When Gavin Kaysen announced in March that he would leave his longtime position as Café Boulud's executive chef to open his own restaurant, plenty of people in the restaurant industry — and those who watch it — were surprised. As Daniel Boulud's right-hand man, Mr. Kaysen was a player in one of the most successful restaurant empires in New York.
But the bigger surprise was where Mr. Kaysen, 35, planned to open his restaurant, Merchant: not in Manhattan or Brooklyn but in Minneapolis, his hometown. A chef with no shortage of opportunities in New York had decided to leave.
"I had some people ask me candidly, 'Why? Why leave New York? Why move there?' " Mr. Kaysen said.
Traditionally, chefs trained in New York and then stayed, with the goal of running big kitchens or opening their own places. Yes, there have always been chefs who have left, for reasons that are familiar to New Yorkers of any profession: to have more space for children, or to be closer to family (the reason Mr. Kaysen gave) or to have a nicer life at a far lesser cost. But if making it in New York was viewed as the ultimate measure of success, then leaving was something of a rogue move, maybe even an admission of defeat.
No more. Smaller cities are increasingly attractive for New York chefs; they find savvy audiences who support innovative restaurants. It's yet another sign of the change in food culture in the last decade, in which people everywhere are more interested in where ingredients come from and the creative possibilities of how they are prepared.
"I just can't believe how well you can eat anywhere," said Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation. "It's really amazing."
The departure of celebrated young chefs like Mr. Kaysen; Peter Serpico, the former chef de cuisine of Momofuku Ko, who left to open a restaurant in Philadelphia last year with the restaurateur Stephen Starr; and Eli Kulp, the former chef de cuisine at Torrisi Italian Specialties, who left for Philadelphia, too, also suggests that the American restaurant industry is now less about running your own kitchen in New York.
"There's a lot of other places that are excited to have new restaurants and creative young chefs," said the chef Sara Kramer. "Why fight so hard to be in New York?"
Ms. Kramer, 28, is a native New Yorker who won acclaim for her cooking at Glasserie in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She recently left to open a restaurant and falafel shop in Los Angeles, a city with a stellar restaurant scene, but one that has not been as competitive as New York's. She said she was lured by the weather, the quality of local ingredients and a sense of opportunity in the developing downtown.
"I didn't have the same need to prove myself," she said. "I feel really confident to be able to go somewhere else and know that my skill set is viable and that I'm a good addition to the community."
The benefits may extend beyond a better lifestyle and a different palette of ingredients with which to cook. There can be less competition (wanting "to be bigger fish in a smaller pond," said Mr. Serpico, 32) and possibly less demanding diners.
"I'm still trying to find my voice when it comes to food," Mr. Serpico said. "Coming to a city like Philadelphia helps with that. I think that pressure is pressure — there's always going to be pressure — there are food writers and Yelpers everywhere. It's just different. There are less food writers, and that helps with the pressure part. People seem to be pretty happy that we're in the neighborhood, in the city, because we're doing something a little bit different."
Far from rendering themselves less relevant by stepping away from the spotlight of New York, chefs may raise their profiles even higher, which is what Mr. Davis predicted for Mr. Kaysen.
"Strategically, it's a brilliant thing to do," he said. "I think he is going to be even more embraced and seen in the news."
(And leaving doesn't mean you can't come back. A representative for Mr. Starr said that he and Mr. Serpico have discussed opening another restaurant — this one in New York.)
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For chefs who are promising but less accomplished professionally, leaving may be their best chance at making the economics of their lives and restaurants work.
"A lot of us are cooking for little to no money," said John Hall, 33, who said the monthly mortgage on his house in his native Birmingham, Ala., where he moved two years ago, is $200 less than his rent for a room in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
What has changed significantly is the audience that greets chefs elsewhere. In the past, people dined at high-end restaurants to celebrate an occasion, Mr. Davis said; it was a sign of status, not an opportunity to explore flavors.
"Now people go to restaurants to see what chefs are doing," he said. "They are putting themselves in the hands of chefs in a way that allows chefs to be creative."
He attributed the shift to the explosion of food media and social media: "People are aware and engaged and Instagramming."
In turn, many chefs do not set out to replicate the New York restaurant experience, but instead embrace the ingredients and food traditions of their new surroundings. When Ryan Brazeal, 37, an alumnus of Má Pêche and Nobu 57, opened Novel last August in Kansas City, Mo., he was initially besieged by "local cognoscenti" familiar with the Momofuku restaurant group (which includes Má Pêche).
"There was a lot of talk at first that I was trying to bring New York to Kansas City: 'Where's the pork buns and ramen?' " he said. "But I always said I wanted to bring my experience and integrate it into the food scene here."
At Novel, he uses foraged ingredients on his menu, which includes dishes like duck neck dumplings.
New York kitchens are notoriously cutthroat training grounds; Mr. Kaysen said he saw his move to Minneapolis as a way to bring his expertise elsewhere.
"Chefs like myself, who have trained in New York and all over the world, can bring their talent home to train other cooks," he said, noting that he has received résumés from Minnesotans cooking throughout the country who wanted to join his team. "I'm excited to do it. I feel like I can have longer arms, if that makes sense."
Mr. Hall, who worked at Per Se and Gramercy Tavern before opening the pizzeria Post Office Pies in Birmingham, said, "Every person that leaves has made the industry just a little bit better."
He said the country craves the kind of casual but sophisticated restaurants, like the Momofuku restaurants and the Spotted Pig, that have proliferated in New York. "That's where you're going to see a lot of chefs crush it," he said.
Opening a restaurant in a smaller city is not necessarily easier. Finding high-quality staff can be a challenge, and gone are the foot traffic and conveniences of a 24-hour city. Mr. Hall, whose restaurant is in a more industrial area of Birmingham, estimated that 80 to 90 percent of his customers drive there. While he and Mr. Brazeal fill their dining rooms on the weekends, weeknights are a different story.
"Kansas City people have cars and refrigerators and kids," said Mr. Brazeal, making them less likely than most New Yorkers to dine out during the week. But he was prepared. "In my business plan, I had anticipated not filling up when I wrote the hypothetical numbers," he said. "It's pretty much in line with what I expected."
While Mr. Brazeal thought he could have opened something in New York, "it wouldn't have been as successful," he said. "If I dropped the restaurant in New York it would have been a dime a dozen."
-- By Rebecca Flint Marx of The New York Times