You already know that chef Gavin Kaysen is the man behind the hotly anticipated restaurant Spoon and Stable. But what do you know about the man behind the man? Christoper Nye is Kaysen's right-hand guy, and is, like Kaysen, an alum of NYC's Cafe Boulud as well as a native Minnesotan. We chatted with him about his education, career, and his hopes and plans for the fine-dining powerhouse that knows how to have a good time -- Spoon and Stable.
Hot Dish: How did you get started down this culinary road?
When I graduated high school I didn't know what the heck I wanted to do. But the first job I ever had at the age of 13 was scooping ice cream at Lake Harriet. I also worked the grill there, but it wasn't an environment that inspired culinary talent, so I can't give them credit for my career choice. But I worked in different positions in different restaurants and bounced around as a server. I wasn't really good at it, but always liked the energy of restaurants -- and I went to school for industrial design so I always had a strong passion for art and creating things with my hands especially. I always kind of had the interest in the back of my head. My girlfriend [now wife Jennifer] at the time -- it was a godsend when I think about it now -- said, "Hey why don't you just try it [culinary school]?"
I had a friend that went to MCTC and liked it.... So I went. I was always a B or C student in high school because I couldn't pay attention for long enough. But going to school there I didn't get anything less than an A. I loved it. I went to school early every day, left late every day.
During culinary school I opened Al Vento with chef/owner Jon Hunt. My friend comes up to me and goes, "Chef Jon Hunt is opening his own restaurant and he's looking for some young, green kid he can build from the ground up." Jon was also the one who told me being a cook doesn't pay shit. I was taking 28 or 30 credits, and then working 60 hours a week. It was kind of culinary overload, but I loved every minute of it. Taking the light rail to work every day I was reading a cookbook, or a book about bread or something. I knew at the age of 24 I was playing a bit of catch-up, so I was trying to cram as much information as I possibly could into that time.
How did you wind up working at Cafe Boulud in New York?
One of my culinary school instructors, Chris Dwyer, had a friend in the HR department at Dinex group, the company that manages Daniel Boulud's restaurants -- and this was kind of a coincidence -- my girlfriend was going to FIT in New York, and she said if I wanted to come along, great, and if I didn't, it was "see ya later" pretty much. I thought it was an awesome opportunity to work in one of the greatest culinary cities in the world, and this connection through school was just pure luck, really. I get there to New York and they had a position at Cafe Boulud.
What was that like for you?
All the cooks had been there for three or four years. I couldn't have been lower on the totem pole. I'd visited New York, but moving there, it was overwhelming for the first couple of weeks. But once we got our bearings, I earned the respect of the guys and girls there and it was awesome. They all had a sous chef mentality, and they loved to teach. If you did something wrong, they were gonna tell you. A lot of kitchens, they want the guy next to him to fail. And here, that wasn't the case. Everyone there was trying to make each person better. And that's what we're trying to build at Spoon and Stable. We want to be an environment to teach, where we all have the same goal of creating the best food.
It was probably the most intense time of my life, the most challenging time of my life. It solidified my passion and aided my passion and fed my passion. Each place I work, and no matter for what chef, I kind of emulate what they teach there. They refuse to be comfortable, to cut corners, and refuse to stop learning. As a chef you have to push yourself, not be stagnant, not be comfortable. To never be satisfied until you've got it just the way you want it.
Where did you land after Boulud?
We moved to Virgina because we were kind of looking to get out of New York, to hopefully get a little closer to family and be somewhere not so hectic. Needed to take a personal break from the chaos. Worked at 20 on 41 for two years and their more casual pizzeria for a year, did some consulting and then reached out to Fabio [Trabocchi] at Fiola (in Washington D.C.) and worked there as a chef. It was a great opportunity -- he's one of the great, great Italian culinary talents in the country for sure. I was there for a year, and that's when we decided to come home.
Why back to Minnesota?
Being from Minnesota, you always kind of hold on to that. When you move somewhere else in the country, you always kind of share [your roots] when you meet someone else from here. We never felt like we could settle down, ever, until we moved back home. I wanted to come back here and define my style of food: French-rooted country cooking, but a little bit more refined. Working with large roasts, whole animals, very rustic but a strong base in technique and flavor. "Cooking from the soul," I guess is the clichéd way of putting it -- to be able to get something that's refined, but has a sense of place and style and not overly manipulated.
Were your Minnesota roots a factor in Gavin choosing you for chef de cuisine?
Well, it's kind of a funny, coincidental story. When my wife and I decided we were ready to move home early this year, I had put in my notice at Fiola and my wife had put in her notice at Fiola Casa Lucca -- it was the day before Gavin tweeted that he was leaving Cafe Boulud. So everyone was like, "You're moving to Minneapolis to work with Gavin!" I didn't even know about it.
So I call him and I'm like, "Hey chef, I'm moving back too. I'd love to work with you." And he was all about it. We ended up moving back into the Cities like a week apart from each other.
What, specifically, besides the Cafe Boulud pedigree, is Spoon and Stable going to bring to the Twin Cities culinary landscape?
Something like Cafe Boulud, something that exists as an institution. Something like, if you work there for three years, you can probably come out and become a sous chef anywhere. To build the sense of responsibility and instill the culinary components that would allow somebody to grow that way. Every day, we are going to focus on the food and the service and the precision around that, but also create a fun atmosphere, an open atmosphere. The restaurant is very open -- you can sit anywhere and see every angle from where you're sitting. The most important thing for us is to create a sense of fine dining but at the same time, the lightness and the approachability and the fun of a casual neighborhood restaurant. I don't think that happens in a lot of restaurants. It's either casual and fun and the food is OK, or the food and service is great but it's really stuffy. Here, someone could roll in from the yoga studio next door, and expect to receive the caliber of food you could get at a place like La Belle Vie.
Where have you been eating locally and what do you like?
Best meal I've had was at Heyday, hands down. We ordered everything on the menu. It was a feast, but the flavors were all so thoughtful, the plating was all so thoughtful, each component on the plate had a reason -- nothing was unnecessary -- very simple, very light, but wholesome. You could tell that Jim put a lot into it and cooked from inside. You could taste the passion and the soul.
The pizza at Burch is awesome. Hola Arepa has a killer brunch. Every time I go there, the food gets better.
Any Spoon and Stable sneak peek surprises?
We're going to be doing some fun things at the bar late night -- limited availability items that will rotate. We're bringing in whole Red Wattle pigs from Pork and Plants Farm, so one thing we're thinking about is a whole roasted pig head for four or more people, available only from 10:30 to 11 p.m.
Spoon and Stable is taking reservations now.
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