Hard Work Puts Chef Casey Thompson Atop the Food Pyramid
In sleuthing around for the primary culinary influences on Casey Thompson -- yes, the same Casey Thompson who first impressed The Mansion's Dean Fearing, bowled over the Dallas dining establishment with Shinsei, wowed the cable-ready food world on Top Chef, and whose Brownstone in Fort Worth is the area's latest temple of locavore dining -- you need look no further than her grandparents.
More specifically her matched set of grandmothers -- one with roots firmly buried in the loamy soil of Texas, the other who can chirp "La Marseillaise" flawlessly because she hails from France.
The 32-year-old, Lewisville-born Thompson can credit many languid childhood weekends spent with those two grand-matriarchs with the early molding of what would become Thompson's eclectic, homespun approach to restaurant dining.
Thompson's flour-coated memories of her "Texan" grandmother include her scratch biscuits, and a formidable chicken-fried steak, surrounded by an armada of sliced tomatoes, okra and hush puppies.
"She was such the real Texan grandmother, that she always seemed to have a fresh-fruit cobbler ready," Thompson says.
On the other side of Thompson's genealogical tree was her French-born grandmother, who bequeathed to the fledgling foodie a first serious exposure to lamb. Thompson also got introduced to the Gallic wonders of steamed asparagus with a simple vinaigrette, homemade mayonnaise, and coquille St. Jacques, which grandma insisted on serving in its traditional scallop-shell chariot.
"Now that I think about it, all of those times spent around the tables of my two grandmothers were preparing me in some subconscious way for the hospitality and catering to others of my future restaurant world," Thompson says.
Thompson was barely two years out of high school when her love affair with the culinary arts was definitely stirring. In those days, she was often spotted flipping through Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, not Vogue or Marie Claire.
"At that point," recalls Thompson, "When I was around 20, the only thing I knew for certain was that I was interested in every aspect of the food business."
She matriculated at the University of North Texas but left early for Houston to take a marketing position with -- even Thompson can't quite explain it -- a jet fuel distributor.
"All during my Houston period, what I really wanted to do was read culinary magazines and catch up with latest episode of Emeril," says Thompson, who, nevertheless, slogged through three years of heals and business suits, flogging jet fuel.
This was also her self-described "Rain Man" period as she would spend hours obsessively handwriting her 100s of accumulated recipes -- embedding cooking fundamentals into her brain with every pen stroke.
However hard she tried, Thompson could no longer ignore the persistent tug of the culinary world. She returned to Dallas and gave herself a two-week trial period in the unforgiving boot camp of a professional kitchen.
Arriving without even the most basic knife skills, Thompson would spend two weeks in the inner bowels of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, access finally granted to her thanks to a brief interview with the ever-cowboy-boot-clad Dean Fearing.
Arriving to The Mansion's prep kitchen by 6 a.m., Thompson geared up for 12 hours (at $7 per hour) of killing lobsters, peeling potatoes, tying 300 corn-husk boats, grating 50 pounds of cheese, 75 pounds of asparagus and 100 pounds of onions.
"What I most learned from months and months of being at the bottom is how to work faster," recalls Thompson. "I also learned how to endure pain, like from grating your knuckles and having lemon juice squirt into 20 nicks and cuts."
Thompson was eventually promoted to one of The Mansion's numerous line-cook positions, and that's when her hard-knocks kitchen education really began. On the line, she had to endure a sexist atmosphere in addition to such common kitchen hazards as bleeding palms from a malevolent mandoline, cramped quarters, and jerk-ish sauté cooks while making barely enough to afford highway tolls.
"At one point, in that horrible environment, I went to the bathroom, bawled my eyes out, but there was no way I would quit. I had gambled too much to walk away," says Thompson, Finally, in 2006, Thompson was named one of the first female sous-chefs in The Mansion's illustrious history. But when Fearing chose to leave the restaurant he put on the gastronomic map, Thompson started planning her exit as well.
"Dean was The Mansion, for me," admits Thompson. "So when he chose to leave, I was totally messed up over it."
It was Fearing's geniality -- sharing a pleasant word with everyone from the dishwasher to the top chef -- that resonated the most with Thompson.
"After you've had your ass kicked on the line for so many hours, nothing made you feel better than to have Dean say 'good job,' or 'take care of that hand,' Thompson says.
But Fearing was not about to lose sight of his rising protégé. He knew that the-then future restaurant, Shinsei, still needed an executive chef, and so he cajoled and eventually convinced Thompson to take it.
Thompson threw herself heart and soul into Shinsei, exploring all the facets of pan-Asian cooking. She made her own noodles. She scoured Asian markets in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York.
Only a year into her tenure at Shinsei, Thompson was being wooed heavily to appear on Bravo's Top Chef.
"The more they bugged me, the less I wanted to do it," says Thompson, without an ounce of coyness. "I had never seen the show, I simply wasn't interested."
But after Thompson heard that her friendly arch-rival and Abacus chef, Tre Wilcox, was going to take the Top Chef plunge, Thompson couldn't resist any longer.
The Top Chef experience lasted a little over a month and, by all accounts, Thompson, one of that season's finalists, enjoyed every moment of it.
"I had a great time on the show mostly because I went into it with zero expectations," Thompson says. "Even though I have a lot of competitiveness, I wasn't out for blood. I just cooked and wanted to have the best time possible. What I was able to accomplish on Top Chef was to stay true to my style -- a simple approach to food that I discovered can truly be applied to most anything."
What Top Chef also did for Thompson was prove the old adage that you can't go home again -- at least not for a while.
"I really loved Shinsei," admits Thompson. "But post-Top Chef I was being pulled away from being in the restaurant every day. And I had outgrown my immediate surroundings.
It would be San Francisco that would eventually lure Thompson for a two-year sabbatical.
Thompson's new West coast life immersed her in the entire process of wine making, from pulling and crushing the grapes to choreographing food and wine pairings.
She explored exotic flavor profiles everywhere from Thailand and Argentina, to Oregon and British Columbia.
Upon her return to Texas, it didn't take Thompson long to give birth to Fort Worth's Brownstone, which opened in early summer in Cowtown's spiffy West 7th Street development.
"Brownstone was always conceived as a neighborhood restaurant," Thompson says, "one where families might go for dinner with the kids. It's got a lower price point, and is very approachable."
The other theme Thompson threads through Brownstone is her West Coast-spurred adoration of farm-to-table, locally sourced products.
"We are committed to using everything from Texas, and as organic as possible," says Thompson. "Nowadays, of course I make my custard using organic milk, or my cornbread from local, farm eggs -- but I no longer describe it in minute detail on the menu. I realize that this isn't San Francisco. In Texas, and at Brownstone in particular, we are just very proud of the foods that we produce right here."
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