Chef Andre Natera on the state of Dallas dining, plus three chefs he says are changing the game here
–As told to Mike Hiller
Andre Natera is a chef’s chef. He brought panache and prestige back to the Pyramid restaurant at the Fairmont before leaving a few weeks ago to “pursue other opportunities,” as they say.
So what’s he been doing? Working on those “other opportunities,” for one, and exploring many of the restaurants that he missed while at the Fairmont, for another. Natera asked if he could pen something for the Hatch. We said sure. Here he talks about the state of Dallas dining–and names three chefs who are knocking it out of Natera’s ballpark.
I’m proud of the work I did at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, where I led the culinary team. But it was time for a break. That doesn’t mean I’ve been sitting on the couch doing nothing.
Free from the constraints of running a professional kitchen for a few weeks, I’ve been able to get out and explore what’s new on the Dallas culinary scene, and I’m excited at where I think our city is headed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the SMU Friends of the Libraries series, focusing on the past, present and future of dining trends, and how important chefs have shaped those trends.
Dallas chefs have certainly left their marks. The culinary movement once heralded as “Southwestern cuisine” has its roots in Dallas with Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Avner Samuel and their “Gang of Five.” Chefs like Dean, Stephan and Kent Rathbun, whom I consider the “Big Three” around town, have built a strong foundation for our city and paved the way for chefs like me to succeed.
Because I’m a chef, I’m often asked by friends, food lovers — even other chefs — which restaurants I’d recommend. Over the last few weeks, I’ve eaten at dozens of local restaurants, and I think there’s a lot to be excited about. While I never shy away from an opportunity to see what Dean, Stephan or Kent are doing at their restaurants, I’m particularly energized at how three other chefs are molding the Dallas dining landscape with the same energy, innovation and passion as the Gang of Five mustered back in the 1980s. I’m particularly drawn to chefs who cook with impeccable technique and finesse. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud, and closer to home, chefs Matt McCallister, Bruno Davillion and John Tesar. These chefs are changing the game in Dallas dining.
Take Matt McCallister and his restaurant FT33. Here you have a restaurant that offers the complete package: ambience, music, people watching, chef actrion, and, of course, food. Matt cooks with gusto. His menu reads like an adventure, taking you around the corner and around the world with new and interesting techniques, flavors, and ingredients. I remember giving Matt a tour of our rooftop garden at the Fairmont. As we walked, he stopped, bent down, plucked out what I thought was a weed, and popped it in his mouth like the true foraging woodsman that he is. When Matt tells you he made the salad from dandelions he collected from the cracks between sidewalks, you can believe that he did. This guy knows his stuff, and the great thing is that he seems to be getting better with every dish he serves. In my opinion, the true hallmark of a great chef is his ability to perpetually refine his craft. NYC may have Wylie Dufresne and David Chang, but I think of Matt is our amalgam of both of them, mixed in with a little Sean Brock.
Bruno Davillion, who runs the restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek is another game changer. Here came a Michelin starred chef with boundless talent to a city that needed to be shaken up, and everybody took notice. Other chefs may not like to admit it, but I know I speak for them when I say we all soiled our pants more than a little bit when he arrived. The guy ran the kitchen for Alain Ducasse in Las Vegas, for God’s sake, and moves to Dallas? I’m glad he did, and the city is better for it. Dining at his Mansion restaurant is a study in refinement and classic technique, A recent tasting menu of Bruno’s blew me away with its mix of classical French and Japanese technique and style expertly applied to farm-to-table ingredients. No one is more skilled than Bruno. Having him here raises the bar for everybody else. Bruno’s food isn’t cooking; its cuisine. And it’s prepared by a chef who earned his stars and knows what it takes to keep them.
John Tesar may have vacated the Mansion on Turtle Creek under a cloud of controversy, but at least two good things resulted from his departure: Bruno took over the kitchen, and Tesar eventually made his way to Spoon, the new restaurant he just opened near Preston Hollow. Tesar and Spoon are the real deal when it comes to both cooking and dining. His technique and style are impeccable, resulting in a sort of brilliance on the plate. So, too, is his ability to finesse flavor combinations that rate high on the Delicious Meter. His cooking is straightforward, free from manipulations and gimmicks that sometimes plague less skilled chefs. One of the smartest things I’ve seen on a menu in a long time is Spoon’s category of “simple fish.” You name the cooking technique– grilled, broiled, sautéed, whatever you want– and he’ll execute it. No tricks, just simple fish. Here is a chef mature enough to know that he lives in two worlds at the same time. One of those worlds is inhabited by people who consider themselves “foodies,” and who like to eat at chef-driven restaurants, yet order a Caesar salad and a ribeye. The other world is populated by true gourmands, those who beam with glee when they see a menu that features uni with cucumber and dashi gelee.
Yet what excites me most about the chefs is not the food on the plate but the cooks in the kitchen — who may or may not realize how lucky they are to have these talented chefs as their teachers and mentors. I’d keep my eye on those lucky ones, because they will be our next Gang of Five.