An Interview With Michael Ehlert, Chef of the Revamped and Four-Star Front Room Tavern
Kevin Marple, via the restaurant
We are officially well into Dallas' renaissance as a destination for excellent food. Still, there are very few restaurants that meet the only star system in town's criteria for four stars, and a five-star rating is even more rare. Amidst the chefs versus critic debacle that has dominated the food community for the last few months, Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner has awarded the coveted four-star rating to Hotel Lumen's Front Room Tavern and its chef, Michael Ehlert. Our own critic gushed about it too.
As a relative newcomer to the Dallas food scene, Ehlert has quickly made an impression. Just one day after The Dallas Morning News' review was released, I sat down to talk with Ehlert about his thoughts on the praise, handling the ghosts of restaurants past, and his ascent from flour-covered pizza chef to one of Dallas' brightest rising stars.
It's been a pretty good week for you, yeah? So far, it's not over yet. We're definitely excited about the review, but surprised is hard to say. If you say you're surprised, then you're saying that you don't think you deserved it. If you say that you're not, then maybe you're selling yourself short. I'll go with excited. Amongst other things, it's rewarding. For all intents and purposes, we basically opened a new restaurant here.
A lot of the press talks about this space's previous incarnations -- and there have been many -- but for us, it feels like opening a new restaurant. And that's tons of work. Mistakes are magnified, achievements are overlooked, and that's just the nature of our business. But it's nice when it comes around a little bit. You feel like someone took note of all your hard work. This is a slow climb. Lots of places come and go in Dallas, they're sprinting. They get a lot of accolades, and then the next month they're out of breath. For us, we'd prefer a steady, stronger pace, and I think she noticed that.
How do you feel about being Leslie Brenner's first review after the Proof + Pantry fiasco? Were you concerned? In some ways, I feel like that was an isolated incident. It was certainly interesting and got a lot of attention, but it's something that I've never seen before. I think a lot of us haven't. We all have opinions about critics, and that's a story as old as restaurants themselves. I understand everyone's position, and in the end, I think everyone came out just fine.
You mentioned that this space had gone through many incarnations, and it seems like it's a tough room. Especially if you're trying to do really refined food. It's fair to say that this restaurant has built-in challenges, namely that we have to cast a wide net. There are lots of different types of folks that need different things from this restaurant pretty much all of the time, and we have to consider that. My thought going into it was just that whatever people need from this space, we have to make it nice. That's kind of kitschy and cliché, but ever since I started taking cooking seriously, that's the phrase that resonates most. Just make it nice. If it's something as simple as chiffonading a pile of basil, when you look down at it, is it nice? That's difficult and sometimes annoying, and that's why most people don't do it.
When I took over here, it admittedly felt like a huge project. What am I going to do with this space? There were people who were expecting it to be a diner. When Tim was here, we had aspirations to do really fine food, and there were people who were expecting that. So everyone was wondering where this was going to land. We also have to accommodate people from the hotel who are traveling, and they don't always want to eat something that has to be explained to them. They want a comforting, nice meal when they're traveling. Right now, this is sort of where we landed. We're casting a wide net, but I think that provides opportunity, too. The dishes that stick will obviously stay around, but there's plenty of room to play. Plenty of ways to see what our local guests who come back want. There's a good side of this coin, for sure.
Was it more challenging than you thought? What does it take to make a room like this work? It's been exactly as challenging as I thought it was going to be. On the other hand, I think if you ask anyone that I work with, they would probably say that I take things a little too seriously. But I do take it seriously, and I don't want to diminish the work that we all put into the food here. But at the end of the day, it's just food. It's a complicated but also humble and basic task. It's easy to say "oh, just have fun with it," but it's just not always that fun sometimes. But you have to keep tapping into your passion for that, even when things get complicated and weird. That's what facilitates the ideas that make a place like this work.
