Gavin Kaysen, Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud, is Leaving New York City. Those Who Think He’s Crazy Haven’t Been Paying Attention.
“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all–Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
NEW YORK, NY — Which is worse: having cancer or moving to Minneapolis?
OK, that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly the former is a less desirable fate. But if you were Gavin Kaysen, you might be growing confused. Ever since announcing that he would be leaving Manhattan, and a coveted gig as executive chef of Cafe Boulud, to return to his Minnesota hometown and open Merchant restaurant later this year, Gavin has been met with unconvincing smiles and artificial optimism that rival those that greet sufferers of potentially terminal illness.
“It makes me sad to think that people look me in the eye to say ‘congratulations’ and turn around and say, ‘Why he is doing that?'” Gavin wrote me during an email exchange the other day. “I know it is going to happen, and I knew it was when I made my decision to do this. But I have a hard time understanding why people ask ‘Why?'”
It’s the restaurant industry’s version of the old, myopic Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover: You don’t voluntarily leave New York, goes the conventional wisdom. You leave when you have no choice. You leave when the city’s used you up, and vice versa. When you’re too old and creaky to hack it on the line, and your ideas reek of a bygone culinary era. That‘s when you leave; not when you’re just thirty-five-years old and the favorite son of one of the world’s most successful fine-dining moguls.
The thing is, though, if you look over Gavin’s young life and career, the move was inevitable. He’s as rock solid as they come, with a steady, calming energy that’s soothing to be around, not to mention an equally remarkable wife and two beautiful kids, but he’s also been nearly as peripatetic as the most loony, self-destructive chefs you’ve ever met. The key difference, of course, is that those other types have to pull up stakes periodically, like Bruce Banner at the end of a Hulk episode, while Gavin’s done it by choice. That said, he’s sure gotten around: He was born in California, then his family moved to Chicago before settling in Minnesota when he was six. He lived there until he was nineteen, then spent time in Europe, Southern California, and Northern California, before Daniel Boulud imported him to New York City to take over the kitchen at Cafe Boulud.
“New York was a stopover for me. I never thought I’d stay seven years,” he said to me Wednesday night over dinner at Gramercy Tavern. This is Gavin’s last week on the job, and a week after that, he’ll be off to Minneapolis. And so we got together for a farewell meal. As Chef Michael Anthony and his team lavished course after course of culinary affection on him, we talked over the state of our lives and took a short stroll down memory lane, as well.
Gavin and I met when I was trailing the United States Bocuse d’Or team in 2008 and 2009 to write my book Knives at Dawn. Though technically just an adviser that year, he was the heart and soul of the US squad, and still is. He had competed in 2007 and maintained a passion for the competition that had inspired the US leadership as well as a succession of American teams. (He will also continue to coach the 2015 US team after pushing off to Minneapolis.) I’m not a huge fan of cooking competitions–my agent had to badger me for months to pursue that book concept, which was his idea–but I will pretty much do anything the Bocuse d’Or USA asks of me now that I’m not covering it. Part of that is because I feel a debt of gratitude for the access Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jerome Bocuse granted me all those years ago. But the reason I care, the reason I follow blog reports from France every other January and log on to the live stream during the competition and awards ceremony, is Gavin. The thing means so damn much to him that you simply can’t be his friend and not care about it. (It will embarrass him to learn this, but this aspect of our relationship always reminds me of Martin Landau’s “catching dreams” speech from Francis Coppola’s Tucker.)
Gavin and I have only known each other for a little more than half a decade, but in Bocuse d’Or years, that’s a lifetime. We’ve spent weeks together in Lyon around the competition, flown harrowing maneuvers through the West Virginia mountains to visit a practice at the Greenbrier the year Richard Rosendale competed, and shared a few dozen moments both hilarious and heartbreaking in between. We texted each other as he stood on stage with the team and awaited the results of James Kent’s efforts in 2011, and talked about his decision to stay on as adviser and/or coach year after year. My favorite moments have been the spontaneous ones that only rise to highlight-reel status in hindsight, such as Inauguration Day 2009: We were in Lyon together and despite the Obama-mania that had gripped France, we couldn’t find a single bar that was showing television coverage of the ceremony. We ended up sprinting back to my cramped hotel room and watching the swearing-in together, then rushing right out the door to a dinner in President Obama’s honor that Paul Bocuse himself had arranged for the team.
But my most prized Gavin memory, and the one that revealed his depth of character to me, took place around 6am on a bitterly cold January morning in Lyon, that same year I was writing my book.
The team was en route to the competition, and I needed to observe the crack-of-dawn set up of the dozen teams who would compete that day. The only way to gain entrance to the competition hall at that ungodly hour was by riding in with the US squad. Masquerading as a team member, I was in the back of the US van when it pulled away from the hotel. The rub was that when we pulled up to Paul Bocuse’s catering hall, Abbaye de Collonges, where they’d been training all week, it quickly became apparent that once their equipment was loaded into the van, there probably wasn’t going to be room for either myself or the other stowaway, photographer-anesthesiologist John Sconzo. And so, John and I stood on the edge of the driveway, shivering against the cold, and wondering how the hell we’d get back to civilization, let alone the SIRHA, the food and hospitality expo where the Bocuse d’Or was held. (The challenge was extra daunting because I don’t speak French.)
Nobody, not even the anglophilic Monsieur Paul himself, wanted the US to win more than Gavin. And so, it was remarkable when John and I noticed a little Peugeot taxi pull into the driveway, it’s headlights gleaming demonically under the hazy January dawn.
