“Restaurants are a little bit like kids—they each have their own personality,” says two-time James Beard award winner Gavin Kaysen.
Kaysen hails from Minnesota and got his start in the restaurant world when he was in high school with a job at Subway in Bloomington. At age 20, Kaysen moved away to attend culinary school and to work in some of the top kitchens in New York and San Diego. Kaysen returned to the Twin Cities in 2014 to open Spoon and Stable, “which is energetic and fun, a little escape from the universe outside,” says Kaysen. Then came Bellecour in Wayzata with French cuisine and a bakery. “A little neighborhood spot. It’s where you go when you call your spouse on the way home from work and say, ‘Hey, I’m hungry. Where should we meet for dinner?’” Kaysen says.
This year brought Demi, an intimate venue with limited seating and chef’s tasting menus which feature more upscale, seasonal, artistic inventions. Demi offers the Barrington menu, a two-hour tasting experience served at the kitchen counter, and the WC Whitney menu, a two-and-a-half-hour tasting experience based on the Barrington menu with additional courses.
“[With Demi,] we want to push as hard as we can [to use interesting ingredients] before people get freaked out,” says Kaysen. Cuttlefish with baby turnips, green tomato broth and ginger; rack of lamb with spring onions, spruce tips and yogurt; and rabbit meatball, scallions, shiso and malt vinegar sabayon have recently been on Demi’s menu.
The three restaurants are distinct, but they share the same commitment to quality and what Kaysen and his team call “majestic moments of hospitality.” They all draw on the flavors of the Minnesota seasons, which bring a deep nostalgia for Kaysen. And his restaurants reflect a shift n the culinary world, away from global cities and the dishes people have expected to be served by their great restaurants, and toward a more regional focus.
“The generation of chefs before me created the opportunity to live and work around the world and create the same recipes anywhere,” says Kaysen. Chefs like Kaysen almost all moved away from the cities where they trained in order to work in great restaurants around the world. Now there are amazing restaurants doing innovative things in some of the smaller markets, like the Twin Cities and other cities in the U.S. and beyond, says Kaysen.
Kaysen admits it’s a bit harder for chefs to get some foods—like quality seafood and lesser-known ethnic ingredients in Minnesota—and it’s harder to find experienced staff. But the rent is cheaper, and online vendors and better shipping options have helped level the playing field. “It’s more than just Minneapolis—we’re seeing the same thing in other ‘B-market’ food cities in the U.S.” he says.
Spoon and Stable’s executive chef Chris Nye has observed a similar trend and adds that chefs are moving away from some of the white linens and standard dishes of the past, and instead exploring their roots and creating fresh takes on the food they ate growing up. “There are cultures represented that weren’t before—new chefs like Sean Sherman and Mai Vang here in Minneapolis—and people cooking from the heart. It’s new cuisine, more natural and regionally driven.”
Nye says Kaysen is the most supportive chef he’s ever worked for. Within Kaysen’s kitchens—and in the wider culinary community through the Ment’or program—Kaysen “helps cooks become chefs,” says Nye. Along with the commitment to creating consistency and high-quality food at every table, during every shift in his three restaurants, Kaysen empowers his staff—seeing them as top priority in a world that can sometimes breed long hours and burnout—and helping them become up-and-coming local chefs.
“This movement of the media and general public focusing on all markets, not just the larger markets, and building micro-hyperfocused food cities … is going to force some kind of new guide book, I think. People are paying attention. At the Beard awards this year, a friend from Boston came up to me and asked ‘Jesus, what’s happening in the Twin Cities?’” Kaysen says. He and fellow Minneapolis chefs, Bachelor Farmer’s Paul Berglund and Young Joni’s Ann Kim, have brought home three of the last four James Beard Best Chef: Midwest awards. And that, he says, hasn’t happened since Tim McKee, Alexander Roberts and Isaac Becker swept the category in 2009 to 2011. But Kaysen shrugs off the attention, attributing the recent boom to a shifting tide he hopes will continue to make delicious things happen in the Twin Cities.
For now, there are no more Kaysen restaurants opening—yet. The team plans to continue to do what they do every day: build consistency and find joy in cooking as their brands get more established. But they’re always asking what’s next, and they’re thrilled to see the Twin Cities at the heart of a national movement that’s making great food available to more people in more areas.
“I left at 18 to go to culinary school and work in New York. Going to work for Daniel Boulud was the single most important decision I’ve made in my life,” Kaysen says. “But honestly, if I were a cook growing up here, now? I don’t know if I ever would have left.”