Gavin Kaysen is taking a risk. In his current position as Executive Chef at Café Boulud, he has it all: a great job in a highly regarded restaurant, a solid place in the Daniel Boulud family, and all prestige and opportunities such a position brings with it. He’s a coach for Team USA for the annual (and rigorous) Olympics-style , and well-established among his peers in New York City. Despite his current success, he’s gambling it all with a move back to his roots: later this year, he’s opening his own restaurant, Merchant (now called Spoon and Stable), back home in Minneapolis.
We shot a video interview with him and our Chefs Connection video host Chiara first, and then we turned off the cameras and sat down for a Q&A. We covered everything from his first jobs at Subway and HoneyBaked Hams to his experiences in the kitchen at Café Boulud and his young son’s reaction to seeing an entire pig on the chopping block, as well as his stint on “Chopped All-Stars.”
Chefs Connection (CC): This must be a very strange time in your life.
“Yeah. It’s funny, because in one way, I’m too busy so I’m not thinking a lot about everything that’s happening, and the transition and the change. Leaving New York and moving to Minneapolis hasn’t really hit me in that respect. I think what’s more the day-to-day challenge is making sure that I’m still doing everything I need to do to support Café Boulud while also trying to get my building permits for Merchant. So it’s sort of this juggle of those two things which is probably what makes it more difficult on a day-to-day basis.
“But it’s also a very exciting adventure. When I was 28 years old I said, ‘I’m going to open up a restaurant when I’m 35.’ I remember writing that down actually; I still have that, somewhere. And I’ll be 35 next week, so I will be 35 when it happens, knock on wood.
CC: As you wrap things up, are you starting to feel nostalgic for things that are still happening?
“The hard thing that I’m going to miss the most is really the people that I’m with here, every day. It’s been such a family; some of the people have been here the whole time I’ve been here, and some were here before I got here, so I’ve had a seven year relationship with these people. I’ll miss the daily interactions with them, I’ll miss the jokes with them, I’ll miss that part of Café Boulud. But you know, Café Boulud’s always here, and I can always come back, and I can always visit them.
“I feel like I’ve created such great relationships with these people that I don’t … I think you get nostalgic when you feel like you’re never going to see it again. And I don’t get that feeling like I’m never going to see it again. So it’s harder for me to feel nostalgic because I’m so closely connected to it, and still to Daniel [Boulud], that I feel like I’ll always be a part of the family.”
CC: How does your family feel about the move, and living in a different place?
“My wife is really excited. My kids don’t necessarily know one way or the other. My five-year-old’s more excited because he knows he’s next to Nana and Hoppa, and there’s more toys in their house than there are at our house. But my wife is really excited for the new chapter and the new adventure that we want to take on, and she’s listened to me talk about this restaurant and this dream and this idea for so long that I think she’s just happy to finally see me come through and just do it. She’ll be a part of it; she has an interior design degree and that’s what she did when we moved here too, and when we were in San Diego. So she’ll be a part of the design process as well. That’s going to be her non-for-profit job in the next year. [Laughs]”
CC: [Laughs] Lucky woman! How old is your youngest?
“Two and a half.”
CC: And are the kids good eaters?
“Yeah, they’re good eaters. The two-and-a-half-year-old’s a lot better eater than the five-year-old. I think the five-year-old’s more driven by routine. So it has to be the same yogurt, the same granola, the same raisins, the same every day. Whereas the two-year-old’s more like, ‘Yeah, if Daddy’s going to eat that for breakfast, then I’m going to eat that for breakfast.’ Then he just sits in my lap and eats it. So he’s a little bit more carefree in that world.
“Sometimes my kids’ll come here and there’ll be a whole pig out, like my guys are butchering a whole pig. And I was always kind of scared, when my kids would see that, that they would associate it in a nightmarish way.
