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Monday, October 20, 2014

A few dozen waiters and other newly hired staff members have assembled on the unfurnished floor of a high-ceilinged room in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. An air of nervous anticipation builds as they stand and wait. After a few minutes, a short, dark-haired man in a crisp white chef’s smock emerges from the kitchen.

“Welcome to Merchant,” Gavin Kaysen says to the staff in a warmly confident voice as he kicks off the orientation meeting. The restaurant’s owner and chef explains that the building in which they are all standing was originally a horse stable, built in 1906. He points out two antique ladders hanging on the wall, which he says he found in a Prohibition-era tunnel below the building.

Kaysen then briefly recounts the path that led him in a big circle from growing up in Bloomington to his recent return to Minnesota to open his own restaurant, starting with his first job at Subway when he was 15. “I have an actual certificate as evidence of my mastery of the art of sandwich-making,” he says with a grin. After culinary school in Vermont, his cooking career led him to Napa Valley, Switzerland, London and San Diego before he landed at Café Boulud in New York City. It was there that Kaysen cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most talented young chefs.

Next, he introduces the management team standing behind the kitchen counter: Bill Summerville, general manager and wine director; Robb Jones, bar manager; Diane Yang, pastry chef; Chris Nye, chef de cuisine; Stephen Stritch, private dining director; and Alison Arth, a San Francisco–based consultant brought in to help get the restaurant off the ground. The last three all worked with Kaysen at some point during the seven years he helmed the kitchen at Café Boulud.

Starting last May, the management team held weekly conference calls. And the biggest question they tried to answer was, How do we create a culture? Kaysen says he had a shining example in his mentor and former employer, legendary chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who stayed true to his core values even as he opened restaurants across the world.

The most important goal to accomplish before the restaurant opens to the public in four weeks is “to break that barrier of awkwardness,” Kaysen tells the staff. “I want you all to be comfortable in this space. I want you to be comfortable working with each other.”

“Building a culture is probably the hardest thing to do in a restaurant,” he says, “because it’s so fast and there are so many moving parts.”

Wednesday, October 22

The space that had been virtually empty two days earlier is now filled with freshly delivered furniture. Large upholstered booths run along one wall. Dark wood tables and chairs take up most of the rest of the dining room. A naturally contoured slab of black walnut has been installed at the kitchen counter. Electricians are hard at work, installing light fixtures.

In the back kitchen, Nye is testing recipes for bread, all of which will be made in-house. He’s armed with a measuring cup filled with sourdough starter that he brought from the East Coast.

Sous-chefs Randy Prudden and Tony Sequin are trimming artichokes and placing them in a tub to marinate. Sequin knew Kaysen from his junior-high years at Minnehaha Academy, where he was friends with Kaysen’s older brother. “Gavin was just this little shit running around,” he recalls.

“It’s amazing what he’s become.” Summerville is standing in the bar, discussing the seating policy with Arth and Stritch. Kaysen joins the discussion, which concludes with an agreement that no reservations will be taken for tables in that part of the restaurant.

“Every day there are 50 conversations like that,” Kaysen says, adding that he’s putting in 16-hour days. “Last night, we all sat at a table and ate takeout Thai food for dinner.”

He points out a slab of marble at the open kitchen counter that’s been cut down four inches because, being on the short side, he couldn’t reach over it with plates. Then Kaysen reveals a much more surprising redo: He’s decided to change the name of the restaurant.

It turns out too many eateries named Merchant already exist, he’s decided, including one as close as Madison. “I brought the whole team together last week, and I said, I think we should change the name of the restaurant,” he explains. “We’re a month away from opening, we have no signage done, we have nothing printed, we have no business cards yet — we have nothing.” The new name will be Spoon and Stable, which refers both to his well-publicized penchant for pilfering restaurant spoons as souvenirs and to the original use of the space. “For the next three months, we’ll be known as Spoon and Stable, formerly known as Merchant — we’re going to be like Prince,” Kaysen jokes.

Friday, October 24

Stacks of boxes form cardboard pyramids throughout the space. Staff members are furiously unpacking “small wares” — glasses, plates, cutlery — and hauling empty boxes out to the dumpster on the street. Kaysen is sitting at the bar with a laptop and a cell phone. Looking up, he says he just released a short video explaining the name change to the media that morning and he’s getting slammed with messages. “I’ve got three interviews before noon,” he says.

Standing nearby is Terry Kalkes, the project supervisor for the build-out. He says there are a couple things you can always count on with restaurant projects: “You show up on the first day, and you’re already two weeks behind,” and “Everything changes but the final date.” Asked if this project has gone smoothly, Kalkes says with a smile, “When do they ever?” As an example, he describes how plumbers who had to cut through a floor slab were pleased to find sand below it, apparently a holdover from the building’s stable days. But then they hit another concrete slab three inches below that. Summerville perches at a dining table, firming up his wine collection. (He prefers to call it a wine collection: “A grocery list is a list. It’s insulting to the idea of a great collection of wine.”) He first met Kaysen a year ago in New York, and “it just kind of fell together.”

Working for Kaysen is “a huge opportunity,” Summerville says, because he works at a level unmatched by anyone else in town. “I wanted to challenge myself to work with a guy like Gavin. I’ve been in this business a while, but this is like an opportunity to go to grad school. And I’ve learned so much already.”

