Last week Top Chef contestant and chef John Tesar hired an executive pastry chef for his high-end seafood restaurant in Preston Center, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. For the job, Tesar tapped David Collier, who previously worked with him at The Mansion.
Collier is moving back to Texas this month after working as the executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. In 2009 he was selected as a James Beard semifinalist for outstanding pastry chef.
Earlier this week I spoke with Collier (who is still in Virginia) and Tesar together via a phone conference. Here's most of the conversation, which covers pastries in tight spaces, reality TV, and what you can and can't duplicate.
David, are you looking forward to moving back to Texas? Collier: I really enjoyed my time there. I like the wide-open spaces. I tend to spend a lot of time outside.
When you worked at The Mansion, it was awarded two five-star reviews. Those must have been some formative years. Collier: I really felt like when I got there it was bigger than the sum of its parts. It was sort of the beginning of an awakening. We were starting to get away from heavy plates. I know there were other people there [in Dallas] starting to do interesting things, but I feel like we really picked up the flag and ran with it and helped to pull the Dallas dining scene into a modern era.
What did you learn from John during that time? Collier: I think the main thing I got was ... I really appreciated his eye. He would tell me straight-up if he liked something or not. You don't always find that and for me it was refreshing. I appreciated his openness coupled with the trust. It was: 'Here's the ball and run with it. And if you run the wrong way, I'll let you know, otherwise, have at it.'
Honesty can be liberating. Do you agree? Collier: I do, and that's something I look forward to. It's liberating and a little bit inspiring too.
John, at what point does a restaurant decide to bring in a pastry chef? Tesar: It's a very simple answer, but complicated procedure. You have to plan for it. And a lot of times you can't afford it when the desserts don't bring in the financial return you expect from the business. It has to do with how much a chef wants to work and their own expectations for their restaurant. I strive to be different, but different for the sake of offering an experience that you can't find here in Dallas. Having a world-class pastry chef here makes our restaurant stronger and something different for the city. Part of my dream is to make a miniature Le Bernadin for Dallas, to get or not get. People who come to Spoon every night really seem to get it.
And, at 55 years old, I just do what I feel is right. Has being on Top Chef been good or bad for your restaurant? Tesar: Both. It's a classic example of something that you shouldn't do, but turns out to be a great experience. It exposes one of life's great lessons:People will only take what they want from the situation.
In the course of conversation Tesar mentions young chefs moving around kitchens.
How long do you think a chef needs to be at one kitchen before they're ready to move on? Tesar: There are some people that are like savants. They stage in a great kitchen somewhere and after a year are able to duplicate what they've seen and are truly inspired. Then they go somewhere and they do great.
I started as a chef when I was 18, and I'm still a chef at 55. I've made a lot of mistakes and I've had a lot of triumphs in my life. Those are the things that you can't duplicate or take from someone else. You have to live through them. You have to build a body of work.
And where you work has to do with so many variables. Rent could be too high and you can't afford to operate. I think you just have to have traction in your vision as a chef and keep plugging away at it. If you have a long run, God bless you. If not, it's OK.
The time between reinvention and the actuality of the invention is a lot of hard work.
(I laugh a little) Most of that work is done in dark rooms. Some soul-searching, huh? You need to be one step ahead. You have to have your next plan on the table. Some things you have no control over. The public gets it and they make what they want of it. A year later you open a restaurant and, boom, you're on the cover of magazines again and on TV shows. It's ridiculous, but it's all part of the ride. It's all part of the ride [He says a little slower and calmer.] What matters is that you put food on a plate, people get to know you, they understand your passion, which is what you want from a chef in a restaurant. Not... fluff. The world is full of fluff.
David, will you have any fluff on the dessert menu? Collier: No. It's fluff-free.
That seems like a conflict of interest for a pastry chef. Tesar: (Laughing) Yes, we take this stuff too seriously and sometimes we have to laugh at it. David, are you working on any new ideas for pastries at Spoon? Collier: I'm looking to do things more fruit related. In terms of John's "fluff" I do think there are a lot of modern desserts with piles of things, big piles. Which is fine and I appreciate the aesthetics of that, and I do things like that as well. But, sometimes that can be used to cover up the fact that there's not really that much going on. Or it's an exercise in 'How many things can I put on a plate?' and it loses direction. If something started out as pomegranate, then when you eat it, you should be able to tell that it's pomegranate.
