Why he won Because he’s amazingly adept at taking the serious French cooking techniques he mastered in Europe and turning them into playful dishes.
Born Thousand Oaks, CA; 1979.
Education New England Culinary Institute, Montpelier, VT.
Experience Domaine Chandon, Yountville, CA; Auberge de Lavaux, Lausanne, Switzerland; L’Escargot (one Michelin star), London.
How he got into cooking “I was working at a Subway in Bloomington, Minnesota. This guy named George Serra was opening a place called Pasta Time next door. He’d come in every Saturday and order tuna, then I’d watch him go out and throw the sandwich in the trash. After four or five Saturdays, I asked him why he was throwing out his sandwiches. [He was checking out Kaysen’s sandwich-making skills, not the sandwich.] He said, ‘I want you to come work for me, you have a great work ethic.’ So he gave me $1 more an hour, and I went to work for him. He taught me how to love food, and how to love the whole process, and to cook with a lot of emotion. That’s what I learned from him.”
On working at Domaine Chandon “Working under Robert Curry was the first time I was exposed to what food can be—what it meant to have someone growing microgreens for you, and meeting farmers whose hands were still dirty. It just blew me away. I got so addicted to it. Every day, I’d go in early to try and work on a different station. I went in not knowing what foie gras was. One month later, I was grilling it—I still didn’t know what it was, but knew I had to grill it fast.”
On working with Marco Pierre White at L’Escargot “I only met him twice, but he has an incredible ability to taste food in his head before he sees it. He’d come in and read the menu we wrote, then he’d close his eyes, and you could just see him tasting it. He’d say, ‘Guys, this is good, but it needs texture.’ And he was always right. That was a rocking time. We worked so many hours, from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., with one hour off. I used to play ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in the morning to get moving. The first time I got to have breakfast with my wife, Linda [whom he met in Europe], was when we moved back to America.”
Most humbling moment “I was making a lobster sauce at Chandon and needed Champagne. I had a bottle sitting next to the stove, and it got so hot, the cork popped. The Champagne went everywhere, and the cork hit Robert Curry in the shoulder. Another time, the health inspector came in, and I was butchering beef and had blood all over my butcher block. The health inspector took away the block, and from then on, I had the nickname ‘health inspector.’ ”
Pet peeve Dirty shoes. “If people don’t have shiny shoes, they can get out of my kitchen. I hate that. My dad is a suit guy; I always saw him look very professional. I think of my chef’s coat as my business suit. I take what we wear in the kitchen very seriously. I wash my chef’s jackets myself. It needs to be creased and everything.”
What keeps him going “This is the only industry where you can go out and have a great glass of Champagne and eat a great meal, and you’re learning.”
Favorite kitchen tool His spoons. “I’ve borrowed—I’ve learned not to say ‘steal’—spoons from all over the world, even from Paul Bocuse’s restaurant. We have them framed. They’re so versatile; you can use one to baste, to transfer food to a plate. You can always use it for something. It’s like an ultra-utility knife, but for the kitchen.”
Favorite cheap eat Fish tacos at one of La Jolla’s surf shops.
Guilty pleasure “I love Cheetos. But Cheetos and Rice Krispies Treats are the best combination. You have a bowl of Cheetos and a Rice Krispies Treat, and it’s game over.”
What his next restaurant would be “Something personal. You’d walk into the place and see my wall of spoons. At Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, they never had menus—the chef would go to each table and make a menu for each person. I love that concept.”
What he’d be if he weren’t a chef A storm chaser. “Or I could be ‘the weather chef’ cooking for the storm chasers. I’d make fast and healthy food, because they have to move fast and they need a lot of energy to chase the tornados.”
Food trend he wishes would go away Massive portions. “That disgusts me. There’s so much, you can’t focus on what it tastes like.”
Advice to future cooks “Do it because you love cooking food for people. That’s why you’re in it every day. Of course, I dream of being on the phone with Food & Wine, but that’s not it every day.”
What his cooking show would be “I’d want to create a show based on things my mom could do, because she’s the world’s worst cook. We grew up with every single kind of breakfast cereal.”
Whom he’d team up with to open a restaurant His parents. “They know absolutely nothing about food, but they’re awesome entertainers and they can throw a great party.”
Surprise sous chef Mike Goff, an offensive linesman for the San Diego Chargers. “I did a fund-raiser with the Chargers. Mike Goff is obsessed with food, so he came to help in the kitchen. He weighs over 300 pounds; we had to get him an XXXXL chef’s coat. He sat down for a family meal with us—we had Kobe-beef sloppy joes—and he said, ‘Why don’t you guys go ahead of me?’ So we took our food first. Then he ate so much food it was ridiculous. He got everyone tickets to the next game, and it was the night that [Goff’s teammate] LaDainian Tomlinson broke all the records.”
Won Best New Chef at: El Bizcocho, San Diego, CA
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.