Northeasterners cook Yankee pot roast. Jewish brisket and most beef daubes in New Orleans are pot roast by other names. But to many who grew up in America’s heartland, pot roast tastes and smells of home.
MINNEAPOLIS — Pot roast was one of the first dishes chef Gavin Kaysen learned to cook, if you can call it cooking. The recipe he used as a teenager growing up in Bloomington, Minn., required no culinary training.
“I’d just Crock-Pot it,” Kaysen said. He then mimicked the act of pouring packaged beef stock into a slow cooker and grinned.
Kaysen had just slid a more technically advanced pot roast into the oven in the open kitchen at Spoon and Stable, the restaurant he opened in Minneapolis in late 2014 to much anticipation. “I can’t wait for that gravy,” he said.
Northeasterners cook Yankee pot roast. Jewish brisket and most beef daube in New Orleans are pot roast by other names. But to many who grew up in America’s heartland, pot roast tastes and smells of home.
Comprising little more than a large cut of beef (chuck roast is common), onions, root vegetables and braising liquid, pot roast has none of the meddling influence of haute cuisine.
Kaysen sums up the dish as simply “meat and potatoes.” Growing up, he said, “It was my favorite thing to eat.”
Pot roast shares virtues with many dishes that have enjoyed the validation of ambitious chefs. The meat is texturally similar to the tougher cuts of meat (beef short ribs, lamb and veal shanks) that chefs love to cook until the flesh falls from the bone. The vegetables hold their shape, but are somehow softer than those served mashed or puréed.
The consistency of the cooking liquid depends on the recipe. Those that don’t call for flour tend to yield something like consommé, while those that do fall somewhere between beef gravy and demi-glace.
That liquid is what captures the heart of many pot-roast fans. It tastes restorative, akin to the current appeal of bone broth.
Yet he did not intend to make pot roast when he returned home after cooking all over the world, at least not for paying customers. The first drafts of the menu at Spoon and Stable featured clear nods to the region: Canadian bison, cheese curds in the creamed spinach, dill-cured salmon.
But pot roast was not in the mix because Kaysen feared that a dish commonly associated with slow cookers and bouillon cubes would hurt his bid for local acceptance.
“I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, this New York chef comes home and only cooks what he thinks we like to eat, which is pot roast,’ ” Kaysen said. “I didn’t want to offend people.”
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A little history here to explain Kaysen’s anxiety: He left Minnesota for culinary school at 20. The appeal of pot roast is linked to comfort-food predictability and ease of preparation. The young Kaysen sought adventure. He got that and more working in respected restaurant kitchens in Switzerland, London and California, and later under the wing of Daniel Boulud in New York.
When Kaysen, now 36, returned to the Twin Cities in 2014, it was as one of the most impressively credentialed culinary talents ever to set down roots in his hometown. Advance expectations for Spoon and Stable were stoked by Kaysen’s résumé, highlighted by a seven-year run as executive chef at Café Boulud and his success, as both contestant and coach, at the Bocuse d’Or, the French cooking competition named for legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
The very accomplishments that would seem to guarantee his success in this relatively small market also gave the native son pause. Kaysen feared that the hype surrounding his homecoming (Spoon and Stable was fully booked through its first two months before it opened) could alienate a population with a reputation for prizing modesty and recoiling from East Coast exceptionalism.
“I thought people were going to be offended by the pot roast,” he said, “but they went crazy for it.”
On a whim, Kaysen included a version of his grandmother’s pot roast on Spoon and Stable’s pre-opening menu. It departed from traditional pot roast in satisfyingly upscale ways. The vegetable sides — chanterelle mushrooms, pommes purée, parsley root cooked in milk and then sautéed — owed as much to the influence of Boulud, his mentor, as that of Dorothy Kaysen, his grandmother. The gravy was silken and redolent of rosemary; the beef spoon-tender.
Instead of chuck, the cut favored by most home cooks including Dorothy, Kaysen uses a richer-flavored shoulder cut the French call paleron and butchers here often call a flat iron roast.
“It’s got this really fantastic tendon that runs right in the middle of it,” Kaysen said, drawing a knife’s blade across the length of a raw roast. “If you cook it down enough, the tendon almost turns into, like, a marrow.” He beamed at the thought. “At Café Boulud, whenever we made pot au feu, we’d always use this paleron.”