“And I just remember, Emile was walking by once, he was four. He’d just turned four so this was last year. And he said, ‘Daddy, is that a pig?’ And I said, ‘Yeah it is.’ And he says, ‘Is that where we get our bacon from?’ And I said, ‘It is. Are you okay with that?’ And he’s like, ‘That is really cool, can you show me where it comes from?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So I showed him the belly. I said ‘This is where the bacon comes from, from the pig.’ He says, ‘What about everything else?’ And I said, ‘Well everything else has different parts that are really delicious in its own right.’ And I said, ‘Maybe we can eat some different parts of that, later on and throughout the next year and I can teach you about it.’ And he says, ‘Okay, that’d be great.’
“He’s never really touched on it again, but it made me happy to know that that didn’t scare him off. And it actually educated him a little bit. So now when we eat bacon, he’ll tell us, ‘Mommy, this is from a pig in Daddy’s restaurant.’ [Laughs] I think for him, he thinks it’s the same pig. But at least he understands that’s where it comes from.”
CC: I remember when my nephew was horrified to find out that chicken [that he ate] was the same as a chicken, the animal.
“Yeah, well that’s the thing. You don’t know if they understand that whole process.”
CC: That’s why they call it veal, I think. So they don’t have to call it …
“Right, baby cow. Venison, not baby deer. All of those things. You know? It’s a good marketing scheme. [Laughs] Somebody has to do it, because we have to sell the product!”
CC: So you’re very comfortable in front of the camera, and you’ve done a lot of TV. Did you ever think that that would be part of your career, when you took up cooking?
“Never. No, no. In fact, I never thought of … when I was a chef in San Diego, when I started to see what media really was, for cooking, I never thought TV was really a part of it. I also didn’t know how you really go into that world. Now it just seems even more different, ten years after the fact it’s even more dominant in the TV world, and chefs and our lifestyles, and everything.
“I think that in one way it’s interesting because … chefs are sort of introverts, in one way. That’s why we’re all in kitchens. And now we’re exposed to television and the media so now we have to tell everybody about what it is that we do, and how that inspires us, but I find it a very interesting way to communicate both the challenges and the tribulations of the industry. Because it seems like it’s all glory, to anybody who watches it, and it seems like it’s easy, in some ways. But it’s the furthest thing from it.
“But it’s like any job, in my opinion, any job that’s worth doing is hard. And any job that’s hard, you have to be passionate for. And whether or not that’s publicized on television or in magazines, theoretically should never actually drive you to stay in that job or push forward in the job, it should just be because it’s your passion, and that’s why you got into it to begin with. But, with that being said, TV’s been really good to me, and I’ve been able to be a part of a lot of fun shows, and hard shows, you know, from a competition standpoint, but it’s also been a great way to just kind of have people get to know you in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise get to know you. I think it’s a great platform.”
CC: What was it like doing “Chopped?” You were on “Chopped All-Stars,” and you made it right to the very end of the final show.
“Yeah, that was fun. Scotty [Scott Conant] and I were the last two. Let me tell you, first of all, the show is hard as hell. You have no idea what’s in the baskets, it’s crazy. And that’s all the time that you really have.”
CC: So once you see the ingredients, do you really only get the time that we see you get on the show?
“Yeah. You do three takes. One is you putting your hands on the basket, pretending you’re opening it, right? The second take is you turning around, doing the same thing. Then you turn around again and they’re like, ‘Okay, now it’s the real deal.’ And they put black napkins in the basket, to cover the food because the baskets are wicker, so you could see through [them] if the lights hit it right. But they put napkins around so you can’t see in. So then when you open it up, whatever it is, you have 20 minutes, that’s all you have. You have 20 minutes.
“Actually, you know what’s harder? It’s not what’s in the basket. What’s harder is that the pantry is super limited. So if there’s one bunch of chives and somebody takes all the chives for chive oil, that’s it. There’s no more chives.”
CC: Do you get to look through that pantry before you start to see what’s in there?
“You do, but you have no idea. It’s like walking through my kitchen and saying, ‘Okay, here’s where everything is,’ you’re going to walk around and be like, ‘Where the f*** is that sheet pan?’
“So I think that’s hard, but it was a great show, but it was really, really hard. And it was fun to do it with Scott, and Richard [Blais], and Elizabeth [Falkner] and everybody that I was on the show with. That was a lot of fun.
