Start spreading the news: Chef Gavin Kaysen is making a brand-new start of it back in his hometown. Having definitely made it in New York, where he’s been the top toque at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud for more than six years, he’s returning to Minneapolis to start his own restaurant in the North Loop. Called Merchant, it has the potential to be a game changer for the city’s already flourishing dining scene when it opens later this year.
While other local chefs have put in time at renowned restaurants across the country, none have helmed such a high-profile kitchen over an extended period of time in the glare of the New York spotlight. And few have had the opportunity to rub shoulders on a regular basis with superstar chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud as Kaysen has, not only in his day job but also as head coach of the U.S. team competing in the Bocuse d’Or, the biennial culinary Olympics.
Kaysen’s move back to Minneapolis is the culmination of a plan he set in motion 20 years ago, around the time he got his first restaurant job. “It’s been my goal since I was 15 years old to open up a restaurant,” he says. “I actually put an age limit to it, that I would do it by the time I was 35 years old.” He’s hitting it right on the nose: He just turned 35 this spring.
George Serra, who hired a teenaged Kaysen away from a Subway shop to work as a line cook at Pasta Time in Edina, realized from the beginning that he had stumbled upon a natural talent. “The way he started learning how to sauté and how to taste and how to do things without measuring because he knows just how much needs to go in each dish — he had a passion that was amazing,” says Serra. “You cannot buy passion — you’re born with that.”
Boulud also saw something in the 28-year-old chef that convinced him to take a chance. “He was very ambitious, very driven, very organized,” he says. “He had a great respect for French cuisine yet was quite well-acquainted with other cuisine.” The wisdom of Boulud’s decision was confirmed when Kaysen received the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award less than two years later. Now that they’ve been working together for almost seven years, he says, “we don’t even have to tell each other what to do.”
“Gavin is one of those young American chefs who will continue to make American cuisine and French cuisine coexist together in a very successful way,” Boulud says.
“We’ll always be very close and in touch. He has a lot of respect for me and my organization, and we have a lot of respect for him. We’ll always be associated somehow together.”
“I kind of look at it like I got my PhD there,” Kaysen says of his tenure at Café Boulud. He points to Boulud’s innate sense of hospitality and ability to respond on the spur of a moment to customers’ desires as qualities he hopes to take away with him. “Daniel is an extremely spontaneous person, in a great way,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to work around. You see how important that spontaneity is to a guest when they might jokingly ask for something, and the next thing they know, they actually have it. It’s right there.”
The historic building Merchant will occupy has brick walls, 33-foot-high ceilings and a 90-foot skylight that runs the length of the interior. “That’s why I fell in love with it,” Kaysen says. “It already has the character that a lot of restaurants try to build into a space.”
As for the menu, “French by design and American by taste” is how Kaysen describes the guiding concept: “It will be very American in terms of how we break the rules and cross over the boundaries to redefine what French cooking is. It doesn’t need to be stuffy, it doesn’t need to have tablecloths, it doesn’t need to have a lot of service staff.”
Kaysen’s former mentor is confident that Merchant is destined to become a Minneapolis fixture. “It will be a big thing in this city — a big, big thing,” Serra says. “It’s not going to be a two-year or five-year thing. It’s going to be a long-standing relationship with the city.”