In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Gavin Kaysen, an award-winning chef and founder of Soigné Hospitality Group in Minneapolis, home to his nationally-renowned restaurants and cafes in the Twin Cities.
Gavins sheds light on how he became a nationally recognized chef, launching restaurants like Spoon and Stable, a 2015 James Beard Award Finalist for Best New Restaurant; and Demi, a 20-seat gem ranked #3 on Robb Report’s list of the “10 Best Restaurants in North America.” He shares how his mentors helped him reach this caliber of success, and how taking bold, sometimes uncomfortable chances, expanded his career.
Listen as Gavin talks about fostering a restaurant culture that enables culinarians to grow and his advice for the next generation of chefs.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Gavin Kaysen, the award-winning chef and founder of Soigne Hospitality Group in Minneapolis – home of his nationally renowned restaurants and cafes in the Twin Cities.
Gavin’s suite of acclaimed restaurants includes Spoon and Stable, a 2015 James Beard Award Finalist for the Best New Restaurant; and Demi, a 20-seat gem ranked number three on Robb Report’s “10 Best Restaurants in North America.” His latest launch, Mara, was named Restaurant of the Year by the “Star Tribune” and “Minnesota Monthly.” We also can’t forget Socca Cafe and Cooks Bellecour!
Adding to his repertoire, Gavin recently debuted his first cookbook, “At Home,” Highlighting several of his GK at Home cooking classes.
Gavin’s impact extends far beyond the kitchen. He advocates for more professional work environments through the Independent Restaurant Coalition and leads amazing initiatives through foundations like Heart of the House and Fastbreak Foundation.
With a passion for supporting the next generation of young culinarians, Chef Kaysen also serves as the president of the mentor BKB Foundation Team USA where he collaborates with two of his mentors, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller.
Recipient of two James Beard Awards, Gavin’s culinary prowess, from Michelin-starred ventures to roles on Netflix’s “Iron Chef” reboot and Food Network Appearances, is simply awe-inspiring.
Join us today as we talk about how Gavin became a nationally recognized chef, his advice for the next generation of culinarians, and so much more.
And there he is! Good morning!
Gavin Kaysen: Good morning. How are you?
Kirk Bachmann: I’m out of breath.
Gavin Kaysen: I know, right! That’s a lot.
Kirk Bachmann: It is a lot. Congratulations right off the bat.
Gavin Kaysen: Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to dive into a lot of background stuff first, but can I just ask…? I’m a big sports fan. I know you’ve got kids. The Fast Break Foundation: can we talk about that just for a second? Is that metaphor a sports analogy as well?
Gavin Kaysen: Yeah. It’s with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx. They’re known as the Minnesota Basketball Association. That company then owns those two entities for the NBA and the WNBA. I sit on that board and was invited to be on that board by the president of that company. There’s about eight or nine of us on that board. We focus on a lot of local initiatives to help the younger generation, younger athletes, younger kids in populations that are maybe not as available for them to gather the resources to play the sports. It’s been amazing. This is my second year on that board, and I’ve had a blast being a part of it.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. I love it. Congratulations there.
I don’t really have the right words to describe how excited and honored I am to have you on this show. The more research I did beyond what I already know from social media, the more I learned, the more excited. We should probably think about a two-part series. There’s a lot.
Like always, we’re not political. We’re not controversial at all. It’s really about you. If you’re okay with it, before we dive in, I’d love to talk about you and your home life. You live in Minneapolis with your wife and three sons. I understand that in your spare time you’re either cooking for your family or you’re at sports activities. The [million] dollar question really is, this day and age, how do you balance it all?
Gavin Kaysen: Kristen Kish is a good friend of mine who you know as well. She was doing an interview, and they had this question about balance to her. I really loved her answer. She said, “I just don’t look at it like balance; I try to figure out what’s my harmony.” I thought it was a really exceptional way to describe it.
Often in our profession, as you know, my work is my life and my life is my work. Many years ago, I decided to no longer penalize myself by feeling guilty if I had to leave the restaurants a little bit earlier than close, or if I left at 6:30 to go watch my son’s baseball game or hockey game. I just didn’t think that was necessarily fair to, not only who I wanted to then become, but it’s also a really poor example [to] the younger generation. You’re handcuffing yourself to the stove all the time.
For me it’s less about the balance; it’s more about the harmony. It’s more about forgiving myself when I need to take those nights away for being with my family. Then forgiving myself when I’m not with my family to be with the restaurants. Both are equally important to me, but one of them is a transactional operation with a lease and the other one is blood.
Kirk Bachmann: Really well said. My wife is going to listen to this episode and hold me to that. Interesting story: you mention Kristen Kish. She was a student at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago while I was the president there. She was a great student. No drama. I rarely met the great students. I had the tough pieces in my office.
But I’ll never forget, she spoke at graduation probably a year after she really started to take off. I’ll never forget it. It’s daunting: two or three thousand people in front of you and you’re in the auditorium.
She got up there and she said, “You know, I’ve never spoken at graduation before, so I googled it.” This was ten years ago. She had them eating out of her hands right off the bat.
Gavin Kaysen: That’s awesome.
Kirk Bachmann: Small world, for sure.
You’re incredibly humble, but we’ve got to talk about becoming a star. Our listeners know that I like to trace back to the origin of everything and the foundation of what makes you an elite chef, a great person. Where we tend to start is: what was your relationship like with food growing up when you were a child? Was it a big part? You grew up in California. Was it a big part of your family?
