The Shutdown Notebook: “I fear everything will change. I fear nothing will change.” Gavin Kaysen’s restaurant family wonders who will return and who will move on.

The Shutdown Notebook cover

Photo by Libby Anderson/Flickr/Nicolas Raymond/Graphic by Talia Moore

A weekly series about one chef who closed three restaurants during the pandemic—and intends to get them back.

Restaurant people have two families, the one at home and the one at work. If they choose hospitality as a career, not a job, they can expect to spend most of their nights, weekends, and holidays helping customers celebrate anything from New Year’s Eve to a simple night out. Their family at home will have to get along without them.

Gavin Kaysen hasn’t had so much time with his two sons since they were three and five, and now they’re eight and 10. Of all the things his boys would like to forget about right now—being cut off from their friends, needing a haircut, the limitations of a friend’s socially-distant birthday gathering—he hopes they remember the extra time to play baseball or get on their bikes with their dad after dinner.

He misses his restaurant family, though; he considers himself lucky to spend time with the current skeleton crew, one-tenth of his original workforce of almost 200. As the shutdown heads into its third month, a note of defiance creeps into his voice, pushing shock and frustration out of the way. He is tired of feeling that other people are in control of his fate.

“We’ve been told for the last seven weeks what we can’t have,” said Kaysen. “Let’s imagine we can write the rules for what we want to become. Let’s dream big. I want to know what we can do.”

It has to be something more than building a safer restaurant. Before Covid-19, restaurant owners looked to lateral spread for stability. A company with four restaurants was safer than a single operation, and the challenge, for independent owners, was to figure out the right size—big enough to feel protected, not so big that quality suffered.

But now, suddenly, having a handful of restaurants can feel like a single crisis, multiplied, and a new idea has emerged: The key might be diversity, not replication. Some of the things that have kept restaurants afloat might be worth keeping, long-term—more kinds of business under the same roof, not more businesses that all do the same thing.

Let’s imagine we can write the rules for what we want to become. Let’s dream big. I want to know what we can do.

Kaysen’s three Minneapolis restaurants could add expanded catering programs, branded products in collaboration with other small businesses, a continuing take-out program, beautiful birthday cakes on special order. Home grilling kits, bake-it-yourself kits.

The restaurant is dead; long live the restaurant.

There are four people in Kaysen’s core restaurant family: Kaysen, director of development Alison Arth, executive chef Chris Nye, and executive pastry chef Diane Moua, all of whom have been with him since Spoon and Stable opened in November of 2014, though Arth ventured out and then returned to home base. This week, they started conversations with each restaurant’s team about what to do next, beyond the logistics of safety.

We thought it was time to introduce you to them—to sit down in appropriate, socially-distant fashion with the family—so they assembled at Spoon and Stable one recent morning to connect the only way we can, for now, on video.

They have a lot to say—including how they imagine reality will look by the fourth of July, since notions of independence, and freedom, have changed so since the shutdown began.

Kaysen in Spoon and Table while interviewing with The Counter on Zoom May 2020

Gavin Kaysen sits with Annah Walters, his assistant, at Spoon and Stable during a Zoom interview with The Counter.

Dave Puente

Gavin Kaysen

The restaurant family is so much an extension of everything I have. The hardest part is not seeing all the faces, and the best part is being able to see the 20 to 30 people I get to see.

Getting everybody back, whenever and however that happens, I’ve envisioned it so many times. It becomes so emotional, when you start to think of that process of everybody coming out of the woodwork. In Minnesota we sort of hibernate in the winter, and that’s how I imagine this being. We’re all in hibernation, and now we’ll all be coming out of hibernation, in view of one another again.

My biggest concern is keeping everyone safe. I have a ton of fears about a ton of different things when we come back, and what does that look like? How does it feel? Is it a sterile environment or is it just normal, and by normal I don’t mean what it was. But is there still some energy and life? How are people going to walk into the restaurant?

Getting everybody back, whenever and however that happens, I’ve envisioned it so many times. It becomes so emotional, when you think of everybody coming out of the woodwork.

