Four years ago, at the ripe old age of 27, Gavin Kaysen was selected to represent the United States in France’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition — the Olympics of the cooking world. The same year, he was named one of the country’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. And he was hired as executive chef at Café Boulud — consistently ranked among New York City’s top restaurants — by superstar restaurateur Daniel Boulud.
Since then, Kaysen has won the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year Award. He has appeared as a contestant on “The Next Iron Chef” and “Iron Chef America,” as a judge on “Top Chef” and in frequent feature spots on programs such as “Today” and “Nightline.” Just this past fall, Kaysen gave the commencement address at the Culinary Institute of America and picked vegetables with First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House garden as part of her initiative to fight childhood obesity.
To think that it all started at a Subway sandwich shop in Edina.
That’s where a 15-year-old Kaysen, who grew up in Bloomington, got his first food-industry job. Even then, he had an extraordinary knack for pleasing customers — an aptitude he attributes to making Norwegian Christmas cookies with his grandmother as a young boy and seeing the delight she took in giving them to her children and grandchildren.
“I got to know the clientele, got to know their names, what they liked, what they didn’t like,” says Kaysen, recalling his Subway days. “It got to the point where I knew so many of them that they basically didn’t have to wait in line anymore. I’d see them in the parking lot or I’d know what time they’d usually show up, and I’d make their sandwich and have it ready for them. They’d be in and out in 15 seconds.”
His budding talent was recognized by local chef George Serra, who offered Kaysen a job at his pasta restaurant next door. Kaysen still feels deeply grateful to Serra for guiding him on his first steps down his career path. “He taught me a lot about food; he taught me a lot about hospitality, a lot about creativity and imagination,” says Kaysen.
With Serra’s encouragement, Kaysen attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. School was followed by stints in the kitchens of Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley; Auberge de Lavaux in Lausanne, Switzerland; and L’Escargot in London, under famed chef Marco Pierre White.
But Kaysen really started earning recognition for his considerable culinary talent while working at El Bizcocho in San Diego. It was during that sojourn that he was chosen to represent the United States in the Bocuse d’Or. His mentor in the pursuit of that arduous goal was Daniel Boulud, who, less than a year after the competition, called Kaysen to offer him his current job.
While he acknowledges that New York City is a major change of pace from sedate Minnesota and mellow San Diego, Kaysen seems to take it in stride. “I’m still the same person, with the same values that I was taught growing up in Minnesota,” he says. Whatever he’s doing, it appears to be working. Last year, when a New York Post reporter asked five of New York’s top chefs to name an up-and-coming chef most likely to join their ranks, two of them picked Kaysen.
So where does a 31-year-old who’s already accomplished so much go from here? “I carry a list of goals in my wallet,” says Kaysen. “I change and update them as I go. But I firmly believe that putting a bull’s-eye target on those goals is what has helped me accomplish a lot of them.”
One possible entry on his bucket list might get people back home salivating: “I’ve always had a dream in the back of my mind to open up a restaurant in Minneapolis because it’s my hometown,” he says. “I think that would be awesome.”
Gavin Kaysen’s Food File
What He Likes To Cook At Home: “I usually end up cooking one-pot dishes, whether it’s mussels or a roasted chicken in a pot with root vegetables. I usually do things that are pretty simple and, most importantly, don’t require washing a lot of dishes afterward.”
Where He Likes To Eat In Minneapolis: Corner Table, Vincent, 112 Eatery.
Where He Likes To Eat In New York City: Michael White’s restaurants Marea and Osteria Morini for Italian fare; Pulino’s for pizza; Aldea for Spanish cuisine; and Sushi Seki for sushi “after service at midnight or 1 in the morning.”