Gavin Kaysen: I was born in L.A. and then I was raised here in the Midwest. It was a big part of my grandparents. It wasn’t a big part of my immediate mom and dad. Neither one of them really took to cooking that much. Part of that is when you’re raising a family, it’s an odd experience in that you’re trying to raise your kids at the same time as you’re trying to raise your career. Something’s got to give, and at that point, I think that give was that they didn’t cook a lot at home. We would go out to eat a lot or we would do simple meals at home.
However, the time in which I really started to fall in love with food was very early on with my grandmother, who was my dad’s mom. Her name is Dorothy. She passed away about 13 years ago. I always had this memory of baking cookies with her, making chicken and dumplings with her, doing pot roasts on Sundays with her. It was so inspiring to know it was ingredients. It was your hands and technique and senses. That would stop everybody to put them around a table and eat and feel nourished by that experience. It was a really impactful moment of my life when that resonated with me.
Then at the age of 15, my mom said, “Hey, you’ve got to get out of the house and stop mowing lawns for a living. Not that that’s not okay, but go figure out something that you can do at your job every day.” So I went and got a job at a Subway sandwich store, and there was a gentleman named George Serra who opened up a pasta restaurant, an Italian fast-casual sort of sit-in cafe pasta restaurant next door. George became a mentor of mine at an early age. I remember him telling me when I was 16 years old that I had a gift with food. My hands understood how to handle food. My mannerisms understood how to talk to a guest, and I understood hospitality.
Listen, as a 16-year-old, I had no idea what he was talking about. I certainly couldn’t appreciate it because at the time there wasn’t a lot to look up to. There is not what we have today, which might in some ways be a little bit too much information. You couldn’t look anything up, like “What does it look like to be a chef on Instagram? What does it look like to be a chef on TV? What does it look like to host a podcast?” None of it existed. It really came down to, “Do you love to cook and do you love to take care of people?” If the answer to both of those questions is Yes, and it’s the thing that you love more than anything, maybe go after it.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m comparing it to my own experiences. I grew up in a hospitality family as well. My father came over from Europe. He’s a master pastry chef by German standards. I’m not in front of the stoves anymore, but I used to find that my cooking had a lot of those influences. I felt like people had to pull me aside and say, “Stop putting nutmeg in everything.”
Do you think that some of those influences, or at least the memories, still find their way into your restaurants?
Gavin Kaysen: I think especially coming back into the Midwest. Being elsewhere, I was probably more inspired by the surroundings of where I was, but I think certainly being back home in the Midwest – especially when you feel the weather. Today is cold. When it’s cold outside, you just sort of yearn for that idea of pot roast or chicken and dumplings. I actually woke up this morning and I was like, “I really want to eat chicken and wild rice soup.” That’s something from my childhood, but just the way that the frost hit the ground and how cold it was, it was reminiscent of that. I think you’re right. As cooks and as chefs, we end up feeling a lot of nostalgia for what it is we’re making.
Kirk Bachmann: To my team, I sent two articles that I found the other morning. One was more focused on Norway, and the other was kind of focused on Sweden. It was about how to survive the long winters. The perspective was amazing because it wasn’t about how tough those periods of the year are, but rather what opportunities they present. The coziness, the warm food, the big blankets. They went on to say that saying hello to people during the cold winter was really – and I’ve been to Minneapolis. I’ve been there when it’s cold, I’ve been there when it’s hot.
Gavin Kaysen: It is funny when it starts to hit winter. We all joke about it, but it’s totally true: You don’t really see your neighbors until spring.
Kirk Bachmann: Do they still have those walkways? I used to think that was brilliant. You park once and you could go anywhere you want in the city without having to go outside.
Gavin Kaysen: It’s brilliant in that respect. It’s not brilliant in the idea that it removes all the street presence away from retail.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I imagine.
Let’s go back to George a little bit. I was going to ask that question, was there that one cook or chef or mentor outside of Grandma. But it was George, I think I read, that influenced you to consider going to culinary school. Then you ended up going to NECI. [00:11:36] Again, a lot of our listeners are aspiring cooks and students, alumni. Can you speak a little bit about your experience? Did you feel like you were at home at culinary school?
Gavin Kaysen: Yeah, very much. George: when I started to work for him, I was sixteen. He kind of put me on this path less about, “Let me teach you all the fundamentals,” knowing that I was going to go to culinary school and that would effectively teach me what I needed to know. I think his purpose was, “I don’t want to teach you my version of it because I’d rather have you get a foundation.”
When I went to culinary school, I remember the first night that I was there. I was given homework to read X amount of chapters of the book “On Cooking.” I just remember that it was the only time that I was actually excited to read something. It’s not that I just read the chapters that they gave me; I stayed up the whole night and read the entire book.
Gavin Kaysen: You just go through it, and you learn about this and that and all these other different things. It was really an inspiring time of my life because I had made the decision that I wanted to become a cook, and I wanted to become a chef. I was given the support by my parents, by George, by friends and family to say, “We believe in you, too.” That’s a really important part and often overlooked part of any story. Who were the support people, and what was the support system behind you to get you there? Anybody that has created any sort of success, there is a village behind those people.
A really, really dear friend of mine who I grew up with here in Minnesota, my brother played hockey with him when they were kids. He was always the best player on the ice by far. He became a professional hockey player, and he went pro. It was fun to watch his career. I was listening to a speech that he gave the other day. He said, “You know, it takes a village to raise a person. It takes an entire community to raise an NHL athlete.”
