Michael Ehlert moved to Texas from New York City in 2011, where he worked at DBGB, one of Daniel Boulud's concepts. In Dallas his first kitchen home was at The Chesterfield in downtown. Last month, he moved over to Campo, where he is now the executive chef. We sat down last week to discuss his culinary journey.
Where are you from originally? Born in Virginia Beach, but grew up in the Twin Cities. We moved around a lot. My dad was an editor. Went to high school in Iowa, and college in Colorado. Then moved to New York in 2005.
How was Boulder? I loved Boulder. Went to University of [Colorado] for a journalism degree. At first, I got a job cooking just to pay the bills, but I liked that a lot more than interviewing people.
What was your first job in a restaurant? In Boulder I worked at the Sink for two years, which was just off campus, always really busy. That was just a natural environment for me. I'd always meet such interesting people. That has always been an attractive aspect of it for me too. After a while, I knew that was going to be my path.
You didn't like interviewing people? I liked it OK. I tried to mix the two together. I thought maybe I could write about food, which is not something I've written off completely. But, I would go interview chefs about the scene and what was going on, it got to the point where I didn't want to talk to them about it, I wanted to do it. And I couldn't wait to get out of class to go cook -- even just to flip burgers. I got absorbed in that culture pretty quickly.
Boulder is sort of known for its farm-to-table movement. Did that have much influence on you? The scene [local movement] there existed naturally before there was a label on it. Then, when it started to happen, there was a trend of really long menus because every item had to have a description of what farm it was from. And that happened but it was exhausting on the diner's part -- so that sort of fizzled. But, still the idea was always there.
What do you think about the larger-scale national trend towards eating local? I think it's OK that it got more attention, but I don't think it's something that people should use to try to elevate their cuisine when really it's kind of always been going on.
But, it's definitely something you focus on here, right? My biggest influences are French chefs, like Ferdinand Point and his restaurant in France, La Pyramide. Every day he writes a new menu after he goes to the market. It doesn't mean that every restaurant in Paris does that, but it's the idea that you should never write a menu then scamper around to procure the ingredients in case something isn't good enough.
But, that's not realistic most of the time... Right. Somewhere in between is the idea that you can somehow support your community. But, still give people cuisine that's interesting. If all that is available for a week is squash and raspberries and Swiss chard ... you can't just make squash boats with raspberry passengers and be like, "Well, that's all I had."
Do you like the local bounty? With the things that occur naturally, it's great. We have a local guy, Toby Haggard, who pulls his Prius up the back door with a couple coolers full of stuff and we generally buy a little bit of everything he has.
We also work a lot with Chefs Produce. Those guys shop the market every other day. They have great relationships with a lot of farmers in the outlying farms. When did you decide to go to the CIA? A lot of my friends who were moving on to bigger positions all had that formal education. So, in 2005 I decided I needed to go to school in order to slingshot ahead in the business.
How did you like NYC? I loved it. It's the greatest place I've ever lived. It's amazing.
Where did you work? I worked at DBGB [one of Daniel Boulud's restaurants] from before they actually opened and then stayed on for two years.
What did you get out of that experience, particularly from being there during the opening? A good part of what I know about opening restaurant, I learned there. That was a phenomenal experience. When I was hired, construction wasn't even complete. That's a whole separate part that a lot of people just don't even get -- the little simple things, all those final touches can be a monster. Making sure the equipment works, do we have permits lined up, is this person here when they're suppose to be here?
I've heard some say the easy part is serving customers ... Then, when you open, you have to deliver on what it promises. There's no retreat at that point. It's the new Daniel Boulud. People have to be happy. Period. That pressure is intimidating, but once you get through it, it's invigorating.
What did you learn particularly from Boulud? One of the things I've always been appreciative and something I that I know will always help me as a chef is that Daniel always put a lot of trust in his sous chefs. He gives them a really long leash. A lot of times they're just supposed to do certain things and learn from the executive chef, and that's it. It's fairly well known among management in that company that he likes sous chefs to be able to be creative to be able to go in their own direction so that the restaurants have personality and are not just a reproduction. There are things that are done the Daniel way, but DBGB was sort of a blank canvas because it was the first restaurant that really invited American food. Then, after five years in NYC you moved here with your now fiancee. Your first job was at the Chesterfield, which you left just over a month ago. How was that experience? The Chesterfield was an interesting project. In the beginning the idea was really well hand-crafted food and drinks. I really liked that and thought it was a unique opportunity. So many bars forget about the food when the focus is on their drinks.
We put in a lot of hard work on that project. By "we" I mean Eddie Campbell, the guys in the kitchen and myself. I believe we did some really great food and people were really excited about it.
But, obviously it didn't all go as planned... It was one of those things that after the initial opening you just have to let it settle to see what people want and, ultimately, that place was a bar. It doesn't mean that it should stop serving food, I just wonder if doing really upscale food is the best choice for them.
Even the seating was a bit hard for a nice dinner. It's sort of hard to control. In an ideal setting, someone could go in and really enjoy a nice meal. It was a great challenge, and I know that I'm better for it. I'll always be friends with Eddie.
You've only been in Dallas for seven months, but so far what do you think about the Dallas palate. The Chesterfield was a good test. I'll say that I rolled out a menu that maybe people didn't expect, especially for a bar. We found that certain things worked. One thing that really worked were hamburgers. The one thing I didn't want to do was a hamburger. So, you do sort of run into those corners where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. There are a lot hamburgers coming out of the Chesterfield's kitchen. Still.
I can make an awesome burger. But, if you put it on there, that's all they're going to want.
In general, I think there are those people out here who want a little more of a foodie experience. People who want to try things they haven't had. I've surely met guests just like that at Campo, either who weren't sure about it and weren't sure if we were too eclectic or expensive. But, then it was a varied experience of something they didn't expect and tried things for the first time and really enjoyed it.
What's the key to finding the middle ground? I just think that like anything, it's tempering. You have to give them what they really want but then splash in a little of what they weren't sure they wanted.
Do you like Tex-Mex? I like it quite a bit. One of our favorite places is up in Flower Mound where my fiancee's family lives, called Ana Mia's, and I get the Cowboy plate with one brisket taco, a cheese enchilada and chili relleno. I love it. In fact, in the walk in right now we have spiced beef, chopped onions, cilantro, limes, queso fresco and corn tortillas for lunch.
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Are there any other favorites? I was completely blown away by Tei An. Champagne and apps at 560. I do like a Keller's hamburger. And there are a lot of places in Oak Cliff.
Any hole-in-the-wall places? Lakeside Landing for the midnight corn dog. It's only served after midnight and it's just a regular corn dog and it's just a drinking snack.
That's interesting -- if you make a food available only after a certain time, does that increase its perceived value? We were somewhere else and went there to make sure we had drink in hand when midnight rolled around so we could enjoy it.
So, are you thinking about putting corn dogs on the menu here? You may be missing something... Maybe during the State Fair.