Do you cook At Home? What do you cook at home? How do you cook at home? Why do you cook at home? These are the questions Chef Gavin Kaysen gets asked. Chef Kaysen is the recipient of 2x James Beard Awards. He was named the Rising Star Chef of the Year 2008 and Best Chef in the Midwest 2018. He is the executive Culinary Producer for the reboot of Iron Chef on Netflix and the owner of Spoon and Stable & Demi – two award winning restaurants in Minneapolis; as well as Bellecour Bakery, Mara and Soca Cafe.
For this episode Fran Racioppi sat down with Chef in one of the most iconic, and delicious, restaurants in NYC; Boulud Sud; owned and operated by legendary Chef Daniel Boulud.
Chef Kaysen and Fran answered these questions in a conversation about his new book At Home. Chef talks about creating majestic moments in hospitality and in business; why we need recipes that are simple, yet authentic; why it’s important not to talk down to home chefs; and what essentials make an impact on your daily meals – or holiday feasts.
Pick up a copy of At Home and learn more about Chef Kaysen at gavinkaysen.com and on social media @gavinkaysen.
Special thanks to Chef Daniel Boulud and the entire Boulud Sud staff for hosting Chef Kaysen and our Jedburgh Team.
Listen to the podcast here
About Chef Gavin Kaysen
Gavin Kaysen is an award-winning chef and advocate for the culinary profession. He is the founder of Soigné Hospitality Group, a nationally recognized group of restaurants in the Minneapolis metropolitan area including Spoon and Stable, a 2015 James Beard Award Finalist for Best New Restaurant; Demi, an intimate 20-seat tasting menu experience; Bellecour Bakery at Cooks of Crocus Hill, and Mara at Four Seasons Minneapolis.
He is also the co-founder of Heart of the House Foundation, a non-profit organization created to sustain the growth, health, and prosperity of the Soigné Hospitality family now and in the future. He supports the next generation of young culinarians refine their skills as one of the founding mentors of the nonprofit Ment’or BKB Foundation (formerly Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation), for which he currently serves as President of Team USA. Chef Kaysen is the proud recipient of two James Beard Awards: Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008, and Best Chef: Midwest in 2018.
At Home – Chef Gavin Kaysen
Do you ever consider how much of your time you spend in your kitchen? It’s the epicenter of our homes, the place we eat, where we talk, and where we congregate when people come over. It doesn’t matter how big or how small your kitchen is. It’s going to be the place that always has room for one more person. “Do you cook in your kitchen? Do you cook at home? What do you cook? How do you cook? Why do you cook at home?” These are the questions Chef Gavin Kaysen gets asked and the questions he asks himself.
Chef Kaysen is the recipient of two James Beard Awards. He was named the Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008 and Best Chef in the Midwest in 2018. He’s the Executive Culinary Producer for the reboot of Iron Chef on Netflix and the Owner of Spoon and Stable and Demi, two award-winning restaurants in Minneapolis, one of which I visited.
He also owns Bellecour Bakery, Mara, and Socca Cafe. For this episode, I headed to Columbus Square to sit down with the chef in one of the most iconic and delicious restaurants in New York City, Boulud Sud, owned and operated by legendary Chef, Daniel Boulud. Chef Kaysen and I answered these questions about cooking at home as we covered his new book, At Home. The chef talks about creating majestic moments in hospitality and business.
He explains why we need recipes that are simple yet authentic, why it’s important not to talk down to home chefs, and what essentials anyone is looking to make an impact on their daily meals or holiday feast needs in the pantry. Pick up a copy of At Home and learn more about Chef Kaysen at GavinKaysen.com and on social media, @GavinKaysen.
Take a listen to my conversation with Chef Kaysen on your favorite podcasts platform, watch the full video version of our discussion on YouTube, subscribe to us, and follow, @JedburghPodcast on all social media. Check out our website at JedburghPodcast.com. Special thanks to Chef Daniel Boulud and the entire Boulud Sud staff for hosting Chef Kaysen and our Jedburgh team. I would be remiss if I didn’t try some recipes before I met with Chef Kaysen, so don’t forget to check out our socials to see my renditions of some of At Home‘s most popular recipes.
Chef Kaysen, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Welcome to New York City.
It’s good to be here, too.
We stalked you when we were in Minneapolis. Jenny, our Production Coordinator, was going through popular places in Minneapolis when we were there and came across the restaurants Demi and Spoon and Stable. She was like, “We need to talk to Chef Kaysen.” I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” We hit you up on Instagram. I sincerely appreciate you responding to us and setting this up.
It’s funny that the way Instagram works now is via communication. You can’t respond to everything but sometimes you are like, “This could be cool. Let’s check it out and see what happens.”
I have to give a special shout-out to Chef Daniel Boulud for hosting us at Boulud Sud here on 64th in Broadway. It’s an incredible space.
Is this your first time here?
This is my first time here. It’s a great space.
I lived in the city for years. This was originally a bank, this space.
That’s why downstairs, there are all the different rooms.
He opened up Bar Boulud first. When I started to work for him in 2008, he was opening up Bar Boulud, and then he opened up Boulud Sud, and then Épicerie Boulud. It’s called 64th on Broadway. We call it 64th in Boulud because it’s all his restaurants. I helped see this restaurant come to life when it was opening.
It’s a great place. You have a big day. You were on the Today Show. I’m honored because you came here to meet with me after the Today Show. That was huge. We were in the car driving down here and pulled it up on YouTube TV so that we could drive. You have a big night. You have an event here. You are going to get in a prep after this and get going.
