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Why Gavin Kaysen Left NYC to Open Minneapolis's Hottest Restaurant

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The ex-New York chef on opening his first restaurant, having Daniel Boulud as a mentor, and competition at the 2015 Bocuse d'Or.

All photos by Katie Cannon

Just a few days ago, chef Gavin Kaysen threw open the doors at Spoon and Stable, his highly anticipated debut restaurant in Minneapolis. Kaysen — a Twin Cities-area native — made a name for himself in nearly eight years at the helm of Café Boulud in New York City and as a coach on the 2015 Bocuse d'Or team. His departure from Daniel Boulud's restaurant group for Minneapolis sent major waves through both dining communities. But despite some challenges in finding the right restaurant space and a surprising build out, Kaysen remains positive about his decision to open in Minneapolis, saying "the amount of local support that we've had from the chefs, restauranteurs, breweries, everybody around town has really been exceptional."

Eater spoke with Kaysen on the day the restaurant opened to find out more about his transition from the New York City restaurant scene to Minneapolis. Kaysen also explains his lasting mentor relationship with Daniel Boulud and describes how working for Boulud has shaped his own approach to restaurant ownership. "Even though it's my restaurant, I still walk through Spoon and Stable every day and I think to myself, "What would Daniel do if he saw this? What would Daniel do if he walked in the door right now?" Read on for more and to see photos of the stunning space.

What is Spoon and Stable? How would you describe the cuisine and the experience of dining there?
Spoon and Stable is a casually approached restaurant ... I was thinking a lot about this last night. I sort of think about this every night which is, what's my food, how can I describe it to people? Because a lot of people ask you. They'll say, "Oh, what kind of food is it?" What they really want to know is it French, is it Chinese? What is it?

I've always thought to myself, the answer to that is sort of hard to come up with because a lot of it is an eclectic mix of traveling and inspiration that I've picked up. At Spoon and Stable we want it to be a rather focused and unique experience in Minneapolis. The people that are involved in it, we haven't seen here before and a lot of that is going off of that approachable dining experience for a guest. Where you can come in and you can have something that is as simple as a pot roast, and maybe as complex as a marinated fish that's been slowly cooked at a very controlled temperature. Where there's a lot of technique put inside of that. With that said, there's just as much, maybe even more technique in some ways for the pot roast.

"We really wanted the restaurant to be an extension of what my home would be."

Spoon and Stable is a 6,000 square foot restaurant. We have 30 seats in our bar and lounge. We have about 75 to 80 seats in our dining room, and another 40 seats in our private dining room. It's big. But to put it really simply, we really wanted the restaurant to be an extension of what my home would be. The kitchen is in the middle of the dining room, it sort of splits the dining room and the private dining room area. Anywhere you sit in the restaurant, you see the activity of the kitchen. There's not a lot of shelving inside of the kitchen to help the guests not have any sort of obstructions when they look into it.

The only shelving that's really there is something we built intentionally, which is really to create sort of market feel. There's a lot of beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables in these baskets. There's all of our bread for our bread service in these baskets. Something that I subconsciously picked up while living over in Europe or visiting there as I do every year. I sort of love that marche, that market feel of what's there is what's being cooked. In front of the baskets is the garde manger station and he has a basket full of beautiful, beautiful carrots. As a result we do a carrot dish. Something like that just seems to make more sense to me.

You grew up in the Twin Cities area. What about Minneapolis made you want to come back and open a restaurant there?
Great question. Honestly, I probably never thought about it much until the last couple years, to be honest. I sat down with Daniel [Boulud] a couple of years ago and I expressed interest in moving on. It was not an immediate thing, I just wanted to talked to him about it. He's one of my greatest mentors, and certainly one of my greatest friends. So I've always trusted what he says, and I always take his advice very carefully. When I sat down with him, and we talked about this opportunity ... not Minneapolis, but just going off and creating something on my own.

