The news lit up the Twittersphere on Friday: Bloomington native Gavin Kaysen announced that he’s leaving his perch at Café Boulud in New York City -- the restaurant he shorthands to Café -- and returning to Minneapolis to open a North Loop restaurant he’s calling Merchant.
He was in Yountville, Calif., when the news broke, immersed in guiding the training process for the next Bocuse d’Or, the international culinary competition, and the response has been volcanic. “It has been an emotional storm,” he said. “Totally overwhelming.”
After cooking in Switzerland and London, Kaysen’s rise to fame began at El Bizcocho in San Diego. In 2007, Kaysen was recruited by superstar chef Daniel Boulud to run Café Boulud on New York City's Upper East Side. A year later, Kaysen was named the nation's Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation and earned a star in the Michelin Guide. I spoke to him from his kitchen at Café Boulud.
Q: Why Minneapolis?
For me, the biggest thing was opportunity. Not that I don’t have opportunity in New York City, or elsewhere. But I like the sense of having a connection to the people dining in the restaurant. Over the years at the Café, we’ve had more and more people coming in to eat who are from Minnesota.
Minneapolis is such a great place to raise a family [Kaysen and his wife Linda have two sons, ages 4 ½ and 2], and that’s ultimately one of the most important things in my life.
I grew up there. I went to Holy Angels. My folks still live in the Twin Cities, except my brother, he lives in Los Angeles. Really my whole family – my cousins, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. They’re going to be putting in a lot of sweat equity [laughs]. It takes a village, right?
I left when I was 19. The past 15 years have been an amazing journey for me. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve been given as I’ve gone through the stages of my career and developed as a cook, as a chef. I’ve learned so much.
I was at home last summer – I go home a few times a year – and I was with my parents, and a bunch of friends. We were having this big barbecue. It was a fulcrum kind of moment, you know what I mean? I thought, ‘This is where I need to open a restaurant.’ I’d never felt that way before. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
So I started to come back more often, and eat in more restaurants. By seeing what people like Tim [McKee, of La Belle Vie] and Isaac [Becker, of 112 Eatery] and Alex [Roberts, of Restaurant Alma] have accomplished, it really inspired me. It gave me a real understanding of the opportunity that is there in Minneapolis. Not that it hasn’t been there, I just wasn’t looking for it. And the community there supports the people who come back. It’s a thriving and exciting time to be in Minneapolis. And these guys -- Isaac and Tim and Alex and so many others -- they inspire me. I want us all to be successful.
I’m a hometown kid. I’m humble to the bone. I love the roots that I have from growing up there. But I’m also conscious of where I’m coming from: New York City and Café Boulud. That’s going to make people think that the restaurant will be formal, with white tablecloths and fancy silverware and 50 wine glasses on the table. But that’s not my intention. That’s Café Boulud, but at its core, Café is also a neighborhood restaurant. We have a core group of customers who eat here one or two or three times a week. That’s my goal. I want to create a restaurant in Minneapolis where people will come in two or three times a week. I’m also excited because, for the first time in my career, I’m choosing where I want to live. In the past it has always been people telling me where to live.
I also feel like my generation of chefs needs to build something to make the next generation of chefs more successful. I was talking to Daniel and Thomas [Keller, of the French Laundry] about this. Their generation built such an incredible platform for all of us to jump off of, and now we have the responsibility to do the same for the next generation. All of the chefs that have trained with these global superstars can go home to Minneapolis or Portland or St. Louis and spread their knowledge.That camaraderie of the chef community will make the next generation stronger, and they won’t have to go and work in big cities but stay where they are, and learn.
Q: What’s the timeline?
My last date at Café is June 1, and we’ll be moving home as quickly as possible after that. We don’t necessarily have an opening date, but I told David [Shea, of Shea Inc., the Minneapolis design firm handling Kaysen's project] that we’d like to push for something before the holidays, sometime in late 2014.
We’re still going through the submissions process. The kitchen is probably 90 percent sketched, and the restaurant is maybe 80 percent sketched. I’m very excited and motivated to make this happen, but as I say that, I know that some things are going to change. That’s what happens when you’re opening a restaurant. Some of it is out of your control.
But there’s going to be a large bar in the front entrance. The dining room will be split into smaller sections. There’s going to be an open aspect to the kitchen, I’m not quite sure how much yet. And there will be two private dining rooms in the back. I feel that that’s very important.
Q: Where’s the location?
