It’s lonely at the top, these days: Gavin Kaysen on a chef’s life, before, during and after Covid-19

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.

The numbers are big: over 22 million unemployed, surely more by the time you finish reading this, two-thirds of them from the restaurant and hospitality industry. Independent restaurants represent 70 percent of the nation’s 660,000 restaurants, and 75 percent of them are predicted to go under. The ones who get to opening day can anticipate having to operate at half-capacity.

One number is small: Zero, the amount left in an initial $349-billion aid program, little of which went to independent restaurants. There was a 500-employee cap, initially, which would have funneled aid to them—but then the words “per location” were added, and big corporate food operations joined the applicant pool.

Another $484 billion is likely on its way, $310 billion of it earmarked for small businesses, but the National Restaurant Association is not satisfied, and has asked for $240 billion in targeted aid. That’s how much restaurants are expected to lose by the end of the year.

Even good news comes with caveats. Chefs fortunate enough to get loans, like Gavin Kaysen, have begun to appreciate the maze they’ve entered. Do things right and a loan turns into a grant; make a misstep, in a frustratingly opaque process, and the loan comes due, with interest, which means opening with built-in debt before a single customer sits in a more limited number of seats.

Gavin Kasen takes a video call at Bellecour April 2020

Gavin Kasen takes a video call in the front of his restaurant, Bellecour.

Dave Puente

And while a second round is coming, there’s no indication, yet, that the priorities will change or the kinks will disappear.

Every restaurant failure will have a ripple effect—not only on employees but on farmers without a market for their goods, purveyors with unpaid receipts and no new orders, ancillary businesses, and everyone who works for them as well.

Kaysen is responsible to and for everyone he worked with, in thrall to elected officials whose decisions have six-figure consequences, and working, every day, in two parallel universes: the present-day, running a bootstrap business he never envisioned two months ago; and the revived future, whenever that arrives. The past is at this point little more than a wistful memory of the “hustle and bustle” he loved. It won’t be coming back, at least not in its original shape.

We think of chefs as magicians who know how to coax a tomato to do tricks we can’t pull off. In fact they’re content editors whose dialect is food, businessmen and women, camp counselors, diplomats, taskmasters, and cheerleaders.

Most of us aren’t clear on what a chef actually does, despite their ubiquitous presence on every medium we look at or listen to. “Cook” is not the correct answer. The central irony of Kaysen’s life is that the reward for being a great and ambitious chef is not getting to cook but the chance to create an environment where other people can cook, in a style that he’s defined.

We think of chefs as magicians who know how to coax a tomato to do tricks we can’t pull off. In fact they’re content editors whose dialect is food, businessmen and women, camp counselors, diplomats, taskmasters, and cheerleaders.

Gavin Kaysen pull quote creating new dishes pre-pandemic April 2020

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

That was then

On a normal day, whatever that was, I’d get up between 6 and 7, get the boys up, they did their thing until 7:30 when I’d get them ready for school, teeth brushed and all. At 7:50 we’d leave the house and I dropped them off, went back, made anybody’s bed who didn’t make it, brought their dirty water glasses into the kitchen, turned their lights off.

Then I grabbed breakfast. My standard is three pieces of bacon, three egg whites, avocado on toast or plain, with a squeeze of lime. Four shots of espresso. Linda usually gets up earlier than I do, prepares lunch for the kids, then maybe she’s doing Pilates or at the gym in the morning.

Three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, I went to the gym for an hour-and-a-half workout, a shower, a protein shake and I’d head to the restaurant.

And then it’s meetings. It can be anything: a very, very deep conversation about our goals for the next three months, the next six months, those can get pretty intense. Or where’s our staffing at, how does it look, what do we need and what are the immediate fixes? And then there’s menu planning—what’s coming up seasonally, meetings with our farmers. They’d bring in their seed catalogues and we’d talk about what we’d like to have them plant for us, coming up, and what they want to grow.

The worst thing for farmers would be if we said, Hey, thanks for growing that 100 pounds of tomatoes, but we changed the menu; they’d have to pivot too quickly to figure out where to sell them.

Dan Barber created the Row 7 Seed Company, and we have a couple of farmers who work with them. They had a new tomato varietal and we could almost see a way to buy futures: If Demi is sold out for two months, and I know my menu, I can go to them and say, I need 100 pounds of tomatoes a week. The guests have prepaid so I can give you a deposit, so we get the best of the best. We understand it’s a gamble because you can’t control the weather—what can you do?—but we’re in it to buy the tomatoes because we’re asking them to grow a specific varietal.

The worst thing for farmers would be if we said, Hey, thanks for growing that 100 pounds of tomatoes, but we changed the menu; they’d have to pivot too quickly to figure out where to sell them.