We never actually spoke about geography, which in hindsight is something I found quite interesting. I watched Minneapolis, and I watched the scene here grow and I wanted to be a part of it. It made me proud to see a a city that I grew up in that was once never really a part of a food conversation, was all of a sudden now part of this food conversation happening in America. I think a lot of it is due to you guys at Eater, and the media in general, because you folks have reached out to these markets that are considered the "b markets," and you've communicated what they've been trying to communicate, but on a national level. For chefs like myself who have spent close to a decade in New York City, it's helped us look at these cities and say, "Yeah, well, we can go there. There's talents there. There's the clientele that's there."

One of the reasons, I believe, that Minneapolis has become the food scene that it's become is because of the guests. The clientele are allowing us chefs to cook the way that we want to cook. Even the grocery stores, in the last five years here, have changed. We've got Whole Foods; you can buy fresh tamarind at the grocery store. I know in New York that doesn't seem like a big deal, but in Minneapolis that's kind of a big deal. I remember as a kid, going to the grocery store, and a majority of things were frozen or canned. I go to the grocery store now and it's like I'm getting tomatillos, fresh cactus, tamarinds, quail eggs. What I would find in any other city I've ever lived, basically.

You touched on this, but when did you seriously start thinking about leaving New York and striking out on your own?
"Am I leaving [New York] because I didn't make it, or am I leaving because it's on my own terms?Just to put it all in context, I worked for him for about seven and a half years. At about five and a half years into my job with him, I mentioned that I would like to move on at some point in my career and I don't know when that is. Then we didn't talk about it for a year. Neither one of us discussed it, and I don't think I was ready for it. I think when leaving a place like New York, you have to be ready for that. It means more than what I think people realize, because there's an internal fight that you have with yourself which is, "Well, am I leaving because I didn't make it, or am I leaving because it's on my own terms? Why am I leaving?" I think that probably took me a while to understand, because I wanted to reflect and make sure that it was the right decision.

Probably about a year after that, about six years into my run with Daniel, that's when he and I really started to sit down and discuss what that would mean. We tried to work out things that would make it worth me staying. We tried giving more responsibilities, we tried all sorts of different things that we thought would work, and so did I. I told him, Daniel, I wake up every single morning and I go to bed every single night wanting to do this and wanting to create my own restaurant. That was the day that he turned to me, and that he believed in me, and he supported me. With that support, it kind of felt like the sky was the limit.

It seems like you two have a remarkable relationship.
Very much so. It's funny. I never thought how much Daniel ... I've always known Daniel is a fountain. The speech that I'm going to give tonight at the opening party, which he'll be attending, there's a part of the speech where I thank him. I've said this speech out loud twice so I can practice it, and both times when I come across that part of the speech, I start to choke up. What I never realized in working for him as much as I did, and as closely as I did, is just how much of a relationship and a friendship we have, and how special that is to me.

I certainly never realized how much of him I am like. His spontaneity, the way that he motivates people, the way that he inspires people, the way that he resonates how important it is to be family when you're in a restaurant industry, and when you're in a company and a group of people as long as you are. Daniel is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever worked with, but he's a genius when it comes to creating culture. I guess I just never realized how much that affected me. As a result, I see myself doing that every day.

I still walk through Spoon and Stable every day and I think to myself, 'What would Daniel do if he saw this?'

Even though it's my restaurant, I still walk through Spoon and Stable every day and I think to myself, "What would Daniel do if he saw this? What would Daniel do if he walked in the door right now? What would he say when he sees this tomorrow?" Because I've asked myself that question every day for eight years. Café Boulud, as if it was my own restaurant, because I firmly believe that when you take a job on that's that high up and that serious, I think that there's only one way to do it and that is you treat it as if it was your own.

I believe that [the chef/owners] expect that out of you, and I certainly expected that out of myself. You're right, we have a very special and a very unique relationship, which is something I am so thankful for, because I remember reading Letters to a Young Chef ten years ago. [My wife and I] were living in San Diego and we were out on our porch drinking a glass of wine and reading. I looked to her and I said, "If I do anything before I go and open my own restaurant, I have to work for this man." She was like, "Yeah." I just never would have realized that that would have been a decade ago, and all of this would have happened in between.

