Ian Gray to open food truck, swears: "I'll quit or close the doors before I order from Sysco"

Chef Ian Gray is back in the saddle after closing the Gray House last month.
Chef Ian Gray is back in the saddle after closing the Gray House last month.
E. Katie Holm

When Ian Gray announced the closing of the Gray House in May, legions of fans were disappointed. Until then, it had seemed the Gray House avoided the restaurant curse afflicting 610 W. Lake St. (once occupied by Risotto, among other failed ventures). Business was solid, and Gray's $20 prix fixe was considered one of Minneapolis's best kept secrets.

See also: The Gray House in Lyn-Lake will close

A divorce and dissolved business partnership led to the Gray House's closure on July 31. But Gray is already back in the saddle. Last week, he announced his plan to debut his new food truck, the Curious Goat, in September, with longtime front-of-house manager Kiri Anderson and sous chef Jessica Knettel. The Curious Goat will park at Sociable Cider Werks, and offer a rotating menu heavy on goat, Gray's specialty.

Was it a difficult decision for you to close the Gray House, or was it a natural time to move on?

Ian Gray: It was completely a natural time to move on. There were a lot of factors that went into it. Partnerships dissolving between me and my ex-wife, dealing with the city and the whole name change (I would have had to change the name of the restaurant). The fact that I didn't have the same financing we did when we first opened, which was her father -- I didn't have the numbers to foot the bill that I did when I first opened the Gray House. The lease was up July 31 and there could've been another year, but I love to change things up. I love to try things. I keep the menu changing three to four times a week and [am] always rolling with the seasons and what's available -- why not take on something else?

What do you miss most about the Gray House, and how did you grow as a chef there?

The tap list was one of my greatest learning experiences in the past two years. The craft beer scene in Minnesota is crazy. New breweries are popping up, and they're all different in their own little way.Cooking with wine, eating with wine, has always been the thing to do. Beer is [gaining] more of a presence, especially in pairings and beer dinners. I'm having a lot of fun cooking with it, with all the different varieties there are and how they can lend a hand to a variety of recipes.

How does beer manifest in your recipes?

Brining and deglazing. If a brewer is brewing a beer and he has hops, the more they cook, they tend to get more bitter. That flavor -- when you reduce beer -- gets really strong and can either help you or hurt you. At the Gray House, it really helped a lot of dishes and would balance out meatier things, [such as] the richness of the goat or lamb we would have. We would do a lot of beer-cheese sauces and dips; the strong flavors within beer [were] rounded out by cheese.

You have an affinity for goat. With the Curious Goat, you're partnering with Singing Hills. Where and how did this love for goat products develop?

We were lucky enough to talk to Lynne [Reeck] and Kate [Wall, of Singing Hills]. Lynne's the cheesemaker. She's always at Mill City Farmers Market. I visit her all the time, and eventually she offered me, when we opened in September, she offered me a pig [Reeck and Wall purchase 12 pigs a year that they feed leftover goat whey]. We got one of those pigs, and she said, "You should try our goat. I don't know if you're interested; some people don't like it." I was all for it. I grabbed the goose and ran, and I fell in love with them. The cheese is phenomenal; their curds are out of this world, and I'm hoping their yogurt comes back.

I learned recently that there [are] dairy goats and meat goats, and they obviously buy a breed that are more dairy intentional. They are dairy goats, and they only store so much fat, so [the meat] is very lean and sweet.

Has your partnership with Singing Hills been instrumental in creating the Curious Goat? How goat-centric will the menu be?

Kiri Anderson and Jessica Knettel [are the people] I'm doing this with. We've worked together for four years, and we all have this mentality about food. I was adamant at both [Trattoria] Tosca and the Gray House that I'll quit or close the doors before I order from Sysco. Singing Hills and Star Thrower [Farm] -- that's where we'll be getting our lamb, and some of our sheep's milk cheese -- they [embody our belief] that from day one to the last day, animals [should be] loved, cared for, and if they are taken to market, it's for a reason.

What does the menu look like?

We're starting with something that's approachable. We're going to be getting lamb from Star Thrower, goat from Singing Hills, beef from Peterson Limousin [Farms], pork from Little Foot Farm in Afton. I'm still looking for chicken, because Kadejan is not taking new accounts. Callister is doing too much wholesale, at least through pricing, and their production is more [toward] eggs.

