January 28, 2022


Shopping Works Wonders

How Travail Is Reinventing Everything, Again

It’s a funny time, right now. It’s clear the pandemic will forever change those of us who lived through it—as surely as the Great Depression changed those who survived it and the political assassinations and societal reactions defined those living through America’s fraught 1960s. But how? How will it change us forever?

Of course, we won’t really know for years. Maybe we’ll merely be a generation that forever vigilantly washes our hands. (Food safety has improved drastically during the pandemic, with a worldwide decline in different types of foodborne illness.) Or maybe we’ll be the first generation of Americans who are as skeptical and hardened to disinformation as those living in Russian border states like Finland. Maybe we’ll see the modern equivalent of New Deal and Great Society programs, as did survivors of the Great Depression and those in the 1960s. Or maybe—and here’s a surprising option—maybe we’ll completely reimagine the relationship between restaurants, labor, and education?

All eyes on Travail, please! Travail, needless to say, has made big waves in the Minnesota food scene in the last decade. Three principal chefs started out, at their 2010 opening, as a ragtag art- and haute-cuisine-minded bunch who bet they could reinvigorate fine dining by cutting out servers, tablecloths, quiet, and formality. Instead, they built platters and tables from scratch and had chefs running derring-do bits of molecular gastronomy from a formerly run-down diner cooking line to those tables.

Liquid nitrogen burbled and cracked, smoke wafted from glasses, the dining room exploded everywhere with cries of amazement—don’t look now, there’s suddenly a charcuterie course of meats hanging on strings like grown-up bobbing for apples! It was so much fun, and so delicious, and so new, that lines formed daily and snaked down the Robbinsdale main street. Inspired, the Travailians kept nudging the model and reimagined restauranting again. They set up a Kickstarter to crowdfund a new building and introduced prepaid dinner tickets to this market.

(“Will Minnesota tolerate tickets?” I asked in these pages in 2015. Tolerate them? We’ve never looked back. One form or another of nonrefundable ticket is currently the norm at Demi, Myriel, Tenant, Kado no Mise, Alma, St. Genevieve, Sooki and Mimi, Lawless Distilling, and many others.)

After changing the local restaurant world with tickets, the Travailians showed us all what financial stability in a fine-dining restaurant could look like as they shored up the mother ship with a pizza spot (Pig Ate My Pizza), an in-house brewery, outdoor festivals (Geilfest, Parking Lot Parties), a mailing list of 20,000, and 500 annual-dues-paying members who got first crack at reservations and lots of other perks.

“Our staff is now 40 percent teenagers, 60 percent managers. half the people who work here are 20 or under.”

Mike Brown, Travail founder/co-owner

Eyeing an even bigger, better, stabler future, Travail shut down in 2019 with plans to build their second new restaurant, a pleasure dome with a full basement bar, an open rooftop, and every avant-garde chef toy they ever wanted. This move, unfortunately, might go down as the one with the worst pandemic timing in town. The chef palace ran into expensive delays, was rescheduled again and again, and eventually targeted an open date of St. Patrick’s Day 2020—the very day Minnesota bars and restaurants were closed due to the advancing pandemic.

What followed immediately became an all-too-familiar tale: layoffs of everyone but the principals. “We went from 100 employees to 15, including the three owners,” explained Travail founder and co-owner Mike Brown in a phone interview.

“The day we let everyone go, we paid them what we owed them. We also paid our taxes, and we lost $350,000 in one day,” elaborated James Winberg, another founder and co-owner, in the same conversation. “You know that saying The buck stops here? The buck stopped there.”

“The good news, I guess, is you never forget how to mash potatoes,” added Brown.

The Travailians repurposed their avant-garde and never-used cooking line and dining room for take-home meals. “We sold 1,200 Christmas dinners with potato gnocchi. I am never doing that again,” said Brown. “Twenty-five huge pots, you-can’t-put-your-arms-around-them-huge pots full of potatoes; vinyl on the dining room tables; 16,000 orders; 350,000 potato gnocchi. No one believes us, but I swear this is true. We were like an Amazon warehouse for fine potato cookery.”

Will we all remember this as the time of bobbing and weaving, managing fear and isolation and the unknown? Quite likely. And as it was in each of our houses, so it also was at Travail.

But here’s the part of the story that’s new. As they prepared for reopening, Travail hired a cook here, a cook there, but found no more. Many of their former cooks had simply moved into management teams at other restaurants or used that year-plus of downtime to begin a new career—a big setback, given most of Travail’s staff are cooks, not waiters or anything else. Further exacerbating this, local culinary schools suffered their own crisis, with the Minnesota outpost of Le Cordon Bleu, MCTC’s culinary program, and the local Art Institutes International school all having shuttered since 2015. “We hit a wall. It was dire,” recalled Brown. “It was like: What, nothing is left? Nothing is ever going to happen now? Everything is over?” You can’t just make chefs out of neighborhood teenagers, can you?