So when you announced you departure from Café Boulud in the press, you had already lined up the restaurant space?
Yes, and I had told Daniel. We knew a couple of months before. Six weeks or something, I think, before is when Daniel actually knew. I think my notice was about a three or four month notice, if I remember correctly.

What was the process like for finding and securing the space?
It wasn't easy, that's for sure. It wasn't easy. I looked at a lot of different spaces and they weren't all in the North Loop. I kind of looked all over the place. I had a real estate agent that was here looking for me. My Dad helped look for me, he would drive past the space and kind of look at it for me and give it a thumbs up, thumbs down. I couldn't fly here and look at them all. I was working. He would take videos for me, and pictures, and I would look at them at night when I'd get home.

"I walked in [and] I knew that this was the space to get."

The second that this space came forward and I walked into it, I knew that this was the space to get.

What was it saying to you?
Honestly, the thing about the space that was so unique to me, and that really stood out, was that the façade of the building is very small and narrow. The space itself is actually pretty narrow. It's long, it's 6,000 square feet, but it's very long. I just loved that when you looked at the building it looked like there was nothing in there except for maybe a maximum 4,000 square foot place, ceilings no higher than 12 feet tall, and exposed brick — like everything else in the warehouse North Loop area.

Then you walk in and the ceilings are twenty-five feet tall, there's these columns that run all throughout the building because of the horse stable that it once was. There's these incredibly huge arched windows that are embedded inside of the brick that's been there since the 1900s. It was the character and I was focused on being able to find a space that had character. We had a lot of offers to take over different spaces all throughout Minneapolis that were brand new that were going to be built for us. I didn't have an attraction to it, there was nothing, it didn't feel good to me.

Just like when I cook, I like to cook with a lot of emotion, with a lot of feeling. It just didn't feel like it was the right space, and then when I walked into this and I saw the character I just kind of fell in love with it.

How did the build-out process go?
It was actually quite smooth. What's crazy to me is we took this space over. We were slated to take the space over in June, but the tenant who was there prior to me had asked for a month extension, as they were looking for a new space as well. I was still waiting for my permits to come through in the city, and I kind of thought to myself there's no reason for me to take the space over a month early if I can't start building. So I let them stay in the space until July, really the end of June. So we took the space over and we started the demo process just before the Fourth of July.

To think that it's just the second week of November and we're opening now. That's a pretty wild turnaround. The demo took two days and the place was just gutted to the core. The construction company we used was a company locally here called Zeman. Our design firm was a company called Shea. My wife, obviously, had a huge influence in the design too. They were awesome. I've rarely ever seen a restaurant hit the target that they wanted to hit. I always said yes, we're going to be done end of October, early November. I didn't think it would happen. [Laughs.]

Did we come into bumps in the road? Yeah. The first thing we popped into is we were digging out for plumbing and we found a second slab of cement under our slab of cement which means it costs you more to dig out. So that was an added bill that I wasn't thrilled to see. But the benefit is that we found prohibition tunnels underneath that second slab of cement.

Woah.
I went down there, I grabbed some stuff, we're hanging ladders and all sorts of things on our walls that we found in those tunnels, which is pretty cool.

"When you cook food for a living, everything's very instant."

So, that was an obstacle that we came across. One of things when you build a restaurant that's very different — and I was talking to my general contractor, Chris, about this and we've become pretty close friends through this process, as a result. It's funny because when you cook food for a living, everything's very instant. If I put eggplant in the oven and I burn it, I know it's burnt within 45 minutes and I throw it away and I do new eggplant.

When you're building a restaurant and you need to put outlets everywhere throughout the restaurant, and you make that decision three months before you actually put anything in an outlet. You have no idea how it will affect you in three months. You don't realize, oh you know what I actually needed four outlets over here, not one.

