Travail's Mike Brown & James Winberg on serving crickets: "We pushed too far"

If the owners of Travail could play hooky from one duty around their kitchen it would be the caster work (that's the long and difficult job of cleaning up the wheels and bases of all of the kitchen equipment). But, it's not likely Mike Brown and James Winberg will be skipping shifts anytime soon. These guys expect a Herculean work ethic out of the individuals they hire and they hold themselves up to the same standard. 

Actually, the jovial atmosphere of prep-time at Travail seems the perfect environment in which to work one's ass off. Over the din of Diplomats, DMX, and other energizing early 2000s hip-hop tunes, the duo explains how they work hard and have fun doing it. 

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Hot Dish: Travail is known for having a flattened hierarchy in the kitchen, with all employees sharing in nearly all duties. If you had to choose one position to stick to all the time, what would it be?

Mike Brown: Plating food. In plating, the food has already been cooked and drained. It's handed to the plater to prepare it for presentation. The food is drained so that the prosciutto fat, chicken stock or whatever the items have been soaking in is gone. The plater is taking it from the pan to presenting it on a plate.

James Winberg: It's organizational; it's also aesthetic.

What would you never do again? If you could skip one duty what would it be?

Brown: Something I never want to do? Clean the casters on all the equipment. The wheels. I'm not fucking doing that anymore.

You guys are celebrated as some of the most forward thinking chefs in the scene. When your restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays, where do you like to eat in the Twin Cities?

Winberg: Honest answer, it's whoever is open after 10 o'clock. That is usually any one of Isaac Becker's spots (Bar La Grassa, 112 Eatery, Burch), Borough, Masu. For me it's about what is open and what is close to my house. I'm limited to Northeast and North Loop.

Brown: I eat brunch at Tilia. It's very nice. I hit up Heyday the other day, they are kind of the new kids in town. It was good.

What's the number one giveaway that someone is not a fit for the Travail model?

Brown: We don't have to pick. I'll tell you how this works. When we opened we hired sixteen new people, and in the first week nine of them had quit! There it is. I don't have to do it. They self-select. It's not that the people suck, it's just we present it: here's the workload. There's no A.M. guy, there's no P.M. guy. We're all here in the beginning, we're all here 'til the end. There's nowhere to pass the buck man. It's on you. You're here. People come to realize that's what they're going to have to do everyday. It self-decides and it's natural.

Winberg: It's natural selection. There's no giveaway. People are people and they don't always know what they'll have, and we can't always tell. We've been surprised in both directions. So we just look for passion.

Brown: I always tell people, 'all I want is for somebody to want to do this.' If you have your heart in it and you want to push. . .well, I can't teach that. This place needs that, you have to have that to succeed. It is a mind over matter scenario. Somewhere else you could do the same job for half the amount of time and get paid the same. But, if you want to go do that, go do that. If you're here, you're here for reasons other than that. The hours our employees put in, they are the same hours we put in. We demand people's commitment to that. We demand it. This place is going to run like this and we are going to push this standard.

Winberg: And you don't have to be here. We come from this tradition but a lot of restaurants run different, find a good fit somewhere else.

Brown: We came from the tradition of cooking all day. You come in, you cook all day, you leave at the end of the day. If that doesn't work for you there's plenty of [other] spots to go work.

You have been praised for delivering a positive common table experience where other Minnesota restaurants have failed. How did you succeed?

Winberg: There was no other choice. It was the only choice if you wanted to eat here, and people want to eat here because of the food. It gradually grew into this model because it was more efficient. All of our ideas came into fruition out of something else not working; community tables made it more efficient to serve food.

Brown: It's all built around food. Our tasting menu and common table gives us the ability to do some nicer food. What is the experience of eating food? Is it, you get your first course, second course, third course? Keep your head down listening to elevator music they're playing in there while the server caters to you? Is that what eating is about? No, eating is about sitting down with your friends and your family and enjoying time together. We are trying to bring that and combine it with the idea that fine dining can be approached by anyone. You don't have to feel out of place to eat great food.

Running your restaurant in this unique setting, what is the complaint or confusion you field the most from new customers?