I kind of thought the same thing about what it is we do. It takes a village to raise somebody, but it takes a community to raise somebody who is successful, really, is what he was saying. I thought that was really relevant to anybody who has created success in their life. There’s a group of people around you that say, “We believe in you. Go get it.”
Kirk Bachmann: Love it. That’s such good advice. We’re going to turn that into TikTok, by the way.
Gavin Kaysen: I love it.
Kirk Bachmann: One of the cool things about going to culinary school is the carrot towards the end, the externship, where you’re going to land, where you’re going to do that. Again, I read that you had an externship in Napa at Domaine Chandon. I’d love your take. Is that what you were going to do because of your California roots? What pulled you and what got you excited about selecting that sort of an externship? Which, I imagine, had a lot to do with wine as well.
Gavin Kaysen: There was a chef named David Hale and David Miles who were both at NECI at the time. David Hale was kind of the top boss. There was literally a piece of paper where you could go for your externship. On the front piece of paper was for all first year students, which is what I was. The back of the paper was for all second year students. So of course, I looked at the back of the paper first. I said, “This is interesting. I want to go to Domaine Chandon,” because I really wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to see terroir. I wanted to be a part of nature. Coming from the middle of the country, at that time there was less to see and less to be exposed to. I purposely threw myself in the deep end with that in mind.
The only way I could get in was if David Hale would endorse me. He just happened to know Robert Curry, who was the chef at the time at Domaine Chandon. He made a call to Robert, and Robert accepted me as an extern. It was a very life-altering opportunity because it gave me exactly what I anticipated. What that taught me was two things: one, manifest it, believe it, and go after it. Two, find yourself really uncomfortable and then know you’re in the right spot.
There was a cook I was working with named Abigail Martinez. After service one night, Abby and I were sitting in the parking lot just kind of hanging out talking and about to go on our way. I said, “Hey, did you see this ‘Food & Wine’ magazine? They have this thing called the Ten Best New Chefs.”
I said, “Listen. We’re going to get on this cover some day.” I took the cover and I ripped it in half and I gave him the word “wine” and I kept the word “food.” I said, “Don’t take that piece of paper out of your wallet until you hit the cover of the magazine.”
Well, Abby went on to actually become a chef at wineries at Napa Valley, ironically. Seven years after I had said that, I had won the opportunity to be on the cover as a best new chef in America. When Dana Cowin gave me my award, I stopped on stage, I took out my wallet, and I gave her this piece of paper that was in my wallet.
She said, “What’s this?”
I said, “This word has been in my wallet for seven years. I haven’t taken it out until I got on the cover. But now that I know I’m on the cover, my goal is achieved, so you get the piece of paper.” She framed that piece of paper.
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. For Noelle, our producer, is feeling the same chills that I am right now. What an amazing story! What an amazing story! They’re going to make a movie about that, by the way.
Gavin Kaysen: I think the thing is, too. Listen, I journal a lot. I write a lot about things, and I spend time journaling about my life and my days, things like that, my experiences. I think you can get to a point where you don’t look back to see what got you where you were. You don’t realize that some of that fearlessness and some of that naive bullishness is really what got you to where you are today. Sometimes you need a little bit of that to keep going.
Kirk Bachmann: Dreams are good. You’re going to laugh. I’m going to lean to the side. I’m going to lean that way.
Gavin Kaysen: I saw it.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s amazing, Chef, how many incredible people that I have a chance to speak with have some sort of comment about that guy. Fast forward: you find yourself working in international kitchens. You land at L’Escargot in London working with Marco Pierre White. By the way, you can’t see. My office at the school is kind of a glass bowl. The students can all see me. What you can see, over here, is “White Heat” is his book. It’s facing the door, just for conversation.
I’m going to tell you a quick story, but you go first. Tell us about what it was like to work with Marco.
Gavin Kaysen: The chef I was working for in Switzerland had said, “Listen. You should go work for this chef in London who’s been getting a lot of press lately. He just got three stars. His name is Gordon Ramsay.”
I said, “Okay.” So I called the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road and asked for Gordon. Said who I was, where I was working, and asked if I could come do a stage. They said, “Of course.” So I flew to London and did a couple-day stage with him. We agreed on terms that I could work there, but frankly, I didn’t have a working Visa in England.
He said, “I need you to go back home in order to attain a Visa because I just got three-star Michelin. There’s going to be scrutiny after me. I can’t do anything that’s not on the up-and-up.”
I said, “Look. I respect that.” But my wife, at the time, was my girlfriend. We had met there. I said, “I don’t want to go back home yet. Who else can I work for that will allow me to kind of work under the table.”
He says, “Why don’t you go work for my mentor, Marco?”
I started at his three-star Michelin restaurant on Piccadilly Circus. That was only for a very short time because he was closing that restaurant. He had retired, so he was starting to shut everything down and consolidate his business. I then moved to L’Escargot. He wasn’t around a lot because he was on this retirement circuit, so to speak, but he would show up. He would come, he would taste things. He would ask who’s who. He was quiet. He was reserved.
The one thing that I remember about Marco that I think I’ll probably never get out of my mind is that when you would make a menu with him, he would bury his head into his hands. As you’re talking about food, you would either think he was sleeping or not paying attention. He was sort of dreaming through. I can only suspect he was dreaming through what the dish would feel like, be like, taste like. How you create it. How do you execute it at such a high level? What does the pick-up look like? What does the prep look like, etc. etc. etc.? Then you’d get through the dish, and he would describe to you how it should make you feel as a guest and as a cook.
