Hibiscus Chef Graham Dodds Won't Let Your Hate Mail Stop His Menu from Evolving
Local food is one of those trends that has been absolutely beaten to death by food critics and chefs, and has recently become a little lost in translation. Any chef can slap "local greens" on their menu when they're really buying from a massive multi-national food conglomorate, but others have fully committed their menus and their restaurants to buying almost exclusively from the bounty of local farmers.
Hibiscus' Graham Dodds is one of those chefs. After tenures at some of Dallas' other great restaurants, including Bolsa and Central 214, Dodds has been cooking up his ultra-seasonal food at Hibiscus for nearly a year. In that time, he's quietly transformed the Henderson Avenue establishment into an innovative and constantly-evolving restaurant. I sat down with Dodds to talk about what local food really means, how he built relationships with over thirty local farmers, and why he thinks genetically modified food might be causing the downfall of our civilization.
When you came to Hibiscus last year, you really helped push this nearly ten year old restaurant to a new level. What change do you think was most transformative?
I thought what Consilient was doing with their restaurants was a really exciting direction. With opening CBD Provisions, AF+B in Fort Worth, and reconcepting Fireside Pies to Thirteen Pies, they were seeking the chefs in this town who were sourcing food in the right way. They were looking for farm-to-table chefs, so they hired me, and Tim Bevins at The Front Room and Jeff Harris for AF+B. Now they've hired Matt Ford for the new restaurant at the Joule. I felt like I aligned really well with their philosophy.
They have always been supportive of how I sourced food and the relationships that I had built with the farmers. I feel like I have the most relationships with the local farmers in the area, and I try to integrate that first and foremost. I write the menu based on the ingredients they bring me. Consilient initially offered me AF+B in Fort Worth, and I didn't want to do the commute. I felt like I needed to be here in Dallas. When they offered me this space and I was in a co-chef situation, I felt connected to this space. It's a special dining room. It's got soul, it's warm and inviting. It was really easy for my comfort food to jibe with this space. I feel like this restaurant could be anywhere. Napa Valley, The Alps, wherever.
Did you worry that working with a corporate restaurant group would stifle your creativity in any way?
I don't think Consilient is your typical restaurant group. They're the farthest away from that that you could imagine. If anything, they were extremely supportive of my creativity. They push me and want us to change the menu often, do exciting features, and source the food in the way that I do. I came from a corporate hotel, and that meant being on conference calls all day. You have a full-time job sitting back in the office. I had to make a real effort to be on the line every night and not get wrapped up in all the meetings and crazines. We run each of these places so individually, it feels like an independent restaurant.
Can you talk about how you cultivate relationships with these farmers? Did you just drive out to their places and see what they had? It's been years of relationship building. It really started when I opened Bolsa, and we put on a farmers market and we attracted farmers then. When we first opened, we didn't have a walk-in cooler, so I was relying on these farmers to bring me deliveries every single day. Local farmers have a certain amount of something, and then they're out. They have something for a few days, so we would change the menu as their offerings changed. We were writing ten to twelve specials a day on our menu, just depending on what the farmers brought. That's how I love to cook. I like for everything to be constantly evolving. All that change was so exciting.
A lot of these farmers are my friends. I go out to their farms and cook dinner and it's my country getaway from Dallas. It gets to the point where they know what I want to buy. I started learning about their soil types and working with them to experiment to see what grew well. When I first started with Consilient, all of the chefs in the group went to Comeback Creek Farms for a brainstorming session, and we have them growing all these crazy eggplants. We have all this buying power and can support these farms in a big way. I think we're really the only ones in town who are doing that, and it's special to be a part of it.
Do the farmers that you have relationships have any skepticism about the chefs in Dallas' committment to local food? There's a huge risk with being a farmer in general. I think it's one of the hardest jobs you can do. You're so reliant on the weather and bugs and crazy things that can happen to your product. The frustrating thing to me is when restaurants say that they buy from farmers and put them on their menu, and only buy from them once. Then they just put this commercial shit on their menu and it's not right. Some farmers have even called restaurants and asked for their names to be taken off of menus because they know who is ordering from them and who isn't. It's offensive. If you're going to give a nod to the farmer on your menu, you have to buy from them. That's how these guys stay alive.
Unfortunately, "local" has become this trendy tagline that a lot of people really aren't committed to. It's hard work, and you really have to do it. We have between 25 and 30 people we call for different things. We have a lady that grows pecans and another that raises rabbits. Our order sheets get insane after a while, but to me it's worth it. It's the best possible ingredient out there. Some of these things are being picked in the morning and being brought to me that afternoon for dinner. When you eat this food that is raised right and not doused with pesticides and is at its peak, it's healthy. It's the way food is supposed to be. Getting back to that is so essential.
