Travail Kitchen and Amusements chef and co-owner Bob Gerken credits Springfield-style cashew chicken, invented in his home state of Missouri, for inspiring him to open a restaurant.
A staple where Gerken grew up, the dish is a deep-fried riff on the original recipe created by an enterprising Chinese immigrant in the 1950s. His version became so popular that it spawned dozens of small mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants in the area.
“My friend’s parents owned some of these places, made money off this dish, and had really good lives,” he said. “Plus, it was so cool that we could walk in and eat for free.”
Gerken was also influenced by his Filipino mother, who cooked from scratch every day: Midwest staples like steak and mashed potatoes for her American husband and four kids, plus the food she loved — fish, rice, homemade pickles and stir-fries.
Kitchen table wisdom
But it’s his dad, Bob Sr., or “Big Bob,” as they call him, a reserved electrical engineer, who gets credit for Gerken making it to culinary school. “He brought the registration paperwork to my room and said, ‘Let’s fill this out right now,'” says Gerken. “I’m not sure I would have gotten it done otherwise.”
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz., Gerken spent time in kitchens in Arizona and Missouri (including a year working the front of the house 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 — multicourse fine dining prepared and served by chefs in a casual, fun atmosphere — became the hottest ticket in town (literally, since admission requires a ticket) and the trio have received multiple James Beard Awards nominations. More recently, Gerken, Brown and Winberg have extended their success into custom catering and events, a brewpub called Nouvelle Brewing not far from their Travail restaurant in downtown Robbinsdale, and Dream Creamery, an ice cream, burger and fries concept in northeast Minneapolis.
Travail team members were also early champions of pay equality for the front and back of the house and, last year when they faced a labor shortage, started a two-year young chef training program apprenticeship for high schoolers. “We just keep doing what makes sense to us,” said Gerken.
Gerken met his life partner, consumer strategy consultant Jen Olson, at Travail in 2011. She was a regular at the restaurant’s short-lived lunch service.
“My starring moment was when Bob brought out mashed potatoes. I said they tasted like Joël Robuchon’s and they were,” she said. They’ve been together since and welcomed son Rhys in 2016.
During the pandemic, the family, including Olson’s mother, Jan, who lives with them, downsized from a sprawling 5,700-square-foot house in St. Louis Park. “Things were uncertain with both of our businesses and the house was just too big,” said Olson.
They found their new home in Minnetonka — a smaller 1980s two-story on nearly an acre of woods with nature views from almost every window. The house was in good shape, but they remodeled the kitchen right away instead of waiting and doing it down the road.
“I wanted a different stove,” said Gerken, who waxes about the merits of induction vs. gas, steam and convection, and what microwave ovens are good for (popcorn).
Gerken and Olson also wanted to refresh the dated finishes in the space and improve the functionality for everyday family life and parties.
Since the kitchen was already open to the family room and had a decent work 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 fridge and adding an appliance garage for storing small gadgets. They also switched out cabinets for drawers in the island and got rid of the prep sink to provide more counter space.
Although Gerken’s dream stove wasn’t in the cards (it cost $40,000), he found something satisfactory — an Ilve six-burner gas range with a wok piece, flat top, two ovens and a rotisserie. It’s the hub of the kitchen, especially when the couple entertain.
“Lots of our friends are chefs, so it’s never just Bob cooking,” Olson said.
Gerken incorporated principles from his restaurant kitchen into the layout; frequently used items are no more than a step away from arm’s length, and there’s a place for everything so counters can stay clean and uncluttered.
As much as Olson embraced incorporating pro tips to design their space, she didn’t want it to look like Gerken’s restaurant kitchen.
“It’s easy to creep into work mode — efficiency, speed, precision — especially when you’re doing the same kind of activities,” Olson said. “But we want our Bob, not ‘work Bob’ when we’re home.”
She collaborated with interior designer Jennifer Davis to select a soft, natural palette that includes red oak slab cabinets and white oak flooring throughout the kitchen and adjoining family room. The vibe is modern, calm and casual.
Cooks in the kitchen
Gerken does most of the cooking for the family Sunday through Tuesday when the restaurant is closed. Like any busy parent, he tries to keep it simple and uses as few pans as possible. And even though “at home Bob” is more relaxed than “work Bob,” he’s still a chef and the family eats well.
For a recent dinner, Gerken prepared slowly rendered chicken thighs, sauteed vegetables, cilantro-lime rice and strawberries with lime.
“The skin gets so crisp,” Gerken enthused of the rendering technique.
Five-year-old Rhys has begun to show an interest and helps with chopping, stirring and squeezing limes, and he has even started creating his own cheese-forward dishes.
When Gerken is at the restaurant, Wednesday through Saturday, Olson said the family eats out, orders in or sticks to cooking tried-and-true recipes.
“My mom makes the best stuffed peppers with cauliflower rice and I make a world-famous salad,” she said. “We do our best, but Bob is definitely the cook in the family.”