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."
Gavin Kaysen: The Adrenaline Lure
Once Kaysen did get onto cooking, there was not much else that could compete for his affection or attention, he said.
"Honestly, I think when I was 17 years old, I knew I would do it for the rest of my life," he said. "I mean, I would be more excited to go to work on Friday and Saturday nights than to go to the party or the basketball game or the football game or high school or whatever. That was never -- they never sparked my interest. It was always so much more interesting to get beat up on the line doing 450 covers of Fish Fry Friday, you know, that was exciting to me.
"So I think it was the adrenaline, that first was what got me going. It was the instant gratification, and knowing that you're taking care of people. And then it became a challenge that was something that you had to learn by doing it over and over again.
Before jumping into cooking full-time, however, Kaysen decided to check out the whole college thing.
"I tried college for a year, just because I promised myself that I would try it just to make sure, to solidify that this is what I wanted to become," he said. "And I remember I came home from college and I was just like, 'I can't do this.' And I handed my mom my notebook and she opened it and she was like, 'I didn't know you took cooking class?' And I was like, 'Mom, that's anthropology.'
"And it was just like drawings of dishes, and menus, and things that I had read, you know, things that had nothing to do --and I failed that class. I think I got a D, but it had nothing to do with the school and the class that I was taking. And it had everything to do with what I wanted to do."
Part of his job at Cafe Boulud, Kaysen said, is to push his team of cooks as hard as he can -- but also to know when to ease off. "We have 20-some cooks here in the kitchen," he said. "How do we teach those cooks and mentor those cooks and push them to the limit every single day, but still support them every day and know that they're supported if it's 5:30 and they're still not ready for their station? They know that we will help them for that. But how do we push them just to the limit where it gets them excited to come back every day, so it becomes different?
"Which I think [was the way] it always was before, I just don't think chefs ever got credit for it. You know, I think the reality was the chef was always kind of stuck in the back ... They probably had more time to manage that situation, because they never had to go out front and do TV or do magazine or newspaper interviews or things like that.
"I mean, you know when you have a day when you don't have to do any of that or check e-mails or any of that, you have a full day just to take care of your crew. It's very different than having to juggle all the other things."
Kaysen attributes his ability to keep up with a hectic service night after night to a work ethic instilled by his parents.
"I definitely got my work ethic from my parents," he said. "Both my parents are nonstop workers, and my father will never retire. I mean, he'll just always work. My dad is the president and CEO of a medical company, and my mom's just traveling, living."
As far as cooking, the chef said, his grandmother picked up the slack left by his parents.
"My grandmother was my biggest influence as far as cooking," Kaysen said. "I mean, I still have the rolling pin that we used to make cookies with every Christmas. I started baking cookies with her when I was 7. I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven when I was 7 as well. Of course, I never had the patience to watch the brownie cook, so I would just eat the raw dough. You know how long it takes to cook with that light bulb -- it's terrible!
"So she was my biggest supporter though; I mean, we used to make sun-buckles and all of these cookies when we were kids. It's a Norwegian cookie, it's like a sugar cookie, but it's a certain shape. And I remember we never had enough space on the table, so we would make the cookies on her ironing board. We'd break out the ironing board and put a cloth on it and make cookies."
Kaysen and his wife, Linda, who will have been married five years in August, have a 10-month old son, Emile.
"My wife is my No. 1 fan and my No.1 critic, so it's perfect," Kaysen said. "We met in Switzerland -- she's from Sweden. And when I lived in Switzerland, I worked five doubles a week and then I had two days off every week and we would travel. We'd go to Italy or somewhere in France or somewhere in Switzerland or wherever. And then we moved to London, and I worked six doubles and I just had Sunday off, so I would sleep. I would start at 7 a.m. -- I would leave the house at 7 a.m. and I'd get home at 2 o'clock in the morning. So I never had breakfast with my wife until we moved to America, which was like three years into our relationship.