It was just one of those things that – Listen, I was 21 years old. I was like, “What in the hell is going on here?” It was just kind of wild. I know for sure at that time there was no way I could appreciate those small little moments that I had with him, but it was pretty remarkable to see.
Kirk Bachmann: The thing that comes to my mind when I hear you talking about how he reflected on what you guys were talking about. I live here in Colorado. We ski here. Certainly not world-class, but we ski. One of the things that’s fascinating to me when you see world-class skiers who put their headphones on, and they close their eyes, and they do exactly that. They know every turn, every bump, where the wind’s coming from, where the flags are. What a great memory. What a beautiful story.
Real briefly, my wife and I were in Dublin probably ten years ago for her birthday. Walking down the street, and I was literally talking to her – middle of the day – about Marco Pierre White. I was talking about “White Heat.” I was talking about the Gordon Ramsay back and forths, and all this other stuff. Then I stopped in my tracks, and I look across the street, and there’s Marco Pierre White Steakhouse. Relatively new.
We went in, and we made a reservation for the next night. We went in. That’s the menu.
Gavin Kaysen: Oh, cool!
Kirk Bachmann: He wasn’t there, but everyone that was there was international. Was someplace in the world. The food was exquisite, the linen was tight. Extraordinary. That’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to Marco Pierre White.
Gavin Kaysen: His standard of excellence, I joke about it in a way, but I’m also half-serious. If you think Gordon’s tough, work for Marco. That’s not a, “Gordon’s not tough enough.” That’s where he comes from. The upstairs restaurant at L’Escargot, nothing was cooked beforehand. Nothing was prepped. The rouget was not butchered before service and then set in a 200 pan with a cloth underneath it, so you’d pull it out when the order would get in. No. The order of rouget would get in, you pulled the rouget out. You scaled the fish. You cut it. You pin-boned it. You trimmed it. You showed the chef on a metal tray that it was perfect. Then you put it back at your station, you tempered it, and you got it ready to go.
That was every single day. It wasn’t like, “What prep do you have leftover for tomorrow?” It was, “Open the trash can. Throw everything away, and get ready to start fresh tomorrow.” That wasn’t odd. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. That was exactly how he wanted it to be, and that was his way. It was respected.
Kirk Bachmann: More chills, Noelle, more chills. No editing required for this episode, Chef.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the accolades. This is so much fun. 2007, you mentioned, you’re named “Food & Wine’s” best new chef. In 2008, you win a James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Chef of the Year. I think right around that time, you compete for Bocuse d’Or, which again, is a whole other episode. “Iron Chef.” This is a tough question, and I don’t mean it to be a cliché, but how do you manage, and how do these experiences change your life? Just like the example you used of starting from scratch, not cooking anything until the dish is ordered. I’m sure that’s part of your repertoire for certain things. It stays with you for the rest of your life. Just like the notes in your wallet stay with you. Beautiful story. Bocuse d’Or alone, to zero in on that. How did that change your life?
Gavin Kaysen: It still does. It’s so funny. The year that I won “Food and Wine” magazine Best New Chef, as you mentioned, was 2007. Basically, that calendar year from basically 2007 into 2008, four incredibly huge things happened to me. “Food and Wine” magazine Best New Chef. Rising Star Chef in America for James Beard. I represented Team USA for Bocuse d’Or. Then I was on “Next Iron Chef” for Food Network. Oh, and by the way, I became the chef de cuisine of Cafe Boulud in New York City.
That’s a lot of how it changed, but I go back to this. You’ll catch a thread of this throughout my discussion here. When I was 24 or 25 years old, I’d just become the chef at this restaurant in San Diego called El Bizcocho which was located in the Rancho Bernardo Inn. The hotel is there; the restaurant is not there. Every year, I would write Christmas cards to every famous chef in America. I’d never met any of them. Okay. But I didn’t care. I just thought, If I could write them a card, maybe I would put into the universe that one day I would meet these people. Or one day I would cook with them, or one day I would work with them. I don’t know.
Out of all of the chefs I ever wrote cards to, ironically, Charlie Trotter became a pen pal of mine after that. I wrote Charlie a Christmas card, and Charlie sent me every single book he’d ever written and signed every one of them as a Christmas gift. Until Charlie passed away, every time I was in an article, he would rip it out, like a father, and he would staple it to a piece of paper – Charlie Trotter letterhead – and his assistant has written a very sweet note like, “Congratulations, Chef.” Blah, blah, blah. But then Charlie would always write in the bottom right-hand corner in his handwriting, which was terrible, “Congratulations, Chef. Keep pushing. Charlie Trotter.” I saved all of those letters. And ironically, Daniel became my future boss. Thomas became a partner in all of these things.
I guess, in many ways, the reason Bocuse d’Or changed my life is because I was open to letting something like that change my life. I really wanted to see what that part of my world looked like. I was never a competitive cook. I never sought out going after ACF or sought out doing those types of culinary competitions. I just sort of fell into cooking competitions. The first one was the National Trophy of Cuisine and Pastries, which is sponsored by the Academie Culinaire de France. That got me into cooking. Pierre Gagnaire said to me after competing in Paris, “You should do the Bocuse d’Or.” That’s what got me into Bocuse d’Or. Jean Jacques Dietrich got me into it. All of these chefs.
