The Minneapolis chef reflects on his mentors, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, and how they helped guide him through the rocky, early days of his acclaimed restaurant.
Chef Gavin Kaysen remembers it still – how the snow came down on that day in November of 2014, blanketing Spoon and Stable’s wide windows, a common early winter in Minneapolis’ North Loop. The restaurant would open in a week.
For the last 30 or 40 days, Kaysen had kept his eyes away from pre-media coverage and his nose to the grindstone as he finalized his service guide, checked off punch lists with design and construction teams, and trained kitchen and front-of-house staff. His menu was building comfortably.
He was standing in the dining room in the middle of a photo shoot with a local business journal, the snow falling outside, when it happened.
“The reservations get flipped on, 30 minutes go by, and one of my floor managers walks over,” Kaysen explains. “He says, ‘Uh, Chef? There’s been an error with Open Table.’”
Two-hundred people had made reservations in those 30 minutes.
For that same week.
Some, for that very night.
Spoon and Stable didn’t yet have a liquor license. They had no wine to serve. Or food to serve. His staff was not technically yet working shifts.
I said, "Okay, turn it all off," he calmly relays now. Grabbing cellphones, he and his managers started making calls. “We basically opened the restaurant two days before everybody actually knew that we were open, because of this mistake,” Kaysen says. Each guest walked in that Friday night to receive a glass of champagne, then left with a rocky road muffin and note that said, Sorry for the rocky start, Gavin. “Open Table was vocal about it being their mistake, and helped rectified it as best they could. But the reality is, there's so much damage done right then.”
Kaysen shares this story as but the tip of the iceberg he still didn’t see coming:
“The day when the system was flipped back on, we sold two months of reservations in six hours,” he says. He was now paying someone to say ‘no’ to every person who wanted to dine in his restaurant. This – along with the growing press he could not ignore and a star-studded opening night lauded as a success – kept pressure mounting.
It’s not that he didn’t want full books or attention; his is not a humble brag. He just wasn’t expecting it. The hype – a word he claims to hate for it being unspecific and changeable and therefore something he can’t ever fully meet – grew. “I was caught off guard by it,” he says.
And he had never handled something like this on his own.
Kaysen had just spent seven years as chef de cuisine to Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud, the high-end French restaurant on the Upper East Side of New York. “When you work for somebody like Daniel… you are attached to someone’s who's bigger than you, to a restaurant that's bigger than you; that had a life of its own before you and will have one after you leave,” Kaysen says. “So, the criticisms tend to sting, but they tend to be a little bit less lasting in some ways.” Kaysen also works with Boulud at Ment’or, the foundation that coaches Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or, in which Kaysen participated in 2007 and for which he has since been a coach. There, he also works with president Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se.
He considers both mentors and, in contrast to outside fame, witnesses them as working chefs. “I know the two of them go through a lot in their own day-to-day business. There's no bulletproof vest out there, just like there's no formula to make the perfect restaurant,” he says. “I remember specifically thinking there are no better two people who will know what this feels like and have advice.”
He first called Boulud, doubtful and questioning: "How do you go about your day-to-day business, and believe in everything you're doing, when under this microscope and so many people don't believe in it?"
"Don't doubt yourself. Don't doubt what you want to create,” Boulud slowly spelled back to him. “It's the same thing when we open a restaurant in Toronto, or Montreal, or Beijing. If it's not what the city expected? We have to believe in what we're creating. We know that it works. And so, we're going to go after it."
Kaysen asked Keller the same. "'You do what you do,'" Kaysen remembers Keller saying. "Believe in what you do, in what you're creating, in how that's going to impact your community; not only the community of guests, but the community of people working with you on a day-to-day basis; how it's going to help them, how it will change their lives – your lives. And move forward.”
By the end of that year, Spoon and Stable was a 2015 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year. The James Beard Awards and Bon Appetit both gave it Best New Restaurant nominations. It became one of Eater’s America’s Essential 38 Restaurants. Kaysen won the 2018 JBF’s Best Chef Midwest award, and other staff members have been given nominations, too.
“It had to work,” he says of having moved his wife and children back to Minneapolis – his hometown – to open Spoon and Stable. The phone calls themselves weren’t the fork in the road of going from self-doubt toward failure or leadership. But they were the final push he needed from having a boss to being one. “It's not a light switch,” he says. “It's not about the food, about getting the numbers right, about the hospitality; it's about all of those things, and so much more. If you don't have somebody to practice that with, it's really hard. It’s really hard.”
He told Boulud he was pondering next steps four years before he left Café. “There was never that moment where I felt anger towards anything,” he says of the long process. Boulud trusted Kaysen with his restaurant; Kaysen worked to honor the name on the door. “Taking ownership of that restaurant as long as I did was really what gave me the confidence to move past all of that,” he understands of overcoming self-doubt. He first found himself thinking of what he would do if at Café Boulud, or how Boulud himself might lead. Then, the more he started believing in Spoon and Stable – “a restaurant that's sense of place is here and in this time of Minneapolis” – the more he was able to inspire those around him to believe in it, too.
With his recent James Beard win in hand, he keeps Keller’s advice in mind: “Accolades are nothing more than a celebration of yesterday. So, focus on what you're doing today.”
Rewards reflect hard work and the support of those around you – the collective belief needed to make restaurants win in the eyes of critics and customers alike. “But it doesn't mean that the guest who's going to come and sit at table 25 tonight, and made a reservation for seven o'clock two months ago, doesn’t expect it to be that good, too,” he says. “You have to remember that; you have to remember that every day is a new opportunity.”
From his mentors, Kaysen learned to trust the long game. “What do you believe? What are you creating? And why? And is every single day and every single part of that journey getting you closer to where you want to go? And if that answer is 'yes' or close enough to 'yes,' then keep going in that direction