We're going to have house-made sausage, tacos, some kind of pulled sandwich, and those will rotate. One week it will be goat sausage, pork tacos, and lamb pulled sandwich. Two weeks later, it will be goat tacos, lamb sausage, and beef pulled sandwich. We'll have fried curds that we'll rotate with the seasons on what they're tossed in. I'm hoping to start with an apple cider reduction using the Sociable Cider. We'll always have a vegan/vegetarian option, which won't mean "We'll always have smoked tofu." Vegans get bored with "I guess I'll have the tofu dish." We'll have seasonal vegetables, seasonal salad, and we're going to rotate through kettle chips [and] french fries. We don't really want to do french fries, but at the same time, I can't think of a single food truck that's doing the double-dip, house-made fries like [Cafe] Lurcat fries or 112. That'll be something people fall in love with. We have a lot of ideas that we want to do, and this is the menu we developed for the city and the license.   How about desserts?

Jessica had a great idea of apple doughnuts, so we're working on that. We want to do ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, popsicles. Another thing we're talking about is trying to cater to kids. Instead of a Happy Meal, it will be a true meal, more of a health-conscious children's meal along with a local artist's toy thrown in the bag.

Are there any artists you're planning on collaborating with?

When we were looking at the 13th Avenue district, over by Dangerous Man, they've got a couple boutiques. We're looking at them or I Like You in Northeast, right next to Red Stag. We're in the infant stages of reaching out to local artists.

Do you see the Curious Goat morphing into a full-service restaurant?

Definitely. First thing is getting it on the road and trying to have consistency with what we have on the menu. The residency at Sociable Cider Werks will hopefully be a lasting relationship -- we'll see where that goes. There's a lot to think about when it comes to brick and mortar, but it's definitely in the mind because that beer and tap list is always fun to play with.

How did you forge a partnership with Sociable Cider Werks?

Jim [Watkins] called us and was like, "Sorry to hear about Gray House, but we'd love to talk to you about something." We met up with him, and one of their brewers had gone down to Austin. The rage down there is that every brewery has their own resident food truck. He was like, "Before you open up a brick and mortar, you should think about coming over here and we can work something out, rent free. We want something that's good and consistent so we don't have the chore of reaching out to food trucks and trying to sign people up." It evolved from that conversation and looking at other breweries and how they change [food trucks] all the time. I'm very excited; they just got a new brewer who was doing the third shift at Surly, and he's doing crazy stuff with beers. He's super excited because we can do pairing dinners.

When will the Curious Goat open?

We're looking at September. We were hoping [to open in August], but finding the trailer and getting the truck has been some time, as well as closing the Gray House. I put in some time on doing that the right way. I don't see it being too long -- the city should be getting back to us in the next week or so, and I know Sociable had some people lined up for the first week or two in September. We won't be there until after [that]. The trailer is stellar, so it shouldn't be much of an issue to get it licensed and on the road.

Where do you think the Twin Cities' food scene is right now? Who's killing it?

Jim Christiansen is doing a great job at Heyday, and Sameh Wadi at World Street Kitchen. Isaac Becker -- I'm always a huge fan of him. I go to Burch twice to three times a month. [I] usually get pizza. His prices are fair, and they give a great experience. The pizza alone is phenomenal and affordable. On that point, Pizzeria Lola is another one I'm enjoying. It's nice to see the direction of the pizza scene. Black Sheep was at the forefront and does a great job. Travail is doing such interesting things. I think it's a spot that's different when it comes to a regular kind of meal, but I just love being entertained.

Why do you think restaurants like these -- and the stuff you do -- are the future of local and national dining?

People that are interested in that are also people that are going to the farmers markets, that are venturing away from cookie-cutter corporation restaurants like Applebee's, T.G.I. Fridays and the like. They're seeing food for what it is, where it's not just sustenance to fill you and [then you] move on and watch The Bachelorette. The more money that you give to smaller restaurants that are supporting your community and your friends that are working in the kitchen, serving food, or managing the floor -- people are starting to care more about their community. That's more present than anything in Minnesota, with how many markets are popping up and how many of these restaurants are opening, let alone staying open and finding their niche and introducing people to great food. That's the switch that is flipped where, "That was an amazing meal; I want to continue doing that." When you go and buy a squash in the middle of February and it doesn't taste right, you start thinking about seasonality again, and tying yourself into that mentality of food in a certain way. And it can only be good for you if you walk down that path.

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