Honestly, what I learned about Bocuse d’Or and what I continue to learn about it is that it is a very huge, international family of chefs and people who strive to find that little extra something that they know exists inside them that might not always be able to be discovered inside of a restaurant. For that, it’s incredibly addicting because in order to be great, you have to surround yourself with greatness. The family of Bocuse d’Or is simply the greatest family I’ve ever been around. It stemmed from Mr. Bocuse. He created it for that reason.
It’s just one of those things. I could talk for hours about how that competition has changed and shaped my life, but in the core of it, what it’s really done is it’s helped me reflect and take a true gauge of where I am in my career, and how I can now have an opportunity to give back to a younger generation of culinarians who are 20 years old, like I was 20 years ago.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. A couple of thoughts. Going back to something you mentioned earlier about keeping a journal, or at least trying to keep a journal. When you first opened up “On Cooking” and spent all night looking through it. Again, you can’t see it. I’m just surrounded by hundreds of cookbooks. And it’s not for the recipes. At this point in my life, it’s about giving them to students and giving them to other people. Thomas Keller. Erik Ripert, Massimo, Escoffier. Pierre Gagnaire. To open up those pages and to think about what they thought about when they put the book together.
You mentioned Charlie Trotter. Crazy story. Serendipitous in a strange sort of way. Years ago, when I had a restaurant on the western slope of Colorado, a small mountain town, I would get magazines. There was no Google. You’d go get “Food & Wine.” You’d go get “Gourmet.” You’d go get whatever you could. “Bon Appetit.” Charlie Trotter was featured a few times. I just couldn’t believe the kitchen. Everything was stainless steel, even the refrigerator. “This is insane.” I was born in Chicago. That neighborhood was not a good neighborhood until Charlie turned it into a good neighborhood.
Just like you, Chef, I didn’t write him letters, but I wrote a letter to the restaurant because I liked to put framed menus from restaurants – Wolfgang Puck – on the wall. When my parents went to Vegas, they’d bring it back. Or L.A. So I sent him a note, and I probably got it from his assistant, but the same thing. He sent two menus. This is in the ‘80s. One, I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a fully vegetable menu. 100 percent, eight courses. He wrote, “Keep on cooking,” on the bottom. You can’t see it, but that menu is framed right over here in the corner. The other one, the vegetarian one – and I know you know who Farmer Lee Jones is. He spoke at our graduation a couple years ago. I dug up that old menu and I framed it, presented it to him on stage.
The reason I share all that is because, one, it makes me want to cry, but also this community that you talk about, it’s just a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
Gavin Kaysen: There’s nothing. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I think that it’s one of the reasons why our world has been exploited in such a huge way throughout the media. I think a lot of companies that do what they do look at our culture and say, “How do you authentically get culture that way?” For us, it’s because we’re in the trenches everyday with everybody.
To go back to the beginning of this discussion and take into a sports analogy, we get a lot of athletes who eat in our restaurants, and we get a lot of coaches who eat in our restaurants. The majority of them say the same thing every day, which is, every time they come eat they say, “It’s like game day every day for you guys. Your preparation is your work.” It’s so, so true.
I think there is a lot of shared mutual respect when professions see that happen here. When other professionals come in here and they see that, they say, “Wow! It’s really remarkable.”
Kirk Bachmann: It is so true.
What did you learn from Daniel Boulud?
Gavin Kaysen: Oh man! Working for him was my Ph. D. in this business. It’s another crazy story. When I’m living in San Diego, I read his book, “Letters to a Young Chef.” I wrote Daniel a letter requesting to do a stage for one week. Of course, they accepted. I went there. He wasn’t there on the first night or two. I just remember the night that the King of Spain was in for dinner. Daniel was there. That seemed odd to me that the King of Spain would show up, but I learned later on in life that was a pretty normal thing, that these people would show up at his restaurant.
The thing with Daniel – and a lot of people say this, and it’s very true – if you say to Daniel, “Hey, can we sit down for ten minutes? I just want to have a quick talk about something,” he’ll give you an hour. Because I’ve been in both the meeting that lasts an hour, and I’ve also been the meeting after the ten minutes that’s made me wait an hour, so I know it’s true.
He does that because there’s this general thread that I see in chefs that are highly successful, like a Daniel or a Thomas or otherwise: they’re really driven by curiosity. When they keep the length of that conversation going, they’re doing it because either there is something they have learned and they want to learn more from, or they know that they are about to learn something out of you that they maybe don’t know. They just keep pecking at it over and over again.
So I write Daniel this letter. I go and I do a stage with him. Basically, a very long story short, that letter that I wrote to him, when I left to move back to Minneapolis to open my own restaurant, he gave that letter back to me. In the top right-hand corner of that letter, it said, “To: Cynthia,” – his HR director – “Please save this letter. This chef could be a good future chef for us.”
Then I was chef for nine or eight years, and then ironically, that book that I had read, “Letters to a Young Chef,” when he rewrote the second edition ten years later, I ended up writing a chapter in that book for him called, “About Discipline.” Crazy.
Kirk Bachmann: What a great story! We’ve got to do three episodes.
Gavin Kaysen: You could break them all up. It’s just kind of crazy.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it! If we can, let’s get back to you a little bit more. Fast forward: you launched Spoon and Stable, described as “a place for families to celebrate milestones, a place to catch up with old friends, make new ones, all while being surrounded by warm hospitality” – there’s that word again – “and delicious food.” Many say it was an immediate success, location, everything, food.