What made you decide that you wanted to chiffonade basil for the rest of your life? When I went to college at 18, I did what a lot of people were doing, which was just basically a continuation of senior year. We all went to state university together, and kept doing what we were doing. A buddy's older brother had worked at a restaurant for four years, and sort of bequeathed an opportunity to us and told us that we had to take it. So that's what I had done for money when I was living in Iowa City during my freshman year. I moved to Boulder to go to college, and it was just what I knew how to do. I worked at a pizza place when I first moved there.
After a while I just got more excited about going to work than going to class. I was studying journalism, and I would much rather go get my ass kicked on the grill than interview someone. That's just how it happened. I thought I wanted to do journalism, and I enjoyed it. I finished up that program and did some cool stuff, but I liked it, I didn't love it. Do you remember the TV show Great Chefs? I think I probably saw an episode of that one day when I was skipping class and thought that it looked cool. That combined with the culture of the restaurant? It's a pretty unique place. I think to some people we seem like caged animals or rejects of some sort, but the energy that restaurants create helped me decide to take it seriously.
What did take it seriously mean? It meant finding the best restaurant in town and getting my foot in the door no matter what. At that time, it was The Mediterranean in Boulder. I wanted to work there really badly, so I accepted the lowest position available, which was pizza chef. They have a wood-burning oven out in the dining room, and a station that overlooked the room. We used to call it the DJ booth, and that was the most glamorous part of it.
What it boiled down to was just mercilessly getting my ass kicked for nine hours, but I wouldn't have traded that for anything. That built my passion even more. It was so hard, but every day there was a new way to do something differently.
How did you transition from DJ-booth pizza chef to a fine dining restaurant in a fancy hotel? In that restaurant, you just started doing the thing that you wanted to do next before you were officially promoted or given that title. That's how people notice you, and that's how it worked for me. I moved from station to station, and eventually one of the sous chefs moved on and I threw my name in the hat for that. That was sort of a mini-version of how the rest of my career was going to play out.
I did end up going to culinary school, at a point when I was living in Colorado, [looking at the people] whose jobs I wanted. I was a sous chef and they were executive chefs. They were writing their own menus, and it was cool. It was sort of what I was doing, but I still thought it was pretty far off. Maybe I was a little impatient then, but I looked at all those people and realized that they had gone to school, which was something that I had not done. So I did it.
Do you think that culinary school is essential for chefs now? There are a lot of chefs making their way without it. That's tough. I think, and this is a political answer, but you get out what you put in. If you go through culinary school and say, "this is stupid, I already know how to dice a carrot," that's probably how you're going to walk away from it. You just paid a lot of money to do shit that you already knew how to do. On the other hand, if you adjust your attitude and realize that you're around a ton of talented people, you can find something that connects you to why you're there in the first place.
If you get to the point where you sign a piece of paper where you're taking out a loan to go to culinary school, then you already have the desire to make that process rewarding, but it's up to you. It's not a go-in-as-a 20-year-old-with-no-direction and come out an executive chef. I think that some schools certainly advertise themselves that way. And you know, it's America, that's fair. But it's people's lives, and no academic institution should give people the idea that it's just a ticket you can buy.
But is it necessary? It used to be that executive chefs were all classically trained, and now many are not. Is it necessary for what? Is it necessary for an executive chef title and the pay that goes along with it? Obviously not. In fact, right before I went to school, the place that I was working before I moved to New York was actually Jax Fish House, run by this guy Hosea Rosenberg who would go on to win Top Chef Season 5. I told him that I was going to have to quit because I was moving away to culinary school, and he told me to take the money that I was going to use to pay for school and just go to France instead. Looking back, that was probably good advice, and may have been an equally valuable experience.