You have been the recipient of two James Beard Awards, Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008, Best Chef of the Midwest in 2018, Executive Culinary Producer for the reboot of Iron Chef on Netflix, Owner of Spoon and Stable and Demi, two award-winning restaurants in Minneapolis. We went to Spoon and Stable when we were there.
You also owned Bellecour Bakery, Mara, and Socca Cafe. Your catering company fuels the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Wild. You serve on the board of several non-profits. You are active in the Independent Restaurant Coalition. You are dedicating a lot of time to the development of the next generation of culinary experts. You are the author of, At Home. I sincerely appreciate you sending me an advanced copy of it because we haven’t released them yet.
I’ve spent the last couple of nights cooking out of your book. The first night, we made the cavatelli. My mom came down from Rhode Island and helped out with that. We did breakfast for dinner, and we had French toast. It’s phenomenal. It didn’t look quite like it does when you make it but it was much better than our normal.
It’s funny too, that cavatelli is a great recipe because people always make it and feel like, “Is it the right way? Is it the wrong way?” The next thing you have is freshly made pasta. It always comes together.
It was amazing. You wrote the book, At Home. I want to start there because you pose these four questions, and you said that your guests often ask you a number of these questions starting with, “Do you cook at home?” That takes you on this journey of what you cook at home, how you cook at home, and why you cook at home. What I thought we would do in this conversation is we would talk about each one of these questions.
Tell your journey through the lens of this path that following these questions in the book takes you. First one, do you cook at home? Simple question but a complex answer. Obviously, it’s yes, but you said, “Cooking provides the same immersive flow state that others find on a hike at the gym or inside a good book. Ever since I was a little kid, cooking has been my way to escape reality.” What is it about cooking that drew you in? Why does it escape reality?
When I was seven years old, I was baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother, Dorothy, who I’m sure we will talk about. At that time, my cousins, my brother, my neighbors, and my friends are all outside playing football in the snow. We get done baking the cookies and tell them the cookies are ready. I see them all come from outside in. It was a pivotal moment in my life because I realized that seven ingredients are what brought everybody together at a table.
It was a light bulb for me that went off. I realized I had so much fun doing it. I remember then I was probably 10 years old or 12 years old. I was at a cabin and my uncle said to me, “Tomorrow, we are going to make freshly made pancakes.” I couldn’t sleep that night because I was excited to make pancakes the next morning.
It doesn’t matter how old you are.
What twelve-year-old cares that you want to make pancakes? It’s weird. It was always my way of finding peace. Even to this day, if I go on vacation with my family, I have to be in a hotel, a rental Airbnb or something that provides me with a kitchen. If it’s a two-week or week vacation, by day three, I need to be in the kitchen cooking.
You brought up your grandmother, Dorothy, as a true inspiration from an early age. You had Dorothy. I had Liliana. That was my grandmother. You couldn’t go in the house. She immigrated to the US from Italy, her and my grandfather. I’m a second generation. My dad was born in the US. When we would go to that house, I can still remember the smell of the pasta and the sauce.
You would not make it from the door to the kitchen without her putting something in your hand and telling you, “You need to eat.” When you would start to slow down, she would be sitting at the table, and you would be stuck. She would come over. It didn’t matter if you had three helpings of pasta. She would say, “You don’t like it?” It’s like, “I do like. I had three bowls.” It was never-ending.
What’s interesting is that the word restaurant comes from the word restoration or to be restored. We’ve trained our culture to go out to eat and rate the experience. Whether you see your grandmother or go out to eat at a restaurant or whatever it is, you leave that experience and say to yourself, “What was it?” 1 through 10, 1 through 5, whatever your rating system is. You’ve done a disservice to yourself. You haven’t allowed yourself restoration through the experience. When you go and eat your grandmother’s food, you feel restored.
You are telling me about a nostalgic memory that no restaurant could ever top because it’s such a memory that burned into your mind. Imagine going out to eat with that same open mind and freedom and that same open mind saying, “I’m going to find restorations through my meal tonight and the experience that I have.” You will walk away with that same feeling of like, “That blew me away.”
That brings me to ask you this question, and something that your grandmother talked with you about, and you said that, “She taught me how to cook and more important, taught me that it was okay to take chances and make mistakes.” Why is it important to make mistakes? That’s something that I know when I cook at home. Even as a novice home cook, I’m always like, “What if I make a mistake?”
We are too afraid of what is the result of that. My grandmother used to always say, “No matter what happens in the kitchen, when you make a mistake, you can say shit.” That was her rule. I would be seven and be like, “Grandma, we burnt the cookie.” She would say, “Shit.” I was like, “We can say it together.” It wasn’t like afraid of that word.
It didn’t seem to me like, “This is a bad word.” That word resonated with me with the mistake that we made in the kitchen together, and we are going to figure out how to fix it. It always led me to be curious. Being afraid to make the mistake leads you down this path of, “Now I’m not sure I want to be that curious because if I’m too curious, I might want to try something. If I try, what if I fail? What happens if I fail?”Being afraid to make a mistake leads you down this path of not being sure if you want to be curious. Click To Tweet
You learn. That last part is the hardest part for people to swallow and hold onto. For me, food is food. It’s to bring people together. If we burn something, throw it away and do it again. You are going to burn it, and it’s okay. I’m a pro and still make mistakes in the kitchen. That’s okay. It’s not often but it happens. Aaron Judge doesn’t hit a home run every time he goes up to the plate.
We end up getting almost scientific about it. You pull out the book, start going through it, and it’s like, “No, it says 1/4 cup.” You are measuring it off the top. If there’s a little too much, my wife is like, “That’s too much.” It’s not a science. It’s an art.
