How Travail’s model is creating chefs that meet diners’ expectations face-to-face

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Dinner prep underway at Travail Kitchen & Amusements // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Ferran Adria, the father of international modernist cuisine, visited Minneapolis for the first time in October, less than 24 hours after news broke that the father of the modern Minneapolis restaurant scene, La Belle Vie, would close its doors later that month. It was an auspicious coincidence that left us wondering about the expectation we have for modern high-end dining. As appetites for unique dining experiences soar, what it takes for restaurants to create those experiences is growing more difficult to sustain. Increased competition, antagonistic legislation, and a cook shortage all make it clear that the business of dining isn’t getting any easier.

We sat down with the chef-owners of Travail Kitchen & Amusements in those same 24 hours. Given the mounting pressure in the Minnesota food scene, who better to talk with than James Winberg, Mike Brown, and Bob Gerken, creators of a unique dining model that might be perfectly suited to withstand it? Sitting in the middle of their did-it-themselves dining room, the three men alternately mowed down breakfast, sorted bills, and greeted a new apprentice visiting from Portugal.

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L to R: James Winberg, Mike Brown, and Bob Gerken, owners of Travail Kitchen & Amusements // Photo by Aaron Davidson

In the five years since launching Travail 1.0 with a unique cooks-as-servers staffing model, the Travail team has challenged (and bested) plenty of industry conventions. Sick of investors dictating kitchen decisions, they put funding in the hands of their dining community with a Kickstarter campaign. Sensitive to complaints of long lines and ready for a more financially stable reservation system, they began selling tickets to dinner in their new building—which seemed apt, given that dinner at Travail is half performance art. All steps worked toward creating a totally different dining experience, circus-like atmosphere included.

Eating at Travail, you can feel the surge of energy even before the first sing-along begins. Your fellow diners are happy to be eating out. They’re expecting something different and are overwhelmingly in favor of being challenged. As courses parade out, the restaurant feels not unlike a camp canteen in which your cool counselor is also the cook. You’ve got the inside hook-up. Somewhere around the eleventh course, though, you realize you’re not actually sure what was in that mushroom thing, and your counselor is too busy adding to everyone else’s plate to ask, so you don’t bother. By the end, they’re onto the next service, your own 18-odd-courses reduced to a whirlwind of memory.

Now, imagine being the counselor.

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A chef prepares for the dinner crowd at Travail // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“It’s the tip of the arrow, man,” Brown says. “When you’re at work, everything is expected of you.” This sentiment becomes the theme of our interview. “The real question is how hard do you want to work?” Brown says. “Where’s your passion? If you can’t find that, then you have no business being here.”

Gauntlet thrown. And it’s a bold one in a community so hard up for line cooks. The Travail crew saw the effects of the shortage all summer, finally being forced to announce in August they were cutting service days from five to four at both of their restaurants. On the surface, it feels like a concession, leaving the restaurant dark more days of the year than open.

But it could also be seen as a shrewd business decision.

Travail and Pig Ate My Pizza, the chefs’ other entity, are making money. They’re also paying employees good wages on top of pooling tips from diners. One employee I spoke with was relieved to finally be working just one job to pay the bills, not three like he’d had to at previous line-cooking gigs. It’s a grind, but it’s a predictable grind—something almost no one else in the industry can claim. Add paid time off, and it’s almost unheard of.

The standard verbal commitment asked of a new Travail employee is a year and a half, during which the individual learns how to run a restaurant. By eliminating server-only roles and thrusting line cooks in front of guests, the Travail team exposes its employees to every aspect of the place. They’re given a rare opportunity: the chance to comprehend the business from every angle, just as Brown, Winberg, and Gerken had to do during the early days. Menu planning, price-outs, tasks usually reserved for senior-level chefs: it’s all fair game. Perhaps most important of the bunch is that the task of selling a dish to a customer, the heart of every server/cook battle since the beginning of time, is now solely the job of its creator.

“I think it makes them a better cook,” Brown says, referring to the practice of getting cooks in front of guests. “I’d maybe go so far as to say it makes them a better person.”

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A chef prepares for the dinner crowd at Travail // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The culture of celebrity chefs is careening the whole industry toward public interaction whether we like it or not, and Travail’s business model prepares cooks for this new era of connecting food to diners. Their dining room is far from the vision of perfect white linens we’ve come to associate with boundary-pushing restaurants. But what if it’s more resilient? What if La Belle Vie’s demise was a clarion call for a shift in business model—a nudge for others to take a chance?

At a time when hiring feels stopgap at best, the idea of teaching the ropes of restaurateurship and work ethic to every employee is at once daunting and necessary. As Brown says, Travail follows this model so that when employees “move forward they can teach people the same thing [and] have drive to not accept mediocrity in their restaurant.” It’s an insurance policy for a future of good food in the Twin Cities. It’s a risk and a time investment, yes, but the payoff is essential.

 
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