Chef David Trubenbach at Asador on Sourcing Locally and Grass on the Side
Originally from Williamsburg, Virginia, Chef David Trubenbach got his first job at an IHOP when he was 17 as a way to save money for a car. However, it turned out to be the beginning of culinary career. After high school he enrolled at Johnson and Wales and from there moved to Orlando, Florida, where he worked at Primo with Chef Melissa Kelly, a true pioneering spirit in the farm to table movement.
Since moving to Dallas a year ago to lead the kitchen at Asador in the Renaissance Hotel, Trubenbach has carried over what he learned at Primo by sourcing locally when he can and, though it's difficult at times, he is trying to bring the farm to table.
How did you initially get into cooking? When I was younger I needed a job. My dad rebuilt old cars and I wanted one, so I got a job at an IHOP busing tables and washing dishes. I started watching the cooks because I was drawn to what they we're doing. Eventually I started helping them prep, served some, then over time I got into management, but I was always drawn to the kitchen.
What is it about the restaurant business that you like so much? I love not knowing what's going to happen day to day and how at a restaurant things are always changing. After high school I went to Johnson and Wales University and while I was there started working for some guys who had their own place that were graduates. There were two other guys helping out as well. One was a CIA grad with a thick résumé and the other was a self-taught chef. I loved watching the differences in how they worked. Unfortunately the restaurant didn't make it. But I learned so much by watching them.
You've mentioned that with a lot of your early gigs, you started out washing dishes. Is that part paying your dues? Part of it is that it's a way to get in. But it also definitely makes you appreciate every aspect of the restaurant more. If you can't wash dishes, then you're not going to respect your people. As a chef, you have to be able to help in every part of the kitchen. It's a respect factor because it's all teamwork.
With the increase enrollment in culinary school over the past few years, partially due to food TV, do you think there's disillusionment about that aspect of the job? Definitely. And Food TV has changed it. I have some friends who are on the shows, who did well and went on the great things. But it's not that way for everyone.
I work 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. I usually get a day off. When we first opened we didn't have the staff we needed here, so I had to work more. A couple of months I worked 7 days a week, 18 hours a day. Chefs have to expect that coming into a new place.
Sounds like a recipe for burnout. You really have to take care of yourself. I eat the way I cook and I'm very active on my days off.
One of the major themes here at Asador is eating local. "Modern farm to fire" is our tag line. We have a smoker in the back and we use mesquite wood to grill everything. I learned so much about local sourcing and the farm to table movement from Chef Melissa Kelly at Primo.
Is the local movement different in Florida? In Florida it was obviously easier to find produce and seafood, but harder to find beef. But, here there's no produce and lots of beer and cheese.
How did you start the farm to table process when you moved here? When I first came here, I was on the Internet looking up slow foods. Literally, scouring the Internet and on the phone calling people, trying to find different foods.
Was that a hard process since there's not one central hub? Yes, it was hard. But, I just kept calling people I knew to see if they knew anyone. Just asked around and eventually I found people. Then, we started visiting farms and getting to know the farmers.
We went to meet this one farmer and he told us about some friends down the road that were raising grass fed cows, so we went down the road to meet them. (The Hudspeths in Forestburg, northwest of Denton.) We started talking with them and they are a super sweet family. They worked for one of those major corporations for a long time then realized that they weren't treating the animals right, so they decided to get back to basics. They raise grass-fed turkey, chicken and pork now too. What's the importance of establishing relationships with farmers? A lot of companies are bringing in farm produce because everyone wants it, but a lot of times these restaurants are still just buying from companies. So, it's hard to really say it's farm to table when the restaurants don't know who the farmers are. There are restaurants that call themselves local, but they're not because they don't know where their food is coming from.
At the same time though, just because food is local doesn't mean it's best. I don't buy local just because it's local. It has to be good. If I can't find it local, then I'll buy it somewhere else.
When is going local or natural not ideal? Like with grass-fed beef -- we don't believe in grass-fed steaks because they don't taste great, they're very chewy and are hard to eat. I'll eat them at home because I know what to expect, but it's hard to serve that here. We'll buy a lot of the grass-fed meats to braise and to make ground meat for burgers.
Do you think the local trend will stick? Recently on a day off I wanted to go check out a few farm-to-table restaurants in the areas and several were closed down. Like Horne and Dekker -- we went there for their farm-to-table all you can eat fried chicken. What's sad is that we were using their same co-op for a few things. Well, now since they closed, the co-op is out of business too. And since that's done, all the farmers have lost a ton of business. It's so sad to see the chain reaction.
So, I think it is a trend and people are jumping on the bandwagon, but I don't think that this trend will ever die either. There are too many people out there that care about what they eat and where it comes from. In certain areas throughout the U.S. the movement is stronger than in other areas. Do you have a lot of Dallas diners or a mix of travelers here in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel? We do get a lot of business travelers from around the country and other countries as well. We'll go through waves where we get people who have no idea what we're trying to do and don't care; there just here to get a hamburger and don't know why they're paying $12 for it when they can go to Whataburger and get a whole meal for five bucks. Some people ask, "Can I get the grass on the side?"
Seriously? We've had multiple people ask that. It's incredible, but it's sad to see that people just don't have the knowledge. I want to go buy them a bunch of videos and say, "Here. Go home and watch these."
A lot of people can't afford to eat that way though. It's really expensive, so I understand that too.
How do you run your team here? The front of the house and the back of the house get along really well. And our bar works really closely with our kitchen. It's all intertwined. We all have one goal and that's to have happy customers.
Asador has a pretty developed bar program... I think our bar is really underrated here in Dallas. The farm to table extends to the bar and we have our own house infusions, like bacon vodka, which is actually very common, and a grilled pineapple jalapeno tequila. Everything in our bar is made from scratch, our sour mix, the margaritas and bloody Mary mix -- all of it.
Do you have any recommended reading for the burgeoning chef or home cook? A huge influence on me is the book Culinary Artistry. It has really helped me in learning what foods go together. I give this book to anyone that expresses interest in learning about food. It's great for even the home cook, for looking in the fridge and seeing what you have then pairing things together. It's great for times when you need ideas for things. It's also how we came up with a lot of our fusions. We combine things, play with it, test it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
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