Right.
Putting electricity in places where you have no idea how you're going to use it. You're putting cat 5 cables for your POS system in places where, that's where the waiter's station is. Is that going to make sense? You have no idea. Honestly, I'm just thankful I had my wife because I'm not great at reading plans on a piece of paper, and looking at the drawings and being like, "Oh yeah, now I can see it all." But she's good at that, so she helped me a lot with those plans. "Okay, you have to understand if this goes here, this is what that means."

Were there any challenges to building a restaurant in this space, or any challenges in the flow or the kitchen organization that you had to figure out?
The flow's starting to feel better now. I mean, there's always areas in every restaurant no matter how big or small it is, that there's little bottlenecks. And it's usually always near a service station where people need coffee, water, and everything else. So there's a little bottleneck there that we're going to have to learn how to dance around together.

We built the dish station, and after it was built, and we looked at it and were like, "Wow, that's great, except we forgot to put a table for all the dishes." There was a table there but it just wasn't big enough. So we just had to add a little bit more of a table. There's just little tweaks here and there that you go through, but they were all extremely fixable, and the solutions were very easy to come up with. They were never a struggle. It was just a realization of let's just walk through it.

One night I was in the back office, the back part of the kitchen was delivered to me on October sixth. Which, ironically, happens to be my grandmother, Dorothy's, birthday...I was back in the office doing some work and it was about 8:00 or 9:00, it must have been later because it was in the summer. It was probably 9:30 or 10:00 at night and I walked out into the restaurant. It was the first time I saw wood floors in the restaurant. I just sat down in the middle of the room for twenty minutes and reflected on the last three months of what's just happened.

We just kind of go through every day, we walk through the space and try to find those different areas of what can be a bottleneck versus not. We're growing into it now.

I imagine opening before the Minneapolis winter was a priority. Have you gotten any advice or have you thought about how to keep the restaurant busy and humming through a tough winter?
It's 22 degrees right now. You know, I think the low today is 8. Which you have to understand, people here in Minnesota, we don't look at winter the same way as we did when I lived in New York. I have a very close friend of mine named Alex Roberts who owns Brasa and Alma and wonderful restaurants here in Minneapolis. Last winter was an extremely awful winter and I wasn't here, but even the most hardcore, dedicated Minnesotans told me that last year's winter broke them.

Which is saying something. I remember I emailed Alex in last March and I was like, "Hey, how was your Q1? You guys just went through probably the hardest winter in thirty years, how did that first quarter go?" Because I know for us in New York, that would have killed our business.

Yeah, in New York the polar vortex had a real impact.
Absolutely, and he wrote back and he's like, "It was one of our best quarters in history." I said, "Really?" I said, "Why?" He's like because Minnesotans are hard, they get through that, number one. Number two, it's cabin fever. You can only sit inside for so long.

For us, we wanted to get open before the holidays. That was a very important part of it. Obviously to get open before the winter sort of goes full on. It's interesting. How can I best describe this?

When I lived in San Diego, if it rained outside, the restaurant would be dead because nobody could drive through the rain. They're only used to sunshine. In New York City, if it rained or snowed but wasn't cold, but if it rained or just snowed, Café Boulud would be busier than normal because the neighbors would just come out of the woodwork and come and eat at the restaurant.

"A cool part of this culture, is how everybody embraces the winter."

Here, it's very similar. Even if it's really cold outside, or if it's snowing, it doesn't distract people from going out to eat. It doesn't change their plans, because everyone's used to it basically. It's a cool part of this culture, is how everybody embraces the winter. It doesn't mean that in about three weeks I won't be sick of wearing sweaters, but still. We all embrace it.

Now that you've been in Minneapolis for a while, what are your thoughts about the restaurant scene. What are you seeing?
It's really inspiring, actually. First of all, the amount of local support that we've had from the chefs, restaurant tours, breweries, everybody around town has been exceptional. Last week alone we had two separate restaurants bring us family meal.

