Hacking Fine Dining
Chefs/co-owners of Travail and the Rookery, Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg are a trio to be reckoned with. In the past year, they closed the original Travail opening Pig Ate My Pizza in its place, created a dim sum pop-up in North Minneapolis, launched an epic Kickstarter campaign and reopened Travail and the Rookery in a brand new building to great acclaim. These are guys whose business model is predicated on ‘hacking’ fine dining, who are dedicated to their brand, refusing to dilute the independent renegade vibe they have carefully cultivated. And we admire that. Below, the Travail team talks about the pros and cons of crowdfunding, their collaborative style, and mixing frat-like camaraderie with fine dining tasting menus.
AndrewZimmern.com: There’s a philosophy that defines your restaurants. Can you explain it to those that haven’t experienced it?
Travail Kitchen: Fine dining frat, the kind that John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd would run. In fact if you wear a toga we will give you a free Fender [a mix of Surly’s Bender and Furious beers].
AZ.com: Haters say that this experience detracts from the food on the plate. Any truth to that?
TK: Haters are going to hate.
AZ.com: When you opened the original Travail, what were your goals and expectations? Have they changed with Travail 2.0?
TK: When we opened Travail, our goal was to make progressive food for anyone who wants to try it. With this new building we want to make a San Pellegrino ranked restaurant accessible to the same crowd. There are 30 chefs here all working 70-plus hours a week with a single goal of bringing our food and the dining experience to this level. GO TEAM!
AZ.com: Why did you decide to fund Travail via Kickstarter? What are the pros and cons of crowd-funding?
TK: As 90 percent of construction projects go, it cost more and took longer to build this building. We have never sought outside investors (in our experience this relationship often inhibits freedom) and the Kickstarter platform let us engage our fan base and involve them in our growth.
Pros are we met our goal and were able to complete the Travail & Rookery project the way we wanted to. We are so grateful to everyone who pitched in. Cons: we have now dedicated many of our days off and manpower to fulfilling all of the rewards. Which just means more hard work and that is something we are adept at handling.
AZ.com: You’re original goal was to raise $75K, yet you surpassed that in hours (eventually raising $255,669). Most fundraising like this underwhelms. What happened?
TK: We used the connection we already had with our fan base to create a rewards system that both included them in the experience and fit their needs. We viewed it as a two way street, because of our close connection with our fan base, we knew what rewards would feel meaningful and thank them for supporting the project. The call to action invited backers to develop an even deeper relationship with the restaurant.
AZ.com: At your restaurants, the chefs are the bartenders, hosts, waiters and bussers. Why choose this collaborative model? What are the advantages? Have you had a hard time finding staff that can fit the bill?
TK: The model evens the playing field, puts us all on the same page, and teaches versatility. Everybody is a part of the same team and camaraderie is built when everyone contributes at all levels. This allows us to create total connection between the chefs/cooks, bartenders, and servers. Then the magic trick we pull off, to plug that camaraderie directly into you, the diner. Which, believe it or not, is a natural occurrence with this collaborative model.
For instance a lot of great chefs can connect with the diner through their food on a meta-physical level, like the final scene of Ratatouille, by transcending them to a place of emotional connection in their own life history. In our restaurant, we practice this with our food but also with the service. We believe that the FOH system we have is built around the idea of camaraderie, togetherness and teamwork, an experience that almost everyone has had. So essentially our customer service aspect of the restaurant has the same efforts and standards as our food. This amplifies our connection a great deal. It is the riff we consistently play and refine everyday with practice and preparation.
This is a certain type of lifestyle that promotes creativity and accelerated learning on all levels, which is great for some people that want to work here and not so great for others. This also prompts us to take our extended breaks during the year to clear our minds and reconnect with our families and friends, the breaks conveniently correlate to school/work breaks (week for spring break, the month of July, a week for turkey day, and a week for Christmas). It’s an odd sense of balance but it seems to work for us.
We invite anyone with cooking experience to join the team. The only starting position we provide is a cooks position. No FOH or bartending.
AZ.com: You guys are known for progressive out-of-the-box dishes, have there been any disastrous flops? Any dishes that you were surprised went over really well?
TK: We once served live crickets in a cork-topped jar, during a mid course as a table ornament, telling people they should name their crickets and befriend them. Little did they know that at the end of their dining experience we would give them the choice of taking their named new friend home or flash freeze them in liquid nitrogen to be dipped in chocolate and eaten as their final bite. About 50 percent of the crickets lived to tell the tale.
But in all seriousness, the beauty of our service style and connection to guests allows to take feedback immediately and change dishes even in the middle of a tasting. To the point of banishing it from the menu immediately, until it can be reworked or removed.
AZ.com: How did the Umami pop-up experiment pan out in the end?
TK: It was a fun experience, we learned a lot about cooking and crafting food from other regions. We also got a chance to work with the city of Minneapolis and a variety of stellar organizations on the Northside, and got to engage with a new community. It also helped us open doors for a future project in North Minneapolis.
The concept of dim sum fits right into our style of family restaurant service and definitely broadened our horizons when it comes to tableside cart service.
AZ.com: When you’re not at work, what’s your favorite 3 places to catch a meal in the Twin Cities?
TK: Picking three favorite restaurants at this point would be like asking someone to pick their favorite child. There are too many good restaurants to choose from and it would be unfair to pick only three. But we will say this, any restaurant that is chef-owned or chef-driven and bars that are pushing cocktail boundaries will rise to the top of the list. Using that as a parameter, the Minnesota food scene is now a force to be reckoned with.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
Mike: Rotten food and condiments, because my wife and I are never home.
James: Coors Light, chorizo, bread, string cheese, pamplemousse, fish sauce and lots of condiments.
Bob: There is always cheese, cured meat, and top ramen in the pantry.