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Chef Brian Luscher Is on a Red Hot Streak

Chef Brian Luscher Is on a Red Hot Streak
thegraperestaurant.com

The cheeseburger chef Brian Luscher serves at Sunday brunch at The Grape on Lower Greenville was anointed the Greatest Burger in Texas, and he dishes up cozy comfort food to hundreds of devoted Dallas diners each week. That hasn't gone to his head.

But he is looking to grow. Although the city of Dallas thwarted his first attempt to open a permanent place to sell his Post Oak Red Hots, Luscher isn't discouraged. I sat down to talk with him about his foray into the cured meats business, his love of East Dallas and just how he feels about chefs who take themselves too seriously.

How did you get in the hot dog-making business? About two years ago, Chad Houser, the Cafe Momentum guy, and his wife managed the White Rock Local Market. She asked Chad and I and a few other chefs to do a demo, and it was in my neighborhood, so I thought it was cool. I got there and saw the beautiful produce, fresh baked bread, candles, local cheeses, an incredible array of groceries, but there was nothing to eat.

Being from Chicago, I longed for a great hot dog. I thought, "Hell yeah, I'll do hot dogs." I had just bought this smoker on a trailer as kind of a toy, and I asked them if I could bring my smoker to White Rock Local Market and cook something. I thought about barbecue at first but at that time, I was perfecting hot dogs or red hots, whatever you want to call them.

I made 40 pounds of hot dogs, twisted them into links and smoked them, and that's how Luscher's Post Oak Red Hots was born. We sold out that first day, and now we're starting our third season. It's enabled me to do something "fun" in my spare time (like I have any of that), but it's also a small business incubator. I've got this idea, I'm going to put it out in the local market, and people are going to say, "We want your business in our real estate."

Essentially that's what happened, although the city of Dallas has made it difficult for us to get permits and things that we need to open. We've been looking for a year. I lost $10,000 of my own money on Luscher's. I don't want to jinx it, but we're looking at two properties, one in Deep Ellum that we really like.

Do you think the city is making it difficult for restaurants to secure permits in some of these growing neighborhoods, or is it just bureaucracy as usual? When I'm in a situation where I'm not getting my way, I try to understand why. The city is interpreting the code to the strictest interpretation possible as a "CYA" move. There's a cover-your-ass culture, and if everything isn't crystal clear, they just say no.

This is versus having a mentality of "How do we make it work? This is a cool idea." It's not like we were trying to open up a head shop or another one of those vapor cigarette shops. We were trying to put in a little neighborhood restaurant from an established restaurateur. We lost the space for Luscher's over something like eight parking spaces.

In the Deep Ellum Entertainment District, only one parking space is required for every 2,500 feet of restaurant or bar space. A quarter mile away, where we wanted to open Luscher's, you need a minimum of 25 spaces. We wanted to refurb this 1940s building, keep it part of the neighborhood.

Because it was part of the Baylor Medical-slash-Central Business District area, more spaces were needed. But there was really ample parking. Baylor is just scooping up parking spaces because they need them, and what kind of a check do you think Baylor writes to the city? What about my little hot dog stand? Which is going to get the attention of city developers? I'm sure the city would tell you that each case is treated fairly. Sure. I get that rules are in place for a reason, but it seems like those rules get bent when you've got money to put behind it.

 

Why did that area appeal to you so much? For me, East Dallas is always where I wanted to open up the first Luscher's. I'm an East Dallas guy. When I first moved here in 1996, I lived at the corner of Ross and Greenville, and I work on Greenville Avenue. I just love this neighborhood, I believe in East Dallas. There is opportunity in East Dallas.

People keep their money in East Dallas, and there's still value in real estate here. Look at what the boys at Goodfriend did. There's obviously desire there. Look at Lowest Greenville and the rebirth that's going on there. The luster will come back to Greenville Avenue that it once had 50 or 60 years ago. Henderson Avenue used to be Shady O'Grady, people never wanted to drive there at night. Now it might be overdeveloped.

In Dallas, you've become the king of backyard grill food. Did you set out for a hamburger and a hot dog to be the foods you're most known for? Cheeseburgers have always been my comfort food. My dad's a meat cutter, so there's always been meat in my world. These new chefs who are down foraging herbs on the banks of Turtle Creek or whatever, that's good for them. But I'm unabashedly a meat guy.

Being from the Midwest, being from Chicago, it's always been about meat. I've always had a real interest in knowing all the different cuts of beef and pork, and watching the camaraderie of the butchers in the shop. Do I need to find emu or ostrich or use some kind of esoteric crazy thing to put on the menu? No. I'm more interested in developing SPAM from scratch.

Is there anything vegetarian on the menu? Or is that against your meat religion? Oh sure, we're very accommodating when it comes to that. It's incredibly selfish for chefs to be so offended if someone wants something modified, like having their chicken de-boned. These chefs are thinking, "How dare they insult me?" I say fuck you, just de-bone the chicken.

If you come into my place, I have sushi grade ahi tuna on the menu, served rare. You want it well-done? I will put that shit in the fryer if you want it fried. I will put ranch dressing on the side, I don't care. But if you like it, tell all your friends what a great accommodating time you had at The Grape and come back next week.

Did you ever feel that way about your cooking? There was a time maybe 15-plus years ago where it was all about me, but anymore, who cares? I'm setting the tone for diners to have an experience. Each person who comes into my restaurant has had a different day of their life -- some are celebrating occasions or maybe they're commencing a divorce settlement, I don't know.

You know Alinea in Chicago? Best chef in the world. There's foams and airs and it's just beyond my ability. If I studied for 15 years I might be able to think about what that guy is doing. But it's very "You do what we tell you to do." Smell this pillow, and a pillow farts scented air into your face. That's cool and everything, but that's not what my experience is. I want people to be whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears, elbows on tables, and laughing loud. It's an experience for people, it's not just about "I'm the chef, pay attention to me now."