I can only equate it to the meals right before we closed, which was a Sunday night. Friday was really busy, tons of energy, as if nothing was going on around the world. Saturday there was this feeling in the dining room of, Why are we here? We’re not sure we should be here. And then Sunday was, I’m only going out because it’s on my calendar, not because I want to, and why am I here at all?

How do we get past that? We’re all going to be tested on this. Every single one of our leaders in this company is going to be tested in ways we’ve never imagined before. And while some of us had the opportunity to practice new skills in the last seven weeks, there are going to be a lot of people who haven’t practiced at all. And the test is going to be that you have to learn pretty quick. So that’s one of my biggest fears.

Diversification is what everyone here wants to figure out. If and when this happens again, we don’t want to be in full panic mode. We want to be able to say, okay, those parts of the business are closed now so we’ll pivot to these other arms of the business.

It could be anything. There’s a lot of exploration, and the invention will start as soon as we get past the chaos.

Chef handles meat with gloves at Spoon May 2020

Kaysen’s biggest concern right now is making sure everyone is safe—especially his staff.

Dave Puente

What it’s all about right now is people in the industry helping each other, outside the group as well. We’re doing a partnership with Haus in Northern California, they’re calling it The Restaurant Project, and it just launched. They have a great line, a chardonnay grape, and their intention is to work with a restaurant and create an aperitif. We talked with Aaron, the winemaker, and Woody, the owner, and ours will be both herbaceous and aromatic, but with some herbals—anise to give it a complex flavor, sumac and cardamom, very Minnesota, and lemongrass, part of our Hmong culture. Maple syrup instead of sugar, also very Minnesota, at $80 for two 750 ml bottles.  

One hundred percent of the profits go to us, just to help us out. They did a first round of restaurants, and now we’re in the second round, Spoon and Stable along with David Chang’s Momofuku, in New York City; Compère Lapin, in New Orleans; and State Bird Provisions in San Francisco.

And last week we formulated a group of local chefs and restaurant folks to come up with strategic ideas, create an open dialogue, let’s open up the group and shed the competitor mentality. About 30 or 40 of us have been talking weekly, but we announced it last week and a day later we had about 75 emails from people who want to join or know more. We want to have town hall experts, a CPA on the latest on the PPP loans, an eco-expert on safety issues. A forum, a one-stop shop.

People ask me all the time, what would you be if you weren’t a chef, and I always say I don’t know, because it’s all I’ve ever been. I can tell you now what I don’t want to be, based on what I’ve seen the last seven weeks—not a politician. And I can say with more confidence than before: I want to be a chef. I want to be back in the kitchen.

The part that that is so void in my soul right now is the energy, missing that energy of when you walk into a dining room and you feel other people and their excitement to be there and their energy to be there and all of the things that are wrapped up in it. Such a remarkable thing to be a part of.

By the Fourth of July, the first thing I think about is a grilling kit from Bellecour, something people can bring home, but not solely that. A packed patio at Bellecour, six feet apart, but packed, where people can have some rosé, enjoy the afternoon and enjoy the sunshine and be able to be outside. There’s the clinking of glasses and cocktail shakers. It’s the energy, that’s the thing.

I envision that things will be back up and running to a degree, but I think we’ll still be sort of limping along.

People ask me all the time, What would you be if you weren’t a chef, and I always say I don’t know, because it’s all I’ve ever been. I can tell you now what I don’t want to be, based on what I’ve seen the last seven weeks—not a politician. And I can say with more confidence than before: I want to be a chef. I want to be back in the kitchen. We just have to figure out new business streams.

Diane Moua pull quote Spoon and Stable May 2020

Dave Puente/Nicolas Raymond/Flickr/Graphic by Talia Moore

Diane Moua, executive pastry chef

I was really upset when the restaurant had to shut down. Gavin and Alison had this conference call, and it was really sad. I hung up and it took me a few days to get over it all. I called my mom and I was crying. What if I run out of money? I have to take care of my kids. It was really, really scary.

In all honesty, I don’t think I could be as strong as I am now without Gavin and Alison leading the full team, being, ‘We’re going to be okay.’ That helped a lot.