We got an email from a person who bought the book. They tried a recipe and said, “It looked amazing and tasted amazing but my vegetables were a little bit mushier than yours looked to be.” It’s like, “You used a different pot and pan that I used, and so that’s going to change the vegetable. You are now steaming it. You are not roasting it. That’s a totally different technique.” The person said in an email, “It didn’t matter. I loved it. I’m making it again. I just want you to know.”
Your journey started cooking at home with your grandmother. It’s taken you into the professional kitchens of the world and also back home. Talk about that transition. How do you go from cooking with your grandmother and then saying to yourself, “This is what I want to do with my career. This is what I want to do with my life?”
I was fifteen years old and working at a Subway as a certified sandwich artist. I have to say that I was certified because I feel like that certification gives me a little bit of power. I was working at a Subway, and there was a gentleman next door named George Serra who was opening up a fast-casual pasta restaurant. It would be the same people that would come in every day. I’m like, “If I memorize what Fran gets every time, you don’t have to wait in line anymore.”
You walk in and say, “It’s good to see you. Your sandwiches are at the register. We will see you tomorrow.” He moves in next door and sees the way that I’m communicating with people. He sees how I’m making the sandwiches. He comes in every Saturday. He orders a 4-inch tuna fish sandwich on a round bun. I still remember the order.
It goes through the whole charades of having me make the sandwich, walking out the door, taking the sandwich, and throwing it in the trash. He didn’t even look at it. The fourth time he did it, he walked in and I said, “What’s your deal? You walk in every Saturday. You order the sandwich you never eat.” He says, “I don’t care about the sandwich. I’m watching the way you are with the guests. Your hands are good for food. You don’t understand this because you are fifteen but you should cook for a living.” I’m like, “I don’t even know what that means.” He says, “Come work for me, and I will teach you.” I quit my job and went to work for him. I worked for him until I went to culinary school.
What’s crazy is that when I was 25, I was on the cover of a magazine called Chef Magazine, Industry Magazine. I was proud. It was my first cover. This gentleman’s name is George Serra. I called George and said, “I was on the cover of this magazine. I’m going to send you a couple of copies.” I sent him copies. The editor calls me back six weeks later and says, “We are doing a story on George. I want to make sure we have the right phone number and email.” I said, “Yes, that’s all correct. What’s the story on?” She said, “George is the Founder of our magazine.” I said, “What?” She’s like, “Yeah, he’s the founder. We are doing a history recap on the magazine and how it started, and where it is now. He doesn’t own it anymore but he’s part of why we are who we are.”
I called George and said, “You founded the magazine I was the cover of and never told me.” He said, “That’s not the important part of the story. You did it on your own.” That was it. We have never talked about it since then. He’s the only human with a standing reservation at Spoon and Stable every Wednesday at 6:30. If he doesn’t show up by 7:15, I give away his table. He lives in Florida most of the time but I figured he might come in. George taught me how to love food. He taught me what it meant to have the commitment to love food.
He taught me early on that this business is not a business where you are going to work 30 or 40 hours a week, have nights and weekends off, and be able to do this and that. None of that existed in his delivery to me. His delivery was all about, “How much do you love it, and do you love it? If you don’t, it’s okay not to love it but then let’s talk about what it is that you want to do.” We used to do art collages on the wall, which taught me a lot about how to look at this from an artistic perspective. He tapped into my parts of my brain that I didn’t know as a 15 or 16-year-old kid ever existed. I knew when I was sixteen that I would do this for the rest of my life.
The art piece is important, I said a minute ago, because that’s what makes it come alive. When it comes alive, it creates that experience that you were talking about that becomes memorable. You have that. You put that in the book, At Home. You see that when you walk into the restaurant. Let’s talk about the second question. What do you cook at home? You organize the book seasonally. There are a number of recipes for each season. You mix in some of your professional hallmark recipes along with many of those that you cook at home with your kids, and that is easy to come up with at night. How did you select these specific ones?
A lot of it is what I’ve cooked at home for my family, which is what helped me put it through a filter. The paella that’s in the book, I made that a few days ago for my family. The roasted chicken I made a few days ago. A lot of what we are cooking and a lot of the filter of what I’m going to cook at home, sometimes it’s like there’s speed.
There are some dishes in there that you can do quickly. There are some dishes that are in here that I do faster than what the book says you can do it in because I’m faster at it. There are some dishes that take a little bit of time, and there’s purpose behind why it takes a little bit of time. I try to mix it up and show people the different options you have when you are cooking at home.
If you want to spend three hours cooking at home on a Sunday, I have a recipe for that. If you want to 30 or 45 minutes to get dinner on the table, I have a recipe for that, too. It doesn’t change the quality of the food or the dish but I want to teach you through this book technique. What I want to teach people is confidence. I genuinely want people to use this book. I want to see it dirty. I want to see the pages ripped open. I want pictures of what people made. I want to be able to see it because that’s why we do it. I want people to walk away and be like, “I can make some of this food.”
It’s funny because I was yelling at everybody, “Don’t get the book dirty. Let me get through the interview first.” Many of the dishes are French inspired. You also said that your language is “cheffy”. You don’t like to speak down to home cooks the way that a lot of chefs do. Why is it important to remain authentic and respectful of the reader and the experience in the language that you use?
A lot of the times, the reader already knows the answer to it. They speak a lot of the language. The way that media has worked now between social media and digital media and how all the books come out, a lot of people are well-educated and well-traveled that you don’t have to explain certain things to people. They get that and understand it. There’s an integrity piece to it. At the end of the day, if I go to take advice from a professional athlete or a professional at any business, I expect them to teach me in a way that will help me understand it.
