Hotel St. Germain's Norman Grimm on Sneaking F-bombs and Pork into His Kitchen
Chef Norman Grimm's work was highly praised at Kitchen LTO, but all good things must come to an end, and at LTO it happens fast. After a four-month stint at the newly-opened pop-up spot in Trinity Groves, the 23-year restaurant industry veteran accepted the executive chef position at Hotel St. Germain in Oak Lawn just a few weeks ago.
After stints at a number of Dallas restaurants and cooking in some of San Francisco's best, including working under famous chef Traci des Jardins, Grimm has the chops. Few chefs in Dallas have the cooking credentials that he brings to the storied but struggling Hotel St. Germain.
The menu at his Kitchen LTO-stint was thoroughly French-influenced, but now Grimm is ready to go full-scale French. I talked to him about his experience at Kitchen LTO, what he expects to do at Hotel St. Germain, and what he thinks about Dallas diners.
What did you learn in your time at Kitchen LTO? I don't know, thats kind of a hard one to put my finger on. I've been thinking about that a lot, what did I learn from Kitchen LTO. Not how to open up a restaurant, I've opened up 9, 10, maybe 11. Maybe one of the most valuable lessons was to choose your partners wisely in business.
Openings are always a great tool to learn what not to do. By now, I could write a book on things you don't do when opening a restaurant. I also met a lot of really awesome young restauranteurs -- Daniel at Luck, DJ at Resto Gastro Bistro, Omar at Casa Rubia is an awesome young chef that's doing some really great food right now. The owners and investors have taken an area that's kind of barren and dead and spun it into this huge success.
Do you think that growth is sustainable over the long term? I think that area will turn Dallas into something in something that it's ever been. Have you been and seen the plans for the bigger picture? That can only benefit Dallas. It'll be a beautiful thing over there.
Shifting away from LTO, last year St. Germain got a terrible 1-star review from Leslie Brenner. She called it Fawlty Towers, even. Harsh. How does it feel to go into a new restaurant knowing that's the situation? Well, I would say that Fawlty Towers isn't at all the situation at Hotel St. Germain. If it was, the same chef would be there, they wouldn't be shaking things up. I haven't read the review, and I personally don't care about the review. I don't care what happened at the restaurant before I got there. Sharon Hage, who I'd worked with at York Street, was chef at Hotel St. Germain 13 years ago, and reached out to me after the last chef departed. She said she didn't know how many chefs in the city that could do, or even wanted to do, this position.
Why do you think she asked you? I've got a lot of years in cooking in a lot of very high-end establishment. The owner of Hotel St. Germain has a very specific vision for the hotel. She's from New Orleans, and wants you to feel like you're stepping into a French Quarter or Garden District Hotel. The food I make works well with that. I don't know the full history of Hotel St. Germain, but I do know that it's the only Relais Chateaux property in Dallas, and one of only two in Texas. That means a standard of service that is beyond the traditional dining experience. It means attention to detail.
I don't know the history of the St. Germain either, but I have dined there before. It's such a tiny little -- How was the dining experience? I wonder because now I'm putting out the food but I haven't dined it. I like what I see, everything is cool -- little white gloves, guys in the tuxedo. I walk out into the dining room and think "wow." I had dinner at Alain Ducasse in Paris and I feel that what we have at Hotel St. Germain is very similar. The feel is much the same.
I loved it because I'm a Francophile, and I felt like it was very unapologetic about the decadent, jacket-and-tie environment. I don't think the food was necessarily great, but it was okay. I did like that they were oh-so-French. When I came in and handing out new menus, I thought, What century am I in? I want to create a renaissance there. I want to maintain that, what did you call it? Unapologetic standard of service. I wanna buff it up and make it shiny again.
I think that this will be a great time of growth for me. I want to work through a bunch of different dishes. I'd like to update the food. It's fun to think about because I've lately been looking at dishes at Providence (in Los Angeles) and Casa Rubia here, and they're really groovy, with lots of handmade funky elements. But at St. Germain, I'm presenting food on 100-year old Limoges china. The owner isn't really into the molecular gastronomy thing, so everything that we'll be doing is very classically prepared.