Being away from our restaurant family has been really hard. I check up on them once a week. I’m a mom of two, a freshman in college and a freshman in high school, so it’s like checking up on my kids. ‘How’re you doing?’ Some of my staff wants to Facetime with me and sometimes it’s just too much, it’s been a long day and I don’t want anyone to see me. But I do check in. I worry about how they’re doing, financially, emotionally, personally. I miss them dearly.

I have a lot of staff that has been waiting and emailing me. They’re very passionate about it. They’re sending me menu ideas: Hey, I tried this; hey, I have this new cinnamon roll recipe that could be executed really well for the holidays. In the meantime, we’re learning a lot ourselves about how to change things, how to do things better. I learned a lot from the take-out and curbside pick-up, on how to do things more efficiently. I’m sure everything, at the end of the day, will slowly get back to normal.

I’ve been making so many birthday cakes. I tell my sous chef, this is the last one, the last one, but each week we take on more. We have so many people who like to celebrate birthdays with us every year. So on top of my workload, I’ve been taking on cakes here and there.

And I’ve been making so many birthday cakes. I tell my sous chef, this is the last one, the last one, but each week we take on more. We have so many people who like to celebrate birthdays with us every year. So on top of my workload, I’ve been taking on cakes here and there.

My son’s with his dad and my daughter’s with me, so she and I have been spending a lot of time together. She’s learning how to cook, so my weekly goal is to figure out

what to cook for dinner. Last week we started baking, cookies and cakes. I never usually bake at home because I do so much of it at work, but she’s a picky eater, and I figure she’ll have to try whatever we make. This is a great way of doing that.

My kids were worried about me in the beginning, but I think with all the work for a few weeks now, they’re fine. They’re staying home, they’re bored, they miss their friends.

And I’ve come a long way, to where I am wiser, and a mentor to my staff. Is it a dream come true? It’s a dream to be here. I think people will be excited to come back, and they will trust us. Our staff will be excited. I’m excited: I just want to go out and support the restaurants and be normal again.

Restaurants are a huge part of the of everybody’s life. And I’m sure that with this shut down, everyone’s realizing how big it is.

Chris Nye pull quote Spoon and Stable May 2020

Dave Puente/Nicolas Raymond/Flickr/Graphic by Talia Moore

Chris Nye, executive chef

What I miss most about being connected to our staff is the energy level. There are no guests in the dining room, so it’s very different visually, emotionally. And there’s a lot of camaraderie in the kitchen—joking around and trying to use work as a way to escape from what’s going on outside of the building.

A lot of the people here who have been able to continue to work, to come into the restaurant and provide for people, feel this has given us a sense of normalcy. And being able to support the restaurant group in doing so has been fulfilling, and helps us to get by day by day.

I’m quite fearful of what the restaurant industry or community looks like as a whole, because we’ve already seen a lot of places closing permanently. There’s going to be a lot of food industry people unemployed because most places with reduced occupancy won’t be able to hire everyone back. Unemployed workers that have good training and no jobs available. There’s really nowhere for them to go.

A lot of the people here who have been able to continue to work feel this has given us a sense of normalcy. Being able to support the restaurant group has been fulfilling, and helps us to get by day by day.

So what do they do? I mean, do they change their profession, do something else? And then once all of this is behind us and we’re able to open for full service, then what?

We’re not the only restaurant that has staff that questions if the hours and the physical aspect of the job are worth it, especially in the kitchen. You may not see those people come back. This may be the nail in the coffin that seals it for them. I think that a certain percentage of people will change course in their lives. But there’s also a lot of people that are doing this because they’re very passionate about it.

I truly believe that passion steers people and keeps people on course. Absolutely. So those that are very passionate about it will stay.

The family dynamic has been flipped upside down, that’s for sure, and having time with my two kids and my wife, who is also in the restaurant industry, has been really great. But I’m definitely looking forward to getting back together with my work family. Just being able to catch up on each staff member’s day, and see what new things they were doing, what inspiration they could bring to the group—I miss that a lot.

