June 9, 2010 — -- Gavin Kaysen tells an entertaining story about how he got his start in cooking.
The setting was the Subway sandwich shop in Bloomington, Minn., where, as a 15-year-old, Kaysen had taken a summer job. One of his regulars was a man named George who had opened a pasta restaurant next door.
"He would come in every day and he'd order a tuna fish sandwich on a round bun -- I still remember the order," Kaysen said. "And he'd buy it and he'd walk out of the restaurant and he'd throw it in the garbage, and he'd walk to his restaurant. And I'm like who is this guy?
"So finally I had the courage to ask him. I said, 'George, I don't understand. You come in, you buy this tuna fish sandwich, you throw it in the trash and you leave. I don't understand why you buy it if you don't eat it.'
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"And he said, 'No, I'm just watching the way you are with the guests.' And he's like, 'You know a lot of these people that come into this neighborhood, and I opened this new restaurant, so I'd like you to work there.'
"I said, 'Sure, how much are you going to pay me?' He said, 'I'll give you a dollar more than what you're making now.' So I left Subway and I went to go work with George. Little did I know at that time that it would change my life."
George turned out to be George Serra, the restaurateur and founder of Chef Magazine. Kaysen would work for Serra for the remainder of his high school years, along the way discovering a love of cooking and starting down the path to chef stardom.
Currently executive chef at Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud, Kaysen received the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef award in 2008 and was named a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef in 2007. He competed in the fall 2007 "Next Iron Chef" TV series. He represented the United States at the 2007 Bocuse d'Or International contest in Lyon, France, and has worked at restaurants in San Diego, London and Switzerland.
In a recent interview at Cafe Boulud in New York City, Kaysen talked about the industry, his family, his influences and his hopes and plans for the future.
When George Serra first mentioned to Kaysen's parents that the kid was gifted in the kitchen, Kaysen remembered, his parents didn't know what to think.
"I remember him talking to my parents and being like, 'You know, he really needs to find -- you know this is his passion, he should excel in it.'" said Kaysen. "And my parents are like, 'Food? What? I don't understand.'
"Let's see, this was 15 years ago, I don't think really magazines and Food Network and all this was very prominent. And I grew up in Minnesota, where it wasn't at all -- I mean, it's wild rice. ... I mean, I didn't know beets came out of the ground until I moved to California, you know. It was always out of a can. It was like, I didn't think about it. And I didn't grow up with a family to think about it like that."
Kaysen said his parents imparted to him a sense of creativity and hospitality. They did not, however, give him much guidance in the kitchen, he said.
"My mom is -- forgive me when I say this, but she's not a very talented cook," Kaysen said. "You know, like they built a brand new kitchen a couple years ago, and I went home eight months after the kitchen was built, and I opened up the oven and it still had the Saran Wrap inside of the oven. She's like, 'I don't know how to turn it on.'
"But they have a great sense of entertainment and hospitality, which I learned a lot about from them. And creativity, which is what I learned the most. But cooking is not their forte, it's just not part of their world.
"So when I was a kid, my brother and I would cook. You know, we'd put to the pot roast in the big Crockpot and turn it on before we'd go to school, we'd come home, we'd have dinner. Otherwise, it was bagels and cereal. So -- I mean I grew up on just very humble, Midwest roots."