An Interview with Lucia's David Uygur, Chef-Owner of Dallas' Toughest Reservation
Allison V. Smith
Italian food isn't exactly something Dallas is known for, yet the city's most-lauded restaurant is a tiny Italian spot in Bishop Arts. People are still clamoring, four years later, for a coveted reservation at Lucia, the brainchild of chef David Uygur and his wife, Jennifer. The reserved Uygur has eschewed much of the fame that local food writers are more than willing to shower on him, choosing instead to focus on making this tiny restaurant fit his exacting vision for Italian food.
It's not the Italian that you're used to. You won't find any gloopy bowls of fettucine alfredo or meatballs as big as your head. Still, Uygur's food is arguably some of the best Italian food in the south. I sat down to talk with the chef about how he's created such a successful and unique restaurant, pushing diners' boundaries with pork blood, and why he hopes that Lucia is the perfect neighborhood restaurant for the residents of Bishop Arts.
After four years, Lucia is still one of the hardest reservations to get in Dallas. What do you attribute that kind of success to? We've got great staff. My wife, Jennifer, works the front, and she's the face of the restaurant. She makes people feel welcome and creates a very convivial atmosphere in here. I'm very happy with the food that we've been able to put out. I've got some great sous chefs and cooks and I think that's probably it.
Do you think that your vision for the restaurant has stayed pretty true to what it was when you opened your doors? Have you had to make any big changes or compromises? I wouldn't say we've made any big changes as far as the menu goes, but we change things all the time. At first, I was going to have one less entree on the menu, and it seemed like people wanted more options on that part of the menu. So I added an entree. We haven't had a whole lot of change in format since we opened, not at all.
What about in terms of the food? Have you adapted your recipes to better match the palates of your diners? Honestly, I've been in Dallas for a little while now, so I feel pretty comfortable with what people like and don't like here. I was at Lola for six or seven years, so I was pretty aware of what Dallasites like to eat, and where I felt like I could push a little. I was able to get people to eat tongue, and that's pretty cool.
It seems like you've been able to do a lot of pushing, serving people pork blood. We've made pasta out of pork blood, desserts out of pork blood. Frankly, it's one of the things that I find most intriguing about running a restaurant. When you're able to get someone who comes into your restaurant who says "ew, I would never eat that," you somehow get them to try something, and they love it. Now, they'll try it wherever else they go, but they'll always remember they tried it at Lucia first. Gaining that kind of trust from your customers is really neat. That's the most rewarding way to keep them coming back.
Has there been anything that was too weird? Even the foodies just said no? I don't know, we got people to eat pig's blood for dessert. I really don't like lying to people about what we're making, so it says exactly what is in the dessert on the menu. It was one of our top-sellers for a while, but we change so much that it's hard to tell. We had it on the menu a few weeks ago, but before that, it had been about a year since we'd had the pig's blood dessert on the menu.
How often do you change the menu? Frequently, but never drastically. We'll always have salumi, always have a cheeseboard. We always have a risotto-type dish, a long-cut pasta, a stuffed pasta like ravioli, and a couple of wild cards. In those categories, we'll always have something that is fish, something vegetarian, and a pork dish. We'll change elements of the dish, like changing a cut of meat or the garnish.
How do you build a kitchen staff that's able to keep up with that constant level of change? Honestly, I think my staff likes changing so much, frankly. That's one of the things that keeps them so engaged. They're able to offer their input as to how the dish should go, or make suggestions for the menu. This is the most collaborative kitchen that I've ever worked in, and I'm really proud of that. I think that's awesome.
I'm very interested in how you were able to successfully build a restaurant that is so specific to the kind of food and service that you want to provide to diners. It doesn't seem like you've done much compromising on your vision of this food. There was never a chance of me putting a grilled chicken Caesar salad on the menu. That was the point of having a restaurant that is this small. If people need to go eat a grilled chicken Caesar, they can go somewhere else. They'll come to me for something interesting. I'm going after that market, and not really worrying about the rest of it. I was never going to compromise in that way, and I wasn't going to.
Your clientele has been totally okay with everything? Well, I would love it if I could get everyone to go for a tasting menu every day, but that isn't really my focus. Everybody has to compromise, and I don't believe people who say that they don't. But I like working within this framework, there's plenty of room to try out new things and really think about what it means to make Italian food in Northeast Texas.
Most of us grew up with Olive Garden and Pizza Hut. How difficult has it been to contend with that perception of Italian food? We're doing what an Italian would do with the list of ingredients that he can get in Dallas. The Italian-American food that everyone thinks of as "Italian food" is not bad, it's just not what we do.
