Questioning Your Menu—Every Day

By

Caroline Hatchett
Chef Gavin Kaysen on the ICC Main Stage
Chef Gavin Kaysen on the ICC Main Stage

More than a restaurant, Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable is an incubator for collaboration, teaching, and forging a new identity for Midwestern cuisine. Kaysen’s team has put together an 80- to 90-page culture manual for new hires; they close for 10 days a year; they’ve eliminated the terms front-of-house and back-of-house to foster unity; and his kitchen staff has created a set of standards that all dishes must live up to. “We give cooks a lot of power, a lot of voice,” says Kaysen, whose model charges sous chefs with dish development.

Open in Minneapolis for just over a year, Kaysen and his team are still working to find and establish Spoon and Stable’s voice—and create a set of defining dishes. “Pre-shift and post-shift, we go through a set of five questions for each dish,” says Kaysen. “We all put out that food every night, and we have to believe in every dish on the menu.”

At the 10th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress, Kaysen shared his process and the questions that are laying the foundation of his cuisine in Minneapolis.

Is the dish accessible? Can guests read and understand the wording on the menu? How can the team clearly communicate all the work and sourcing that went into making it. Dishes at Spoon and Stable are technique driven, but they’re not fussy or fancy. 

Is it true to who we are? Is it Midwestern? Kaysen & co. build dishes on the pillars of Midwestern cuisine: dairy, beef, game, grains, and vegetables. They make their own cheeses, mill their own grains, get wild rice from a traditional harvester, work with local farmers, and harvest some of their own proteins (i.e., shoot them from the sky). Dishes don’t have to be classically Midwestern (this isn’t the county fair), but the building blocks must represent the Midwestern pantry.

Is it true to our collective voice? Kaysen’s sous chefs come from a variety of backgrounds—Minneapolis restaurants, Alinea, and Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola. Only by working together, negotiating proteins and produce, and working through each dish together can they establish a consistent voice for Spoon and Stable. Ultimately, the process will also help cooks find their own voice down the line.

Is it delicious? Are we really objectively tasting dishes? Kaysen admits it’s sometimes hard to get an honest answer from his sous chefs, especially if they’re opinions differ from his. But they taste everything, watch guests as they eat, and sacrifice flavor for concept or technique.

Are the cooks learning something? Whether its yogurt and bread production, or refining classic French technique, each dish needs to give cooks a new skill or serve as a springboard for new ideas. “When people leave in two or four years, they’ll be able to say they learned at Spoon and Stable. That’s what I want.” 

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