It was a late night in Chicago last Monday for Gavin Kaysen, and with good reason: The chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Bellecour in Wayzata was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its annual awards gala, and there was all kinds of celebrating to be done.
He’s still not getting much sleep. Kaysen returned to the Twin Cities on Tuesday evening, only to leave the following afternoon for a weeklong visit to Italy, where he’s serving as a mentor to an American in an international young chef competition.
Kaysen is no stranger to the winner’s circle in the so-called “Oscars of the food world.” In 2008, during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City, he was named the Beard’s Rising Star Chef of the Year, which honors chefs ages 30 and under.
Two days after this year’s awards — and a few hours before getting on a plane — Kaysen took a few moments to fill us in on the excitement.
Q: You’re turning 39 this week. A James Beard award makes for a memorable birthday present, right?
A: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
Q: As the awards program began, were you nervous?
A: I was fine, at least up until the point where my category came up, and then I definitely started to get a little nervous. I got a lot of text messages that day that said, “Good luck tonight,” and it was like, the luck’s over. Whatever is done, it’s done, and whoever wins, wins. You just sort of have to go with what it is.
I think I was more nervous when Spoon was nominated for Best New Restaurant [in 2015] than I was for this one, partly because we had 17 Spoon members there, and it was a party. This year it was a little bit less of an entourage. It was a little more chill.
Q: What went through your mind when you heard Ted Allen of “Chopped” calling out your name?
A: You know, what’s funny is that I almost didn’t even hear it. My wife heard it, and she grabbed my arm and kissed me, right away. And then I got up, and I gave her a hug, and then I went up and spoke.
Q: You gave a great speech. What happened after you finished?
A: I came backstage. And I have this picture of José Andrés giving me a massive kiss, and AZ [Andrew Zimmern] giving me a massive kiss. We sort of all hugged and kind of jumped around like little schoolgirls. It was so awesome. We were backstage for a few minutes, just reliving the moment, and rejoicing in it, and that was right before José [recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year award] went off to give his remarkable speech. He’s such an inspiring human being.
Q: You’ve just won the James Beard award. Is this a situation where your phone blows up?
A: It was insane. There were literally thousands of messages, between e-mail, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and text messages. And that’s just my stuff. I can’t imagine everything that came through Spoon and Bellecour. I have an idea, because some things were sent to me, but I didn’t monitor it the way I monitored my own phone. It was pretty remarkable.
Q: At that crush of an after-party, what’s it like to walk around, wearing your Beard medallion?
A: That’s the thing, there are so many faces that I love to see when I go to those awards. It was really amazing to see my friends, and really gratifying for people to give me a hug and say, “Congratulations.”
We went from there to Girl and the Goat. Then we went to Roister, and then Bar Fight Club [a bartending competition that featured Spoon and Stable’s Robb Jones], and then we went to Big Star, and then we went home. I think it was about 3:30 in the morning. The next day we got up, took our time and had a great lunch on the terrace at Avec with our friends and a bottle of rosé. When we landed here, I did what I do on almost every trip. I got off the plane and I called [Pizzeria] Lola for pizza, and we picked up a bunch of pizzas.
Q: What was it like for you to have Spoon and Stable and Bellecour pastry chef Diane Yang nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef?
A: Just amazing. I think it’s just a matter of time before she wears that medal. It’s really hard to break through that nomination, because it’s the whole country, you know?
Q: What does it mean for you to win this award?
A: I was talking about this yesterday with my wife. What’s really great is that if young cooks — if they’re in Minnesota, or they’re in New York and they want to move back home — can see us win the award, it gives them the hope that, yes, you don’t have to be in the center of the media universe to achieve success. You can grow up in Minnesota and cook with the great chefs that are already in this land and still achieve success. That means a lot to me.
Q: What does the award mean for your restaurants?
A: That’s the big thing. At the end of the day, the award is very individual. But the reality is that there are 192 people that work for the restaurant group, so this award is important for all of us. The teams at Spoon and Stable and Bellecour, they gave us this opportunity, that’s for sure. And the award gives them clarity. All the hard work, all the energy, and the effort, everything that we go through, it’s worth it.
Q: Does the award say something about the Twin Cities?
A: Look, I think that I’m the fifth chef to win this for the Twin Cities, so the reality is that the Twin Cities have been on the rise for quite some time.
I was reflecting yesterday on how hard it must have been for Tim McKee to have first won this award [in 2009], because nobody from Minnesota had ever won it before. That must have been such a breakthrough for the region here, because that really just changed everything.
There are just so many great restaurants that have been created here lately, and there are so many great restaurants that have been around for a long time. Martina is amazing. They’re crushing it. Or places like Alma, that are still doing amazing work. I was talking to someone at Condé Nast Traveler, and she was saying to me, “Minnesota is really on the rise.” And I said, “I don’t know about that. I feel like it’s always been there; it’s just that everyone is paying more attention to it, for whatever reason.”
Q: What was your kids’ reaction?
A: They were so funny. When we got home, they had written on the driveway, “Congrats, Daddy, I love you” and “Welcome home Mom and Dad.” I was showing the medallion to my 6-year-old, Julius, and Emile, my 8-year-old, gave me a huge high-five and was, like, “Nice job, Dad.” Julius put the medallion on and asked, “What does this say?” And so I read what it said, and then I read the back of it, where it says, “Best Chef Midwest.” And he’s, like, “So, there are best chefs everywhere else, too?” It was so cute.