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Chef’s Dish: Keven Kvalsten at FireLake Grill

Keven Kvalsten, executive chef at FireLake

Keven Kvalsten went to France to pursue professional bike racing, and returned with a passion for French cooking. The then-University of Minnesota student was racing as a semi-professional, without a contract and making money where he could. 

Filling in time between bike races, and in the heart of a country known for food, Kvalsten became interested in cooking almost by happenstance. 

“I traveled within France to many smaller races and got to see the country while riding,” Kvalsten says. “I rode a lot and ate a lot ... I was enamored with the culture.” 

Flash forward to the present day, and you'll find Kvalsten as the executive chef at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in downtown Minneapolis, a position he was just promoted to. 

Kvalsten’s been a cook and chef for close to 15 years, and his career in the kitchen can be traced back to college. While at the U, he accepted a job as a dishwasher at Key’s Café. He was promoted to cook when a co-worker failed to show up. 

“It wasn’t until I got back from France (that) I paid more attention,” Kvalsten says of cooking. Soon after returning home, he chose a year at Le Cordon Bleu over resuming classes at the U. He earned his culinary degree and filled his resume with stints at restaurants across Minnesota, including a stint of owning his own restaurant.  

“I just couldn’t turn work off once I left and there were many other factors aside from cooking that I had to deal with,” Kvalsten recalls. “But when we had great nights of service and my guests were happy it was all worth the hard work.”

While Kvalsten still employs techniques he learned in French cooking, he’s excited to cut his teeth on some Minnesota-style menus.

“I was kind of a Francophile, but I don’t like to admit it anymore,” Kvalsten says, citing an emphasis on fresh produce he learned from French cuisine. “With certain techniques I go back to French … My own personal stamp is really what I’ve learned in this profession from others and how I relay that into my day-to-day work.”

In charge of overseeing the menu at FireLake, Kvalsten has been looking at what local farmers and purveyors have to offer, not to mention seasonal and local specialties. 

“The venison elk would probably be my favorite,” Kvalsten says of their dishes on the Minnesota-inspired menu. “It’s simple when you look at it, but in terms of flavor we let venison stand on its own.”

Kvalsten’s personal touches at FireLake are akin to what he appreciates; keeping it simple and letting the dishes speak for themselves. 

“Everything should have a purpose,” says Kvalsten. “It’s about making ingredients stand up and shine on their own and not crowding the plate.”

For now, Kvalsten leans toward new Nordic and foraged food trends in the city starting to secure its spot on the map. “There’s a lot of good talent here, places closing and places opening,” Kvalsten says. “One of the most exciting things is the huge lack of cooks in a place that’s still growing.” 

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