"So when I worked in San Diego, I'd start work at noon, so we could have breakfast together, so it was like a dream: Now we could have breakfast together. And we still breakfast together, which is great. Now we just trade off, because one's got to hold the baby and feed him and then one's eating breakfast and one's taking a shower and it's crazy. But she's fantastic. She's an amazing supporter."
Gavin Kaysen: 'I Don't Get Out Enough'
Kaysen said an air of unreality still hangs over the idea of being a celebrated chef.
"I don't recognize my status at all. I don't even think about it," he said. "When I do events and people say they know me, I don't even -- I can't concept what they're saying at all, cause I'm the same way. I'll go to an event and I'll see somebody like David Meyers from L.A. or I'll see Paul Bartolotta or somebody and I'll be like, 'Oh man! Look at that.' Or I'll see Jean-Paul Shea and I get so starstruck by it. And then Jean-Paul Shea will walk up to me and say, 'Oh, Gavin, good to see you.' I'm like what?! You know my name. I don't understand. I have no concept of what it means because you know what the reality is -- I don't really go out that much. I don't get out enough to really understand it."
In the end, Kaysen said, celebrity doesn't count for much.
"Anybody can write about what we do and we can have as much media as we want, but if the restaurant's not full and people aren't happy, it really doesn't matter," he said. "You know, if people know who you are, that's great, but if you're only doing 40 covers a night, that's not great."
Kaysen said he keeps a list of goals that he updates every three months.
"I think when you feel like you can conquer the world, you can conquer the world," he said. "I still, to this day, will always keep a list of goals in my wallet that I change and update every six months. And it's like OK, I'll pull them out and see what I've accomplished in the last six months. If it's done, I check it off and I rewrite my list -- one of my new lists of goals."
As he moves forward in his career, Kaysen seems careful to keep in mind the chefs who have influenced him along the way.
"I worked for a guy named Robert Curry when I was at Domaine Chandon [in California]," he said. "One of the main things that I learned from Robert was his respect for people. And it didn't matter who you were in his regard. You could be the dishwasher, you could be the executive sous chef -- he shook everybody's hand and said 'Hello' when he saw you, and he said goodbye to everybody every single night when he left, no matter what.
"And you just see that every day and it was like -- it always solidified in my head that it's always important to gain that connection -- that personal connection with everybody that you work with. To make sure you acknowledge who they are and as much as they're trying to help you in your success, you have to pay it back and try to help them."
But it was his original mentor, George Serra, who may have left the deepest impression on Kaysen.
"I think George taught me about my palate because he would always say -- he'd hand me like a pickle, and I'd say, 'I don't like pickles,'" Kaysen said. "I'd never tasted a pickle till this point -- it was just in my head I didn't think that I'd like the pickle, and so he would say to me, 'You have to taste it 20 times. If you don't like something after 20 times, then I believe you don't like it.'
"And now there's not anything I don't like. I've tasted everything, and anything that comes in front of me, I'm going to taste it. If I don't like it, I'll just keep tasting it -- now I understand it's an education of my palette.
"George was really -- to this day, I don't think I fully understand or know him. I mean, I've known him for 15 years, but the first time I was ever on the cover of a magazine was Chef Magazine, and I was 24. And I called George and I was so excited, I said, 'George, I'm on the cover of this magazine! I'm going to send you a copy.' And then two years later I got a call from their editor, and he says, 'We're trying to get in touch with George.' And I said, 'What, are you doing a story on him?' And he said, 'Well, he founded the magazine, and we're doing a little historical piece on the magazine -- you know, where it started to where it is today.'
"And I'm like, 'What do you mean he founded the magazine?' And he says, 'Yeah, yeah, he started the whole thing.'"
Kaysen called Serra right back.
"He was like, 'Yeah, it was back in the '70s I started it.' I said, 'You didn't tell me! I was on the cover, you didn't say anything!' And he's like, 'Don't worry, we'll talk about it some other day.' And still we've never talked about it -- we've never talked about anything. But what George taught me is he taught me about the discipline in cooking, you know the passion -- understanding what it is to be taking care of the guests. Food in general. The seasonality of food."