Behind Gavin Kaysen: Award-Winning Chef and Vegetarian Virtuoso

Behind the Burner brings us another beacon of culinary mastery, Gavin Kaysen, a renowned chef whose vibrant vegetarian dishes are as notable as he is, and whose unique approach to simplicity brings unexpected boldness to his creations.

Currently the Executive Chef at one of New York City’s premier dining destinations, Café Bouloud, Gavin blends international flair with practical application, and shares his real world tips, tricks and secrets from the celebrated chefs and famed kitchens that he’s had the honor to grace from around the globe.  From Food and Wine’s esteemed best new chefs listing to a stint on Iron Chef and dozens of other accolades in between, this modern day renaissance chef is full of surprises, and I had the chance to sit down with the man himself to learn more about why this promising young chef is one to watch.  And why he can equip you the tools, the confidence, and the kitchen know-how for carving your own culinary visions. (Your own restaurant not required.)

Favorite indulgent food:  Rice Krispy bars that are just cooked… and still melting in my hands!

Favorite healthy food:  Healthy????  Does butter count?

One kitchen tool you can’t live without:  A spoon.

One ingredient you can’t live without:  Salt.

Most prized recipe:  I do not rely on what we have done in the past and would rather keep looking for that “prized” recipe. 

You were named one of the 10 Best Chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 2007 and recipient of the James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008. How does it feel to be recognized for your craft?

It is always an amazing feeling when you are recognized for your work in any craft.  These two awards are very different in many ways. The F&W award is given to you by the media group of American Express. Plus, you have no clue when they are coming in to taste your food.  I held on to winning this award for seven years.  When I was 20 years old, I cut out an F&W magazine cover, placed it in my wallet and pulled it out the day I won, framed it and sent it to Dana Cowin, the Editor in Chief. 

The Beard award is something of a different sort because it is your colleagues recognizing you for your work. That one blew me away because it was a goal for many years as well, and I never would have thought that it was going to happen my very first year in NYC.  But with all great awards comes more responsibility to cook great food and to keep pushing yourself to the next level. And while there is no award for that, the results can be mind blowing.  

What is your signature style that sets you apart from other chefs?

I have always been trained in a classical French cuisine setting but growing up in Minnesota I was never exposed to this kind of a world.  I think that has given me the open mind to explore the world of cuisine and keep mine French but with an added home grown twist. 

What is your most inventive dish?

I believe that the most simple can be the best.  This past spring we did a market vegetable dish.  It was zucchini, tomato, eggplant, squash, ramps, basil.  Every vegetable was treated a different way — it could have been grilled, poached, confit, pickled or pureed.  It was truly stunning to see what little you have to do to get a product shine on your plate. 

Who or what inspired you to become a chef?

I met a gentlemen by the name of George Serra when I was 15-years old and he was my inspiration.  He taught me the passion of food, how it can make people feel and the impact you have on the world with it.  He continues to inspire me everyday and I thank him weekly for the many doors he opened for me in my life, even though in his humble opinion he just showed me the doors and I blew them off the hinges. 

You’re well known for your vegetarian cuisine.  When did you start experimenting with these types of dishes?

I think this comes from being in California where you are handed produce from the farmers on a daily basis.  You see the passion in their eyes and when they hand them off to you, it is almost like they’re saying, ‘take care of my baby.’  I found it to be a great avenue to go down because there are many people out there who are not vegetarian but if they see a dish on the menu that is prepared that way and looks good, even they are excited to eat it.  Recently, I was at Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa Valley with Jeremy Fox as the Chef.  He does all vegetarian cuisine, I was simply blown away with his creations.  His soul seemed to shine through every plate and you felt a true honor of the product, that was one of the best meals of my life so far.

What advice do you have for those who want create flavorful vegetarian dishes at home?

Keep it simple and think of the main vegetable and the ‘protein’ then work your way around it from there, the results will be more than satisfying. 

