Star power continues to boost local food scene

Café Boulud’s Gavin Kaysen is headed home to Minneapolis to open his own restaurant


Gavin Kaysen

Chef Gavin Kaysen hams it up in the Cafe Boulud kitchen.

Grant Tillery

Gavin Kaysen has a chef’s dream résumé.

At 19, he left Bloomington, Minn., to enroll at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After an internship with Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, Kaysen crossed the Atlantic to Lausanne, Switzerland, to cook for Auberge de Lavaux, and then headed to London to sharpen his skills at the formerly Michelin-starred L’Escargot.

A dart thrown at a map took Kaysen to San Diego, Calif., where he won a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine in 2007, while at El Bizcocho. Shortly after winning the award, he moved to the Michelin-starred Café Boulud in New York.

In early June, Kaysen will pack his bags, head home to Minneapolis and open his own restaurant, Merchant, in the North Loop. A&E caught up with him to ask about Café Boulud, Merchant and what he eats outside the restaurant.


How did you end up at Café Boulud?
GK: I met Daniel Boulud about 10 years ago — I was participating in a cooking competition called the Bocuse d’Or, which basically is our Olympics of cooking. It’s not very well-known in America because it’s a European-style competition, but very difficult nonetheless. I competed and represented the United States back in 2007, and Daniel — shortly before that — and I became very close friends. We had a good dialogue about Bocuse d’Or and everything I was going through, and he offered me the position to take over as the chef of Café Boulud.


You’re the second Food & Wine Best New Chef who’s moving back to Minneapolis — Erik Anderson (who opened The Catbird Seat in Nashville) is coming back to town as well.
GK: I talked to Erik this morning, actually.


Was that one of your reasons for coming back? Why did you decide to come back to Minneapolis?
GK: My reasoning was purely personal. I didn’t know Erik was coming back when I made my decision, but I heard and read about it and since have reconnected with him.

My interest in coming back was that [Minneapolis] is a beautiful place to live. I have two young boys — 2 and 4-and-a-half — and it’ll be a great place for them to grow up. And I’ve always seen Minneapolis as an incredible opportunity to help grow and expand business.


What’s going to be the hardest thing about leaving New York City?
GK: My entire life is within eight city blocks. I haven’t driven or owned a car in eight years. That’ll be different — having to drive to the bank or having to drive to the store. Most of my grocery shopping is done online and delivered to my address.


Speaking of groceries, what do you eat at home?
GK: I usually have one day off a week — Sunday nights — so whenever I’m home and I’m off, I cook pretty simply. The other day I did a chili-rub skirt steak with a baby jam and radish salad, with a little dill vinaigrette. The week before that, it was seared trout with haricot vert, toasted almonds [and] lemon.


What are your thoughts on the Minneapolis food scene? It could be the next Portland.
GK: I agree with you. One thing Minneapolis is great at doing is preserving the talent that’s there and in some ways keeping a bit of a secret. The chef community in Minneapolis is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. Before I had announced publicly that I was going to move home, I called a few of the chefs in Minneapolis to let them know. They’re friends of mine, and I didn’t want them to find out through a media outlet.


What is the concept of Merchant, and when is the opening date?
GK: It’s late 2014 — you can guess whatever that means. The restaurant is in the North Loop — I’m not ready to disclose the address. There’s going to be two private dining rooms: a 14-18 seat room and a 20-plus seat room.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter on whether it’s going to be fine dining or not. There’s no intention to make it fine dining; there’s no intention to have tablecloths. My goal is to bring food that’s accessible and delicious and for people in the neighborhood to come and eat more than once a week.

 Café Boulud [is], by definition, a neighborhood restaurant. I cook for the same people every week; I cook for their children’s graduations, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and I’m a part of their life.


How does the idea of a neighborhood restaurant differ in New York and Minneapolis?
GK: It’s not comparing apples to apples. [A] Café Boulud diner’s check covers over $100 a person. Mine would be substantially less — half, if not more, of that. You have to read and understand the demographics you’re in, in order to give back to them. Merchant isn’t going to come to Minneapolis and be a Boulud-style restaurant.


What are your food guilty pleasures?
GK: My guilty junk food pleasure is Cheetos. I love them; they’re so good. I try to stay away from them, but they’re delicious. You can’t go wrong with a really good Rice Krispies bar — the homemade stuff. The blue package — stay away.


What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had?
GK: In 1999, I moved into a house in Napa Valley. My roommate worked at a restaurant that I hadn’t heard of at that point. It was called the French Laundry, by Thomas Keller. I went and had lunch the next day, and I had no idea what to expect. It was my introduction to fine dining, and I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Keller.


Do you remember what you ate?
GK: We had 19 courses, so no. But I’m sure I could dig up the menu.