Considering his globe-hopping past, it’s not surprising that he defines Midwestern cuisine broadly. He believes his food is reflective of an increasingly diverse and urbane Midwest. It has to be, the chef suggests, given that he’s a Midwesterner working collaboratively with a mostly Midwestern staff.
“Before we put a new dish on the menu,” Kaysen said, “we ask ourselves: ‘Is it accessible? Is it true to who we are? Is it our collective voice?’ ”
Kaysen appears younger than he is, which, coupled with a deal-closing smile and an impulse toward self-effacement, creates the impression of someone who can charm his way into opportunities where his reach exceeds his grasp. He had already completed his first year at the New England Culinary Institute, having talked his way into an internship normally reserved for second-year students, when he realized he was getting a little ahead of himself.
“I had no idea what foie gras was,” he said. “I didn’t know beets came out of the ground and not out of a can.”
After his stint working in Europe, Kaysen landed at El Bizcocho, a restaurant in San Diego, rising to executive chef after just seven months. He ultimately crossed paths with Boulud, who offered him a job as executive sous-chef at Daniel. Kaysen accepted, only to discover a better job waiting for him in New York.
“I surprised him and I said, ‘We have something else to propose to you,’ ” Boulud said. Andrew Carmellini had recently resigned his position running the kitchen at Café Boulud, and Boulud offered it to Kaysen. “I always had trust in Gavin,” Boulud said. “He’s impressive. And I wanted to get him out of San Diego. I thought his talent needed to be nurtured in a bigger city.”
Quality-of-life considerations influenced Kaysen’s decision to return home. He settled with his wife and children in a suburb with well-regarded public schools.
His presence in Minneapolis also brought fringe benefits to the city. Kaysen paved the way for the return of Christopher Nye, a fellow Minnesotan who had been working for chef Fabio Trabocchi in Washington, and is now Spoon and Stable’s chef de cuisine. Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse, all Spoon and Stable investors, appeared at the restaurant on opening day.
Kaysen recently announced the Synergy Series, a string of special dinners featuring top-shelf guest chefs from New York. The first season’s lineup: Michael White, Michael Anthony, April Bloomfield and Boulud.
“One of Gavin’s greatest strengths is his Rolodex,” Nelson said. “He’s really well connected, and I think that’s really good for the city.”
His return to Minnesota could turn out to be really good for pot roast, too. The dish hasn’t been widely embraced by Twin Cities restaurants, although there are signs its star is rising.
In his book “The Food Lab,” J. Kenji López-Alt hails pot roast as superior to boeuf bourguignon. Stephen Stryjewski calls the beef daube he serves at Cochon, his Cajun-influenced restaurant in New Orleans, “New Orleans’ version of pot roast.” Joseph Lenn, the former chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., braises a stewed lamb neck so reminiscent of his mother’s pot roast that he’s considering renaming it when he writes the menu for the restaurant he plans to open in Knoxville, Tenn., later this year.
Pot roast’s position in Spoon and Stable’s Midwestern repertoire lends the dish much deserved prestige, as does Kaysen’s now unconflicted love affair with it. With any luck, his efforts will incite other chefs to occasion a true pot roast renaissance.
“Sometimes it just takes one place to open, or one thing to happen, for people to discover what they’ve been missing,” Kaysen said.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 pound boneless beef chuck roast
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
4 tablespoons butter
2 medium red onions, cut into quarters
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
3 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 rutabaga, peeled and cut into 12 to 16 pieces, about a pound
8 cremini mushrooms, halved
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 head garlic, top cut off to expose cloves
¾ cup tomato paste
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs rosemary
1 ½ cups red wine, preferably cabernet
4 cups beef broth
1. Heat oven to 340 degrees. Season meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven, or other heavy roasting pan with a lid, over medium-high heat. Sear the meat until a dark crust forms, three to four minutes per side. Remove meat to a plate.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add butter to the pan. Melt the butter and add the vegetables, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot, until the vegetables start to color, eight to 10 minutes.
3. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until it darkens slightly, about five minutes.
4. Add bay leaves, rosemary and wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced to a thick gravy consistency, five to seven minutes.
5. Return meat to the pot. Add broth, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook for two hours, 20 minutes.
6. Let roast sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes. Remove meat to a cutting board to slice. Discard bay leaves and rosemary stems. Squeeze any garlic cloves remaining in their skins into the stew and discard the skins. Serve slices of meat in shallow bowls along with the vegetables and a generous amount of cooking liquid ladled over top.