2014 Restaurateurs of the Year: Travail

Three underdog chefs + one cult following = a quarter million bucks ponied up for Travail 2.0, one of the most rock ’n’ roll fine-dining eateries in the country.

Friday night at the recently relaunched Travail Kitchen and Amusements: It’s Robbinsdale, if you can find it, and the joint is hopping. Diners started lining up outside the front door a half hour before it opened for business. The hottest restaurant in town is set up like summer camp, and they’re hoping to snag seats at one of the big communal tables. Yes, it’s don’t-hug-me Minnesota, but everyone is breaking type. Strangers are talking to each other, the staff are all acting like our best friends, and lifetimes’ worth of northern reserve are melting away like ice cubes in the craft cocktail of choice, named after Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman. 

There’s no menu, no reservations (with limited exceptions), and no wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Hell, there’s no wait staff—the chefs make the food and serve it themselves. Dinner is 10 courses, tiny tastes that often don’t look much like food at all—they’re more like exquisite little sculptures. 

Most of these courses pack as much thought and complexity of flavor as an entire meal—in one, a shot glass of consommé accompanies a slice of steak and a dollop of impossibly rich mashed potatoes. One will cause chemical steam to shoot out of my nose; another arrives on a four-foot plank covered with tin foil. It’s serious food, presented in a decidedly unserious manner. Mid-bite, a gong will sound. Take a selfie and risk being photobombed by a tattooed, beaming chef/server.

Back in the kitchen, the chefs are plating the next course with oversize tweezers, squirting meticulous drops of colored sauce one-to-a-plate as the latest dish takes shape. You’d expect this assembly-line dinner service to be the product of a dictator, some mad genius running a culinary Kremlin, but watch: The machine is democratic, an egalitarian scrum; each cook pores over his or her station without an overseer barking orders. It feels like a hive, in activity and purpose, with the three chef/owners—Mike Brown, Bob Gerken, and James Winberg—blending right in among the rest of the aproned cogs.

The first iteration of travail—lauded among Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants and its chefs, all under age 35, nominated for a James Beard Award—felt as though it came out of nowhere when it opened in 2010. Its founders were no-names on the scene, and sleepy downtown Robbinsdale wasn’t exactly synonymous with boundary-pushing dining (probably the closest thing to local cutting-edge were the saws for sale at the hardware store down the street). Just a few years prior, in fact, its owners were a motley band of college dropouts, mostly hopping from job to job—when they could get one. 

Brown, brash and outgoing, had attended Winona State to play football (“it was all that mattered to me in high school”); eventually he settled into studying studio art, with an emphasis in printmaking. But he dropped out and instead went to Le Cordon Bleu, attracted less by the food at that point than by the idea of working on a culinary team.

After earning his degree, he landed at a ho-hum Twin Cities supper club: Matty B’s, the short-lived spot owned by former Viking Matt Birk. Then he decamped to Arizona to work at a high-end restaurant, where he promptly found himself in over his head. 

“I didn’t know anything—all I knew was that if I worked as hard as I possibly could, I’d be able to do whatever they told me,” he says. “After eight or nine months, they put me on the hot line [cooking all the meat], and it was the first thing I’d ever really failed at. I got an ulcer. It was almost like a bad dream. And that was the point when I had to ask myself, Was I really going to become what I said I was going to become?”

Brown met Gerken at the Arizona restaurant; the soft-spoken Missouri native had his first restaurant job at a Shoney’s salad bar at age 16 and then, after culinary school, jumped right into fine dining and found himself going through the same wringer.

“You know something, but you also know absolutely nothing,” Gerken recalls. “I got beat up for about six months pretty hard. You’re the new guy who feels stupid, who gets screamed at. It’s something every cook goes through.”

Winberg had dropped out of the University of Minnesota Duluth after a year and headed out to the West Coast. “We were trying to make it big in the music world,” he says with laconic irony. “Living the good life the hard way.”

The would-be rock star also ended up in culinary school, where he found himself awed by the fundamental skills required even of a short-order cook in a diner. After picking up a job in a steakhouse, he got a gig with a branch of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in California’s wine country—only after tirelessly inundating the place with his resume. 

“That was the beginning of learning to be a chef,” Winberg remembers. “What it takes physically and mentally and emotionally to push through and work at a level like that—the dedication and the level of ambition. It beat some people into the ground, and they didn’t last.”

Next, Winberg co-owned a bistro in Bellingham, Washington, for three years. But even with such esteemed credentials, upon his return to Minnesota he found himself in the same situation as Brown: He was putting out feelers, was sending out resumés…but couldn’t find a job. 

The biggest events in our lives are often underpinned by luck and circumstance—at times, major changes simply happen, but after the fact we tell ourselves that we had a plan in mind throughout. Sometimes years of drifting can coalesce into a purpose that seemed to be just under the surface all along, as was the case with three fortunate chefs whose fates could just as easily not have come together.  