Today we have Pizzeria Lola, which is some of the best pizza in our city, bringing us family meal at 4:00 for all of our staff. I'm so overwhelmed by the support and the generosity in the town. It shows when you eat their food. Some very, very thoughtful cooking is happening here. Jim Christiansen, who's the chef at Heyday, his food is just very well thought of. You can tell that he's put a lot of thought into it, you can tell that he's put a lot of care into it. I've had delicious meals there. Chef Thomas [Boemer] at Corner Table, it's just soul. You just go in there and you eat that food and it's just soul.

I think what's exciting is not only what's happening now, but what the potential is in the next three to five years, because there are so many young cooks that are working in these great restaurants like La Belle Vie, Alma, Bar La Grassa, Corner Table, and Heyday. That, in a couple of years they're all going to break off and do something on their own. I think we're really just on the verge of seeing something special happen here.

And what do you see missing from the scene?
A lot of it that we are seeing more than anything else that's not here per say, which is pretty typical, is the sort of ethnic drive of food. Where do you go for an incredible Thai experience? Where do you go for a great dumpling experience? There's really not enough of that right now, here. There's a lot of incredible pizzerias, there's a lot of great local restaurants opening up that are small, and some that are large. But I think we are just starting to discover the potential, because I think as chefs we're seeing the potential based on what the clientele's demands and needs are.

We opened up the reservation line on Monday and it was insane. We just got totally inundated with calls.

That must have been exciting.
"We opened up the reservation line on Monday and it was insane. We just got totally inundated with calls."Just to see that demand, I've never seen that. Ever. I've never seen that in my life, and to see that demand, it told me, "Okay, this is great." There's a lot of civic pride with us opening, because nationally, people are interested and I think that's awesome. I want people to come and eat at Spoon and Stable and when they're here, I want them to eat at four other restaurants in Minneapolis.

I want them to go to Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown which has got 12 stool counter seats and that's all you can get, and you're probably going to wait two hours to get breakfast, but it's a damn good pancake. Those little experiences that people don't realize when they come to Minnesota, we want them to realize that now.

What does your move to Minneapolis mean for your participation in the Bocuse d'Or?
I'm still actively involved. The team's actually in Lyon right now, looking over the equipment and doing some raw practice runs like that. While I couldn't join them on this trip because of my week, I will see them in a few weeks out in Yountville. Of course I'll be out there in January, and Lyon in January for the competition. So I'm still very actively involved and on weekly calls with everybody and communicating often with chef Phil[lip Tessier, executive sous chef of The French Laundry] and going back and forth with the photos and what we're doing there. The team is looking very strong.

Do you have a sense of who the competition will be?
It's kind of the same suspects every year. Scandinavia, meaning Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland are always amazing. The UK and France are super strong. We see the same suspects every year who are just really, really talented at what they are doing here. We're trying to come with an authentic approach, we're certainly trying to come with an approach that is distinctive to chef Phil and what he's cooked in the past and what his voice is, which I think is important.

Finally, what are your goals for the first year of Spoon and Stable?
Certainly the most important milestone for us is opening, keeping our food consistent, and the service consistent. Making sure the food is delicious, the service is warm and hospitable. We certainly have the goals to achieve something on a national level. That would help bring, not only an awareness to Spoon and Stable, but also for the city of Minneapolis. Which is important for me, and it's important for us.

"I've never been under a microscope so closely before."

This is my first time ever doing anything like this on my own. I guess I've never been under a microscope so closely before. I've always had Daniel to help me for that; in a way that's been different. I think for me the milestones are just taking every day one day at a time and achieving the consistency that we desire to achieve, and that we set out to achieve.

Developing a culture inside of the restaurant that would inspire the people who work there on a daily basis to be excited to come into work. Hopefully that spawns into different restaurants, and it spawns into their life. A lot of those are really important to me. I have a strong belief in making sure that people are happy, and it has to not only start with our employees, but then kind of filter through the guest as well.

Spoon and Stable

211 North 1st Street, , MN 55401 (612) 224-9850 Visit Website

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