What helped [contribute] to that, and how was, if you could, Chef, how is that different [from] running Daniel’s place?
Gavin Kaysen: I will say the only difference of running Cafe Boulud to Spoon and Stable was the location was different. I ran Cafe Boulud like I owned it. I [opened] Spoon and Sable, and I didn’t know anything different. I often tell young chefs and young cooks that are thinking about it, “If you don’t run it like it’s yours and you don’t run it like you own it, there’s no light switch that you can flip on and all of a sudden know this stuff.” I had this huge safety net with Daniel. We give the safety net to our team that if you fail, we’ll catch you. We expect you to fail because you’re going to learn a lot from that. What you’re doing is you’re spending our money to do so, and that’s okay.
Spoon, out of the gates – we just turned nine years old. As you mentioned, we were really fortunate to be both busy and successful right out of the gates, and have continued to be very busy and successful for the last nine years. I think a lot of it is a combination of timing was right. I think a lot of it was I had studied this market for a while to see what it is that I thought Minneapolis, not needed, but perhaps maybe didn’t know that they wanted is a better way to describe it. I looked at the landscape of the food and dining culture here. I was inspired by what was created. I looked at what had been here before. I thought maybe it was an opportunity to create something that is a little bit different from what they’ve seen.
What’s interesting now, to me, is that I’ve now seen more restaurants open up with a similar – we all have a similar of an identity as Spoon, or a similar identity to a restaurant that I was inspired by. My point is that everything has basically been created. Be authentic in what you create. Don’t look at somebody else and say, “I want that.” Look at the mirror and [ask] “What do you want?” and then give that. Because the guest knows. At the end of the day, when you walk into a restaurant and there’s not an authenticity to it, or there’s not this warm, genuine sense of hospitality, and “we care,” it sucks to go out to eat in those restaurants.
A friend of mine has a restaurant here in town called Hope Breakfast Bar. I actually was there the other day for breakfast. I went by myself, and I had breakfast. I was so touched by the experience of how warm his team was at eight o’clock in the morning, and how genuinely hospitable they were to us. I had to write him an email and just say, “Listen, the food was great, but I walked away feeling like I had just been given a hug at breakfast. I just want to say Bravo, because that is not easy to do.” It’s really important to applaud each other when we see that.
Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. Then, of course, you went on to launch several more restaurants as part of your hospitality group. Was it always a dream? For many, the milestones that you’ve achieved are a career. Was it always a milestone or a dream or a goal for you to launch a hospitality group? How did that come to fruition? I’m always fascinated by – do you wake up one day and say, “You know what? I’m going to bring this all together in a really unique way?”
Gavin Kaysen: I think it ends up happening either on its own or it doesn’t. It got to a point, for me, where I was looking around and seeing this team of incredibly talented individuals who I knew we could build more restaurants with. Keep in mind, when you have that discussion with yourself, you also have to understand and realize, which I did at the time, they are still going to end up leaving at some point. Not everybody’s going to stay. That’s okay. That shouldn’t pull you back from wanting to create growth if, in fact, that’s exciting to you.
I really love the idea of creating. I love the idea of putting people in positions that they’ve dreamed to be there because people did that for me. I love the idea of really training, grooming, and getting people ready to go off of a launching pad so that when they are ready to go, they are as well-equipped as they ever thought they could be so then that way, they can make the dining area around us or wherever they go stronger and better. Honestly, I think it’s our responsibility. If that’s with one restaurant or twenty restaurants you own, the message shouldn’t really change. It shouldn’t be any different.
I look generationally at Bocuse, and what did Bocuse and his generation teach us. It really taught Daniel and his generation that you can come out of the kitchen. The chef can be the star. The chef can show something for it. What did that then teach Daniel? That taught Daniel that the chef can be the star internationally. All of a sudden, he had his restaurants all over the world, and somebody like me can go and work in all those restaurants all over the world. I can make a pate en croute on 44th Street in Manhattan or in Singapore. It doesn’t make a difference; it’s the same pate en croute. Culturally, I’m in a different part of the world. So now, what is our generation going to do in order to make it better for the next generation? Frankly, Covid slapped us in the face with that and said, “You got to fix a lot of the stuff that doesn’t work. This is your opportunity to do so.” That’s where I do believe it is our responsibility to do that.
Kirk Bachmann: You sort of answered this, but I’m going to ask it in another way: Obviously, the common denominator is hospitality. Many of the things you’ve already mentioned, Chef, but is there a common thread between all the restaurants – Demi, Mara, Spoon and Stable, what you’re doing with Spoon Thief Catering, and the KZ Provisions as well. Is there something that every one of those concepts must have?
Gavin Kaysen: There’s always an underlying base of foundational French cooking, whether Mara’s then Mediterranean or Spoon is a little bit more American. Demi’s probably the most French out of all of them. The bakeries, of course, are very French because that’s the intention of that. I would say the base is foundationally French.
What I mean by that more than anything else is that we are there to create an educational purpose for the teamwork and for our restaurants. We want them to walk away with foundations of, “I know how to, now, cook this food. I’m not going to walk away with bad habits because there are not shortcuts that I’m able to take. Once I take them, I’m caught. Once I’m caught, I have to pull back and say it’s the wrong way to do it.” It creates discipline.
