By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Many of those who make a profession out of food service and nightlife are not what you would call normal, but that may be what it takes to make it in this business. They relish odd hours and the vagaries of a salary paid in cash, flirt constantly with temptations such as alcohol or drugs, and thrive in the frenzy of the dinner rush. In the heat of passion, or something, the owner of a Dallas pizza joint once fired his pistol through the wall, much to the dismay of those in the shop next door. Another—this time the owner of a club—was exposed (literally) in a chat room video. They aren't all this crazy, but risk-taking personalities in a high stakes, adrenaline-pumping atmosphere are enough to nudge anyone a little off kilter.
"I can understand why mercenaries are the way they are," claims Marc Cassel, the celebrated chef at the hot Henderson Avenue venue, Park. "It's addictive—being in the kitchen is like being in a three-hour car wreck." The ones who stick it out grow accustomed to the craziness, going from place to place, rent to rent. Yet they eventually seek some form of permanence.
It's not surprising Jeffers and Zielke were lured into such a lifestyle.
Zielke was born in Madrid to missionary parents. His family moved to South America when he was still an infant, and he spent childhood bouncing around the Southern Hemisphere. At the age of 15, the rootless youth headed to New York with one older sibling. At 17 he was in El Paso with another sibling, hunting for work.
"We looked for the city with the biggest employment section [in its local newspaper]," he recalls. It happened to be The Dallas Morning News. By 1998 he was living in Garland, working at a Bennigan's. A year later he took a job bartending at Patrizio—and was promptly fired. He lasted a total of three weeks at Ben's Half Yard House. Over the years, while working the bar, he's dabbled in fashion (trying to peddle a line of denim in South America), real estate and contracting, never able to sit still, taking eight years to earn a bachelor's degree in marketing from University of Texas at Dallas. Zielke's big break, such as it was, came when he took a job bartending at Buddha Bar on Lovers Lane, the space now occupied by Nick Badovinus' Neighborhood Services restaurant.
That's when I first met him, in the fall of 2001, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, slinging drinks for the fickle 500—that amorphous crowd descending on newly opened clubs, then disappearing when the lure of another hot spot beckons. Despite all the Prada and BMW keychains and pretty people calling for brand-name drinks, he seemed rather down to earth. He joked about the crowd rather than being part of it and brightened at the hint of real conversation.
Buddha Bar was briefly popular though hardly reputable. When patrons ordered french fries, kitchen staff would sometimes phone up a nearby Jack in the Box, plating the fries as their own. Zielke was behind the bar one night when the entire waitstaff walked out, tired of management's shenanigans. But this brief foray into upscale bartending led him to Nikita the following year, in its time one of the city's hippest clubs, and Hotel ZaZa, still one of the city's cool spaces. For him these places were as much a curse as a blessing. A friend of Zielke's who bartended at several of the city's upscale nightclubs, once bragged to me about snorting cocaine from a stripper's chest. Sometimes Zielke would work with Adam Salazar, often touted as Dallas' best bartender and a man seemingly immune to the sting of alcohol. After close to 15 years working a succession of the hot clubs, Salazar has developed a regular following. His friends are not shy about buying him shots, and he's more than happy to return the favor, many times over.
These were Zielke's colleagues and friends as he became experienced in the trade. He even cites Salazar as one of the people he respects most, for bartending skill and rock-and-roll lifestyle. "If you're [working] at a nightclub, it's almost impossible to get through the night sober," Zielke says. "People always want to buy you a drink. If you don't accept, they feel spurned."
Recently Zielke's girlfriend chided him for those misspent years. You didn't have to keep up, she told him. You could have cut down from 12 drinks to four.
"She doesn't understand," he says with a laugh. "Working with Adam it would have been cutting down to 12."
We're sitting at Hula Hotties, an Oak Cliff diner down the road from Bolsa. Zielke now drives a safe and secure Volvo, drab, gray and underpowered. Back in the Nikita-ZaZa days, he bought a 1975 Mercedes, which, he claims, "got me a lot of pussy." He recounts nights barging the car over curbs, through bushes and against signposts while driving, heavily under the influence. Clearly impressed with German engineering, he tells how the thing kept running despite hard driving and no oil changes. The only thing that stalled the stout vehicle—momentarily—was the time a stripper poured Drano in its gas tank.