Also, on a level of respect of, you might not have twenty years of experience doing this but I’m going to teach you as if you do. You are going to pick it up faster as a result. I remember moving back to Minneapolis and talking to our cooks and saying, “I understand not all of you have had the opportunity to work in cities like New York, San Francisco or wherever. It doesn’t mean we are going to treat or train you any differently. I still want you to be the best at who you are and what you do. As a result, we know how to train you to get there.”
Why is teaching important?
It’s because somebody taught me. We get to a point in our lives when we have an opportunity to take what we have been taught. We can pass that on to others or we can hold it in and not. I’ve never thought of it as holding onto it. I tell cooks this all the time. I tell people I work with all the time that if they get frustrated with somebody who’s new because they are new, I will say, “Do you remember when you were new? The same thing happened to you, too.”
You were probably worse.
We all were that way. You have a new baby. I have a new baby. Look at it that way. It’s like two older as I do. I watch my older kids with my baby now. They understand and helping burp him and help lift him up and whatever it is. We were all there. Teach it.
You are still reminding your older ones though every day to stop complaining because you were that. That’s what I have to tell my oldest all the time.
I tell my oldest, “Do you see how cute he is? You were that cute. Now you are like, ‘Dad, where are you? Pick me up.’” I’m like, “Can you be cute again?”
My daughter comes down every morning. Every morning I go down, and I make her breakfast. I make her lunch. I get it all in. 4 out of 5 days, she will roll in and not even acknowledge my presence. We have to have the conversation, “Good morning. I didn’t see you there. How are you today?” You mentioned confidence a lot throughout the book. Why is it important in the kitchen for a chef at any level to have confidence?
You need to believe in what it is you are serving to people. When you get behind what it is you are cooking, and why you are cooking it, that translates through the food. It translates how the guest, your friends or whomever comes over to your house translates to how they eat. We can all admit we have been in restaurants before where you walk in, and you are like, “Something is off about this space.” I don’t get it. That something off is that there’s something not genuine.
There’s something not authentic. They are trying to sell you something that they don’t believe in either but they are going to give it their best shot every single day. You walk into some place and are like, “This place feels amazing.” They hit the authenticity button pretty hard and are confident with what they hit. That’s what I want people to understand and see throughout the book.
You can do it anywhere.
Whether you are cooking in a pro kitchen or a home kitchen, it’s the same formula.
Your grandmother’s pot roast is in this book. It has been on the Today Show previously. You talked a lot about it. It’s one of the most downloaded recipes on the New York Times website. It started on an index card. How come simple is often important?
A lot of it is nostalgia for us. I look back at pot roast for me, growing up with my grandmother. I remember the smells like you were explaining to me about your grandmother, the smells when you would walk into her house. Those are the things that bring me right back to it. That pot roast recipe is funny because my grandmother passed away several years ago. She never saw any of this happen. I know she sees it now, but she never saw it in the flesh. It’s cool to see what recipes she had on her index card. She was a recovering alcoholic. She was recovered for over 30 years when she passed away.
I have this little booklet. It’s my dedication page. You see this little booklet. Each day you flip it, it’s a saying or some mantra for the day. That booklet was given to her by her AA coach. When she passed away, she left that booklet for me in all of her recipes. That was it. That’s all I wanted because that booklet was powerful.
I remember, as a kid going to see her and would flip the day for her, and then we would read it out loud together. She has little scribbles of when she saw the first Robin and what the year was. It’s cool. I look in her recipe book and it’s like, “We can translate pot roast to a restaurant, and we can translate pot roast to home cooking.”
I can make it to my house. Third question, how do you cook at home? You’ve thrown out a number of techniques and things to think about when you are cooking at home. I want to ask you about a couple of them here. The essential tools, what do you need?
It’s not as much as what people think. You don’t need this huge kitchen and this huge line that will help. You don’t have to do as much work. I like graters, spoons, mise en place bowls. By mise en place bowls, they are having a landing zone. We talk about this in the book. If you are going to cut the onions, where do the onions then go before they go into the pot? They have to go somewhere. They can’t sit on the top left corner of your cutting board because it’s a little sloppy.
A messy station is a messy mind. I know how to filter that. I know how to not be messy. I know if it is messy, how to make it non-messy anymore. As a home cook, you don’t, and then they get frantic. Certain knives that I love. There’s a lot of things that people have in their home kitchen because they bought it at the whim, a spur of the moment. They thought it was cute. That’s great but you don’t always need all that stuff.
Again, as it goes, “Keep it simple.” You talked about this concept of keeping it organized and neat. You talked about preparation. People have spoken about you. One of the things that they highlight most often is your detailed preparation. The tagline of the show is, “How you prepare today determines success tomorrow.” I fundamentally believe that.
It all comes down to preparation and the work you put in before. Your conversation about the prep zone, you separate mental from physical preparation. Can you talk about the difference between those two? Why is it important in terms of when you are preparing in any kitchen to begin cooking, why do you have to separate the mental and the physical preparation?
The physical preparation is pretty simple in the fact that you have the product that you have that starts out as a whole onion goes to a chopped onion, that goes to a sauteed onion, whatever it is. The physical part is pretty easy. The mental part is the part that people don’t realize takes a lot more work than what you realize. When you go into a restaurant kitchen or a home kitchen, and I see this a lot when I go visit friends, not a lot of people cook for me, which is probably not a shocker. If I go over to a friend’s house and they want to cook for me, it’s often frantic. The reason it’s frantic is that there’s timing, and they are trying to figure out like, “How do I make sure that this is done by the time this is done, by the time that’s done?”
That’s the mental preparation that you need to do ahead of time. You need to take a step back and walk through it. I use a lot of sports analogies because I’m close to sports because of our catering company. We had a player who played for us in the Minnesota Wild for a while and who we cooked for. He would sit out on the bench before every game for an hour. He would visualize his game before he would play. I see that with a lot of athletes when we cook for them.