“And for me, it was all about the cause and the charity. Obviously, the most important reason to do a show like that is, less to put your name out there but more to get the name of the charity out there. Which is why I did it, because Children’s Cancer Research Fund is based in Minneapolis, actually, but I have two very good friends of mine who lost their three-year-old to leukemia about three years ago. And from diagnosis to his death it was 16 days.”
CC: Oh my god.
“Yeah. So it was just so intense and so quick and just incredibly painful. So when they asked me to do the show, my immediate thought was to do it for them, and quite honestly, less so for anything else. And as a result, it was good because his father is now a board member on the CCRF and they now have a section of the foundation that’s just dedicated to Julian, all the proceeds that go directly to him just go straight to research. But it’s always in the honor of his name. The story of how they got through that, and how they got through it is incredibly hardcore.”
CC: I actually can’t go there, in my head.
“Yeah. It was incredibly hardcore.
“You know, when we were filming that show, only the producers know what your story is. They don’t tell anybody else at first, because they want the reactions from everybody, right? So when I first told the story, they gave me a lot of time – of course they cut it all out — but they gave me a lot of time to talk about it. I told the whole story, and I’m looking around, and all I see is all the cameramen are crying. All the judges are crying, like everybody is crying, because I went into hardcore depth of everything that went on. And it was hard to cook after that, because I was in that space, and I was not ready to cook, and so we all sort of took a break, and then went back, and said, ‘Okay, now we’re ready to cook.’
“So anyway, that portion of television, I think is important, because it gives you a power, and it gives you an opportunity to explain, and to talk to people. And I can’t tell you how many letters I got, how many emails I received. I had a family fly up here from Alabama ‘cause their daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. She survived. She’s had it for about two and a half, maybe three years, her name’s Avery, and they have t-shirts that are called ‘BrAvery’ with her name in it and the BR in front. Just really incredibly touching stories, and just meeting these people, and being a part of it.
“I have regulars who come eat here, on a weekly basis, and they send a weekly check to John, who’s the father of Julian, every week, in honor of the boy, after the show. It’s really cool. So for that reason, for me, it was all worth it.’
[At this point, someone from the restaurant walks in with some tea for Gavin, who clearly looks forward to this part of his day.]
“Do you want to try this? This is the best tea in the world. You have to try this.”
CC: I can’t not try something that’s the best tea in the world.
“He makes this tea for me every day. It’s chamomile, honey, ginger juice, and lemon. It’s super powerful. It’s really good.”
[He’s right. It actually is the best tea in the world. I write down the ingredients.]
CC: So your career has spanned a lot, you’ve had ups and downs, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve had to learn?
“Patience, probably. I think that’s always kind of the hardest lesson, being patient. [If] you’re on a soup station, you want to get off it in six months because you feel that you’ve succeeded in that station, but really the chef wants you there for eight months. Those two months [are] not that long, but as a soup cook, it feels like an eternity. So I think that’s always a lesson that I try to focus on, is just try to be patient.
“And now it’s flipped a little bit, now I try to be patient with the cooks, try to be patient teaching them what they need to know [as] opposed to telling them what they have to learn. And seeing how they learn, that’s different. Like, I learned when people would yell at me, right? That’s how I grew up in the industry, I would just get screamed at all the time, and so as a result I forced myself to take that energy, and that anger that they had and I had, and just funnel it into positive energy, and to make myself become more successful faster. Then that way they could stop yelling at me, because I would be higher than them. So that kind of forced me to become successful faster.
“But not everybody thinks like that, so how do you channel your energy, and your teachings to them, so it gives them that same focus and that same drive to then become successful on their own? I think that’s probably been a continued lesson that I always try push myself, and I always try to push my sous chefs to do too. You know, you want to bring the cooks right to the edge, let them see what it’s like, and then pull them back and help them and teach them and show them through the process.
CC: And do you lose your temper in the kitchen? Do you get a little crazy?
“Not really. I shouldn’t even say not really, I mean basically not at all. If I get angry, and if I raise my voice, there’s typically a very specific reason.