In 2008, Brown finally landed at Porter & Frye in downtown Minneapolis; a couple years later, so did Winberg. Chef Steven Brown (who would go on to open Tilia, and is of no relation to Mike) ran the kitchen, and staffed it with chefs who would soon be or already were on the A-list of local creative powerhouses: Doug Flicker (Piccolo), Erik Anderson (the upcoming Brut), and Landon Schoenefeld (Haute Dish) among them. 

“I gave Mike Brown a job when no one in town knew of him,” says Steven Brown. “He immediately shot to the top as a larger-than-life persona and super-creative, talented chef.”

Mike Brown calls their Porter & Frye crew “a little super-group,” and it pushed boundaries with its edible bacon paper and cheddar ice cream. But Porter & Frye’s creative spirit didn’t last, so Winberg and Brown next teamed up at Victory 44, where restaurateur Erick Harcey gave them free reign to experiment with new creations on an ever-changing tasting menu. Even more avant-garde, they did something the Twin Cities had never seen before: They dispensed with the front of the house and served what they cooked. 

“I would cook and James would serve,” Brown says. “Then I would serve and James would help me plate. We just cooked and ran everything.”

They sent for Gerken, who promptly headed north. He arrived in the dead of winter wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylors, and moved into a walk-in closet at Brown’s place furnished with an air mattress, his clothes, and a computer. (He “refused the futon,” Brown says.)

After four months, Victory 44 was a proof-of-concept for Travail, both in terms of menu and chef-driven service. They were ready to go out on their own (bringing some Victory 44 staff with them) and build on their vision of democratic fine dining in a raucously informal environment, where culinary sophistication didn’t have to equate with pretension or an eye-popping tab at the end of the night.

Travail was a cult sensation—more than merely a place where people liked to eat, it inspired loyalty for its garrulous, tattooed young staff and its never-failing sense of humor. Just as important, it rode the wave of the Twin Cities’ increasing familiarity with fine dining in the form of gastropubs and classed-up comfort food. Its trio of owner/chefs had found an alchemy that resembled a great jazz combo firing on all cylinders, or that of an open-door inventors’ workshop. 

Within a few short years, the scope of what Brown, Gerken, and Winberg wanted to achieve outstripped their space. The trio set sights on a larger building up the street, and took to the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter in search of donations. Shooting for $75,000, they ended up bringing in more than a quarter-million dollars (to the mild chagrin of Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, who wrote, “I don’t get it.”). The new Travail opened in February. The crowds returned, bigger than ever. 

“The driving force was to grow our business,” Brown says. “But obviously you want to own your own building—otherwise it’s like operating a hot dog stand. You want to start building equity. Do you want to rent your whole life?”

The old space is still under the travail umbrella as pie joint Pig Ate My Pizza. In the new building, Travail is joined by an adjacent small-plates-and-cocktails concept called the Rookery, where a chalkboard lists daily micro-plate selections. 

As they were working to build the new space, much of it with sweat equity (YouTube videos on construction techniques and copious quantities of beer were involved), Brown, Gerken, and Winberg did private events and a dim sum pop-up eatery. The opening of the new incarnation was noted by the New York Times, which hailed the use of a jokey syringe as food dispenser—but also didn’t fail to note the sophisticated use of molecular gastronomy between the laughs. 

The intensity of the Travail kitchen—the name means “work” in French—obviously rubs off on anyone who endures it: The entire staff works all-hands-on-deck during all hours of operation, Wednesday to Saturday. It’s akin to a medical residency—the hours are brutal, the demands extravagant, but it builds skills fast and the opportunities to learn are endless.

“Our goal is to train cooks to run their own restaurants,” Winberg says, explaining that the restaurant works on an egalitarian model in terms of responsibilities, duties, and wages. “Most cooks don’t have the opportunity to work the front of the house or behind the bar. If you give us a full two-year commitment here, it’s a fast track—each station in the kitchen is like being a sous chef of your own restaurant.”

Gerken sounds a more pragmatic note. “I like seeing the younger cooks grasping and growing,” he says. “I like to teach as much as possible—because I can’t do better food unless I have better cooks.”

Travail runs on hard work, dedication, and chemistry—both literally and figuratively, as exemplified by the vintage scientific centrifuge hooked up in the basement for culinary experiments. It’s also a matter of good luck that its three owners have such complementary personalities and points of view. 

“We all have the same standards,” Winberg says. “If anything, in the kitchen I bring an even keel—just keeping everything on track. Mike is like the coach. He gives this place its energy. Bob is the technician, and a really good teacher. My role is keeping the ship going in the right direction.”

Brown describes the trio’s chemistry in martial terms, with him wielding a metaphoric ax, Winberg a sword, and Gerken a spear (whatever, it kind of makes sense when you hear him say it). All three are more likely to brandish a pair of oversize tweezers to plate one of their avant-garde dishes, but no matter. They oversee one of the most remarkable restaurant operations in the country that runs with military precision, profane pep talks, and unswerving devotion to the serious business of amusement.  


In the kitchen at Travail

Travail Dining Room

In the kitchen at Travail

In the dining room at Travail

In the kitchen at Travail

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