Our culture has gone away from a little bit of discipline because we’re afraid of what that might mean, or we’re maybe a little bit gun-shy on it. Discipline is not a bad word in the way that I’m trying to describe it. To me, discipline is a way of creating foundation. When you create a really strong foundation for yourself and for others, it’s hard to get rocked off of the top. I think that’s all so important. Then it gives you a great deal of confidence. As any athlete will tell you, confidence is everything, and preparation gets you to that point. Once you are given the opportunity, if you have prepared enough for that opportunity and you’ve given yourself every opportunity to be successful at that moment, you will be successful at that moment. But if you took a shortcut on the way, or many of them, you won’t be.
Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Well said. Mentorship has played a very significant role in your career, both as a mentee and now as a mentor yourself. Again, mostly for our student listeners, Chef, why is this so important to you? Maybe while you’re thinking about that, is there or was there a pivotal moment from one of your mentors that so profoundly influenced your approach to cooking or leadership? You’ve used some examples, but was there one? Was it Marco, was it Gordon, was it Daniel, was it Thomas or someone else that really shaped [it]? And now you’re doing the same! Someone else will be on a podcast 20 years from now talking about you in that way. I just wonder if there is that one moment.
Gavin Kaysen: Definitely. There’s more than one, but the first one that I remember that continues to always stick out in my head is actually: there was a gentleman named Stan Kaminski who was my food and beverage director in San Diego. I had just come out of Marco’s kitchen, and I was working in San Diego at this restaurant. I had just become the chef. I was young. I was 24, 25 years old. I had no business being the chef at that restaurant because of not only my age, but probably my experience. At the time, for whatever reason, they believed in me. There was a cook chopping chives, and he did it so poorly, I basically stood on the chives on the cutting board. It was a Marco move. It was what I saw in his kitchens.
What I remember is this: Stan saw me do it. He said nothing to me until the next day. He pulled me down into his office in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was going to be spoken to in a way that was negative so I was pretty disarmed when I walked into his office. He just calmly explained to me the cause and effect of what that meant. How important it was to lead this team and not bark at the team.
I had seven cooks that worked for me. That was it. If I really wanted to make an impact, and as he described it, if you really want to teach them what you’ve learned, you need to teach them in a way that will allow them to learn.
It just really changed my approach. It helped me identify that I was not acting that way because that’s who I was. I was acting that way because of what I had seen. When I really took a strong look at who I was as a person, that’s now how I teach people. That was an impactful moment for teaching.
Daniel taught me all the time about that, too. One story quickly on him: we had a guest who wanted eggs en cocotte dish for dinner. It [wasn’t] on the dinner menu, so I said no to making it. Daniel called me the next day. He said, “Hey, did so-and-so come in for dinner last night?”
I said, “Yeah, they did, Chef.”
He said, “What did they want for dinner?”
I said, “I think they wanted the eggs en cocotte from breakfast.”
He said, “You didn’t have any prepped did you?”
I said, “No, Chef.”
He says, “But you have eggs, right?”
I said, “Yes, Chef.”
He said, “Make the eggs.” He didn’t yell. He wasn’t upset.
I said, “I’m sorry.”
He says, “You don’t have to be sorry. You just have to understand that when you say no to a guest, you’re saying no to me, AND you’re saying no to the guest, because I would never have said no. They’ve been eating my food for 20 years with me saying yes. Now you’ve become a representation of me so if you say no, they think that’s coming from me, and that hurts me worse.”
It taught me humility. It said, “Push aside your ego. You don’t have one, and you shouldn’t have one. You’re not good enough to have one. And even when you are good enough, when you’re Daniel, he doesn’t have one. So what’s the purpose of ‘No’ in that respect.” It was humbling, and it was a great educational moment.
Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful story. Wow!
For the sixth year, you’ve opened your doors at Spoon and Stable to host – and I think this is fascinating – the Synergy Series. My understanding is that it’s a collaborative dinner to interact and learn from elite chefs, or from chef friends. Could you explain to us or walk us through what this experience is and where this evolved from?
Gavin Kaysen: A lot of it actually stemmed from when we started to work with all of our cooks, specifically, in the kitchen. I recognized pretty early on that not everybody within our community had the financial luxury or the life luxury to leave where they were, and go work in a restaurant in San Francisco or New York, or otherwise. I found that to be a little bit disheartening because it felt to me like they were not exposed to what they should be exposed to just because of that small little difference.
I thought, “I know a lot of these chefs. I’ll just bring them here and do a dinner with them.” So our first year, we had Michael White, Michael Anthony, April Bloomfield, Daniel Boulud. So the first dinner – they were all supposed to be one night. Michael White’s dinner went up for sale and it sold out in 25 seconds.
I called Michael and I said, “God, can you do me a favor? Is there any way you can just give me a second night? It sold out in 25 seconds. People are upset, but if you can’t do it, I totally respect that.”
He said, “No problem, Chef. I’ll give you two nights.”
So then I called Michael Anthony and April and Daniel and I said, “I said Michael White gave two nights. I need you to give two nights.” So it always stuck as a two-night experience.
The intention is really to have the guest chef come in and collaborate with our kitchen team and our cooks and our chefs to create this menu with us and with them. We’ve had some chefs bring in their front of the house team and their bar managers and their maitre d’s and their expos, and then also give our front of the house team and opportunity to learn and experience something that is a little bit different than they would normally see.
