JON S. CORZINE, governor of New Jersey and a frequent patron of Café Boulud on New York’s unreservedly chic Upper East Side, occupies a table neighboring that of soon-to-resign New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who also favors the seasonal menus with specialties like winter squash agnolotti speckled with fried sage leaves, and peekytoe crab salad lacquered with clementine vinaigrette. In a quiet dining room that seats 95 at distances sufficient to shelter conversations, “power tables” are defined by their occupants. On this evening, three such tables are anchored by publisher Mort Zuckerman, TV stalwart Barbara Walters and director Mike Nichols.
“It’s fun to have them all here at once,” says Gavin Kaysen, the 28-year-old wunderkind chef who last November took the top job at New York’s seventh-best restaurant (as ranked by the Zagat Survey) after helming the kitchen at Rancho Bernardo Inn’s El Bizcocho. “It’s exciting to have a room full of celebrities,” he continues. “But it’s normal.”
Kaysen had a typical childhood of sports and snowball fights in Minnesota but nonetheless owns an acutely tuned understanding of the rituals that rule haute French restaurants. When he leaves his kitchen to greet guests like screenwriter William Goldman, who regularly hosts visiting Hollywood pals, Kaysen unfailingly wears a spotless, stiffly starched chef’s jacket and an equally snowy apron that dusts the carpet as he sweeps through the room (at 5-foot-4, he is built close to the ground).
Kaysen twice drew international attention to San Diego during his stint at El Bizcocho. In 2003, at 23, he placed second in La Trophee Internationale de Cuisine et Patisserie, the top Paris competition. In January 2007, he represented the United States at Bocuse d’Or, the biennial prestige event in Lyon that draws an international galaxy of top chefs. Kaysen placed mid-pack and may return next year.
In New York City, the people may ride through a hole in the ground, but Gavin Kaysen walks to work. Leery of the subway, he enjoys 10 minutes of fresh-air strolling to Café Boulud from the East 80th Street apartment he shares with his wife, Swedish-born Linda Kaysen, who busily pursues a career as an interior decorator. Their semicircular balcony surveys considerable territory from the 31st floor, and although it’s an ineffably urban view, Kaysen says “This little patch of balcony is our out-of-town getaway. It isn’t in New York.”
Café Boulud, on the other hand, is very much in New York, in a ZIP code known as the country’s wealthiest. Kaysen finds the restaurant’s “mise en place” (a professional cook’s kitchen setup) quite choice: It shares the ground floor of the Surrey Hotel, a gracious 1920s structure that offers mostly spacious suites and is known as a discreet Upper East Side pied-à-terre for individuals who temporarily need to vacate their Park Avenue duplexes (pending divorces are one popular reason). Central Park grows greenly one block away, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney and Guggenheim museums, countless art galleries and luxury retailers are all at hand. This is precisely the neighborhood in which Truman Capote set Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
If minor-leaguers dream of pitching for the Yankees, restaurant-rich Manhattan sings siren songs to ambitious chefs, and few among San Diego’s foodie establishment expected Kaysen to remain at El Bizcocho post–Bocuse d’Or. What they didn’t know was that he had had an offer from Daniel Boulud, chef/owner of a leading New York restaurant empire, as early as 2005. (Zagat ranks the luxurious restaurant Daniel number one for food, followed closely by Café Boulud and, somewhat farther down the list of class Big Apple joints, midtown Manhattan’s db bistro moderne, where the specialties run to a $75 truffled burger, as well as a new wine-and-charcuterie haven near Lincoln Center called Bar Boulud.)
Kaysen, who politely declined the first offer so wife Linda could conclude her studies in San Diego, accepted the position of chef at Café Boulud this past fall and since mid-November has worked from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (or later) six days a week. He doesn’t carry himself like a workaholic, but prying him from his kitchen can be a chore, even for his boss.
“I was so impressed that Gavin had the energy and talent to represent the U.S. at Bocuse d’Or,” remarks Boulud one evening when he drops by Café Boulud near the close of dinner. “I said, ‘This kid has some good genes, maybe some French genes.’ When the time came to hire a new chef for Café Boulud, I wanted a young American who has both a passion for French cuisine and understands the French mentality. I think Gavin may have been scared to come to New York, but I think he also was burning with ambition.” (Insider’s note to Monsieur Boulud: Kaysen’s fiery ambition incinerated any minor concerns about life in the big city.)
Although Kaysen is expected to follow Daniel Boulud’s four-tiered approach to menu writing——multiple lists offer traditional French, seasonal, vegetarian and international preparations——the chef has considerable latitude. Dishes can be whimsical, like an appetizer named “biscuit & gravy” that layers a slice of pork, foie gras, black truffle and creamed spinach under a coverlet of truffled brown sauce, but classic technique distinguishes seasonal selections like saddle of venison, roasted rosy rare, precisely sliced and arranged over chestnut purée with crunchy slivers of tiny Brussels sprouts.
Six days a week, Kaysen occupies seventh heaven (he also treasures spending days off with his wife), sharing the work with his staff of 19 cooks. And he doesn’t need to miss his former clientele, since, he says, “So many people from San Diego come in for dinner that I sometimes think I’m feeding more of them than when I cooked at El Bizcocho. It’s nuts, but it makes me happy.”