And there was a woman I read about in the Star-Tribune, she’d been living in Maine, farming, delivering to restaurants, doing CSA boxes, farmers’ markets, but she grew up in Rochester, Minnesota and had moved back home. I was inspired after I read about her so I emailed her to say who I am and what I like to do—and she replied after two hours, already an anomaly for a farmer. She had got a grant to expand to 62 acres from 10, and I wanted to create a relationship with her, explain what we think would be great to grow.

About two weeks before the closure those were the types of ideas we were talking about. We never got that far. I haven’t talked to the farmers since then, and I doubt they planted because the ground here is just starting to thaw. It’s still been snowing, but we should be having these conversations even if there’s three inches of snow on the ground. We would be if we were open.

Kaysen's staff on laptops in BOH April 2020

Minneapolis will go to a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the next couple of years, but if Kaysen and his team don’t change something mathematically, in their business, they can’t survive that change.

Dave Puente

And at every restaurant we have a meeting before service. Usually I leave Spoon and Stable between 4 and 4:30, get to Bellecour and hit that meeting, or at least the tail end, do that service until 6:45 or 7 at the latest, and then I head straight to Demi. I want to be able to say hello to every guest at the first seating, so I’ll be there until about 8—but I have to be careful how long I’m there, because if I talk too much it delays the second seating. It’s a staggered schedule; the second one starts at 8:15 and ends at 9.

From there I go to Spoon. I’ll go to the line and ask one of the cooks to make me one of the dishes, just tell them what I want. I find that the most effective way to taste the food, hitting the line at a time when they’re very busy to say, Hey, I want the branzino, can you send it to the office? And they will, with a set of silverware and some Pellegrino.

By 9 or 9:30 I’m on the line with the team; if there’s a newer employee I see how they’re doing, I say hello to guests, check the kitchen and the dining room. Right after that I’m back to Demi for the second seating, home around 10:30. And I will just crash.

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

Three places at once

Spoon needed to be built in such a way that at some point I wouldn’t be there as often, because we opened Bellecour, and it had to be okay. And then Bellecour needed to be built in such a way that at some point I wasn’t there as often, and it was okay, so we could open Demi. It’s a domino effect.

Daniel Boulud once said to me, When you have one restaurant it’s the best because it’s just one, you can focus on what’s in front of you, but you have to be careful, because you can become overbearing, and the people with you can’t grow and prosper. You see it three or four steps ahead of everybody else.

The second place is the hardest to open and run because you don’t have an infrastructure. You used to be the only chef, but now you need you plus two, one at each place. You used to be the only chef to talk to the general manager; now you have you, and two chefs, and someone to talk to two general managers, but you don’t have the revenue to support it, yet. The third place is actually easier, because you already have one person overseeing two general managers, who now oversees three. You have one executive chef overseeing three chefs, not two.

Chris Nye, our executive chef for the group, was my first-ever hire. He was a pasta cook when I came in as chef at Café Boulud in New York City, and I remember him saying Hey, chef, pleasure to meet you, I’m from Minneapolis, too. And I thought great, what do I care, just go to work. He left after about a year and a half—but he called the night The New York Times ran a story saying I’d resigned as executive chef, after seven years, and was heading back to Minneapolis to open my own place.

It can’t all be on the guest, because there’s a price cap. I mean, I won’t pay $25 for a burger and I’m in the business.

I said, You can be chef de cuisine, let’s go. He moved back to Minneapolis within a week of me.

He helps me oversee the culinary side of things; all of the chefs de cuisine report to Chris, and then he and I talk about specials and new menu items. There’s a pecking order. James Passafaro, the chef de cuisine at Spoon and Stable, will work with his team, his sous chefs, and then they’ll go to Chris with ideas, and he’ll figure out how something fits into the menu, how they can get it approved by me. Then they’ll make the dish and we’ll all sit down together.

That’s where I might push back. I won’t turn down an idea just to turn it down, but I really want to be thoughtful about how a dish can potentially help the restaurant.

There are times when I’ll taste a dish and it might be super delicious, but it doesn’t make any sense for the restaurant, doesn’t really live here, not its personality—how it’s spiced, or cooked, or the protein. If the chef team said, We want to do quail, I would just say no. We do pheasant in the fall and duck in the winter, and they’ve become identifiable to our guests. People call in advance to find out when we’re going to start serving them. And you want to create items that are crave-able to people. It’s great to have specials, but it’s also great to know that if a customer’s stuck in traffic they might be thinking, I have to have that dish I like so much.

By charging for items that have otherwise been free, you’re adding money to the topline, and then the restaurant’s job is to manage how that’s applied to the bottom line.

When Demi opened we had research and development days that would allow us to sit in the kitchen and play, and develop new dishes. Ritter, the chef de cuisine, and I would go into the Spoon kitchen during service, it was quiet in the back portion of the kitchen, and we’d talk about what new dishes would look like, maybe a canapé we wanted to change, or an update on the scallop dish, or new elements for spring. Once Demi opened, it allowed me to be back in the kitchen even more, to be very guest-facing. It’s a counter, so it’s very obvious I’m there. It’s not as obvious in the other restaurants.

