Travail Kitchen and Amusements chef and co-owner Bob Gerken credits the Springfield-style cashew chicken, invented in his home state of Missouri, as the inspiration for the restaurant.
The main course that Gerken grew up with is a deep-fried variation on an original recipe created by an enterprising Chinese immigrant in the 1950s. His version became so popular that dozens of small, family-run Chinese restaurants popped up in the area.
“My friend’s parents owned some of these places, made money from this dish and lived very well,” he said. “Besides, it was so great that we could come in and eat for free.”
Gerken was also influenced by his Filipina mother, who cooked from scratch every day: Midwestern staples such as steak and mashed potatoes for her American husband and four children, as well as her favorite foods—fish, rice, homemade pickles, and stir-fry. .
The wisdom of the kitchen table
But it’s his father, Bob Sr., or “Big Bob” as he’s called, a low-key electrical engineer, who gets credit for getting Gerken into culinary school. “He brought the registration papers to my room and said, ‘Let’s fill them out right now,'” says Gerken. “I’m not sure if I would have achieved it otherwise.”
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona, Gerken spent time in kitchens in Arizona and Missouri (including a year of front-of-house work to overcome his shyness and better understand hospitality and operations) before landing in Minneapolis. . He opened Travail in 2010 with fellow chefs Mike Brown and James Winberg.
Their innovative concept and cuisine – gourmet multi-course meals prepared and served by chefs in a casual, fun atmosphere – have become the most popular ticket in town (literally, since entry requires a ticket), and the trio have received several James Beard Awards nominations. . More recently, Gerken, Brown and Winberg have extended their success to personalized dining and events, the Nouvelle Brewing pub/brewery near their Travail restaurant in downtown Robbinsdale, and the Dream Creamery, an ice cream, burger and fries concept in northeast Minneapolis.
Travail team members have also been early advocates of pay equity at the front and back of the house, and last year, when they faced a workforce shortage, began a two-year junior chef training program for high school students. “We just keep doing what makes sense to us,” Gerken said.
Gerken met his life partner, consumer strategy consultant Jen Olson, at Travail in 2011. She was a regular at a short-lived dinner at the restaurant.
“My high point was when Bob brought mashed potatoes. I said it tasted like Joel Robuchon, and it was,” she said. Since then, they have been together, and in 2016 they had a son, Rhys.
During the pandemic, the family, including Olson’s mother, Jan, who lives with them, downsized the 5,700-square-foot home in St. Louis Park. “Things were uncertain with both of our businesses, and the house was just too big,” Olson said.
They found their new home in Minnetonka, a small 1980s two-story house nestled in almost an acre of woodland with nature views from nearly every window. The house was in good condition, but the kitchen was redone right away, instead of waiting and doing it on the way.
“I wanted a different stove,” said Gerken, who talks about the benefits of induction over gas, steam, and convection, as well as what microwave ovens (popcorn) are good for.
Gerken and Olson also wanted to update the space’s outdated finishes and improve functionality for everyday family life and parties.
Since the kitchen was already open to the family room and had a decent working triangle, the couple focused their budget on new appliances and custom cabinetry – extending them to the ceiling for more storage, making room for a new wine cooler and adding a garage for appliances. for storing small gadgets. They also replaced the cabinets with drawers on the island and got rid of the kitchen sink to make more space.
Although Gerken’s dream oven was not in the plan (it cost $40,000), he found something satisfying – an Ilve gas stove with six burners, a wok stove, a flat lid, two ovens, and a spit. This is the center of the kitchen, especially when a couple is having fun.
“A lot of our friends are chefs, so it’s not just Bob who cooks,” says Olson.
Gerken incorporated the principles of his restaurant’s cuisine into the layout; frequently used items are at arm’s length and there is room for everything to keep counters clean and uncluttered.
As much as Olson took the advice of the professionals on the design of their space, she didn’t want it to look like a Gerken restaurant kitchen.
“It’s easy to get into work mode — efficiency, speed, accuracy — especially when you’re doing the same kind of activity,” Olson said. “But we need our Bob, not a ‘work Bob’ when we’re at home.”
She collaborated with interior designer Jennifer Davis to select a soft, natural palette that includes red oak slab cabinetry and white oak flooring in the kitchen and adjoining living room. The atmosphere is modern, calm and relaxed.
Chefs in the kitchen
Gerken prepares most of the family’s meals from Sunday to Tuesday when the restaurant is closed. Like any busy parent, he keeps things simple and uses as few pans as possible. And although “home Bob” is more relaxed than “work Bob”, he is still a chef, and the family eats well.
For a recent dinner, Gerken made slow sautéed chicken thighs, steamed vegetables, cilantro-lime rice, and strawberries-lime.
“The skin becomes so fresh,” Gerken enthuses about the rendering technique.
Five-year-old Rice has begun to take an interest in helping cut, stir and squeeze limes, and he has even started creating his own cheese dishes.
When Gerken is at the restaurant Wednesday through Saturday, the family eats out, orders food or sticks to proven recipes, Olson said.
“My mom makes the best stuffed peppers with cauliflower rice, and I make the world famous salad,” she said. “We do our best, but Bob definitely cooks in the family.”