Winberg: In the new location it is that there are two dining experiences to be had in the same building (editor's note: The Rookery is a cocktail and microplates area and Travail is the tasting menu area). People are somewhat confused by what's going on, but it's getting better.

Brown: You come in the front door and you have a choice: You can sit back and enjoy the little food journey and you'll get hit over the head a bunch of times with our crazy ideas. Or you can come to this side and pick and choose an a la carte menu of progressively driven tapas. You might get a breadstick sticking out in the air with four different types of salumi stuck in it. And that might cost $2.

For me, I like going into a restaurant and tearing apart the menu; 'give me this, give me that!' I like trying everything. But I also like going into the restaurant and saying 'I'd like the tasting menu, let's see what the fuck you got!'. If you're gonna sit there and feed me what you're gonna serve, let's see what you got. I love eating both ways and now we can offer both.


Do you ever worry that with the strength of your Kickstarter campaign (which banked close to 300k for the restaurant) you will feel beholden to too many stakeholders?

Brown: That doesn't happen. The majority of people supported us to receive the end result of their donations -- have a fun cooking class, make reservation, get t-shirts. They want the goodies, they want the restaurant to evolve, but they aren't bossing us around. It wouldn't make sense. They believe in us. When one donates to Kickstarter you are doing it because there's a belief there. It's the same as supporting an artist. You believe that artist is going to do their shit right and they're going to do it the way they do it.

You guys are celebrated for taking input from folks at all levels of your organization. What is a big swing and a miss that a member of upper management came up with?

Brown: (laughter) We flash froze live crickets, dipped them in chocolate and served them to people. At a private party we placed live crickets in a jar at the center of the table and encouraged the diners to name their crickets. Then at the end of the night we brought out a little jar of liquid nitrogen and a little jar of tempered chocolate. We then asked 'Whose cricket is this one? Do you want us to let him free or do you want to eat him?' It was one of those things like 'holy shit, I ate a cricket who was alive ten seconds ago.' It was a failure for half the people, half the people loved it. But we aren't doing it again. We pushed too far.

How do you think being outside of the city of Minneapolis has affected you?

Winberg: It hasn't had a huge impact, we pretty much are in Minneapolis. The positive is that people don't have to pay for parking.

Brown: Areas can grow around new restaurants. Look at Alma in Northeast. That has fully developed around there in the last eight years. How is Travail different? You can see the skyline from here, we are seven minutes from downtown if you take Broadway. We are between Walgreen's and a pawn shop but it all makes sense. You are in a different scene in a different area a lot of people haven't visited.

Do you have people from Robbinsdale who don't enjoy the moustaches, bandanas, and other accoutrements surrounding your scene?

Brown: I don't think so. It brings attention to a town that otherwise might get looked over. We are positive about Robbinsdale and people see what we are doing and that brings attention to the town.

Winberg: We have a lot of local regulars who come down all the time. We are the spot for a lot of locals who want to come down and grab a drink. They are glad to see us here.

What is the best advice you could offer to a party at your restaurant bracing for a long wait for a table? 

Winberg: Come back on Wednesday! The long waits are really on Friday or Saturday. We move fast and on other nights of the week you won't be waiting for long. But, if you are waiting, relax and have a cocktail. Sit down at the Rookery and have some small plates while you wait. There are a lot of things to do if you want to wait for the experience. 

Brown: The reason there are no reservations is to make it accessible to anyone. You can fly in from anywhere in the country and eat here that day. If we had reservations people might be waiting three months. If you want to eat at a nice restaurant in New York you better plan your whole damn life around it. We are in a neighborhood! If you want to eat here you can eat here anytime. You might have to wait, but it can be done. If we did have reservations three months, people would be bitching about that. 

Winberg: Pick your poison. 

Brown: And you can always head to Pig Ate My Pizza in our old location. Now you have options. At the first Travail you had to sit in a hot, people-filled cauldron and wait. Now there are options! It's hard not to sound like a dick telling people to go to other locations, but we are trying. We have thought about it a lot and we are trying to accommodate people. The whole reason we are doing this is to keep on making better food. What will enable us to make better food? This new facility is here for better food and the equipment and space enables us to make better food. That's the mission.

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