I like clean lines, but I'm open to pretty much anything, as long as the guest is happy.
Will you bake any breads? Collier: I'd like to do a couple service breads. It'd be an important part of the experience. When I got to The Mansion, we were baking all the breads in-house, except for the baguettes because of lack of time and equipment. I don't have a specific timeline for it though.
Does a pastry chef's schedule differ from the rest of the kitchen? Collier: I'm usually there at 10 in the morning until about 10 or 11 at night, until the last plate goes. That's the blessing and the curse of pastry: we go last, we're the final impression the guest has of the restaurant. But, there's a lot more planning and time involved.
Is space an issue for pastry chefs? Collier: Space is always a challenge. It's just all about carving a niche for yourself. At one job I had a table behind the door to the walk-in, so every time someone went in there, I got hit in the back with the door. Pastry just gets stuck where they get stuck. I'm thin, so I can fit in just about anywhere though.
John, you've both mentioned that at the end of the day, it's all about happy diners. Is that harder now given how tuned-in diners are? A few bad dishes make their way around the Web and it can be lethal. Tesar: Yeah, and you can be a young chef with a big ego and not listen. If everyone else says it sucks, it pretty much sucks. You have to listen to that. [Collier is laughing hysterically in background.] You have to rework the concept, deconstruct it and see what's wrong.
But doesn't that instant feedback make it harder, especially for young chefs? Tesar: I have so much respect for the fact that they try. Who wouldn't want to encourage change or growth? There's no pettiness in this. It shouldn't be competition.
John, reality TV: love it or list it? Tesar: If I could talk about the whole thing, I would. But, reality TV is just a game show. It's entertainment. It doesn't define anyone as a man, or woman, or a chef, or a measure of who you are. Thirteen weeks of entertainment, and let the chips fall where they may. Whatever comes out in the end, it has nothing to do with my restaurant. I had to be entertaining. I could have been more entertaining, but I didn't want to be.
Would you do it again? Tesar: Yeah. And I would know how to win this time. I didn't go to win the first time, but now I'm like ... angry. Don't anger me because then I'll go back and do something just for spite. Maybe I haven't matured all that much, but maybe that's what keeps me going.
I hope Josh Valentine wins. Rapid-Fire Round
Last drive-thru restaurant: Tesar: Taco Cabaña. Nachos, but I always ask for "real cheese." Collier: Kentucky Fried Chicken. I do like chicken wings and the Original Recipe. I'm ready to get back to Texas though so I can hit Whataburger.
Favorite taco joint: Tesar: I love Velvet Taco. Collier: We don't really have a lot up here, so I'm going to have to lean towards one of the more readily available places, like Taco Cabaña. But I look forward to trying spots down there.
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Favorite barbecue joint: Tesar: I've yet to find it. [Thinks for a minute.] Salt Lick in Austin would probably be my favorite. Collier: I have to plea that I'm predisposed to South Carolina barbecue [he's from that area] and I'd have to go with Dixie Pig, which I think are all out of business now, which is unfortunate. Tesar: I want to clarify that I love Smoke and Tim Byres, but I'd never classify that as a barbecue joint.
Favorite doughnut shop: Tesar: I never touch the stuff. I really despise doughnuts. Wait. Why "despise"? That's a strong word. Tesar: Because doughnuts kill. They're part of the problem in the United States. Not just one, in moderation... You don't even have a birthday doughnut? Tesar: Once you start eating them, there is no moderation. People buy them by the box. Collier: There's a place up here called the Fractured Prune, and along the lines of John's statement that doughnuts kill, they serve doughnuts until noon and they serve doughnuts with ice cream. So, I can't imagine eating a doughnut with ice cream at 10 o'clock in the morning and not needing a defibrillator. But, they're darn good. Tesar: I want to get a box of those and sit in front of my computer all day and do nothing.
Favorite cereal: Tesar: Either Trix or Cap'n Crunch. Collier: I'll go for Waffle O's, but they don't make those anymore. So... Coco Pebbles.
Let's end it on that note: Coco Pebbles.