I see them take time to stop and visualize. From somebody who’s not understanding what they are doing, you look at them and are like, “They are sitting on the bench. They are sitting in the chair. They are sitting on their couch.” No, they are visualizing what is now going to happen. They are trying to manifest what will be the result once they get the opportunity presented to them, which is all about the mental and physical preparation for when you meet that. Cooking is the same way. It’s a physical sport that way.
You talked about timing. That is the place where the majority of us get it wrong. I was even doing it with the with the French toast because you have the French toast itself, and then you have the mascarpone, and then you also have the pecans. You are trying to get all these things ready to go. I’m thinking about timing. I feel it’s like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen. I’m at the window and it’s like, “What’s up?” In the book, you say, “Unless you are experienced, don’t try to multitask.”
When you are a young cook getting into this business, and this will happen to me still to this day. I will get a young cook to come to me and say, “Chef, I want to learn how to make X, Y, and Z.” My response is this, “Dice a shallot. Mince an onion. Julienne carrots. Show me the smallest technique that you can do that’s perfect. Let’s make sure we are on that step. If you are talking about you want to be on step 50 but you are on steps 2 through 7, let’s master 2 through 7, and then let’s go to step 8. We will get to 50.” It’s the same as the home cook. Don’t try to multitask a million things. Do it right. Be confident. That will give you confidence.
You are talking about being clean as well. This is the biggest fight in my house.
Do you wash dishes while you cook?
My wife, though, will fill the sink and say, “We will deal with it after. Let’s focus on the food.” I go crazy.
Your wife and my wife are the same. My wife will do that. She will fill the sink at breakfast. I’ve learned how to politely shush her out of the way. I’m hip checking her out of the kitchen.
I do that, too. I say, “I got it.”
I’m like, “You can’t do that. That’s not okay.”
I will come into the kitchen at lunch from my office, and there will be plates in the kitchen. The first thing I will do is clean that. We had a guy named Jason Khalipa. He’s a CrossFit champion and owns a line of gyms called NCFIT. He says it’s called the night sink. There’s a term for it. I can’t remember it. It’s this feeling of anxiety that you have if you are the type of person who can’t go to bed if there are dishes in the sink.
If there are three things of oatmeal in the sink from the morning breakfast, I’m like, “I better deep clean the sink.” It’s not even a hesitation on my end. Being clean is important in the kitchen. For me, it’s everything. Part of it starts with an early on standard. This is the professional side of me. When you start out in a kitchen, you usually start out in what would be considered a lower position, dishwashing. That is truthfully the most important position. In fact, we are sitting at Boulud Sud. At 3:00, there’s a guy that’s going to walk through this door. His name is Momo.
Momo was a dishwasher for me when I worked at Cafe Boulud several years ago. I still talk to Momo to this day. It’s such an integral part of our restaurant. If the dishwasher can’t execute the cleanliness in the organization that you need them to do, the restaurant falls apart. Your job starts there. It goes up from there. Everybody wants to come in and cook the steaks. You want to cook the steaks but why would I trust you or anybody with a $50 piece of steak if you can’t take care of arugula salad.
I should disclose that I started my early days of work at Friendly’s when I was a freshman in high school, washing dishes and as an ice cream scooper there. In college, I worked at California Pizza Kitchen in Boston. The first person that I would tip out every night would be the dishwasher. As the bartender there, I was only as good as that dishwasher being able to keep me stocked and ready to go.
If you don’t have the glasses, you are not selling. That’s the whole thing. That’s all about keeping clean.
You said, “I put as much thought and attention into setting the dinner table as I do preparing the food that will be served on it.” I watched your TEDx Talk on Creating Majestic Moments. You said, “Creating a majestic moment is one of the hardest things to do.” You mentioned that many people try to create that majestic moment through the food but it’s much broader than that. Can you define the majestic moment and why it’s important?
A lot about it is listening to, watching, and understanding how you can deliver a moment to a guest that they didn’t expect ever to receive. An example I will use, and I use this in the TEDx Talk, is that a guest might, especially in New York but even Minnesota traffic is bad. You have a 6:00 PM reservation. You don’t get here until 6:25. Even if you are a person who might be usually be 5 or 10 minutes late, or if you are a person who always is habitually on time or even 3, 4, 5 minutes early, being 25 minutes late, it’s disruptive. You walk into the restaurant with your shoulders, and your neck is tight, and you feel a sense of guilt and shame that you’ve shown up 25 minutes late for something that you shouldn’t have shown up late for.
You rationalize it with yourself like, “The doctor is never on time. The dentist is never on time.” You rationalize yourself with all these things. We are not any of those things. The seats that you are sitting in, that’s real estate. We want to take care of you but in two hours, there’s a new guest who we need to take care of. Now it changes the respect.
What I said is not ever something that should be felt by the guest. What should be felt is that they walk in, you see their seized-up shoulder, and you reassure them everything is going to be okay. Give them a glass of champagne. Give them a martini. Whatever you want. I don’t care. Let them know that, “It’s okay that that happened. We are still going to make the next two hours of your life majestic. Allow us that opportunity and release yourself from it.”
What’s the clean slate moment?
The idea of being in the clean slate moment for us is being able to look at the guest. Even at home, when I’m at home with my family and start everybody off from scratch. We go to eat, and we have this preconceived notion of how things should be. We start to judge it. Demi, our restaurant, is good at the clean slate moment because we never tell you what you are going to eat. We never tell you how many courses it’s going to be. We don’t do that because of two reasons. If we tell you what the menu is ahead of time, you will judge it prior to getting there.
