Pot roast was one of the first dishes chef Gavin Kaysen learned to cook, if you can call it cooking. The recipe he used as a teenager growing up in Bloomington, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, required no culinary training.
“I’d just Crock-Pot it,” Kaysen said. He then mimicked the act of pouring packaged beef stock into a slow cooker and grinned.
Kaysen had just slid a more technically advanced pot roast into the oven in the open kitchen at Spoon and Stable, the restaurant he opened here in late 2014 to much anticipation. “I can’t wait for that gravy,” he said.
Northeasterners cook Yankee pot roast. Jewish brisket and most beef daube in New Orleans are pot roast by other names. But to many who grew up in America’s heartland, pot roast tastes and smells of home.
Comprising little more than a large cut of beef (chuck roast is common), onions, root vegetables and braising liquid, pot roast has none of the meddling influence of haute cuisine.
“Pot roast was a dish my mother made more Sundays than I can count,” said Rick Nelson, the longtime restaurant critic and food writer at The Star Tribune, the Twin Cities’ largest newspaper, which gave Kaysen’s restaurant four stars last year. “I can picture her preparing it and putting it in the oven before going to Cross of Glory Lutheran Church. I can still remember that smell.”
Kaysen sums up the dish as simply “meat and potatoes.” Growing up, he said, “it was my favorite thing to eat.”
Growing up in the Twin Cities, I also developed an affection for pot roast, but hadn’t given the dish much thought until Kaysen recently brought it back to my attention. I’ve tested a half-dozen different recipes since our meeting late last year. The results left me convinced that pot roast is overdue for a mass reappraisal.
Pot roast shares virtues with many dishes that have enjoyed the validation of ambitious chefs. The meat is texturally similar to the tougher cuts of meat (beef short ribs, lamb and veal shanks) that chefs love to cook until the flesh falls from the bone. The vegetables hold their shape, but are somehow softer than those served mashed or puréed.
The consistency of the cooking liquid depends on the recipe. Those that don’t call for flour tend to yield something like consommé, while those that do fall somewhere between beef gravy and demi-glace.
That liquid is what captures the heart of many pot roast fans. It tastes restorative, akin to the current appeal of bone broth, and is one of the reasons Kaysen likes to eat pot roast in winter, when Midwestern hospitality boils down to “the act of bringing people together when it’s freezing outside.”
Yet he did not intend to make pot roast when he returned home after cooking all over the world, at least not for paying customers. The first drafts of the menu at Spoon and Stable featured clear nods to the region: Canadian bison, cheese curds in the creamed spinach, dill-cured salmon.
But pot roast was not in the mix because Kaysen feared that a dish commonly associated with slow cookers and bouillon cubes would hurt his bid for local acceptance.
“I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, this New York chef comes home and only cooks what he thinks we like to eat, which is pot roast,’” Kaysen said. “I didn’t want to offend people.”
A little history here to explain Kaysen’s anxiety: He left Minnesota for culinary school at 20. The appeal of pot roast is linked to comfort-food predictability and ease of preparation. The young Kaysen sought adventure. He got that and more working in respected restaurant kitchens in Switzerland, London and California, and later under the wing of Daniel Boulud in New York.
When Kaysen, now 36, returned to the Twin Cities in 2014, it was as one of the most impressively credentialed culinary talents ever to set down roots in his hometown. Advance expectations for Spoon and Stable were stoked by Kaysen’s résumé, highlighted by a seven-year run as executive chef at Café Boulud and his success, as both contestant and coach, at the Bocuse d’Or, the French cooking competition named for legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
The very accomplishments that would seem to guarantee his success in this relatively small market also gave the native son pause. Kaysen feared that the hype surrounding his homecoming (Spoon and Stable was fully booked through its first two months before it opened) could alienate a population with a reputation for prizing modesty and recoiling from East Coast exceptionalism.
“I thought people were going to be offended by the pot roast,” he said, “but they went crazy for it.”
On a whim, Kaysen included a version of his grandmother’s pot roast on Spoon and Stable’s pre-opening menu. It remained through much of the winter. I ate there on a visit home, shortly after the restaurant’s grand opening, and was as delighted by the pot roast as the locals who made it a best-seller.
Spoon and Stable’s pot roast departed from my mom’s in satisfyingly upscale ways. The vegetable sides – chanterelle mushrooms, pommes purée, parsley root cooked in milk and then sautéed – owed as much to the influence of Boulud, his mentor, as that of Dorothy Kaysen, his grandmother.
I missed mashing and then eating the unfashionably soft vegetables that emerge from a home cook’s pot (Kaysen said he feeds those to his staff), but the gravy was silken and redolent of rosemary; the beef spoon-tender.
Instead of chuck, the cut favored by most home cooks including Dorothy, Kaysen uses a richer-flavored shoulder cut the French call paleron and butchers here often call a flat iron roast.
“It’s got this really fantastic tendon that runs right in the middle of it,” Kaysen said, drawing a knife’s blade across the length of a raw roast. “If you cook it down enough, the tendon almost turns into, like, a marrow.” He beamed at the thought. “At Café Boulud, whenever we made pot au feu, we’d always use this paleron.”
Pot roast’s position in Spoon and Stable’s Midwestern repertoire lends the dish much deserved prestige, as does Kaysen’s now unconflicted love affair with it. With any luck, his efforts will incite other chefs to occasion a true pot roast renaissance.
“Sometimes it just takes one place to open, or one thing to happen, for people to discover what they’ve been missing,” Kaysen said.
Time: 3 hours.
3 pound boneless beef chuck roast
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
4 tablespoons butter
2 medium red onions, cut into quarters
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
3 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 rutabaga, peeled and cut into 12 to 16 pieces, about a pound
8 cremini mushrooms, halved
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 head garlic, top cut off to expose cloves
3/4 cup tomato paste
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs rosemary
1 1/2 cups red wine, preferably cabernet
4 cups beef broth
Heat oven to 340 degrees. Season meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven, or other heavy roasting pan with a lid, over medium-high heat. Sear the meat until a dark crust forms, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove meat to a plate.
Reduce heat to medium and add butter to the pan. Melt the butter and add the vegetables, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot, until the vegetables start to color, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until it darkens slightly, about 5 minutes.
Add bay leaves, rosemary and wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced to a thick gravy consistency, 5 to 7 minutes.
Return meat to the pot. Add broth, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook for 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Let roast sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes. Remove meat to a cutting board to slice. Discard bay leaves and rosemary stems. Squeeze any garlic cloves remaining in their skins into the stew and discard the skins. Serve slices of meat in shallow bowls along with the vegetables and a generous amount of cooking liquid ladled over top.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings