? (Photo: Chefs Feed)
Chicken for Two at the Nomad (New York, NY)
With chicken, people are like, how hard can it be? What’s the big secret? In actuality, the way the Nomad makes this one is mind-blowing. It’s just cooked so well. The first time I had it I was with my wife, John Fraser, and Grant Achatz. There was a moment during our dinner when we were all just eating it in total silence. (Photo: Franesco Tonelli/The Nomad)
Trout almondine at Bouchon
I love trout, I love almonds, and I love haricots verts, which I’m always cooking with at home. The trout almondine, to me, stands out at Bouchon. It’s a restaurant that just does all the classics right—which is probably why we don’t hear so much about it these days. (Photo: Deborah Jones/Epicurious)
Foie gras torchon at the French Laundry (Yountville, CA)
I asked my roommate for a reservation at the restaurant where she was working, which was called the French Laundry. She said it would be tough, but she got one and I went for lunch with my parents. I was 20 and I had no idea I was eating at the French Laundry, but it was awesome. I had the foie gras torchon with figs and celery. It was the first time I ever ate foie gras, and it was the first time I ever ate a fig. I had no idea what I was eating, so I asked the captain. He told me foie gras was duck liver, and I didn’t know what to think of that; I just really liked the texture. At the end of the meal I said I’d like to meet the chef, and Thomas Keller himself gave me a tutorial on foie gras. It was the best way to experience a new restaurant. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Scallop ceviche at Empellón Cocina (New York, NY)
Alex Stupak is brilliant, from the complexity of his dishes, to how he plates them. It’s inspiring how he gained the trust of the dining public with his move from pastry to Mexican. How he did that is something I continue to try and learn from. One of my favorites is his scallop ceviche. It changes all the time, but the last time I was there it was bay scallops with mango and lime. In terms of ingredients it sounds predictable, but Alex’s food is secretive and he creates the right balance, so I always love what I’m eating. (Photo: Empellon)
Marc Veyrat’s Cheese Cart (Annecy, France)
When I was working in Switzerland, at L’Auberge de Lavaux, I went to Annecy, France, to eat at Marc Veyrat’s restaurant. He had a cheese cart that was three levels; one of them was devoted to 90 kinds of goat cheese. In Switzerland, I was educating myself on what cheese meant to the European dining experience, but I never expected it to be as soigné. This blew my mind because it was an attention to detail that, at this point of my life, I didn’t know existed for cheese. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Burgers at DBGB (New York, NY)
I love burgers, but I feel like everyone can make a great one. At DBGB, I watched them test the recipes for theirs for six months. It wasn’t like they said, “Hey, let’s just put a burger on the menu.” This wasn’t some pre-ground patty, and we tasted so many different buns. I saw how much care went into every piece of the recipes. It was just such an incredibly thoughtful process. (Photo: E. Kheraj)