You will already create an expectation of what you will like and what you will dislike before you even see the food. If I tell you how many courses it’s going to be, you are going to value the experience. If I tell you and your wife you are going to have a 10-course meal, at course 5, I guarantee you are counting. You are going to say, “We are five in. We have five left. Do you feel good? Are you full? Do you think it’s worth it?”
That’s going to be the whole conversation.
“We paid $250 per person for this. Do you feel like it’s worth it? We only have four courses left. Now we are on this.” What’s happened is you’ve taken away that opportunity for somebody to feel restored through that experience. Give them a clean slate. Start them from nothing.
What about the importance of the first and last impressions?
In life, that’s important too, not even in the kitchen. There are always going to be those instances where you make a great first impression and those instances where you don’t make a great first impression but you always have the last impression to make up for it. My son went through hockey trials, and my middle one did. I had to explain that it’s five sessions of tryouts. They get graded of 1 through 4 grade. He wanted to be in group one. He was in group two twice. I kept telling him, “It’s not how you start. It’s going to be how you finish in this.” Keep focusing on that. He did exactly what he wanted to do. He set three goals, and he achieved all three.There are always going to be instances where you make a great first impression and where you don't, but you always have the last impression to make up for it. Click To Tweet
You mentioned that when you opened your restaurants, you didn’t look at the press. Much of what you do is that people are critics. There are professional critics who come into a restaurant and nitpick every little thing. There’s the normal person who might, at times, be better or worse and then start posting about it. They may or may not know what they are talking about. How do you manage that?
There’s never a perfect science to that in managing it. It comes down to a bit of balance too on how much of it that you believe is to be true. For me, when I read through a lot of those things, what I’m looking for is I’m looking for a trend. I’m looking for a common denominator. If I read the one-off, “I hated this restaurant because the lighting was bad,” and I’ve read it 3 times in 8 years, I’m not too worried about the lighting. If I read it 3 times in 3 weeks, I’m going to look at the lighting. It’s more of a common denominator. You need to pull away. It’s hard to take away the personal side of it because it feels personal. When anybody critiques what you are doing, it feels personal.
You are investing. It’s not a 30 or 40-hour a week thing. You invested in this 100% all the time.
It’s time, money, and people. One of the things that are often not spoken about is that if I’m the chef and the owner of my restaurants, my face is the face of those restaurants. I get that but there are a lot of people that lift those restaurants and then make those restaurants great that are not me. In fact, there are over 130 of those people that do that. When you get a critique that’s not good, that’s where the personal side hurts because you are like, “You upset somebody who I care deeply about. I know you said you don’t like me but I can get over that.”
It’s all the people who are coming at me. Look here now. We got here at 11:00, and there were already 5, 6 or 7 people here. They are already putting in the work. It doesn’t even open here until 5:00.
They are prepping for dinner, that we are not going to start until 8:00.
It’s all day. The last question is, why do you cook at home? Your vision for, At Home came during the COVID pandemic when everything shifted, and you started these remote classes and these live streaming these cooking classes from your kitchen. You also said that the experience of writing this book made you a better chef and a better person, and brought you closer to your family. Kids love cooking. My son has a little kitchen set. Every day he’s like, “I’m cooking.” I’m like, “What are you cooking?” He is telling you, “I’m cooking pizza. I’m cooking chicken.” It’s like, “How do you even know that?”
They love it. They run around with the pots and everything. The kitchen is also the heart of every home. It doesn’t matter how big or small your house is. It doesn’t matter how great or not great your kitchen is. It doesn’t matter who’s there. It’s seemingly almost always the first place you go, and everybody masses. There always seems to be room for one more in the kitchen. Why is that? Why do we gravitate to the kitchen?
Again, there’s a bit of nostalgia there that brings us back to when we were younger and what that meant for us when we were kids. Seeing the gift of giving is powerful. When you can give food to your family, to your friends, to your loved ones, enjoy that food but more importantly enjoy the experience of why that food brought everybody together, there’s something that’s addicting about that. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. It’s a matter of giving and that gift that you have as a human being to give to others and what that does for somebody.Cooking is a matter of giving and that gift that you have as a human being to give to others and what that does for somebody. Click To Tweet
How have you changed at the back end of the book?
For me, how I changed was by being able to cook for my kids and my wife so much. I would be in a normal week, we will call it. I’m home 1 maybe 2 nights a week. That’s 1 or 2 nights a week that I do get to cook at home. Admittedly, there are weeks where I’m like, “I don’t want to cook tonight. Let’s order pizza. I don’t want to cook tonight. Let’s go to this restaurant and have dinner.” That happens. During the pandemic, I was home every night. I could cook every night.
What’s funny is that I started to cook at home the way that I cooked at the restaurants but I don’t have that much time. I would get home at 5:00 or 6:00 and my wife was like, “Can we have dinner at 7:00?” I’m like, “You want dinner in an hour? I need to brine the pork. I need to shave the Brussel sprouts for the salad, and then I have to make a pomegranate vinegarette.” She’s like, “Can you not do half of that and still have dinner at 7:00?”
I’m like, “I could, but why would we want half?” It helped me develop these recipes of like, “What does that look like? How can I get some of this stuff done quickly?” I will tell you, even myself, who not only wrote the recipes but also tested the recipes myself. I cook from the book still because I want to make sure that it works, that people are excited about it, and that I can teach my kids that.