It’s in the North Loop. I can’t say the exact location because I want to be sensitive to the permit process. I worked hard and looked at a lot of spaces, and when I saw this space I just fell head over heels. It’s 6,000 square feet. It’s over a hundred years old, and it has an incredible amount of character. It has a story, and I have a story. I didn’t want to be in a brand-new building. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from my perspective -- and from where I’ve cooked in my life, all around the world -- I’m used to being affiliated with a story.
Q: Are you working with any partners?
I have business partners who are backing me up. They’re all locals, and they’re excited to be part of this process.
Q: What are you thinking about in terms of the menu?
We’ll start out as dinner only, with the idea of developing weekend lunch. There will be cold composed appetizers and hot appetizers. We’ll have grains, pastas, things from the sea, things from the land. We’re going to have a rotisserie, and not just for meats but for vegetables, too. A fully vegetarian section is such an exciting way to eat. I want the food to be hearty and delicious, a little refined in how it’s plated. But I want the flavors to be familiar. I just want to cook great food.
The intention is to keep the prices reasonable. I’m not going in with the misconception that the average check will be $90 per person. That’s not something that interests me.
I’m super-excited about this: My grandmother Dorothy [Ann Kaysen] inspired me to cook, starting at age 7. I still have the rolling pin that we would use together. She passed away four years ago, and when she died, I received all of her recipes. All those old index cards, they’re ratted up, they’re stained with fat; it’s fantastic. One of the concepts that I have for the menu is to create a 'Dorothy’s Dinner' and change it every day. You know, tonight it might be a rotisserie of roasted beets with horseradish and dill, and pot roast, or fried chicken or a whole grilled fish. You come in and gather around a communal table and break bread the way my grandmother would have fed you.Then you’ll get a parting gift, maybe the cookies or brownies that she was known for.
Q: What’s the story behind the name?
I was in L.A. a week and a half ago, and I sat down and looked up and saw this beautiful building. It had this great architecture and I thought, ‘I wonder what that is?’ I looked up and saw the name carved above the door and it was the Farmers and Merchant Bank, and I thought, ‘That’s the name.' A merchant is by definition a purveyor of goods, the seller of a craft, and that really spoke to me. My intention is to continue my craft of cooking.
Q: You were in California when the news broke on Friday. What’s going on there?
There couldn’t have been a better place for that announcement. Up until Friday this was a silent dream that only I knew about. Well, it was only Daniel and I.
I’m head coach for the Bocuse d’Or team this year, I’m so incredibly honored. Thomas Keller is president, Daniel is chairman and Jerome Bocuse, the son of Paul Bocuse, is vice-chairman. The candidate is Philip Tessier, the executive sous chef at the French Laundry, and his commis is Skylar Strover, also of the French Laundry. We train in an R&D kitchen next door to the French Laundry. This was one of many trips. We’ll go to Stockholm from May 6th through the 9th for the European finals. The competition is in January 2015.
I competed in 2007, and it helped create a friendship with Daniel. It’s how I got this job. We became friends through Bocuse d’Or. I’d do press lunches and he would be my sponsor. In 2007 he called me on my cell in San Diego and said, ‘What if I offer you chef at Café?’ I said, ‘I’ll be there in a month.’ I got off the phone and said, ‘Hey babe, how do you feel about moving to New York?’
Q: I’m assuming you gave your wife a little more time with this decision. Yes?
[Laughs] Yes. She’s thrilled. She’s from Sweden originally, so the landscape in Minnesota is familiar to her.
Q: Looking back, 2007 was a big year for you, wasn't it?
I’d just won Food & Wine [magazine’s] Best New Chef. I was on “Next Iron Chef” on the Food Network. I competed in the Bocuse d’Or. My first day at Café was in November. So, yeah. That was seven years ago, so I guess something big happens every seven years.
Q: How does it feel to be moving on from Café Boulud?
It’s been so amazing to be a part of this place. When I sat down to tell Daniel, I said, ‘Chef, you have to understand that it’s not about the grass being greener. There is no grass here. I have to plant it.' He’s like a father to me. I love him with all of my heart. I will do anything for the man. He is such a successful person because the relationships that he develops are genuine.That’s why people go out of their way to help him. I hope that I can only be a smidgen of how successful he is.
My chef de cuisine Aaron Bludorn is taking over for me here. He’s worked for me for five years. I love to see that evolution. It’s going to be a proud moment when I leave and look back in the rear-view mirror and see all the people who have come through this kitchen and have gone on to do great things.