“You know it’s kind of like raising kids. If you raise your voice with your kids, there’s a reason because you’re fearing [for] their well-being, [as] opposed to you just being frustrated and pissed off. I guess the way that I look at is that if I’m yelling at the cooks all day, during a service or even during prep, I’m yelling at them because I’ve not done the right organization techniques to make them succeed. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. So if the cook isn’t set up properly, it’s not necessarily the cook’s fault, it’s my fault because either (a) I gave the cook too much work, or (b) I didn’t set them up properly at their station to have them be ready for it. I’m not suggesting that I do any work FOR them, but I need to give them the tools in order for them to succeed. And if I haven’t done so, then really it’s my fault, isn’t it? It’s not theirs. And that’s how I associate it, that way. Like kids.”
CC: And is there any great advice that you got during your career that you’ve stuck with?
“Yeah. A sous chef I worked for in Napa Valley would always say to me, ‘Don’t take a job for more money, take the job for the experience.’ And I’ve always thought of that, because I always felt that that was very true. I’ll have conversations with past cooks or current cooks and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I got offered this job, and they’ll pay me 15 bucks an hour, and I’m only making 12 bucks an hour here, and it’s this and it’s that,’ and it’s like, ‘Okay, take the money out. If you didn’t get paid, would you still take the job? Do you really believe that that’s going to get you where you’re going to go next?’
“So for example, the Chef de Cuisine I have now, who’s taking over for me when I leave, he’s from Seattle. His name’s Aaron Bludorn and he’s a great guy, and he’s been with me for five years. And he came to me via recommendation, and he worked for a guy named Douglas Keane in Healdsburg, at a two-star Michelin restaurant called Cyrus. And so he worked here for about a year, maybe 14 months, and he sat down with me, he said, ‘Okay Chef, I’m ready to move on.’
“‘Okay, so where do you want to go?’
“And he said, ‘Oh, I want to maybe go work at Eleven Madison Park, or maybe Per Se, or Gramercy Tavern and THEN Eleven Madison Park and Per Se.’ It’s always the same ring of restaurants. And I said, ‘All right. Well what do you want to do? So let’s say you work at Gramercy Tavern for a year or two years, what do you want to do after that?’ Well he says, ‘Well then I want to go to EMP or Per Se.’ I said, ‘Okay, so do you do that for a year or two years. Then where do you go?’ He says, ‘Well then I’m thinking about moving back to Seattle.’ And I said, ‘Well what do you expect to be doing in Seattle?’ and he says, ‘Well then I’ll be a chef.’ And I said, ‘Well wait a minute. If you’re a cook here and you’re a cook at Gramercy Tavern and then you’re a cook at EMP, why does that make you a chef in Seattle? Aren’t you still a cook?’
“And that was kind of the light, he was like, wait a minute. You have to understand, you can work in all these great restaurants and have a brilliant résumé, or, you can look at your destination that you’re at right now and you can decide where you want to be in five years and how to get there. And if those are the steps to get there, I support you. But if you don’t believe that those are the steps to get there, I think you should really think about it again.
“And as a result, he’s now the chef here. So I think he looked at it and was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be a chef in five years, but if I go work in all these other places, I’m only going to be a cook. So how do I get to be a chef?’
“But you’ve got to teach people that, you know. I didn’t know that. Until somebody told me that, I had no idea. I just kind of fell into it, basically. Our chef got fired in San Diego and I was like, ‘Well, they have no other option. I’m the sous chef, they’re not going to hire anybody on the outside.’ It’s like I got the job by default. [Laughs]”
CC: Well, it worked out though!
CC: So now, whose opinion, in your life, matters the most to you?
“Wow, that’s a great question. Um … [Long pause]”
CC: If you want to separate personal and professional, you can.
“Personally, my wife’s opinion means the most to me, because she’s been through so much in my life, and traveling, and was a part of me growing, finding out who I was, finding out who I really wanted to be, which was more in Europe, at the time, at least.