I’ve got a quick hits lightning round session for you. You added a section in this book about shopping. You called it Gavin’s Commandments for Shopping. This is where the journey starts. We talked about preparation and the importance of preparation but it all starts honestly, as you rightfully say, before you even go into the store, you’ve got to be thinking about this or you are going back. Cooking almost becomes like the project that you are doing in the room of your house where you got to go to Home Depot seventeen times. You got to go back to the store a whole bunch of times if you don’t think about it.
We’ve all done that thing where you’ve gone to the grocery store, and you forgot that one thing and then your mind blocked. You are like, “I can’t make the entire dinner. I can’t make anything.” You don’t have to have the cauliflower. We can pivot. Let’s do something. It’s all good.
I’m going to throw it out. You got six of them here. I will give you the commandment, and you give me the 1, 2 lines. What does it mean, and why is it important? First one, look through the fridge, freezer, and cupboards before leaving the house.
Half the stuff you are going to buy, you already have.
Hands down, every time.
You come home, and you are like, “Did you get the tomato paste? I did. I have seventeen tubes in the pantry in case you want more.”
We were making the French toast, and I called my wife and sent her the recipe on her way home. I said, “Pick up these things. Do we have vanilla?” She said, “We have four bottles of vanilla.” We’ve done this before. Number two, don’t shop on an empty stomach.
When I taste food in my restaurants, I purposely eat lunch prior to my tasting. If you shop on an empty stomach, you are going to be frantic about what you shop for, “Tonight we are going to make the French toast.” You then are going to get there and say, “That roasted chicken in the book looks good. There’s a special on for chicken. Maybe we will get both. Let’s get both.” What happens? You make the French toast. Four days later, you are like, “Why is it smelling the fridge? We didn’t do anything with the chicken.” That’s what happens.
Third one is don’t make a shopping list. This is contrary to what I would think.
If you are following a recipe, yes, you are going to have to make a list off of it. If you go through what is in your fridge, your freezer, and your pantry, and you go to the store or a farmer’s market without a list, 9 times out of 10, you are going to walk away with enough stuff to make food for twelve. You are going to look and start to buy with some different opportunities. You are going to say, well, “Those radishes look great. This looks good.” Now you can start to piece together.
For me, I can piece together an entire meal. I never go to the grocery store with a list ever. Never once. My wife will send me a list but her list is things that we need for pack lunches, whatever, all that stuff. I show up, and Linda will say to me, “What do you want for dinner?” I’m like, “Get whatever you think, and we will figure it out.” It took years of marriage for her to finally accept that I’m never going to send her a list to say, “Here are the fifteen things that I need.” She would come home with whatever she wanted, and she’s like, “You figure it out.” I’m like, “No problem. I got it.”
The fourth one, I appreciate this one because I grew up in Rhode Island and Boston. We have many of these, especially in the Italian food section, and visit specialty shops.
We have been programmed in our American culture to go to one store for everything. It’s the supermarket. It’s unfortunate that we still think about it that way because if we were to take that little bit of a detour, it’s amazing how much more that opens you up to something else that’s out there, both culturally speaking but then also from an ingredient perspective. What I challenge people with this commandment specifically is to take something else in your life that you would go out of your way for.
What is that one thing that, no matter what, you would go out of your way for? Is it a spa treatment? Is it making sure you hit the gym because you travel a lot, and you got to make sure you hit that gym before you do your day? What is that thing that you will always do? If you can translate that same discipline into going to those specialty markets, you are going to learn about people’s stories and what they’ve brought to you. That will inspire you to be a better cook and a better person.
My mom came down for Halloween. She stopped at one of the Italian markets in Rhode Island on the way. She brought the nice thin prosciutto and the homemade mozzarella cheeseballs. We had some of it. I had it for lunch. I ate the entire ball for lunch. It was a lot. She called me at about 2:00 and said, “Make sure you eat the cheese and the prosciutto. It’s going to go bad because he makes it fresh there. It doesn’t have all this stuff that’s going to keep it, the preservatives.” I said, “Mom, I already ate it.” She said, “You ate the whole thing?” “I ate the whole thing.”
When it’s done fresh like that, it’s delicious.
You didn’t feel the process.
How many people do you know to travel to Europe, and when they come back from Europe, they often say, “The food is different. I go to France. The bread is different?” Do you know why? It’s because they made it that morning and intended to be eaten that day, not to be purchased on Monday and then eaten Friday that week. There’s a reason for that.
Sometimes two weeks later. The fifth one, ask questions.
Again, this is curiosity. Even when you are in the specialty shops, we heard this a lot when we were giving these classes for at home. People would say, “I go to the butcher shop. I don’t know what to say.” It’s like, “Ask them.” I would say, “If you want to make chicken stock, go to the butcher shop and say, ‘Do you have chicken necks and feet that I can buy?’” They will tell you yes or no.
If they tell you no, they can order it because they have all of the contacts to do that for you. I was having a conversation with a friend. He was asking me about what it is about this restaurant profession that I love. I said, “I love to serve people. It makes me happy to serve others.” When you are a butcher, if you are in a specialty store, whatever it is, your passion is to serve others. Ask them. Be curious.
Last one, don’t skip the freezer aisle.
I grew up eating the green giant spinach.
It was like a frozen brick.
I didn’t even know spinach came out of the ground until I moved to California when I was nineteen years old. I thought the Jolly Green Giant was compressed frozen spinach from some plants. I didn’t realize beets didn’t come out of a jar. It was a shock to me. As a result, we miss the frozen food section because we are like, “It’s not going to be good.” That’s not true. If you want peas and corn or strawberries in the winter, don’t buy fresh because they’ve frozen the freshest ones possible in the freezer aisle.