It seems like you have a little disdain for that kind of attitude from chefs? I do, and not for anyone in particular. But a lot of the "young 'uns" certainly think that's the cool way to go. In the '90s, the cool kids thought going all Asian was the direction. I looked, I dabbled, but it's not my thing. It's not about our food or our wine list, it's about our staff being able to make people happy.

If you ask for a white zinfandel, we don't have a white zin on our menu, but we're not going to say, "Oh fuck, white zinfandel! Will you leave? You suck the soul out of me." No, I'd say "We don't have a white zinfandel, but I'd suggest this riesling. It's fantastic, let me bring you a taste." Ninety-nine percent of the time, they love it. And you know what we just did? Created a fan for life. There's more of looking down one's nose when people don't have the experience level I have with food. Only a small percentage of the dining population has a chef's experience with food. What we think is commonplace is crazy talk to the "common folk."

People ask why Dallas isn't a culinary destination. Well, it's a hard sell. Think every restaurant in Dallas is going to be able to put foam on their menu? No, people here like steaks, they like salads, big California cabernets. Cool, I've got that. But I've got stuff for people who like to play games, too. You wanna get cute? I can get cute.

But if you want comfort food like roasted chicken? I've got perfectly roasted chicken. Not like a little medallion of sous vide chicken with a kernel of quinoa and nasturtium on the side, just really good roasted chicken.

That goes back to my interpretation of the European bistro -- consistent, great execution with no pretense. To me, that is sustainable. Which is why The Grape has been open since 1972.

What about the non-traditional ways that chefs are coming up through the ranks, not going to school, doing their own thing? What about the food that they're putting out? Now you can figure out how to cook anything on your phone. Twenty years ago, you had to work for someone for 10 years before they'd even think about sharing their secrets. Now, we have this "flavor now" mentality where some 20-year-old kid with tattoos and a nose ring comes in and demands that I teach him everything about charcuterie.

I say, I've probably thrown away a ton of meat in getting where I'm at today. Thrown away, not served. You want me to teach you all that I've learned because you showed up and think you're entitled to it? Go away. If you come to me and say, "I've been trying to make sausage and it just isn't right. I've troubleshooted, here's what I've tried," then yeah. Come on, Bro. We're going to figure this out together.

I also think there's a little skulduggery in this modernist cuisine. Everyone looks at these dishes and thinks, "How fancy, how regal," but it's kind of like the emperor's new clothes. It's fancy, but these dishes don't even taste like anything. What is it? I don't know.

Back to the topic of growing up the son of a meat cutter, when I look around at the state of the meat that we buy, it's shit. What does that do for both chefs and people who cook at home? It's like the plight of the American farmer. Generationally, farmers had a bunch of kids so they'd have people to work on the farm. Those kids took over the farm, and now as it is, people want to move away, and it was like that for a long time.

It's cool to be a farmer now, it's cool to be a meat cutter again. When my dad went through a union-based apprentice program in the '60s in Chicago, that was a trade. It was a man going out and earning a living for his family. Going and working in a supermarket is a completely different thing, but that's why you see this resurgence of meat cutters in shops like Kuby's and Rudolph's.

That just blows my mind. There's farm and ranch land just an hour or less outside of Dallas, no matter which way you go. Why is it so difficult to find locally produced meat? It's becoming less and less hard. It wasn't sustainable for farmers. It was cheaper to raise milk cows because you'd get a government subsidy for doing it. Meat prices are always up and down and people go to a diner and expect steak and eggs for $4.99. But there's this explosion of people who want farm-raised steaks. Look at the explosion of farmers markets here.

Two years ago, there were two pop-up farmer's markets -- White Rock Farmers Market and Coppell. Now, White Rock local market is in three locations. I've been approached by at least five new markets this seasons. There are at least eight pop-up farmers markets because people want it. Maybe it's this picturesque version of carrot tops cascading out of their basket with a baguette and some candles and shit. That's cool, but I also think there's a desire to live more simply.

There are still plenty of people who want quantity. And they can go to Golden Corral. But people want quality. They're thinking, I don't want a ton of cheap barbecue. I'll pay double at a place like Pecan Lodge to get less food, but it's a hundred times better. People have choices now, and I think that's important. I don't buy everything local. I don't microfeed every single animal I serve here. I make choices.

Aside from your obvious dislike for pretentious chefs, what pisses you off the most when you go to a restaurant? The No. 1 thing that drives me ape-shit is going to a steakhouse where I've got to put on a jacket and pay $85 for a steak that's bullshit. If I'm going to one of these "nicer" places (air quotes for added sarcasm), I don't think they're cooking steaks to culinary temperature standards. When I say I want a medium-rare steak, it's really more like medium-well in these restaurants.

They're buying these big-ass 3-inch thick steaks, and they can't cook them. They come out burned on the outside, raw on the inside, and they call that medium rare. No, it's fucking rare. Medium rare is pink from edge-to-edge, warm pink center.

Then, they bring it out, and this motherfucker takes a flashlight out and shines it on your food. Then they say "Will you please cut into your steak to prove that we're not assholes, and that you're the jerk who doesn't understand the temperature of steaks?"

Nothing will make me lose my appetite quicker. Who cuts their steak in the middle? I'm not going to. They also screw up the sides. They're not hot, they're not seasoned. Then you pay 30 percent more than you actually should on a mediocre bottle of wine. It's all a scam. There are some good places, but this stuff bothers the shit out of me.

What are those good places? Believe it or not, I love Capital Grille. Pappas Bros. is also really good. Maybe these aren't the most "trendy," but they're consistent.


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