Some people just end up doing the things they are meant to do, and the lucky ones end up being successful at it. Dean James Max, concept chef at the new Asador Restaurant in the Renaissance Dallas Hotel, is one of the lucky ones. What he's dreamed up for Asador is what he calls "farm to fire" cooking, meaning he seeks out food that is fresh, locally grown and in season, and cooks it over an open mesquite fire.
It's the perfect metaphor for everything that has led up to this point in his life. Food is his home.
"I grew up on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Virginia," Max says. "It cost $17 to cross the bridge since the '70s. As a result, we grew up with the grocery store very far away. So we cooked at home. Our eggs came right from the kitchen coop. Even as a kid I cut the chicken's head off and let it run around. My grandfather was a chef, so I kind of had it in my blood. The real parts of being a chef are not work to me; they're soothing and relaxing like filleting fish and picking beans."
Despite his food-filled childhood and hours spent fishing and cooking with his chef grandfather on the Jersey Shore, he didn't start out on the career path to the kitchen.
"In high school I worked in kitchens," Max says. "But then, in college, in the summer I worked for my dad as a food broker. Still, I would come home and cook every night. I went to business school and got a business degree because my dad wanted me to."
Though his father was preparing him to take over the family business, Max soon realized his place was in front of a stove.
"I finally went back to cooking," he says. "My dad battled against me. I had to really take a step down because my life was all set. But I really loved to cook. So I took off for a year and never turned back. I believe in that old cliché 'If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.'"
For a man who hasn't worked a day since he decided to become a chef, his résumé is pretty deep and includes stints as executive chef with Brasserie Savoy in the Savoy Hotel in San Francisco; Gerard's Place in Washington, D.C.; and the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in Pentagon City, Virginia.
A graduate of Florida State University, where he studied marketing and hotel and restaurant management, Max also worked in Atlanta for the Ritz-Carlton and as executive chef of Mumbo Jumbo Restaurant. He was owner and chef at Woodside in Brentwood, California.
He has appeared on the Home & Garden Television's Smart Solutions and The Organic Farmer. He released his first cookbook, A Life by the Sea, in 2005.
The awarding winning chef has been recognized as a "great regional chef of America" by the James Beard Foundation.
He now owns and manages six restaurants, 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Latitude 41 in Columbus, Ohio; Brasserie in the Cayman Islands; AMP 150 in Cleveland, Ohio; 3800 Ocean in Palm Beach, Florida. At Asador he'll serve as the concept chef while chef David Trubenbach oversees things day-to-day.
Max is fearless in the kitchen, which makes for all sorts of great surprises on the menu, like crispy Brussels sprouts and tamarind-grilled Texas quail.
"There's nothing I can't cook if I try because it's all based on chemistry and physics," he says. "It's all about loving all kinds of food. That's what makes a great chef, being open to tasting and being exposed to different foods. There's some I can't practice all of the time, like Japanese and Indian food, but I integrate it when I can. We'll make curries and chutneys, especially at the Cayman restaurant. I love everything from Middle Eastern to Indian to Thai."
Max is enthralled by the wealth of world cuisines and how they have come to play out in today's restaurant scene, though he's a little troubled by some of the recent changes in the food world.
"When I started out cooking," he says. "It wasn't as glamorous as it is now."
Much of that glamor comes from the recent explosion in cooking shows and chef competitions on television.
"I love it," Max says of the TV phenomenon, "because it's great for business and it keeps the excitement there. But the bad part is that people get into cooking for the wrong reasons. I'm on the board of the Art Institute in Florida. The drop-out rate is so high there because the students don't realize the work that's involved [in becoming a chef.]"
And he doesn't love all of the cooking taking place on television.
"I've turned down a couple of reality shows," he says. "I don't like it. I'm not interested in doing that. Would I do a travel show? Yes. Definitely. A killer travel cooking show, that would be incredible because it would combine the two things I love the most.
"I've hosted a few of the shows at my restaurants," he says. "But I'm not interested in doing the drama reality shows. It doesn't really play out. Even Top Chef Masters was a little degrading. It's like Survivor. Iron Chef, of course, is different."
Just when I think the interview is over, Max asks me a question. "Are you a sailor?" He points to the sailboat charm I always wear around my neck. "Absolutely," I tell him. "I grew up sailing on the Chesapeake Bay." He comes alive as he starts to talk about sailing, just like he does when he talks about great food. Boats he loves. Places he loves to sail. We compare notes and exchange stories. He's an avid sailor and loves both the freedom and the stillness of it. "When I'm sailing, I want to be able to only hear the rigging."
He doesn't have as much time to sail as he would like. But, he says, "When I do have more time on my hands, I'm going sail down to Cuba, around Cuba and down to Cayman. It's only 90 miles from Key West to Cuba. I can't wait until Cuba opens. The south of Cuba is beautiful. And the sail down to Cayman is only 120 miles."
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His link to the ocean began as a child and it has run through everything he does ever since. In fact, for a couple of years, he even wrote about one-pot style boat cooking for a magazine in Florida. He'd write, for example, about how you can prep for a day sail by juicing tangerines and then bringing along the casing, so you can mix raw fish into the juice and serve ceviche right in the peel of the tangerine. Or he'd explain how to make a rum and coconut (which requires green coconuts, by the way) that you can drink right out of the coconut.
But even though he doesn't have time yet to sail the Caribbean, he's still managed to integrate all of his loves into his life -- fresh, local ingredients; down-to-earth cooking; and all of the delights of the sea.
In fact, he explains, "In the Caymans we have our own fishing boats [for the restaurant] and our guy goes out there and gets whatever we want, diving in the reef for conch and spiny lobster."
I only have one more question for Max: "Where can I sign up?"