Whatever culinary pun you want to use, Chef Gavin Kaysen has faced setbacks on “The Next Iron Chef” and the Food Olympics, so how will he fare with his biggest challenge yet: New York City?

By Michael Menta

It’s October 21, 2007 and the judges on “The Next Iron Chef” interrogate contestant Gavin Kaysen.

“I wanna know, Chef Kaysen,” asks Judge Michael Ruhlman, “Did you put any salt on the frogs’ legs?”

Kaysen pauses. “Yes,” he says.

“Really?” Ruhlman asks. He stares like a disappointed teacher.

“Yes,” Kaysen insists again.

For Ruhlman, the proof is in the unsalted amphibians. “If a guy can’t properly season his food, I’m worried about him.” Kaysen loses the challenge. He is sent home.

But Kaysen was sabotaged. Though his dish had been placed in a cooler, a storage error caused all the ice to melt. “When I opened the fridge,” recalls Kaysen, “the frogs’ legs were swimming in water.”

Two years later, Kaysen, 31, laughs. “That was a year of incredible things that had happened to me,” he says, grabbing a pinch of fancy French salt called fleur de sel. Kaysen sprinkles it over a dish of fried skate, the special tonight at Café Boulud, the Manhattan restaurant where Kaysen is executive chef. For a clumsy guy who can’t properly season, Kaysen has done pretty well for himself. How could he achieve this after the disgrace of losing a televised shot at the big time? For Kaysen, it wasn’t a competition, it was just a game.

Kaysen appeared on the first season of “The Next Iron Chef,” a reality competition show akin to “The Apprentice.” Eight chefs battled in weekly cooking challenges for the ultimate prize, to be a permanent chef on the show “Iron Chef America.” Predictably, those chefs are given the honorary title of Iron Chef, which they defend each week in one-on-one challenges from “lesser known” chefs. It’s a notable position in the world of TV cooking, but not the big time for Kaysen.

The big time had already happened to Kaysen. The first “incredible thing” of the year was his participation in the Bocuse d’Or, the Olympics of French cooking, in January 2007. The next month, he was named one of the top new chefs in America by Food and Wine Magazine. By the end of his first year in New York, Kaysen won the coveted 2008 James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef Award. As for his current position at Café Boulud, it was in the bag before the show even aired.

So why go on “The Next Iron Chef” at all?

“It was a chance to challenge my skills,” says Kaysen. Be it prestigious awards or the television honor of Iron Chef, he is always seeking out the next seal of approval. His successes have been hard won, and the failures have lingered. Traditional schooling was difficult for Kaysen, who is dyslexic, but those early academic difficulties help motivate his culinary passion. “Because he did have learning disabilities,” says his high school teacher Gregg Sawyer, “I think he’s always trying to prove to people that he’s not stupid.”

Even as he struggles, Kaysen gives off an easy-going confidence. Serious in his career, he easily jokes in the kitchen, chats with customers at their tables and is never far from flashing a mischievous grin. He’s perpetually cutting class to do something much more fun. “At the heart of Gavin Kaysen,” says Sawyer, “is a 12-year-old boy who loves to play with food.”

When Kaysen was a 12-year-old in suburban Minnesota, he had already dabbled in cooking for six years even though neither of his parents had any interest in it. He worked at an Italian restaurant throughout high school, getting pointers from George Serra, the owner and his first mentor. Kaysen likens Serra to Mickey, Rocky Balboa’s trainer: “He never wants you to see the glory of cooking,” Kaysen says. “He just wants you to do it because you love it.”

After a false start at a liberal arts college, Kaysen returned to his first love and attended the New England Culinary Institute. He never looked back. Kaysen trained with chefs in California, Switzerland and London before finally cooking for several restaurants in San Diego.

It was while working at El Bizcocho, in 2005 that Kaysen first became publicly noticed, winning several local awards. In January 2007, Kaysen competed in the the Bocuse d’Or, held biennially in Lyon, France. In five and half hours, the competitors had to create 14 servings of two different dishes for an international panel of chefs. Kaysen trained for eight months and successfully completed his dishes. But when it came time for the final garnish of his chicken dish, his fowl was nowhere to be found.

Turns out a kitchen worker had eaten the chicken. “I wanted to stab him in the face,” Kaysen said. “But at that point there was nothing I could do.”

When “The Next Iron Chef” came along, Kaysen accepted because it was “a chance to challenge my skills.” After the intensity of the Bocuse though, it was more of an opportunity to play with food.

“It was a summer camp” Kaysen says. The contestants behaved liked friends and colleagues from the beginning and even after the show, everyone remained modern pen pals. “Literally, we’d all be on our cell phones, texting each other,” laughs Kaysen about watching the episodes air.  “Like, ‘I didn’t say that,’ or ‘I was looking at the spices but they made it pretend like I was giving you some look.’ It’s funny how they edit it.”

Ultimately, the quirkiness of the experience outweighs any of the residual fame for Kaysen. “On the street nobody recognizes me,” he says.  “The whole show is in whites so you put us in street clothes and we look different. It’s like Superman and Clark Kent.”

The residual fame is also less important than the show’s relationships.  “I just have respect for all of them and that alone for me was worth going on the show,” Kaysen says, “the networking.” When the show finally aired, the contestants really had fun.

Still, Kaysen’s sous chef, Alex Martinez, notes the value of television appearances. “You see these people on TV and think, I can’t believe I’m working for these guys,” he says, “I get the same chills when I see Gavin on TV.”

Regardless, the fame is not the true measure of a chef’s success to Kaysen. “To me “it’s the legacy that a chef leaves behind,” he says, His sights today are set on two immediate goals: training chefs in his kitchen and training James Kent, sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York, for the 2011 Bocuse d’Or. “In some ways, I’m kind of in the purgatory mode,” Kaysen says. “I’m training young chefs and I’m still learning from my elders.”