It's a cool afternoon inside Spoon & Stable. Robb Jones and Elliot Manthey are elbow deep in citrus behind the bar. The entire room fills with the scent of freshly squeezed limes and the duo prep for what is sure to be a busy night ahead of them.
The early afternoon light spills in from every corner, bathing the tables in gold. Place settings glint and twinkle. In the kitchen, white silhouettes move with swift determination and confidence.
One figure is seated in the back, corner booth. His laptop open, fingers flying across the keyboard. A freshly brewed cup of tea has just been set beside him and although his eyes never leave the screen, it's soon as crystal clear as the stemware that no movement inside this restaurant goes without his notice.
I was just not prepared to have to turn people away.
Chances are, if you've dined inside Spoon & Stable, Gavin Kaysen has also noticed where you sat, what you ordered and whether it was a celebratory occasion. "This is our home," he explains. If someone is struggling with a steak knife, missing a spoon, waiting on a second glass of wine, the chef watches from his post in the open kitchen and if his staff doesn't pick up on those subtle cues, the chef is likely the one that notices.
From the moment the news broke that he would step away from Cafe Boulud in New York City all eyes have been following his every move. He's studiously worked at getting to know the chefs and restaurants that make up the Twin Cities dining scene. The food news media has covered his every move, from spoon thievery to an early change in the restaurant name to his success at the Bocuse d'Or.
As prepared as he could be to open the doors at Spoon & Stable, there was no possible way to brace for the overwhelming interest in the restaurant. To this day, it's one of the most difficult to get reservations in Minneapolis. "I wasn't prepared to have to tell people no," Kaysen recalled. From the word "go," the reservation lines lit up. People were literally lined up outside the door which was incredibly distressing to the chef. He was ready for the scrutiny, the armchair critics and the natural bumps of opening a restaurant. "I was just not prepared to have to turn people away." The staff did what they could, including brewing warm drinks to deliver to the anxious patrons queued up outside waiting for 5 p.m. to come.
Chef, I'm just so tired of losing.
Meanwhile, the guests that did make it in the doors those early days included people from some luminous publications as the New York Times and Food & Wine. Celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson (who crashed a soft opening), Jose Garcas, Andrew Zimmern clamored for tables. More recently they served Ferran Adria and Jose Andres. Opening night Daniel Boulud schooled the staff on the finer points of re-heating cold pizza (directly on the burner - don't try this at home, kids.) Thomas Keller made it to the opening party despite a tangle with a confused Uber driver.
Meanwhile, the restaurant opening craziness was tearing Kaysen away from a project he had spent years preparing for: the Bocuse D'Or. In 2007, while he was still working at El Bizcocho in San Diego he was first chosen to represent the United States at the legendary culinary competition named for Paul Bocuse. Held every two years in Lyon, France. Chefs from 24 countries, the world over descend to participate in the rigorous competition. Every year the team from the United States would travel to Lyon to live the life that they will during the competition and develop the muscle memory that will allow the team to singularly focus on the task at hand - winning. "Walking out of 2013 I remember turning to Thomas Keller and saying, 'Chef, I'm just so tired of losing.' He said, 'Me, too.'" And yet, they returned for 2015. Kaysen, who served as head coach to the team, stayed in Minneapolis, tending to the new baby that was Spoon & Stable while everyone made the first trek to Lyon.
The second that platter left the stage 6,000 people went completely silent.
By the time the competition came, Spoon & Stable was just two months old.
"The second that platter left the stage 6,000 people went completely silent. When that many people go quiet that fast, you now you've made an impact that is beyond your control," he recalled. He knew this time was different. He knew they made history.
Hotter than the mighty and incorruptible sun.
In 2015 for the first time ever, the United States team placed in the top of the competition: they brought home silver. "It was so gratifying... so gratifying." The USA team of chefs reached the summit of their culinary Everest - victorious.
However, back at home, not all was silver and sunshine. During the ten days that he was away, Spoon & Stable received its first review. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl of Mpls./St. Paul Magazine was one of the first guests in the door and wrote that the restaurant was "hotter than the mighty and incorruptible sun." While the scallop crudo was, "a waltz-step of lush pleasure followed by a tap-dance snap and crackle of vibrant spice" that should be ordered immediately, she cautioned that those looking for exquisite cuisine might find Spoon & Stable faltering. Ultimately, "there were more dull dishes than magical ones." Worse, the desserts were deemed, "forgettable."
