Ian Gray to open food truck, swears: "I'll quit or close the doors before I order from Sysco"

Categories: Interview

E. Katie Holm
Chef Ian Gray is back in the saddle after closing the Gray House last month.

When Ian Gray announced the closing of the Gray House in May, legions of fans were disappointed. Until then, it had seemed the Gray House avoided the restaurant curse afflicting 610 W. Lake St. (once occupied by Risotto, among other failed ventures). Business was solid, and Gray's $20 prix fixe was considered one of Minneapolis's best kept secrets.

See also: The Gray House in Lyn-Lake will close

A divorce and dissolved business partnership led to the Gray House's closure on July 31. But Gray is already back in the saddle. Last week, he announced his plan to debut his new food truck, the Curious Goat, in September, with longtime front-of-house manager Kiri Anderson and sous chef Jessica Knettel. The Curious Goat will park at Sociable Cider Werks, and offer a rotating menu heavy on goat, Gray's specialty.

Was it a difficult decision for you to close the Gray House, or was it a natural time to move on?

Ian Gray: It was completely a natural time to move on. There were a lot of factors that went into it. Partnerships dissolving between me and my ex-wife, dealing with the city and the whole name change (I would have had to change the name of the restaurant). The fact that I didn't have the same financing we did when we first opened, which was her father -- I didn't have the numbers to foot the bill that I did when I first opened the Gray House. The lease was up July 31 and there could've been another year, but I love to change things up. I love to try things. I keep the menu changing three to four times a week and [am] always rolling with the seasons and what's available -- why not take on something else?

What do you miss most about the Gray House, and how did you grow as a chef there?

The tap list was one of my greatest learning experiences in the past two years. The craft beer scene in Minnesota is crazy. New breweries are popping up, and they're all different in their own little way.Cooking with wine, eating with wine, has always been the thing to do. Beer is [gaining] more of a presence, especially in pairings and beer dinners. I'm having a lot of fun cooking with it, with all the different varieties there are and how they can lend a hand to a variety of recipes.

How does beer manifest in your recipes?

Brining and deglazing. If a brewer is brewing a beer and he has hops, the more they cook, they tend to get more bitter. That flavor -- when you reduce beer -- gets really strong and can either help you or hurt you. At the Gray House, it really helped a lot of dishes and would balance out meatier things, [such as] the richness of the goat or lamb we would have. We would do a lot of beer-cheese sauces and dips; the strong flavors within beer [were] rounded out by cheese.

You have an affinity for goat. With the Curious Goat, you're partnering with Singing Hills. Where and how did this love for goat products develop?

We were lucky enough to talk to Lynne [Reeck] and Kate [Wall, of Singing Hills]. Lynne's the cheesemaker. She's always at Mill City Farmers Market. I visit her all the time, and eventually she offered me, when we opened in September, she offered me a pig [Reeck and Wall purchase 12 pigs a year that they feed leftover goat whey]. We got one of those pigs, and she said, "You should try our goat. I don't know if you're interested; some people don't like it." I was all for it. I grabbed the goose and ran, and I fell in love with them. The cheese is phenomenal; their curds are out of this world, and I'm hoping their yogurt comes back.

I learned recently that there [are] dairy goats and meat goats, and they obviously buy a breed that are more dairy intentional. They are dairy goats, and they only store so much fat, so [the meat] is very lean and sweet.

Has your partnership with Singing Hills been instrumental in creating the Curious Goat? How goat-centric will the menu be?

Kiri Anderson and Jessica Knettel [are the people] I'm doing this with. We've worked together for four years, and we all have this mentality about food. I was adamant at both [Trattoria] Tosca and the Gray House that I'll quit or close the doors before I order from Sysco. Singing Hills and Star Thrower [Farm] -- that's where we'll be getting our lamb, and some of our sheep's milk cheese -- they [embody our belief] that from day one to the last day, animals [should be] loved, cared for, and if they are taken to market, it's for a reason.

What does the menu look like?

We're starting with something that's approachable. We're going to be getting lamb from Star Thrower, goat from Singing Hills, beef from Peterson Limousin [Farms], pork from Little Foot Farm in Afton. I'm still looking for chicken, because Kadejan is not taking new accounts. Callister is doing too much wholesale, at least through pricing, and their production is more [toward] eggs.

We're going to have house-made sausage, tacos, some kind of pulled sandwich, and those will rotate. One week it will be goat sausage, pork tacos, and lamb pulled sandwich. Two weeks later, it will be goat tacos, lamb sausage, and beef pulled sandwich. We'll have fried curds that we'll rotate with the seasons on what they're tossed in. I'm hoping to start with an apple cider reduction using the Sociable Cider. We'll always have a vegan/vegetarian option, which won't mean "We'll always have smoked tofu." Vegans get bored with "I guess I'll have the tofu dish." We'll have seasonal vegetables, seasonal salad, and we're going to rotate through kettle chips [and] french fries. We don't really want to do french fries, but at the same time, I can't think of a single food truck that's doing the double-dip, house-made fries like [Cafe] Lurcat fries or 112. That'll be something people fall in love with. We have a lot of ideas that we want to do, and this is the menu we developed for the city and the license.

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