Taking a stand

Rebellious Chef Danielle Custer creates a risky menu for Laurels

Plenty of women attend the prestigious CIA (that's Culinary Institute of America, the country's premier culinary training ground) in Hyde Park, just outside New York City.

But if you count the high-profile women chefs in Dallas, you won't need all your fingers. It's strange but true that although women still do most of the cooking in home kitchens, they're still second-class in professional kitchens. Alice Waters was one of the first to change that in this country--remember that her predecessor, Julia Child, was never a professional restaurant chef. Today's women chefs inherit a long tradition of misogyny from the French practitioners of haute cuisine. And in Dallas, that's been somewhat augmented and abetted by the Southern good ol' boy approach to doing bidness.

So it's refreshing to hear that one of the city's top culinary venues, Laurels, has hired a young woman, Danielle Custer, as executive chef and general manager.

Laurels itself follows in that unique Dallas tradition of fine hotel dining. In most cities, the hotels are notable for expensive but not stellar food. However, in Dallas, hotels have hired some of the finest chefs in the city and served as a culinary conduit, bringing in kitchen talent (at an enticing price) who typically establish a following, then open their own restaurants, while the hotel brings in another culinary aspirant. Dallas has been seeded with fine European restaurants this way. The Sheraton does not have quite the cachet of the Rosewood hotels, the Mansion, and the Crescent, or the patina of the Fairmont or Adolphus, but it has maintained a reputation as a multi-star dining room, even though everyone by now knows (and believes) the cliche that the higher the restaurant, the worse the food. Laurels is on the 20th floor of the Sheraton Park Central, a hotel on an island at Coit and LBJ, and it has plenty of windows to take in the longest, flattest view of Dallas from any restaurant in the city. And, unfortunately, that's the prettiest thing about the room these days--its decor is in dire need of updating. But the Sheraton has gone about things the smart way, springing for the chef first, letting her plant her culinary flag and establish the kitchen's style so the dining room can be redesigned to suit the food, so the space and her spices will segue easily into one another. Since Custer is general manager as well as executive chef, she'll have as much say over the room's style as she does over the food. The renovation is scheduled for this summer.

Custer comes to Laurels from Seattle, where she was sous chef at Fullers, working under a long line of women chefs including Monique Barbeau. Custer's specialty is predictable--when you're young, of course, the world's your oyster, and Custer wants to cook globally. It's the cook's equivalent of alternative music, the edge. She likes to consider herself a rebel, and combining four or five flavors from different countries in one dish is her chosen--I might say admitted--signature.

So it takes a while to read this menu--you have some abstract tastes to roll around on your mind's tongue. Try this--a smoked mushroom-stuffed chicken breast with coconut-orange collard greens, a spicy currant corn cake, and red mole. Do you want me to repeat that? It's the second clause about the coconut-orange collard greens that stops me cold, but you might have your own barriers. In any case, Custer has met her personal goal with this dish--I count Mexico, the American South, the tropics, and Thailand as four cuisines in this dish. Chicken breast, of course, belongs to us all; it's the Esperanto of pantry lingo. Nevertheless, we didn't order this particular dish because although Custer's personal goals may have been reached, she didn't reach the primary professional one of tempting the diner. I'm not the parent of a teenager for nothing--I have learned that there are some things it's better not to know. So if Custer wants to present a rack of lamb with licorice-and-mint jelly, I don't want to read about it first. I'd rather just order lamb and trust I'll like it. (Or, if you need to hint that more is going on, how about listing "Lamb, yadda-yadda-yadda"?)

Other things did sound tempting, though, and intriguing, too. A Dungeness crab cake was served with a drizzle of carrot-cinnamon oil, the aromatics seguing nicely into the sweetness of the shellfish. And the roasted fingerling potato and arugula salad was a dish of pure genius, ordered from sheer curiosity--none of us could imagine the smoked onion and salmon vinaigrette that seasoned it. It turned out to be a flat cake of the unstarchy potatoes and assertive arugula, warmed just enough to bring together the flavors, gentling the arugula and intensifying the potato. This was the dish that made us surrender, achieve faith, and trust our dinner to Custer, the dish that made the "Chef's Signature Menu" seem like perfect sense: a five-course meal for fifty-nine (all the prices are spelled out on this menu, another style decision). It sounds expensive until you add up the a la carte prices. My menu of duck salad (ten), and falafel-crusted salmon (twenty-eight), followed by a molten chocolate gateau (nine) came to forty-seven for three courses. And I didn't have a soup course or the intermezzo of citrus ice.

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