Yes—yes you can, actually. Travail posted on social media: Would any people who had completed their junior year of high school be interested in a two-year apprenticeship, earning $16 an hour, in which they’d learn all the basics of restaurant life, from how to cut an onion to how to manage your time? Mainly parents of teenagers asked for more info. Eventually, eight applicants appeared. The Young Chef Training Program was born. Travail could move forward.

“Our staff is now 40 percent teenagers, 60 percent managers,” said Brown. “Half the people who work here are 20 or under. We have had to buy a lot of size small chef coats.”

The Young Chefs spend one day a month in an official cooking school–type class learning the basics—knife skills, sauces, how to calculate how many carrots to order, and how to order them. Currently, the classes are being run by onetime Food & Wine Best New Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty, who taught for nine years at Art Institutes International and is also the parent of an apprentice. For the rest of their  time each week, the trainees do what any entry-level cook does: They peel carrots, work the line, run amuses-bouches to the table and describe them to guests.

I went on a recent Saturday night when the principal chefs all happened to be off-site at an investor dinner, and it was an unforgettable experience. Kids! Everywhere! Bringing you compressed cantaloupe with honey and black pepper. Bestowing bowls of crudités smoking with liquid nitrogen. Pouring small iron kettles of red pepper broth into a tomato filled with fresh ratatouille. Whisking away plates that once held prime rib wrapped in pastry. Yes, the evening occasionally veered into an off-kilter amateurism—but what I remember most was the way the evening also crackled with a sort of fresh hope and charm you only get at, say, a production of a play you know well that is performed by people who haven’t seen it 100 times.

“This has been awesome,” said Brown. “None of these young adults have bad habits yet from other kitchens, and if you need something done, like moving a bunch of chairs, it happens faster than you even believe possible. This program isn’t about becoming the best chef in the world; it’s about learning how to be organized, self-determined, have a sense of urgency, and know how to communicate really, really well. We say, ‘At the end of the two years, we’ll give you a recommendation for anything you want to do. If you want to be a chef, maybe go to Paris? We’ll help you set that up. If you want to go into real estate, we can help with that.’”

In my life, I have heard many, many horror stories of people saddled with culinary school debt, and it’s particularly tragic for those who eventually abandoned their career in food. This idea of teens setting out on their adult lives with experience and without debt seems like a game changer. As a mom of teenagers who was also myself once a teenage line cook who ended up outside of restaurants, I am also attuned to the part of this apprenticeship that has nothing to do with a long-term chef career.

“What we have found so far is that we’re mainly teaching life skills,” said Brown. “Oh, you? You’re a timer person, like me. Today you’re going to set 50 timers, you’re never going to burn anything because timers, and you’re never going to stop moving. You? You’re a why person, you need to know why; let’s go. If I say, ‘Everyone’s different,’ that sounds really obvious, but to get to do something about it, in a young adult’s life? I’ve been blown away. When you see someone grow in front of your eyes, you’re like, Whoa. They didn’t know anything; now they’re doing it. Coaching. Coaching is what the rest of our lives are going to be—coaching kids, coaching managers, coaching coaches. That’s what getting older means, I guess. It’s been good for us [owners], too. When you tell someone, ‘This is how you stack hotel pans,’ well, you better stack hotel pans the right way, too, because they’re watching.”

Have you noticed how often, in this late stage of the pandemic, we have this constant call-and-response in which half the people seek the new normal and the other half remind you that the old normal was full of problems? I think I speak for everyone when I say our new normal must be a better normal.

Could restaurant apprenticeships be an improved new normal in food and dining, just like ticketing has proved to be? Apprenticeships solve some part of several big problems. The bit of the labor crisis in which there are not enough trained cooks, the part of the cooking school crisis that created too much debt, the part of the education crisis relating to the fact that not everyone needs or wants to write 10-page papers on Moby Dick and use that experience to prepare for the kind of job that is perfect for people good at white-whale analysis.

If we do this, let’s not tell the French. It’s hard not to notice that Travail has essentially devised, in 2021, the exact same thing that Auguste Escoffier, born 1846, once described. The father of modern restaurants, Escoffier was the leading French chef from around 1890 through the Jazz Age, having started as an apprentice when he himself was 12. His fame prevails today because, while running the best hotels in London with squads of cooks brought over from Paris, he wrote down what he thought were best practices. He described the modern “brigade system,” which we still use today. That kitchen is roughly like an army with a general up top and various step-downs of responsibility and scope: so, an executive chef up top like a general, then a chef de cuisine, a sous-chef, a chef de partie doing something specific like sauces or pastry, commis who help the specific chefs, and, at the base of the whole system, apprentices. See any explanation of the brigade system in a modern textbook and a phrase will likely be added that restaurants in Europe have apprentices, though not those in the United States. Till now? Till the pandemic forced all of us to reexamine everything?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a decade of watching Travail, their particular blend of insight and instinct tends to be right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the pandemic, change is here, and our future is created by each new step we take. Next step: Give the teens knives?

Travail Kitchen and Amusements, 4134 Hubbard Ave. N., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131, travailkitchen.com

Originally published in the November 2021 issue.