“Professionally, probably George Serra, who was the first chef I worked for when I was 15 years old. Regardless of how much sh** he gives me on a continued basis, I think his opinion matters so much, in terms of where I want to be, and what I want to do, and what those goals are, because you know, he was the first guy I ever cooked with. So he saw something in me that I never saw in me, when I was 15 years old. Whatever that was, he’s continued to believe in it, to believe in me, for that whole time. So I’d say professionally, he’s probably the one opinion that I go to a lot. ‘I’m going to open a restaurant in Minneapolis, what do you think of that?’ Or, ‘I’m going to take this job, what do you think of that?’ So it’s been good. In fact, when I decided to move to Minneapolis, when I signed the lease, he was probably the first person … I was more scared to tell him than to tell Daniel.”
CC: And is he in Minneapolis?
CC: So is he going to come on opening night?
“Yeah, I’m sure he’ll be there before. [Laughs] He’ll be there for opening night, for sure. “
CC: What was your very first job in food, was it really working at Subway?
“Subway. Yeah. Subway and HoneyBaked Hams. I used to wrap the hams in foil for HoneyBaked Hams at Christmas, wear[ing] the god-awful hairnets.”
CC: [Groans in sympathy]
“But I loved the little crispy bits on the ham, I’d eat those the whole time. [Imitates himself popping them into his mouth] So if you got a ham over the holidays that had a little ripped side over the crispy bit, that was me.”
CC: [Laughs] That was you. And did you know then, that you wanted a career in food?
“Subway, well, what I did know at Subway was that I did enjoy pleasing people. Back then – I mean, it’s not like it was that long ago, but it was, I guess it was 19 years ago, right?”
CC: That counts as “back then.”
“It was back then! And there [weren’t] a lot of Subways around, it wasn’t like what it is today. We had to cut our own tomatoes, we really had to actually prep our food. There was no commissary kitchen, now there’s all commissary kitchens for ‘em , but we didn’t have a commissary kitchen. We’d buy a case of lettuce, and cut the lettuce. We’d buy a whole bologna and slice the bologna, whatever.
“But what I do remember from working there is that we were in a business district, and we had a very long line during the lunch time, because obviously all the businesses would come out and get lunch. And I remember back then that if I could memorize what the same people that would come in every day, if I could memorize what they would eat, if I noticed the pattern … like there was a guy named Frank and he’d come in every day and he’d get a six-inch on whole wheat bread, roast beef sandwich, everything, no jalapeños, extra mustard. And I still remember his order to this day. And I remember thinking to myself, if I could memorize 10 or 15 or 20 of these people, they wouldn’t have to wait in line. And I could get them as repeat customers, but I would also get a longer line. And so I would memorize their food, so Frank would come in and I’d say, ‘Hey Frank, it’s at the register.’ He’d walk in, he’d pay, he’d leave. And he wouldn’t wait in line. And would other people would do is, they would basically say, ‘How do I get to be like that?’ And I would say, ‘Well if you come in every day, I’ll memorize your food, then if you get the same thing every day, you don’t have to wait in line.’ So that’s what ended up happening, is a lot of people would just get the same thing every day. So we just had a chart in front, it was what their names were, and what they ordered. So we’d see ‘em, we’d just start making the sandwich, and they wouldn’t wait in line and they’d go.”
CC: I worked in bars, where you’d see the person at the door and have their drink on the table by the time they walked over there.
“Yeah! They want a gin and tonic, extra lime, it’s like boom! How are you? And when you know, you know. That’s the thing, right? At the end of the day, whether it’s a Subway, a bar or a restaurant, that’s why people go and eat at restaurants. It’s that feeling of home, it’s that feeling of an extension of where you are at home, and you don’t have to be at home, you can be in a more public environment, and be around people that you don’t know and you get to meet.”
CC: And they clean up after you.
Interview and photos by Laurie Ulster
Want to keep up with Gavin’s new restaurant?
Watch Chiara Motley’s interview with Gavin Kaysen (video)
Watch Gavin Kaysen’s Tale From The Kitchen
Read about Gavin Kaysen’s Deep Dark Secret