Once you’ve seen one sexy firefighter calendar, you’ve seen them all. They’re basically abs, occasionally with a rescued kitten as a prop.
But a sexy chef calendar — or at least the ones from the Robbinsdale-based Travail restaurant group — is something to be surprised by, laugh with, and maybe, possibly ogle?
Chefs are portrayed as Vikings and zombies. They re-enact scenes from “Dirty Dancing” and the Bible. Mostly, they are scantily clad.
The inaugural 2014 Travail Sexy Chef Calendar was created to reward backers of the restaurant’s viral Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $250,000. Since then, calendar photos have incorporated everything from Guy Fieri impersonators to onion falsies. Essential ingredients include guys in drag, liters of fake blood, and gallons upon gallons of baby oil.
This year’s edition involves I-beams and Spice Girls and a pan full of paella being cooked by a six-pack of abs. For the seventh year in a row, the restaurant known for democratizing fine dining (it’s kind of like a Michelin-starred fraternity house) has served up a calendar as creative as what comes out of its kitchen.
Longtime calendar photographer Travis Anderson appreciates collaborating with a group that’s willing to push the envelope further than most of his Fortune 500-type clients. “It’s rare that the level of zaniness that I want to push to is met,” he said.
This year, as always, there was no good time to work on the calendar, so the kickoff brainstorming session was scheduled for the day Travail’s homage-to-Solera pop-up debuted in the former Auriga space.
As Travail co-owner Mike Brown sat down with the restaurant’s director of operations (aka chief wrangler) Megan Leafblad and Anderson, staffers scrambled to hang crystal chandeliers amid dinner preparations.
Each year, Brown, Leafblad and Anderson reconsider the sanity of tackling the project, especially as Travail’s operations have grown to include three restaurants and about 80 employees.
The group has discussed ending the calendar’s run after a decade, but it’s become a beloved staff-bonding and brand-building tradition. (They usually print a few thousand calendars; some Travail superfans have collected all seven and ordered 20 at a time for holiday gifts.)
“Every year we’re like, ‘Do we want to do this again?’ and we’re like, ‘We can’t not do it,’ ” Leafblad said.
Anderson typically directs several days of photo shoots and spends countless hours doing digital composites and adding special effects to create the calendar’s final, fantastical scenes.
“I think I lose about six months of my life span doing the calendar,” he admitted.
During the trio’s two hours of brainstorming, hundreds of ideas were batted about: sexy librarians; an “Animal House” toga party; people as emojis; re-enacting Abbey Road in downtown Robbinsdale. At one point, Brown extemporaneously cast the staff as Harry Potter characters, revealing his total ignorance of the pop culture phenomenon: “Cat is Cow? Chow?” he said, butchering the pronunciation. “James is Snook? Snick? Snoke?”
Leafblad quickly nixed Brown’s idea of having nude, body-painted chefs camouflaged into the brick of Travail’s new building and began searching for a video clip involving singing nuns instead. Brown said that each member of the calendar-planning group has a slightly different approach to photo concepts: His ideas are “humor-based”; Anderson’s are “sexy-chef based”; and Leafblad’s are “Let’s make everyone do things together! Like, let’s do ‘Sister Act.’ ”
Fresh pasta and thongs
Much of the calendar’s success hinges on its models’ lack of inhibitions.
“There’s a handful of people who are really willing to just, like, get in a thong and be available to the camera,” Leafblad explained.
Chef Ben Feltmann, who once famously re-enacted Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video — nearly nude, greased up, swinging on a yoga ball — is among the handful.
“The hardest I ever laughed was Ben on the wrecking ball in pure pain for like two minutes, screaming,” Brown said.
The general consensus seems to be that co-owner Bob Gerken is the group’s biggest beefcake. His naked body has been strategically draped in sheets of fresh pasta; laid on a metal table and inked with butchers’ marks for delineating cuts of meat; served on a platter with a garnish in his mouth, like a suckling pig; and seared — with Photoshopped flames — on a giant barbecue grill.
“Bob doesn’t end up doing things that are that crazy, but he ends up having the least amount of clothing,” Leafblad said.
Admittedly, a few of the calendar photos have nearly crossed the “grandmother” line of good taste: “If it’s sitting out at Thanksgiving, you might not want Granny to open it up and flip to the Bob-being-barbecued shot,” Anderson advised.
As the group’s self-appointed scribe, Leafblad wields a lot of control over which 12 concepts are selected. This time around, she’s still not convinced by co-owner James Winberg’s repeated plea to play croquet at the Minikahda Club in tighty-whities, or Brown’s holy grail, “pumpkin butt,” a concept best left to the imagination.
“I’ve been shot down on this so hard,” Brown complained as he tried, yet again, to resurrect the idea.
“Because it’s horrible,” Leafblad said.
“The photographs would be the equivalent of serving someone salmonella,” Anderson added.
Brown proceeded to sketch some sort of human-vegetable hybrid. “If you turned the page and saw that, you’d [expletive] laugh your ass off. I don’t know how that’s not funny. That’s probably the funniest thing I’ve ever thought of.”
Suffice it to say, it didn’t make the cut.
Slightly seductive, very silly
In the course of producing the Travail calendar, Anderson, who typically focuses on advertising photography, has captured chefs engaged in Mexican-style wrestling at a boxing gym and synchronized swimming in a suburban lake.
This year’s calendar took him on a wild goose chase around northeast Minneapolis (involving a wrong address and being kicked off private property) and onto the partly constructed rooftop of Travail’s new building.
A few weeks ago, Anderson, Brown and Leafblad were in a deserted parking garage to photograph Feltmann as Mr. March, wearing high heels, tiny shorts and a crop top, waving a couple of black-and-white checkered flags. “Flex your butt cheeks,” Brown hollered as Anderson snapped photos.
Typically, Leafblad sources costumes and props and deploys them at photo shoots, tossing feathers into a simulated pillow fight, for example. Anderson art-directs the shoots and, basically, takes Travail’s clay — a lot of wacky ideas and raw enthusiasm — and molds it into a dozen outlandish-yet-artistic images.
“Oh, yeah, you’re going to shine, the camera’s going to love you, man,” a colleague encouraged a 2020 Mr. August, while slathering the model’s bare belly with baby oil.
A few minutes later, three long-locked, shirtless males struck a pose while Leafblad fanned their flowing hair.
“Really own this, like you’re trying to win me over,” Anderson said, as he captured the seductive, silly spectacle.