On the night of the auspicious presentation of the 2015 James Beard Awards, one of New York City’s most renowned chefs tweeted an accolade to his friend and protégé: “Proud of you and your team,” read Chef Daniel Boulud’s tweet to Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis.
Spoon and Stable was a finalist in two James Beard categories, for Best New Restaurant and Best Design, no small feat given the restaurant had opened in November, less than six months prior. Though he didn’t take home an award this year, Chef Kaysen won the James Beard: Rising Star Chef award in 2008 when he worked for Chef Daniel at Café Boulud in New York City.
Chef Kaysen, who graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, clocked time at some of the finest restaurants in Europe and in major U.S. cities before making the decision to return to Minnesota and open Spoon and Stable.
His decision speaks to the movement in the restaurant industry that FSR’s list of Top 100 Independent Operators has chosen to recognize: The elevation of full-service dining in cities around the country.
Granted, this is not the typical approach to naming the Top 100 independent operators. More often than not such lists are based on sales volumes, the same restaurants appear time and again, and the geographic representation is concentrated on the major metropolitan areas where—unsurprisingly—outstanding restaurants are scoring the highest sales in the industry. There could easily be a Top 100 list for New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and all of the major metropolitan areas. However, equally noteworthy are hundreds of independent restaurants around the country, many of which are helping to establish their cities as credible culinary destinations.
For the FSR 2015 list of Top 100 Indies, the major metro areas were taken out of the running, as well as markets like Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina, that are already regarded as top-tier restaurant destinations. Instead, the spotlight is on outstanding independent operators in secondary cities, markets that are fast becoming culinary meccas in their own right. Places like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle with large and vibrant populations, as well as some of the smaller but burgeoning markets like Austin, Texas; Greenville, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia.
Among this Top 100 are landmark restaurants with reputations that span decades, sometimes centuries, as well as restaurants that have yet to celebrate the first decade—in a couple of cases not even the first year—of operation. All of these restaurants have created a stir and earned accolades within their local communities, from industry professionals, and, often times, from prestigious entities like the James Beard Foundation.
The Quintessential Independent
“How do we take what we know from working in New York City and other big cities and bring that back to Minneapolis?” That was the question Chef Gavin Kaysen, 35, pondered when he decided to open Spoon and Stable. The biggest challenge, he tells FSR, was determining how to educate his team and partners.
“The diners out here are very well-educated and well-traveled; they understand delicious food and value,” Chef Kaysen says, noting the numerous Fortune 500 companies based in the state—Minnesota has 25 companies listed on the 2015 Fortune 500. “Minneapolis is a great food city and the [restaurant] landscape has changed a lot. The way people dine out and what they expect has changed. I found it to be less of a process to educate them, our guests, and more a process of educating our cooks and servers, and the farmers and purveyors.”
For starters, there simply are not as many purveyors in smaller markets as in major cities like New York, and fewer choices means less room for negotiation with the purveyors who are there. It can also make it more difficult for local farms to produce the volume needed by thriving restaurants. Kaysen’s solution: Go to the source and build partnerships.
“What’s beautiful is that we can go directly to the farmers and say ‘Hey, can we partner on this plot of land?’” That can mean considerable hands-on involvement, like when Kaysen suggested to one farmer that the restaurant purchase seeds and help with planting.
He’s taken action to build relationships with numerous farms in the region—for various forms of produce, plants, livestock, and fowl—as well as establishing a partnership with Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul, creating Spoon and Stable’s first signature beer, the Mercantile. “It was sort of a no-brainer—all these local breweries making fantastic beer, all these wonderful restaurants making fantastic food, but there was no connection between them,” Kaysen says. “We’d like to make a new beer every year, then we could bottle them and hold them in archive. Maybe on our fifth anniversary we will have a flight of beers from year one through five.”
That’s just one example of the vision and innovation Chef Kaysen is bringing to Minneapolis—and the response from diners has been enthusiastic. Reservations for prime-time seating are typically sold out two months in advance.
“A lot of times I’ll look up and the dining room is full, and it’s a Monday night in Minneapolis but we’re doing 200 covers, and I have to pinch myself that it’s mine,” he says.
But he’s quick to pass credit along to his team, and to acknowledge that success depends on the sum total of hospitality. “I’m a chef, and I’d love to tell you it’s all about my food, but my ego is not that big. It’s not really all about the food. It’s about the space, the service, the atmosphere.”
And to a large extent, it’s also about the food city that Minneapolis has become. “The restaurant landscape has changed; the way people dine out and what they expect has changed,” Kaysen explains. “The clientele has changed and their expectations are higher. They’ve moved here from New York, Chicago, other big cities, and they want to eat in a restaurant that reminds them of those experiences. There are more restaurants to choose from now, and the competition between all of the chefs has become healthier. An important aspect of creating a great food city is to create competition.”
To succeed in markets where the competitive tide is rising, Kaysen stresses the importance of training and educating cooks.
“There’s this huge national conversation around the topic of: ‘There are not enough cooks in my town. There are not enough cooks in New York; there are not enough cooks in San Francisco,’” he says.
The observations are accurate, he adds, because young cooks are choosing to stay in their home markets. But that creates both opportunity and obligation for worldly chefs like Kaysen. “We’re [in a position] to teach them, and that’s an important part of this food chain because that’s what creates a great food town.”
His hope is that in five years, maybe even sooner, some of the sous chefs he trains at Spoon and Stable will have opened their own restaurants in Minneapolis.
What he’s teaching extends beyond culinary technique; it’s a culture of hospitality that he was privileged to learn from Chef Boulud and other masters. A culture that says: “What can we do to give back to our guest in an exceptional way—beyond just the food, the wine, and the service—so that when they leave, they say: ‘That was absolutely worth a two-month wait.’”