Chef Ian Gray talks goats, Park Tavern, and his favorite meal at Leeann Chin

Chef Ian Gray is ready to serve it up at this year's Iron Fork

Chef Ian Gray is ready to serve it up at this year's Iron Fork

Each week, we'll interview two of the chefs participating in our 2013 Iron Fork competition. On November 7, these six culinary masterminds will go head to head to see who can create the most appetizing and healthful dish using a secret ingredient provided by Lunds. For more information on the event, or to purchase your tickets, click here.

Ian Gray
Chef and co-owner
The Gray House

This St. Louis Park native has been dazzling diners with his cozy Lyn/Lake bistro since it opened last year. Now, the ambitious young chef, who often shops farmers markets for ingredients to create his daily menu, says he's ready to compete in this year's most exciting culinary smackdown. We were able to catch him between his trips to the market and his work in the kitchen to ask about his biggest culinary influences, favorite ingredients, and why he can't hate on a little Leeann Chin.

See Also:
The Gray House now open in Lyn-Lake
City Pages Iron Fork 2012: People and Food
Food Porn: Iron Fork 2012

Ian Gray grew up just outside Minneapolis in St. Louis Park. His method of conscious eating and meal preparation began at home. "There were a lot of meals together, cooking around holidays, and when we ate out it was conscious decision dining," he says.

That said, it wasn't all fine dining when they went out to eat together. "When I was younger it was Park Tavern, Fuddruckers, and Leeann Chin. The first two were more for the arcade availability, but Leeann Chin gave me an introductory love for Asian cuisine. Lemon chicken with fried rice will always have a place in my heart."

He worked for a couple of those locally loved chain restaurants as he humbly launched his culinary career in high school. After graduating he attended college in Nebraska with the intention of going into education. However, the call of the kitchen was insistent. He moved back home and went to Hennepin Technical College to study the culinary arts while working the line at Applebee's.

His resume would gain some more impressive restaurant names including the D'Amicos' Lurcat, where he worked his way up to sous chef. Although he was there after James Beard Award-winning chef Issac Becker, he says, "I feel I picked up some of his techniques with all the residual menu items." 

He still enjoys dining at Becker's restaurants, "Especially 112 Eatery," he says. (Those late-night hours work well for chefs).

Chef Gray eventually worked his way up to running the kitchen at Trattoria Tosca. There are still some flavors that fans of Tosca will find on the menu at Gray House. The techniques remain, you can taste them in the complimentary bread tray (all made from scratch, in house, daily.) Not one to cut any corners, he makes all the pastas in house as well.

The cuisine feels incredibly personal and intimate, which works perfectly in the space. It's a casual, comfortable room though the location has been troublesome for several previous restaurants. It's one of those places that has been rumored to carry the restaurant curse, killing several chefs' dreams. However, no other resident has drawn the critical praise that the Gray House has.

The Hot Dish: How did you know you'd be able to make the Gray House a success?
Ian Gray: I had very little money to start up, so when it was a turnkey situation, I figured it was best. Also, the fact that my intent was to change the menu all the time, a small space seemed the best route.

What was your first job in the business?
Big City Bagels on Minnetonka Boulevard and Dakota Ave. I believe it is an H&R Block now.

Who has most influenced the way you cook?
G-ma Lolo -- my grandma Lorraine Born. Pickling, farmers markets, old school, respect, improv -- she does it all.

Speaking of farms, you have a close relationship with Singing Hills Dairy, and even sent out a mournful tweet when they lost their matriarch goat recently.
Yeah, Lynne Reeck and Kate Wall have at their core a love for those goats. They have inspired me to not just respect the relationships I have with people but the relationships that those people have with their products and the land/animals that give it to them. You have to respect the land and lives that give us what we have in the most organic way possible.

You've also embraced goat as a protein, with your goat burger and slow-cooked goat ragu. Are there any foods people would be surprised to learn you avoid?
White pepper and corn starch/corn syrup.

What are you most looking forward to about competing in this, your first year at Iron Fork?

Competing with people who I have respected and admired for years.

After a long night in the kitchen, how do you unwind?
A beer, some music, and some fist pumps.

That also sounds like a perfect way to cap off a run at the Iron Fork title. As someone who walks out to shop for his restaurant every day with no set menu, might he have an advantage when the secret ingredient is revealed? We shall see. 

Check out our other Iron Fork chef interviews:
Chef Patrick Weber on rock 'n' roll and why chefs throw things

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