Alison Arth pull quote Spoon and Stable May 2020

Dave Puente/Nicolas Raymond/Flickr/Graphic by Talia Moore

Alison Arth, director of development

I’m afraid that everything will change. And I’m afraid that nothing will change.

The sound of cocktail shakers and people laughing and the collective energy, a room full of people connecting and finding joy and food. I really can’t wait to have that again, to experience that and to give it. And that’s the part I’m most afraid will change completely. Until we all feel comfortable enough to do that, or before we’re all allowed to do that again.

And then I think about nothing changing. All the many things we’ve already seen surfacing, all across the country, in terms of pay inequity that needs to be corrected, and business models that are illogical, and the need to change the way that undocumented workers are treated in our profession.

I miss the restaurant family because they’re a huge part of the fabric of each of our lives. I miss seeing their faces, and being able to check in with them more regularly. But we send out pretty regular communication to every single team member to check in, to give them updates about what the restaurants are doing, what each of us are doing, and to solicit feedback and better understand how we can support them. And it sparked some really interesting conversations. And so while I absolutely miss their energy, it’s been really fun developing, writing relationships with some of them.

There are people assessing their relationships with their profession, whether it’s hospitality or something else, and deciding that it doesn’t fit anymore or maybe it never did fit.

I feel like this period of time, in general, has been like a freight accelerator in every relationship that we have, relationships that we have with our partners, with our friends in our profession. We’re either accelerating in that relationship and realizing that it’s really meaningful to us, that it needs to remain a part of our life, or it’s rapidly being decimated. There are people, regardless of age, who are assessing their relationships with their profession, whether it’s hospitality or something else, and deciding that it doesn’t fit anymore or maybe it never did fit. And now they have the reason and the courage to move on it.

I don’t know who will decide to break up with hospitality and who will decide to do it. But I do feel really strongly that for the people who find themselves doing this work out of passion, there is going to be a spot for them. I do believe that.

Fine dining goes hand-in-hand with luxury, and luxury used to be tablecloths and bone china, caviar and 18 courses. But I think that there’s nothing more scarce or precious than genuine, thoughtful, authentic human connection, even before Covid, but especially now. That’s a luxury, a very rare and coveted experience that we’re all after. And that can happen in a taqueria the same way it can happen at the French Laundry or Spoon and Stable, or any other restaurant with any type of service model.

I’m afraid that everything will change. And I’m afraid that nothing will change.

It’s essential, because human beings can’t survive without any connections. Food has long been one of our best ways of creating that, and I think Covid has, in its own way, put a megaphone up to that rather than diminishing it. So my hope is that we don’t have to convince people to come and dine at seven o’clock at the table. My hope is that they’ll be chomping at the bit to get there.

When I think about how the government has been addressing independent restaurants, I’m angry. Restaurants are revered for bringing power and vibrancy to our communities. They’re the reason we choose to live in one area versus another. But I feel like restaurants are being treated like a pretty picture on the wall. And when the wall shakes a little bit we fall right off, which isn’t a great feeling when I think about how much we bring to the communities we’re part of.

Beyond that, I think independent restaurants, that category as a whole, is made up of so many people, such a diverse group of people, so many immigrants. And even for the small safety net our company’s been given, there seems to be absolutely no access to that safety net for a lot of other people. It’s really disappointing.

To give you an honest answer about the fourth of July? I predict that I will be outright begging for someone to fix my hair. I see myself groveling at the feet of trained professionals.

Karen Stabiner is The Counter's West Coast editor and the author of Generation Chef, about a young chef who opens his first restaurant. Karen teaches at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism; to learn more about her books and articles, visit karenstabiner.com.

Gavin Kaysen is a winner of the 2018 James Beard award for best chef, Midwest region, owns three restaurants in the Minneapolis area: Spoon and Stable, Demi, and, in nearby Wayzata, Bellecour. He was executive chef at Café Boulud in New York City, where he won the Beard Rising Star award and a Michelin star, and at El Bizcocho in San Diego. Kaysen mentors the next generation through the nonprofit Ment'or BKB Foundation, and trains the United States team for the international Bocuse d’Or competition. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.