Are there green elements to your cooking and food preparation?

I haven’t integrated green into my kitchen yet but is definitely another goal of mine — how to cook and please people and make it safe for the world to watch you consume it is important to me. 

Tell us a little more about Cafe Boulud and what influences your menu and specials.

Café Boulud is a direct inspiration of Daniel Boulud and what he grew up with in Lyon.  I find it also to be his playground for everything worldly.  We are able to create classical French cuisine and, on the same page, Greek or Asian-inspired dishes.  There really is no rule.  The specials are conceived with me, my sous chefs and all my cooks.  We sit down every night after service to discuss what we can do the next day.  This is the time when it gets fun because you may have someone from Korea and he wants to do Kimchi stew, then next thing you know, the recipe that he’s using is the one his mother made with him as a child.  You never stop learning. 

Did you find that your food combinations and ingredients changed when you moved from a So Cal restaurant to one in NYC? 

Yes and no, I think that, with the feel of the seasons changing, you find your food on the plate to change.  When it is summer, you want something that is clean and crisp on the plate.  When it is winter, you want something that is hearty and homey feeling.

Will you be adding any holiday specials to your menu?  What do you think makes a good holiday meal?

A good holiday meal is more than the food, it is the people you spend the holidays with.  We are thankful that we are closed for the holidays so I will be with my family.  As far as specials, my wife is from Sweden and every year during Christmas they have a drink called Glogg with gingersnap cookies and blue cheese.  It is a warm drink made with vodka, red wine, port wine and spices; it is the feeling of Christmas in a mug. We will do that here again this year.

How has your European training at Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, and under Marco Pierre White at L’Escargot in London impacted your cooking?

I think it has given me a different perspective on cooking here in the states, whenever you are removed from what is comfortable you find a challenge, and [this experience] was no different.  It was very challenging being over there because it was so different from what I knew.  But it made me a stronger cook, and overall, a much stronger person. 

You were on three episodes of The Next Iron Chef. How do you feel about cooking competitions? Do you have any desire to participate in others?

That was TV and, of course, a lot of fun.  I made many friends from doing that show and would not trade it for anything.  In fact, I filmed a new battle that will air this winter…check it out.  I also did the Bocuse d’Or competition in 2007 where I represented the US and competed internationally against 23 other countries.  It was the most challenging thing I have done in my career so far.  For now, I am helping Daniel and Thomas Keller re-shape the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation. In fact, we built one and it is amazing to see this turn into a reality!

How do you run your kitchen?  What is your one most steadfast rule?

I was brought up in a lot of yelling, and although that can be good, I prefer to teach my cooks and explain what is the difference between right and wrong in the kitchen.  I like all my cooks to shave, and have polished shoes. And if you don’t, I have a razor and polish for you!

What do you eat when you’re at home?

Very little. To be honest, I prefer to go out to eat and see what others are doing. But I can’t get my hand out of the Cheetos bag at night after service! 

Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs who want to get in the business or those who just want to cook like one? 

Get into this business because you love it, you have a passion to cook and not just a passion to be the next superstar.  You are in this business to make people happy and treat them with respect. That is what it is all about. Never forget that — and where you came from.

Gavin will also be sharing his never-before-told Braised Short Ribs recipe and other tips at Behind the Burner, your online resource for the culinary secrets of master chefs from around the world.  In addition, you can take advantage of some exciting discounts on chef-selected products to help to kick start your foray into five-star cuisine at home. Next week’s illustrious chef is Harold Dieterle, winner of Season 1 of Top Chef, and the visionary behind New York City’s Perilla Restaurant, a neighborhood gem in the heart of Greenwich Village.  And don;’t forget to check back each week to meet other food experts in our exclusive Behind the Burner series, featuring leading nutritionist Jodi Greebel, Aithor of The Little Black Apron, and chocolate conoisseur, Sarah Endline of The Sweet Riot.


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