The menu here is very diverse, and I think it's difficult to define your style. How do you do it? The entire time that I worked in New York City, I was always working for French guys. That has always appealed very much to me. I've always found the history of how French food migrated into New York so fascinating. The culinary history there is so tied to French and European gastronomy. Those old, famous restaurants were rooted in that culture and that mentality. I thought it was cool that that culture valued that profession as something that was diligent, and honest and hard-working. I guess it would be fair to say that maybe I do or don't cook French food, but that underlying philosophy and those basic techniques, really focusing in on fundamentals, will always be part of what we do.
There is just not a ton of great French food in Dallas, and that makes no sense to me. Dallas is a city of decadence - we love our cream sauces and foie gras and wine. Why do you think there's such a dearth of that kind of cooking? I think it's fair to say that I'm still trying to figure that out. I've only been here three years, and that's not very long to live anywhere. But I've always wondered that myself, and thought that the decadence in French food belonged anywhere I would land. There are folks that travel here, people with money, and there's got to be room for that almost anywhere, Dallas included. Whatever its current incarnation, I'll always try to have at least a couple of fancy, over-the-top dishes on the menu here.
Do you think people are maybe a little intimidated by that kind of food? If you can't pronounce it on the menu, are you willing to spend $100 on it? As a restaurateur or chef you have an equal responsibility to provide folks with what they expect, but also to challenge yourself, and the diner. Challenge yourself to provide options to people. There's the comfort zone, and then there's outside of that, and the proper thing to do is focus in on the middle, but make sure you scribble outside the lines at least sometimes.
How do you stay in the middle and maintain your creativity? Over time, you learn that doing a simple thing and doing it well can be really rewarding. Building a burger that is really satisfying might not seem creative, and sometimes it's not, but there's still value in that. There's value in taking a dish that's popular and doing it the best we possibly can. That doesn't always mean adding things to it, in fact, sometimes it means taking things away. Over time, you learn that there is opportunity there. The immature reaction is that you don't want to do things like that, so you just don't. Depending on where you are and your options, sometimes you should say that you aren't going to stay comfortable. But when it comes to things that people expect, you should go ahead and do them. It's not giving up or conceding, it's doing what makes sense for the restaurant and the space. We're here to please people, and that's what we ought to do.
Is there anything that you just won't do? Are there any dishes that are just too overdone, too boring? Brussels sprouts. You're not going to get a side of brussels sprouts at The Front Room. I'm so friggin' tired of brussels sprouts. The next person that puts bacon and sriracha on brussels sprouts, I swear. I love how brussels sprouts play with fall flavors, so we did a pasta with some squash, and there were brussels sprouts. When I did the pre-shift meeting, I told everyone that they weren't getting a frickin' side of brussels sprouts. I only bought enough for the pasta. That really wasn't true, but that's the one thing we're just not going to do this year.
Do you see a long-term future for yourself here at Front Room Tavern? I do, I think it has a lot of potential. I think it's fair to examine the restaurant's history, because it's gone through a lot of changes. I meet people who say that they used to come here, but they don't anymore because they don't know what the hell it is. It seems like a restaurant opens, you try the food and enjoy it, and the next thing you know, it's different. That can be frustrating. That's actually why I suggested attaching the word "tavern" to the restaurant, because that means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but for me, it means neighborhood place. A place where you can get a solid plate of food and a good drink. If you want to stop in for something quick, you can do that, but you can also come in for a four-course meal. We want to make something for everyone, and do it nice.
What do you think it takes to make that successful in a place like Highland Park, especially as other restaurant neighborhoods like the Design District and Lower Greenville are growing so rapidly? I think we'll find out. This concept is still super young, and I'm very pleased that people and the press have seemed to like it. I hope that everyone likes it, but we'll find out if that's the case. That's a question I ask myself, and I haven't always come up with a very direct answer. My thought is to just do this concept, but it's got to be a hundred percent. We can't react to every little complaint or concern. We have to stand behind our idea because we believed in it enough to actually do it. That means that we think that it's good. Of course you listen to your guest, but you should also be proud of your concept, stand behind it, and give it a chance.
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