We are supposed to eat what’s in season, not because there is a book that tells you. You are supposed to do it because that’s when the highest nutrients of that produce or the food go into your body. That’s when it heals you the most. Go to the freezer section and get that stuff in the winter. I want to have strawberries and blueberries in the winter too but I don’t want to buy fresh ones. I will buy frozen and use it. Make a compote, make a smoothie, whatever.
You said 17% of restaurants closed in the first year. It’s a super competitive space. People have so much choice. You come to New York, and there are a hundred thousand places. On every corner, you can go to multiple ones. It’s also an industry that was most affected by COVID. We still see the impacts of that now. How do you stay competitive and at the leading edge of the industry?
Being authentic and genuine is important. I worked for Daniel for eight years. Still to this day, he’s one of my best friends. He’s a mentor of mine. He’s still the most authentic, genuine person I know. He’s also the most curious person I know. I see his restaurants still thrive and do super well. A lot of it has to do with that. You want to give genuine service and great hospitality. You want to cook delicious food and serve that to people on a nightly basis. You got to come back and do it again the next day. You got to do it the day after that. If you fake that and don’t believe in it, it’s too hard to do anything.
When you put yourself in a space that allows critics to change what it is you want to do, and you don’t have your footing, it’s not sustainable. COVID cut us at the kneecaps. It exposed us in a way that was so vulnerable. It either scared people away from the business or attracted them to the business. A lot of people stood frozen. From our perspective, our company, when we closed everything down, we kept all of our managers on and we said, “We are not going to freeze. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s talk about what sucks. Let’s talk about what our fears are, and then let’s go forward. When the train gets moving, I want to be moving with it.”
What do you tell the home cook who picks up at home and says, “I want to become the next Chef Gavin Kaysen?
It’s great. Start with the fundamentals in the discipline. A lot of what we do starts with discipline. It’s repetition. It’s doing the same thing over and over again every single day. Knowing that what you are doing is creating happiness for others. There’s an incredible children’s book called How Full Is Your Bucket? Have you ever read it?
No, I haven’t, but I got to check it out.
Pick it up. I’ve given speeches to Fortune 500 companies. I will read them this book as my opening intro. The reason I do it is because we all look for what’s the self-help. We all look for, “What does that spirit that I’m looking for? How do I become a better version of myself? What does that look like?” We buy books. We listen to podcasts. We do all sorts of different things. All of it is important. There are also children’s books that do it, and fourteen pages rhyme and have great color illustrations. That book does it. It’s How Full Is Your Bucket? When you make somebody else happy, it, in turn, makes you happy but you are doing it for a genuine purpose, not as a transaction transactional experience.
Chef, as we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things every day as core foundational tasks. Call them habits, if you will. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did these three things with the utmost precision, then they could focus their attention on more complex challenges that came their way. What are the three things that you do every day in your world to be successful?
One is routine. My first thing in creating balance and mindset. When I wake up in the morning, I lay out my day in the mindset. Routine is one of them. I go about my day with curiosity and try to have an open mind. There are a lot of things that are thrown at me on a daily basis of, what are the problems, what we are running into when I am tasked, and looking at what are the solutions, between routine and curiosity. The other thing too is the last one I would say that I probably focus on a lot is nature. I try to use nature in my day-to-day routine.
I will give you an example. I woke up. Do you know what I did for my mindfulness? I walked out to Central Park, sat for 30 minutes, and listened to the birds. I sat in the sun, closed my eyes, and took my day in. It was a way to set and balance my day. The older that I’ve gotten and the more shit I have been through, I’ve realized that those moments are important because you owe them to yourselves. You owe yourself that opportunity to say, “No, it’s okay to feel shaken now. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel,” but how do you shake that balance out? What does that look like? Those are important to me.
Routine, approach this day with curiosity and an open mind, and finding this in nature are great. We talk a lot on the show about the nine characteristics of performance that are used by Special Operations command to recruit and assess talent. We say elite performers in any industry demonstrate all nine of these, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, which you spoke a lot about, teamability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength.
Elite performers demonstrate all nine of these. Never at once. The situation that you are in will dictate which of these you have to draw on to find solutions to the problems. At the end of each one of these conversations, I think about my guest, your experience, what you are doing in the world, how you are leading, and how you are impacting the industry. I take one. For you, it’s curiosity. You’ve mentioned it a lot here.
I asked you the question of, “How do you stay ahead? How do you continue to lead?” It requires adaptability and innovation. As you also said, it requires you to care about people. You can’t care about people and their experiences if you are not curious, don’t want to know about them, and don’t want to genuinely and authentically understand what makes them happy. If you do that, you can innovate, adapt, and stay ahead of a competitive market. With a lot of people out there who are trying to get in, you’ve done that. You continue to do that. The book, At Home, is incredible. We will continue to enjoy it.
I sincerely appreciate you stopping here before you have the rest of your night. You have a big night. This has been an amazing conversation. Special thanks to the Boulud Sud staff here and Chef Boulud for taking the opportunity to let us sit here in his restaurant. Majestic moments are critical to our success as leaders. You demonstrate it in everything that you are doing. You also said, and I want to close with this, “It’s not just about hospitality and restaurants. It’s everywhere you look.” I’m making the wellington at Christmas. I know it’s in the spring but I’m doing it at Christmas.
Make the wellington for Christmas. It’s easier than what you realize.
I made one, and it took me all day.
I’m not saying it’s not going to take you all day but it’s delicious. Thanks for having me.
- Spoon and Stable
- Bellecour Bakery
- Socca Cafe
- Boulud Sud
- At Home
- @GavinKaysen – Twitter
- YouTube – The Jedburgh Podcast
- @JedburghPodcast – Twitter
- Jason Khalipa – Past Episode
- Creating Majestic Moments – YouTube
- How Full Is Your Bucket?