People will say to me, The food was just amazing, we’re so glad you were here tonight. And maybe I’m way too honest, but I say, I didn’t cook your food. I’m just here hanging out.

About six months ago we had a little staffing shortage at Spoon and Stable and Chris asked if I could expedite for three nights, which lasted two months, calling orders, plating food. It was so gratifying to be back on the line with the team. Being able to sit down and create new dishes, or going into the restaurants and being able to cook, or expedite and plate the food: There’s nothing better.

I put on a chef’s coat for the first time in a month over Easter weekend. It’s funny: You work all your life in the kitchen—to get to not work in the kitchen.

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

This is now

I get up at the same time as before, exercise, make breakfast for the boys. Today I reheated waffles; we have big batches in the freezer. We had a whole chicken in the fridge that Linda asked me to break down so she could make dinner, but I seared it, did a light braise with kale, kimchi, carrots and onions, cooked it up for dinner tonight.

Linda starts homeschool with the boys and I head to Bellecour. I’m there until about two or three, and then I head downtown to spend the rest of the day at Spoon. Funny part is, there’s no service anymore. At four, I miss and get nostalgic for the shift meeting. At five there’s no chef coat to put on. My days can end at five or six, I go home, make dinner, sit down to dinner with my family, put my kids to bed.

I can be in bed by 10.

Kaysen family at the dining table with electronic devices April 2020

Now, Kaysen’s days can end at five or six. He goes home, makes dinner, sits down his family, and puts his kids to bed.

Dave Puente

At nighttime there’s takeout at Spoon, with two people in the kitchen, one person cleaning, two people running orders. In the old days it was 82 people there. Now there are eight or 10 people left at Spoon—only 28 of us still employed, total, and prior to this there were over 200 employees altogether. Because it’s close to spring and summer, Bellecour alone would be ramping up from 110 employees to about 160, because summer is so busy. We hire just for the seasonal part of the year, but that’s nonexistent now.

We still have meetings, but now we’re trying to understand what the future’s going to look like: what are the processes we would have to go through to improve things for the team? Everything’s on the table right now, on a priority list, and the highest priority is to understand the idea of a fair living wage we can give to our team.

Minneapolis will go to a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the next couple of years—but if we don’t change something mathematically, in our business, we can’t survive that change. And it can’t all be on the guest, because there’s a price cap. I mean, I won’t pay $25 for a burger and I’m in the business.

Restaurants tend to do business the way things have always been done, but that won’t do it.

When you eat at Spoon, the first thing you get is sourdough bread made from scratch, for free, a gesture of welcome. The person who makes it is one of our most over-timed people in the kitchen, and yet we give away what he produces for free. As a guest, would you have trouble paying two dollars for that?

By charging for items that have otherwise been free, you’re adding money to the topline, and then the restaurant’s job is to manage how that’s applied to the bottom line. It’s not revenue for the restaurant, not profit, but when an employee has a review and wants a raise, you can feel more confident giving it to them because you have more resources.

And some changes will be implemented for us: If we have to operate at 50 percent occupancy, how will we make our numbers? Restaurants tend to do business the way things have always been done, but that won’t do it.

What else can we do? I don’t know the answer yet.

fair living wage Gavin Kaysen April 2020

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

Another kind of normal

Anger? For me it’s more about the lack of control, the lack of answers—though what angers me the most today is the Paycheck Protection Program, the PPP, which no one can answer my questions on, lawyers, CPAs, nobody can give me a straight answer. I don’t understand how we can possibly put together $350 billion in aid and oh, by the way, this doesn’t help the restaurant industry. It absolutely makes no sense.

As I gain a little more routine and a little less crisis-management mode, what I miss the most is that connection to the restaurants, which is so much a part of what I am. I didn’t realize it until it was gone. I’ve always had it. When I worked for Daniel Boulud I never walked into an empty restaurant; it was always busy. When I opened Spoon and Stable, always busy. For quite some time now I’ve had the opportunity to walk into restaurants that are bustling, there’s energy, vibes, laughter, anger, any emotion you can imagine. It works. It makes sense.

Was it stressful, my old, normal life? I have to think. The light bulb goes off: nothing was really that stressful, even though I thought it was at the time. Employee growth and retention, menu development, can be stressful—but not compared to where we are today. It’s funny. We’ve gotten some random emails from team members: “Boy, I thought expediting was hard, having chefs tell me to push the food out. What I wouldn’t give to be doing that again.”

For me, having the emptiness in the restaurant is equal to having emptiness in my heart. Equal. They’re me. I’m them. Now I know what it’s like when it’s gone.

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.