When you believe in something that's that amazing, nothing can stop you.
While his staff was bruised by the review, Kaysen was experiencing a career high. "When I got home, I didn't talk about the review at all," Kaysen pauses and considers his hands. "I talked about my experience in Lyon."
Usually, before the competition they have a dinner and Thomas Keller gives a speech, honoring the team. This year, he waited until after this momentous win. The great chef's words landed softly on those listening. After his toast, conversation quickly resumed. But, Gavin closely and saw the tears in Keller's eyes. "This had hit him in a way I'd never seen before."
On his way home during a layover in Amsterdam, Kaysen wrote an email that became a story about this significant event.
"When you're a part of something where people believe in you and believe in what you're doing. It's one of the most powerful positions to be in." Bocuse d'Or and the restaurant are two sides of that same coin.
You're going to fall. Success is nothing without fear.
The Bocuse d'Or team leadership: Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse could have have walked away at any moment, after every loss. Yet, they came back time and again, believing in the eventual success of their team. Each year, they put the pieces of the puzzle together again in a new manner. They tried new things, new ways to train, new competitors, new geographical locations, techniques. "We tried everything."
What Kaysen learned from that success, those years of brutal, singular focus and the leadership was the essence of the speech Keller gave and the email that Kaysen sent them as he digested and distilled what that life-changing event meant to them. "When you believe in something that's that amazing, nothing can stop you. There are going to be obstacles. You're going to fall. Success is nothing without fear. Nothing.
"Seeing this restaurant and this team come from where we were, this over-hyped, over-buzzed idea of what we were supposed to be to what we actually want to be and who we really are - we never stopped believing. Ultimately, that is what has kept us relevant. We believe that as a group. That's why Minneapolis continues to be relevant in the national conversation, because when they come and eat in Minneapolis, they see that everyone believes in it. It's different. It's a real thing here. It's really important to me to be surrounded by that. It's really powerful."
In the time since those heady early days, Spoon & Stable has continued to evolve. Most of the staff has remained intact, save for the departure of Bill Summerville, who stepped away from the front of house restaurant business for a position with New France Wine Company.
Kaysen indicates a stack of menus that he always keeps near at hand. With each new menu, the restaurant grew more sure footed, the staff found their groove. "Everyone has grown. I'm incredibly proud of all of them - especially Diane [Yang, Spoon & Stable's pastry chef]."
My intention is not to be great in the first two months.
When Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune reviewed the restaurant in May of this year he gushed, "Pastry chef Diane Yang’s cerebral, sculptural and unfailingly refreshing desserts are more than just meal cappers." From the gorgeous Shea, Inc. designed room to Kaysen's innate hospitality, Nelson marveled at the restaurant's ability to rise above the hype and deliver a four star experience.
Eater's Bill Addison selected Spoon & Stable to be one of the best new restaurants of the year. Declaring the food as, "Modern American cooking at its most fully realized."
I don't ever want the pressure to go away.
"My intention is not to be great in the first two months when the first review comes out. It's to be great throughout the cycle of the restaurant. I signed a 10 year lease - with two renewals." The past year, which included being nominated for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, was unlike anything Kaysen has experienced. For all the highs and the great reviews there have been stressed, too. Perhaps, the only evidence a customer will see of that struggle, is a few stately gray hairs that have taken up residence alongside his boyishly handsome face.
"I don't ever want the pressure to go away. I think it keeps us alive and going well. Every day when we sit down for our pre-shift meeting and again, at the end of the night my staff and I discuss the service." They discuss the successes and challenges of the day. Guests attempt to make reservations and see that nothing is available until late at night. "They don't know [the struggle.] You see that and assume, 'ah - they're killing it every night!'" That doesn't make any service more or less important than another.
"For example, the scallop carpaccio has been on the menu from day one. We've done 9,000 scallop carppacios, but for the guest, that's still their first impression. It might be our fifth day of the week, the sous chefs 60th hour of work and we have to remember that this is still the guests first impression."
"What we have today versus what we had a year ago is a different product - and it should be." With that, the fire lights below the grill inside the nearby kitchen. A waft of cumin and smoke escapes and in a subtle shift in posture, the chef indicates it's time to get back to work.
Photos by Katie Cannon