“It’s also a great coaching opportunity for this staff coming on board,” Summerville adds. “I love bringing up the next generation. When I was coming up in this city, it was D’Amico Cucina and Goodfellow’s. And there was no collaborating; it was more competitive. I’m envious of the younger generations in the restaurant business in Minneapolis right now, because they have more opportunities, more resources and more mentors.”

Tuesday, October 28

Kaysen’s older brother, Sean, has just pulled into town after two and half days on the road, having hauled his creative contributions on a trailer all the way from Los Angeles. He and a helper already have wrestled a long walnut table he made into position in front of the retractable garage-door window that opens onto the street. A wide leaf, currently hanging down, can swing up in summer to accommodate sidewalk diners on stools; on the underside of the table are bent spoons repurposed as purse hooks. Now Sean is using a drill to screw a walnut burl tabletop to a tall metal stand for use in the bar.

Leaning against a counter are four large paintings he brought for his brother’s consideration. Sean explains that his day job is a production designer for film and commercials. “When I can’t sleep at night, I do this,” he says, gesturing toward the paintings.

Gavin’s father, a former CEO of a medical-device company, is at the restaurant, too. Congenial, with neatly groomed gray hair and a bright smile, David Kaysen says that as a young boy, Gavin liked to bake Christmas cookies with David’s mother, Dorothy. (A family-style dinner option on the menu is named for her.) “He still has her old recipe cards,” he says. “They’re all stained and bent.” When the boys got a little older, he and his wife, Nancy (the cosmo on the cocktail menu is named for her), insisted that the boys get jobs during the summer if they weren’t playing sports. One summer, Nancy asked Gavin what he was doing, and he said, “Nothing.” That’s when he got the job at Subway. David takes a lot of pride in his son’s accomplishments.

“He really uses his mentors well, in the best sense,” he says, referring, no doubt, not only to George Serra, the man who gave him his first real cooking job, but also to Boulud and Thomas Keller, the stellar chef who has worked side by side with Gavin in preparing American prospects for the Bocuse d’Or competition, the Olympics of the cuisine world. (Both Boulud and Keller are reportedly investors in Spoon and Stable, as is local luminary Andrew Zimmern.)

David says they would go to New York frequently when Gavin worked there and got to know Boulud a little. “It’s been a fun ride,” he says. He’s glad to have his son back in Minnesota with his wife and their two children. “New York is a tough city for raising kids,” says David, who still lives in the Bloomington house where he and Nancy raised their two sons.

Monday, November 3

The first sign of progress this morning is that the dumpster that had been sitting at the curb has been hauled away. A sign painter standing on a ladder next to the entrance is painting “Spoon and Stable” on the wall. Inside, the back bar is stocked with spirits, and the wine “stable” — a soaring glass enclosure rising above the dining room — is filled with bottles. On the wall hangs an assemblage consisting of two pieces of salvaged wood on which Sean has mounted dozens of his brother’s ill-gotten spoons.

In the open kitchen, 10 white-smocked cooks are hard at work, preparing dishes for a staff-serving-staff session later in the day. Steam rises out of enormous pots on the stove. Gavin is carefully slicing salmon fillets, as intensely focused as a surgeon. He moves in and out of the back kitchen, overseeing all facets of the food preparation. At one point, he says loudly with a tone of exasperation: “Guys, everybody needs to buy a pepper mill. Next time you come to the kitchen, have a fucking pepper mill.”

The wait staff starts trickling in, dressed in vests and jeans. Taking places around dining tables, they start poring over notes. Eventually, Arth and Stritch stand up and go over the agenda for the day. Arth then passes out some kind of quiz. As the staff applies itself, the room has the hushed vibe of a classroom on test day.

When everyone is finished, Summerville stands in the center of the room and calls on staff members to answer questions. “Where is tarte flambé from?” he asks. (The French region of Alsace.) “How much wine do you pour for a guest to taste?” (Three ounces.) After expounding on wine service for a while, Summerville adds a cautionary note: “We’re not here to educate, unless it’s requested,” he says. “If someone orders a tannic red wine with the scallops, don’t wince and say, ‘You sure about that?’”

Wednesday, November 5

It’s early evening, and guests are starting to arrive for the first of three friends and family soft-opening nights. The space looks transformed, like a theater set staged for a performance for the first time after a grueling series of rehearsals. The lights have been dimmed, recorded music is softly playing and a huge spray of flowers fills a built-in planter near the host station. Negroni cocktails appear at a bar table in elegant glass tumblers, cooled by a single oversize ice cube and garnished with a wide swath of orange peel. Gavin stops by for a friendly chat, appearing relieved to finally have the restaurant up and running. He says that his emails from contractors and others needing his attention have dropped from 80 a day to 40. His parents show up and take a seat at the bar, where Nancy sips one of her namesake cosmos. They occasionally pop up to greet friends at the door.

The service is warm and attentive. A glass of white wine brought to the table at room temperature is quickly whisked away, and Summerville immediately goes to check on the temperature of the wine cooler.

A starter of scallop crudo comes artfully composed on a small plate. The cool and warm flavors from the accompanying green apples and chilies create a tantalizing backdrop for the delicate raw seafood. A bowl of bucatini and clams in a sauce enriched with uni cream is the perfect comfort food.

A grilled short-ribs entrée is mildly disappointing: Though the crusty exterior is expertly seasoned, the meat is tougher than is typical for the cut. (The following evening, the dish is replaced with skirt steak on the menu.) Two desserts, a rich chocolate chiboust and a bright lemon-curd mousse, make an ideal yin-yang pairing — and a sweet finish to an extremely promising beginning.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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