From his dessert prep station, James Winberg watched with a slight smile as Mike Brown sidled up to a diner, telling her to close her eyes and make a fist.
On the back of her hand, Brown dabbed duck purée, balanced a rye toast on edge, drizzled blueberry compote and finished with a micro leaf of kale. "Now," Brown said, "open your eyes."
The diner gasped, as Winberg knew she would, delighted not only by the edible sculpture, but also by being the plate.
"Eat it all in one bite," Brown directed as Winberg turned back to his station, still smiling. Soon, he'd be filling metal pans with liquid nitrogen, then entrusting diners to wield squeeze bottles over the minus-320-degree fluid to create their own pearls of exotically flavored ice cream, like the Dippin' Dots of your dreams.
Whether you're dining or cooking at Travail, you can't not smile.
When Brown and Winberg opened Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale in 2010, the word "amusement" was not just them being clever. "The whole concept is to bring people into the kitchen," Winberg said. "We're always throwing a party and having a good time."
On Tuesday, Brown and Winberg were nominated as semifinalists for Best Chef in the Midwest region by the James Beard Foundation.
The prestigious James Beard recognition is the most recent accolade for a restaurant not yet two years old. Food & Wine magazine named Winberg and Brown as candidates for its "Best New Chef" award, followed by Bon Appétit magazine, which last year placed Travail at No. 4 of the 10 best new restaurants nationwide.
Winberg and Brown are the founding owners. (Bob Gerken, a chef with them from the beginning, recently became an investor.) Yet while watching the team of chefs in Travail's open kitchen, there's no evidence of who signs the paychecks.
"In restaurants, there's always someone who's the head of the monster and we don't do that," Brown said. "That's too much pressure on one guy, but it also steals the God-given passion of what you're doing."
Neither is there evidence of any Chef's Wear catalogs being thumbed. There's a "favorite T-shirt" vibe to the place. Jeans are boon companions. Hair is bundled under knit caps, or held high in samurai topknots. Their common bond in clothing is a simple navy blue apron. Winberg grants that the dress code is "nontraditional. But we're cooks, you know?"
The restaurant's name, Travail, means toil. That seemed to sum up what lay ahead in early 2010.
Life in a culinary bubble
The partnership of Brown and Winberg is kind of like their dish that pairs sumptuous foie gras with cranberry-flavored cotton candy. On the face of it, it shouldn't work.
Winberg, 33, of Grand Rapids, Minn., is rangy, with a mellow demeanor and a handlebar mustache; you could imagine a guitar slung across his back. Yet he peppers his conversation with talk of "push" as a relentless creative pursuit. He's owned a restaurant before and provides the voice of experience.
"We're in a bubble here," he said. "You don't really realize what's happening outside this place. It's easy to get caught up in a bad decision or that someone is yelling at you on Facebook, but you can't do that. I mean, you can become docile in your environment, forget what you're doing every day, or you can push."
Brown, 26, of Savage, is prone to a pirate's gleam in his eye, calling to mind a Capt. Jack Sparrow of unrestrained appetites. He calls himself a fiercely competitive person. As in high school football competitive? "Team captain," he said, then raises an eyebrow. "Yeah." He's blunt about the physical toll of being a chef.
"The way I learned cooking is that you're really competing with yourself," Brown said. "It's extremely difficult to learn, like learning to play the guitar at gunpoint and you're playing and someone says you need to keep playing or you'll bring the whole restaurant down and, by the way, here's a new note."
An unexpected path
Neither grew up imagining this career.
Winberg's family kitchen was the center of activity. "I'd be making wontons or something as a toddler with my dad, who loved to cook," he said of his father, a self-employed architect and developer. After high school, Winberg began traveling, working as a laborer "and finding creative ways to feed myself." In Bellingham, Wash., he saw a flier for a culinary program at Bellingham Technical College and thought, why not?
He excelled and decided, "I'm going to work with the best." His résumé includes a stint at the renowned Bouchon in California, run by Thomas Keller. When he and classmate Josh Silverman opened Nimbus in Bellingham, it earned wide acclaim. In hindsight, Winberg said, "I was trying to climb the ladder as quickly as possible."
Returning to Minnesota in 2009, he got a job at Porter & Frye in Minneapolis, where he met Mike Brown.
Brown had majored in studio arts at Winona State University when he realized he wanted to cook for a living, enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights. His first job was grill cook at the Stampede Steakhouse in the Mall of America's Camp Snoopy.
His culinary vision shifted when he moved to Arizona to work at Binkley's, a kitchen known for its stellar food and quiet intensity. "Kevin Binkley gave me the thought process to do what I do now," Brown said. Returning to Minnesota, he got a job at Porter & Frye, which eventually led to Winberg and him ending up at Victory 44 in north Minneapolis. Before long, they began talking about opening their own place.
It's all about prep
The chefs, who have doubled in number since Travail opened in the summer of 2010, arrive around 11 a.m. and may not leave until after midnight.
On a recent afternoon, Gerken chopped a small mountain of parsley as OutKast blared on the satellite radio. Ten minutes later, he was still at it, the mountain now a verdant molehill. And still he chopped.
"You want every piece to be uniform," he said, with a Zen master's concentration. "It's one of the things you don't want to be doing at 4 o'clock. It's one of the things you want to do right."
Sous vide machines simmered on various counters, filled with lamb shoulders or rabbit loins or eggs. A chef wielding a melon-baller carved tiny orbs from a half-dozen zucchini, while over at the bar, another pulled a 10-foot scarf of pasta from the rollers for the dozens of agnolotti that will be ordered that night.
A far cry from the concocted drama of TV kitchens, the only thing shouted was the occasional "Timer!" for another pan of thumb-sized popovers, of the dozens that will be plated that night.
Plating is where many menu decisions begin, Winberg said. If that seems backwards, you haven't seen these intricately designed plates. Nor do diners get much of an idea of what's on them from the bare-bones chalkboard menu: "Shrimp 7," "Beet Salad 5," "Soup 7."
Such shorthand is intentional, and not only because not printing a menu saves money. "We want people to ask about their food. How is it prepared? What comes with it? People should be involved with their food," Winberg said, then tapped his head. "Plus, it's a way for us to spew all this information we have."
He knows that some diners don't want to banter with a chef, and expect their napkins refolded when they leave the table. Not happening here. Take the diner who called ahead asking if Travail served steak. It does -- although possibly as a sleek plate on which are arranged three mahogany medallions with sautéed trumpet mushrooms, a tiny popover napped with beef stroganoff, a quenelle of caramelized onions and broccoli florets wearing little berets of cheese.
"It's still a good steak, just not a big ol' 24-ouncer," Winberg said, grinning. "There's a risk of alienating that diner, but the benefits far outweigh that." Brown's original vision was for a place where his parents -- his dad is an airline mechanic, his mom teaches Spanish -- "wouldn't be afraid to eat."
The James Beard nod will bring even more attention to a place that's been swamped since it opened. "There was never a recession because we never saw it," Winberg said.
Despite being singled out, Brown and Winberg maintain that the team is the reason for their success. "I see us almost as a band," Brown said. "A band of brothers. [Indeed, two of his brothers are on the Travail team.] You're working toward a goal that's bigger than you are. It's a support group, man. Everything is balanced.
"We're doing something that is always going to be getting better, which is my definition of perfection," he added. "A great restaurant is a great society -- and this society is very sound."