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Interview with Gavin Kaysen

El Bizcocho at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, San Diego, California

What's your favorite new ingredient?
Saba, a cooked, reduced grape must that I found at Aniata Cheese Company in Del Mar [California]. We use it as an accompaniment for cheese, adding some cinnamon and vanilla and doing a little line on the plate. We also use it as a glaze for sturgeon.

What's the most versatile spice?
Black pepper, but we like to use pimente d'Espelette, a ground red chile pepper. I especially like using it on whitefish for that bright red contrast. It looks sexy.

What's the most underused spice?
In my kitchen, it's turmeric. We use it in one recipe, a cucumber-milk sauce, that we serve with tuna and crab. But it's very refreshing. It's such a summer thing.

What items should be in every pantry?
Olive oil, fleur de sel, and verjus. I love verjus—in a mignonette with oysters, reduced down in a sauce, or in a vinaigrette.

What's your favorite knife?
Shun turning knives, for vegetables.

What's your favorite pan?
I use All-Clad at home and at the restaurant.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
Sur La Table has a great selection, but I really just go to get inspired by seeing terrine molds and flexi molds, and brainstorming ideas.

What's your favorite mail-order source?
Lately, I've been buying stuff from Pastry Chef Central [pastrychef.com]. They have tons of molds and their Silpat selection is great.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
A blast chiller, for bringing down the temperatures of braised vegetables really quickly. Right now we put them in a walk-in freezer that sees a lot of traffic, so it's not very efficient.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
At Avenues [in Chicago], Graham [Elliot Bowles] served a buffalo dish with sassafras, grits and Swiss chard that was somehow very hearty, but light enough to remind me of summer. It brought my palate to its highest point.

What's your favorite sushi place?
Sushi Ota in San Diego has the freshest fish in the world.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
Avec. I eat there every time I'm in Chicago. The food's fantastic and the feeling and price are right.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
A fish taco shop. I love fish tacos.

Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
I'm seeing longer tasting menus. Graham Elliot Bowles is doing 12 and 24 dishes, and Grant Achatz [at Alinea in Chicago] is doing 24. You have to give up your whole night for it, but people are enjoying it. I'd actually love to see no menus, like I saw in Switzerland, at Auberge De Lavaux, where there were no menus for the prix fixe. It gives the illusion of being customized and extremely organized.

On a scale of one to ten, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and ten championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
Six or seven, because about 60 or 70 percent of my cuisine is sous vide, but I don't use a lot of ingredients. I don't want people to focus on too many different flavors.

What ingredient used by avant-garde chefs (i.e., agar agar, transglutaminase, methylcellulose) do you think will make its way to the home kitchen?
None of them. I don't think people know what to do with any of that stuff.

What's your favorite cookbook?
Philippe Rochat's book Flaveurs, because he's so detail oriented. The way he uses fresh herbs, and how he maintains the integrity of his ingredients is amazing. I had dinner at his restaurant in Switzerland. Almost all of the vegetables I ate were raw, but they were sliced so thin that the heat of the plate almost cooked them. It blew me away.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
Philippe Rochat in Switzerland, because his mind seems to be always moving, and even though he experienced a personal tragedy, he managed to stay strong and hold on to three Michelin stars. I want to learn what makes him tick, how his palate works.

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has been a big influence on chefs recently; what or who do you think will take his place?
Grant [Achatz, at Alinea in Chicago] is doing a good job. I think we're seeing some of the best years in food. In 50 or 60 years, people are going to look back at Wylie Dufresne [at New York City's WD-50] and Shea Gallante [at New York City's Cru].

If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
With $1,000, I'd buy 20 different kinds of cutting-edge plates because you can never have too many plates to design food on. With $10, I'd buy a wooden spoon, which reminds me of making Rice Krispies bars as a kid.

Do you have any good stories about your regulars?
A regular guest was bringing in friends from France, so I called in [asked them to smuggle in] wild duck and Vacherin Mont d'Or, a cow's-milk cheese that comes wrapped in bark. It's creamy, like fondue, and it's not legal in the States.

Do you have any food-related superstitions?
I steal spoons from restaurants around the world. Every time I'm in a new restaurant, I take one spoon and use those during service. I was also taught that shiny shoes are happy shoes, so I shine my shoes every day before work.

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