Do you like Italian-American food? Is there good Italian-American food in Dallas? I do like it, but I don't know what is really going on here with Italian food because I don't go out and eat it. If I want Italian food, Lucia is my first choice. My second choice would be Nonna, and they do a little bit of the American-Italian food. We'll eat lasagna or whatever at home, my wife will cook it. I grew up in Northeast Texas, and my mom never used ricotta in her lasagna. She always used cottage cheese. I don't have a problem with that stuff, I like it. For me, a lot of the idea of having this restaurant and making so much of our food by hand, the point was to make stuff that people wouldn't make at home.
Being a born Texan, where does your passion for Italian food come from? A lot of it comes from my wife. She traveled to Italy to visit her aunt who was an opera singer when she was a teenager. She told me a lot about it, and that's kind of where it started. We've traveled over there a decent amount, and we go some place new every time we go. Each time we go, I think we've gone to the most beautiful place in Italy, and then we go somewhere else. How would you classify your food into the food regions of Italy? Is it more northern, southern, or coastal cuisine? I like to think of it as seasonal and regional cuisine. In the summers here in Texas, we have a lot of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, so that matches more with the flavors of southern Italy, generally speaking. So you'll see things that are from Lazzio, Rome, and farther south in the summer. As it cools off and we start to get more squash and root vegetables, the food here starts to resemble dishes from Northern Italy. If you go to Italy, you probably won't see a lot of these dishes on the menu. I didn't want to do a by-the-book carbonara. The recipes from the canon are awesome, but I wanted to have some of the personality from our kitchen staff to be visible on the plate.
Tomatoes have to be really interesting for you. There's probably no vegetable that's been more fucked with by commercial farmers than the tomato. When you have one at a grocery store, it tastes nothing like a real tomato. Is that difficult to work with? It is a whole lot easier now than when I first moved back to Texas in 2001. Then, it was very difficult. You could get some things in the summer months, but even still you would see asparagus in December and tomatoes in February on most menus across town. We had just moved back from Portland, which is very much the opposite of that. In one place that I worked at, you could get a tomato on your burger as a supplement, but it was an in-season, heirloom tomato that had never seen the inside of a refrigerator.
It kind of blew my mind coming back to Texas. We hadn't caught up yet. Now that more people are after a seasonal aspect to their food, those ingredients became more accessible.
Do you think this local food movement is driven more by chefs or by diners? Honestly, I firmly believe that it was all chefs driving that. Completely. People vote for what they like with their dollars, and when I would ask for puntarelli from a purveyor, it was hard to get them to do that. The more that people learned about food, the more we were able to drive our vendors and farms to grow and find these more unique ingredients. Then, when we're able to show people a delicious way to eat something, it's even more true. Then, they think about what they can do at home.
Do people ask you how to make your recipes at home, or are they happy to leave it up to your staff? The food that we serve is obviously more suited to eat in a restaurant. How many people are going to butcher their own hogs and cure the meat at home? The answer is a few people. They come in, ask a whole bunch of questions, but by and large, most people want to come to Lucia and eat it.
When we talk about the quality of ingredients, local is obviously a huge component of that. Do you think that word even still has meaning? You mean like artisan? There's artisan at Wendy's, and focaccia at Jack In The Box. Local is a marketing term that you can put on the menu, and it might be a little overused. The thing is that if you're a chef or owner of a restaurant, you should be using the best ingredients you can get anyway. With a lot of things, buying local is the best you can get. The tomato that was on the vine yesterday, absolutely. But sometimes, with things like wine or olive oil, it's just better to get it somewhere else. Somewhere where the land is more suited to its growth. I think there's a balance to be had.
Wine is obviously an integral part of Italian cuisine. Can you talk about how you pair the wine and food at Lucia? My wife Jennifer does the wine. I have some knowledge and there are bottles I enjoy, but when it comes to pairing food with wine, that's one of the many things that Jennifer excels at. She's able to talk to the guests, find out what kind of wines they like, and find that balance between what they like, what they're willing to spend, and what they're eating. I like wine, but it isn't really my expertise.
How is running a restaurant with your wife, especially in such a small, intimate space? It gets tense occasionally, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The reason that this restaurant does well is because I have her. She's able to talk with people and help them understand why we do what we do. She makes people feel welcome. I'm focusing more on the food that we serve.
Is Lucia going to exist in the Bishop Arts District for 30 years, if you have it your way? Is it going to be a real neighborhood place? That was the idea from the get-go. I hope we'll be around then. I can't work on the line as many hours in 15 years as I can now, but ideally, sure. Lucia won't work anywhere else. The size of the space, the location that it's in, the walking traffing that we get make it really unique. If we were in New York, we'd have to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner to even pay rent.
What made Bishop Arts the right home for your restaurant? I wanted to have a neighborhood restaurant. As far as neighborhoods in Dallas that have a strong identity go, Bishop Arts was the one that had the best community support. We now live five minutes away from the restaurant, so I think we're going to be here for a while.
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