Gavin came sprinting over.
“That’s for you two,” he said. “The driver will follow us into the SIRHA.”
John and I were mindblown. Here was a guy in the midst of one of the most purposeful mornings of his life, yet he found the bandwidth to conjure up a cab for two guys who had nothing to do with his mission. That was the moment my allegiance was sealed: I was his friend for life.
I suspect lots of people have stories like that about Gavin. Comedian Martin Mull once said that, “Hollywood is like high school with money,” and I’ve long believed that the restaurant business is like high school with slightly less money. Seen through that prism, Gavin’s the student body president: he’s not the coolest, jockiest, or–at the other end of the spectrum–nerdiest, but he is liked and respected by all, and has everybody’s best interest at heart. If professional cooking had a commissioner, he’d be elected to the position on the first ballot.
I told Gavin I was going to write this post before we had dinner and we took a few minutes of our evening to roll a little tape, one last interview before he pushed off to Minneapolis, and Merchant.
About the move, he had this to say: “The first thing is, for me, it was an obvious choice, because to me home is Minneapolis. I believe that if you can take everything you know, everything you’ve ever created, everything you’ve worked so hard for, and you can bring that back home, and be equally or more successful, why wouldn’t you do it?”
It isn’t just Gavin who feels more comfortable in his home state: His wife, Linda, is from Sweden, and, says Gavin, “even the way Sweden looks compared to Minneapolis or Minnesota, is similar. Raising our kids in this city is not like anything that we grew up with. Riding a bike in the middle of the road is what we grew up with, not down a sidewalk where there’s five hundred people trying to run to the subway because they’re hungover and overslept and are late for work, and my kid’s just trying to ride a bike. That’s still absurd to me.”
But is it really as easy as he makes it sound to leave? I pressed him a little on that point. What about the risk of leaving the media spotlight that emanates from Manhattan?
He admits that the possibility of falling off the radar scares him, but is quick to add that “both you and I can name ten chefs that could be on that list of good chefs who go unnoticed, and they live here. They bust their ass in New York City. So I think the question’s irrelevant. It’s not about geography; you make out of it what you make out of it.”
In fact, though he acknowledges that he’ll have to work to stay in the limelight, Gavin feels that the move actually isn’t as radical or risky as it might have been even just a few years back: “I think the way our industry has stretched its arms, we’re allowed to leave New York City and LA and Chicago and San Francisco and go into smaller markets, which are home to us, and be successful.”
He also says that he’ll be mindful of not coming off as the New Yorker sauntering into town to show the Heartland how it’s done. Before he could speak to that further, I pointed out that while Gavin can’t help but be perceived as a New Yorker to some extent, it’s not like he’s an attitudinal, flashy guy. “I mean look at us,” I said at our table at Gramercy Tavern. “We’re married, with kids, sitting here in our Oxford shirts. We lead pretty ordinary lives at some level.”
He nodded. “There are two stories. One is the guy coming from New York City. But the real story is of the kid who grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota, next to a real tiny ski area, who left at the age of nineteen to explore the world, and is coming back home to his roots.”
As for the confused whispering that he believes has been going on behind his back, I confirmed for Gavin that it’s no figment of his imagination; people who know us to be friends have been asking me what in the world he thinks he’s doing. He gets it: “I know it’s unorthodox. I know people think I’m crazy to leave. I’m working for Daniel. I have a nice apartment. I’ve got everything you need to have to be successful. I have everything I need to stay successful. ‘Why don’t you just stay in New York City and open your own restaurant and be successful in New York City?’ I think it’s a completely valid argument, except that I don’t want to live in New York City.”
As to Merchant itself, Gavin plans to serve the same style of approachable French food he feels is his hallmark, in a setting that’s appropriately casual, both for Minneapolis and for him (e.g., no tablecloths). He’d had an eye out for a space for some time, and would go exploring during family visits, or review photos or video his father would send him. The Merchant space, he says, “is in a beautiful, old warehouse, it was a horse stable in 1906. Six-thousand-plus square feet. It’s in an area called the North Loop which is filled with old mill and factory buildings. It has tons of character. Huge ceilings, 28-feet tall. When I saw the space I instantly fell head over heels for it. It’s not around a super-busy street; it’s a very walkable area with shops and boutiques and I liked that. And then I found the investors which was obviously an important part. And once they were in place, I sat down and talked to Daniel.”
And what, if anything, will he miss when he’s away from New York?
“Probably nights like this, when I can hang out with you and have Michael Anthony cook for us on the spur of the moment on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I’m going to miss all of the people who come into the city and how often I get to see them as a result. But that will also make me work harder to maintain those relationships.”
There are New Yorkers who epitomize the city, the Lou Reeds and Andy Warhols and Ed Koches and Woody Allens, and even Gavin’s boss and mentor, Daniel Boulud. Gavin isn’t one of those outsized, only-in-New York personalities, but he’s just as valuable to those of us who live here: a beacon of sanity and perspective, the guy who’s willing to say, “Get over yourself,” or simply shake his head and say “crazy” to something ridiculous that has you all riled up because you’ve lost any sense of rationality. He’s the personification of that trip you take to your own hometown that re-calibrates your priorities, and reconnects you with your better self.
He’s a good man, and we were lucky to have him. Personally, I plan to hang onto him from afar. I’m even thinking of visiting Merchant on opening night this fall. Yeah, I know it’s in Minneapolis. You got a problem with that?