As of late, the last couple of years, we’ve done every Friday a dialogue conversation where a friend of mine named Alison Arth has a company called Salt and Roe. She moderates a dialogue talk with each of these chefs. That has been so awesome because, much like this conversation we’re having, this is a live conversation in front of hundreds of individuals, and a lot of them are industry people. We charge $10 to come in and have this talk. We give 100 percent of the proceeds to a local charity because it’s not about making money; it’s about giving people an opportunity to listen to these stories. It’s important to know that Thomas Keller wasn’t an overnight success and neither was Missy Robbins. You’re going to go through hardships and you’re going to go through adversity. Go through it and become stronger out of it. Everybody has a different version of that story, but it’s really important to listen to it.
Kirk Bachmann: Thanks so much for sharing that. I was going to ask about sitting as the president of Team USA and the work you do with Bocuse d’Or. I’m curious what significance those roles, that additional work, holds for you in terms of promoting, at the lack of any other term to use, excellence in hospitality? Or is it truly about mentorship and giving back?
Gavin Kaysen: It’s all of the above. I think ultimately, Ment’or started out as Bocuse d’Or USA. Thomas Keller was the president for ten years for Team USA. I took that position the last couple of years. He gifted that position to me. It’s funny because, yes, it’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like work in any respect to me. We’ve had this organization now for 15 years. My goal and my main focus is to focus on Team USA and how we train the best team to go to Lyon and compete.
But the organization itself gives away grant scholarships to young cooks all over the country. We’ve given away millions of dollars to allow young cooks to travel anywhere around the world. In fact, I have a young sous chef coming back from Belgium next week. He just spent eight weeks over in Belgium working at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
This is an experience that you and I growing up would never have had in that way because we would have had to knock on a back door, hope that they answer, get paid zero, and walk away with a piece of paper that said we did it, if we were lucky. That’s great. That was perfect for our time. Okay, it worked, but it’s not the way that it is now.
What we recognized in Ment’or is that we recognize we have an opportunity, and we have really powerful connections to tap into these chefs around the world to say, “So-and-so is this baker from Texas. She’s worked at Whole Foods her whole life. Her dream is to work at Tartine Bakery. Would you accept her to work there for eight weeks?” “Absolutely.”
Imagine the ripple effect of lives that are then being changed! Yes, it’s about promoting excellence. It’s about promoting mentorship. It’s about giving back. Honestly, a lot of it is about example, showing what is the right way to lead this next generation of hospitalitarians as we go into this world that changes all the time.
Kirk Bachmann: I read something about being cautious about the term “industry” when we refer to our profession. Fascinating. Could you elaborate a little bit on that perspective?
Gavin Kaysen: Really, a lot of it stems from Thomas because he talks about this a lot. It’s always been glued into my head. We do refer to us as an industry, but I’m a professional chef. I look at what we do as a profession. I still press my chef coats every single Sunday to be ready for my week of work the following week. I make sure that my creases are sharp. I make sure that my aprons are clean and white. I take a great deal of pride in making sure that we’re putting our best foot forward to be the professionals that we are. I think that we deserve the opportunity to be that versus just being an industry.
Kirk Bachmann: Well said. I’m totally stealing all of that by the way.
Gavin Kaysen: Good. You should.
Kirk Bachmann: Just a couple of quick questions if you have the time. One is – this is really important. Perhaps your viewpoint or your take on what we all need to do to create a more perfect sense of belonging in the kitchen, a sense of belonging that fosters this better work environment that you strive for. A few words on that, Chef?
Gavin Kaysen: I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that finding a place that has a sense of core values that you believe in as well is also important. Working for a place because the place is the name that it is doesn’t make it the right place for you. I think what’s really important to know is that’s okay.
I remember Thomas telling the story about when he moved over to France. He was working at this restaurant. He was filling the fire with coals. His bedroom was above that. It was smokey and terrible. He worked there three days, and he quit, and he walked away. Most people would be like, “Oh my God! You walked out of the restaurant. You’re Thomas Keller or Gavin Kaysen or whatever.” The point is, if it’s not okay for you, that’s okay. Find what you believe in is right. Find the core values of what you want to create that give you a great sense of joy. That, in itself, will help trickle down to everybody else.
I often say in our restaurants. People will ask me, “What do you look for when you interview somebody?” I say, “Kindness.” I really look for kindness. Listen, if you walk in and you want to work in our restaurant, and you’re not kind, and you don’t really want to make people happy, but everybody else does, you kind of look around and are like, “Why am I the odd person here? Maybe I shouldn’t work at this restaurant.” And that’s great! We don’t have to do anything. You just leave.
Find the place that makes you spark and gives you a great sense of joy. Life’s too short to not live with that.
Kirk Bachmann: So well said.
Well, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. Chef, we’ve come to that point in the day when I ask the toughest question. I’d love to hear from you what is the ultimate dish, in your mind?
Gavin Kaysen: For me, the ultimate dish and setting is really being with my family and having dinner with them. My kids love two things that I make because they ask for it basically every week, which is either a whole roasted chicken. I’ll tend to do a spatchcock version of it. Or they want a steak. In their mind, they love the bone-in ribeye, so I’ll do a prime rib for them. At age 11 and 14, that’s a tall ask. I don’t know what I’ve raised!
Anytime I can cook for them, that’s really my ultimate dish. Maybe a roasted chicken, maybe a prime rib. I love things that are both simple, delicious, but really highlight the essence of the person creating the food and the farming and all of that.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it, and that it’s with your family. Beautiful.
Chef, your humility, your professionalism, your kindness are so appreciated. Thanks for spending some time with us. We wish you all the success, continued success in the world.
Gavin Kaysen: Thank you so much.
Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.