Are there a lot of chefs in Dallas that are just paying lip service to local? I hope not. I hope people are following through. Really, people have noticed that there are a lot of us doing it. I know who buys from the farmers because they all come here and tell me who they're going to see next. Bolsa still buys from all the locals and FT33 is one of the biggest proponents of local in town, and there is a lot of attention focused on that, but a lot of other restaurants are jumping on board in whatever way that they can. At the end of the day, my food costs more than other people's do, so there's a commitment to it. But I also can't jack up my menu prices so much that Hibiscus is no longer a neighborhood restaurant. At the bottom line, you're making less money because you're spending more on ingredients.
Have these ingredients made chefs more inventive and diners more adventurous? I think now that community supported agriculture is so popular, it has made people look more at things they hadn't eaten before. Many of these CSA shares from farms come with recipes so people know what to do with spaghetti squash or bok choy or whatever it is. It gives people an ingredient that is perhaps out of their comfort zone, which is a really awesome way to learn about food. It becomes more about building recipes around ingredients, and that's how we look at it. We get this big brown mystery bag of stuff from our farmers and create dishes around them. I think that's really exciting.
What about those dishes from nine years ago at Hibiscus that your regulars come in and want? Have you struggled with that?
It's a balance. We did get rid of the crab dip that was on the menu, which was really popular. It was kind of a crazy dish, made with really expensive crab. We served lavash with it, and a cook basically came in full-time to make the lavash for one dish. If someone ordered the crab dip, we were basically walking over to the table and giving them eight dollars for buying it. So that had to go, and not just for the direction of the menu, even though it did stick out like a sore thumb. But it was also a financial decision. There was a lot of pushback on that.
I took the mac and cheese off and replaced it with a risotto, which kind of scratches the same itch. We got rid of this wedge salad with a big pile of onion rings on top because it seemed really dated. We were pushing the menu forward. I don't really have iceberg lettuce coming to me from anybody.
Was the pushback a big deal?
I got some hate mail. Desserts were hard. The chocolate cake disappeared, but we replaced it with a really awesome carrot cake. I would take things off the menu, but add others that were really solid, and like I said, scratch the same itch. I didn't want to put the same chocolate cake on there because there would be a comparison, but it's still a cake, and everybody can wrap their head around a carrot cake. But we're using these heirloom carrots from the farm, we cut the sugar in half, and serve it with a beautiful carrot puree. It's healthier and more approachable.
Is making healthy food important to you? Restaurant food is known more for excessive use of butter and cream than being healthy.
Restaurant food is unhealthy, but I think butter and cream can be healthy if it's sourced in the right way. What's healthy to me is to know where it comes from, that it's not sprayed with pesticides and genetically modified. I don't want food that's processed in a huge plant. That's when food becomes unhealthy. Yeah, there's a healthy way to eat. I wouldn't say that Hibiscus is a health food restaurant, our portions are massive, but we do make an effort to buy meat that is naturally raised and oftentimes grass-fed, so we're moving in that direction. I think there's a feeling you get when you eat a plate of food that comes from the farm and is produced correctly, you leave at the end of the meal feeling good. You don't feel like you're about to die or you need a nap. You feel good. Even if you're not aware of it, subconsciously you feel good.
You mentioned GMOs. I can't think of a more controversial food issue right now. Is that something that's really important to you? Is Hibiscus a strictly no GMO kitchen?
I avoid them at all costs. I think they're terrible, and contributing to the decline of our civilization. It's killing the honeybees, and I'm extremely sensitive to that as a beekeeper. We're messing with something we shouldn't be messed with. I get all of my food from local farms as much as I can, and I'm even avoiding products that are so common in restaurant kitchens. We're avoiding soybeans, and I'm not using canola oil anymore. You don't buy no GMO corn anymore. It's so hard to know because these seeds go with the wind. How do you know that everything you're eating hasn't been contaminated? When I got here, we were using a canola oil blend, and I replaced it with grapeseed oil. It's twice as expensive, but it's important to me.
We avoid as we can. GMOs are not labeled, which I think is a crazy situation, so there's a huge unknown factor. I buy from people who I know grow safe food and avoid scary ingredients that you know most of it is genetically modified.
Of your local purveyors, do any stand out as your favorite?
Everybody kind of does a different thing. Comeback Creek does an extremely good job at what they do. We have them growing some really special stuff, and it is always so immaculate and fresh. It's the epitome of fresh, really. I'm a big fanatic about goat, it's one of my favorite ingredients. Ty at Windy Hill in Comanche, Texas raises these goats, and it's incredible. I just did a farm dinner at Frontier Farms in Corsicana. The real trick is to get them all to grow different things and not just arugula. I don't want to have to split my arugula-buying across six farmers.
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