Do you think St. Germain is a place you'll be for a while, or is it a place to do some learning and then move on? I don't know. We'll see where it goes. The owner's been there for 22 years or so, and it's all about where she wants to take it. It would be cool down the line, if I stay there, to kind of take on the Hotel St. Germain.
You have an interest in that? I always have an interest in the bigger picture. I have five children, I always have to be thinking about the bigger picture. It's kind of limitless as to what I could do. I'm having a blast. I really enjoy it, everything from the beginning to the end of a meal. But we'll see what happens.
Of course, now we have to talk about the food. What comes to my mind with the white gloves and very traditional presentation at St. Germain is that people will assume that the food is stuffy. And it kind of has been. It's classic French food, but people in Dallas maybe don't give a shit about French food? No. They don't. Not at all.
Then how do you put together the dishes that you want to make and make Dallas diners give a shit about it? I think I've always been doing classic French food. I'm going to keep making my versions of the classics. It's all about components. Flavor profiles. What you're putting together. I have a roast lamb loin on the menu at St. Germain with fresh fava beans, pearl onions, petit carrots, and I serve it with a pomme souffle. The pomme souffle is a classic adaptation to an old-school French dish. These elements are classic and subtle, but I can still be fresh.
Coming from a create-your-own concept type restaurant, do you feel comfortable with the level of creative freedom you've been given at this new place? I do, with one tiny exception. My owner isn't a big fan of pork, I happen to love pork. I have it tattooed on me. But to me, to work in a place like this, it's a sacrifice that I'm willing to make right now.
So you don't have a pork dish on the menu at all right now? Sacrilege! No. I have a pork belly dish I really love, and I might try and slip it in. I use bacon or prosciutto in dishes like lentils, but the owner would prefer I don't have pork tenderloin or pork chop on the menu. I could probably get away with a pork rillette in a charcuterie. I hadn't thought about that. Might try that.
How has your cooking changed since getting to the St. Germain? I cook a lot, always have. In past kitchens I worked all day doing prep for the night's service. During service, I would be expediting the line and keeping the flow of customers going. Now, I'm cooking everything. Each meal has eight courses, and every component will be house-made. Even bread. I don't buy my bread from Empire or Village anymore. I have to do it myself, and all the other components in my dishes.
Has there been a big learning curve? Now, I'm doing 36 covers a night and getting my ass handed to me. That's because I'm cooking all the food during the actual service. When I was creating the new menu, I didn't quite look over all the work that was involved, and now I've got all kinds of elements going all at once -- foie searing, scallops in a pan, food in the deep fryer. There's a tremendous amount of pan work, so that's definitely been challenging.
Do you think the attention to detail at St. Germain, one of the only Relais Chateaux properties in Texas, mean that in the right hands, could put you in a better place -- To possibly achieve the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Texas? Maybe. I think that would be really cool achievement.
Why do you think Dallas doesn't have a single Michelin star? I think the people who award Michelin stars and write the guides expect a Relais-Chateaux standard of service. I think that there are a couple of restaurants in our city that are doing a really good job of working toward a Michelin star, but they have some little bits to them that don't necessarily work. Like, they'll have a snide hostess. To achieve one Michelin star? That never happens once. It's an extreme attention to detail.
So, now that we've talked about everything that you cook, what do you eat? I don't eat. My cooks always say "I never see you eat." But really, I like cheeseburgers. From Off Site Kitchen. It's not a political thing. I'm not a big fan of the big massive cheeseburger, even the one I make. I like what Nick's doing down there. It's what In-N-Out was when I was a kid, a very personalized flavor profile. I grew up in SoCal, and going to In-N-Out when I was 5 or 6, and there was just a different flavor. It was better. I just totally elaborated on that cheeseburger.
We ended the conversation outside Grimm's building in Downtown Dallas. While we smoked a cigarette together, Grimm told me that a lot of people thought he could be a little "intense" in the kitchen. "When I was working at the Omni, we were doing something like 800 covers a night. I didn't have time to ask nicely. Fuck is a great impact word. I won't say 'hey, fuck you!' to a cook, but I would say 'hey, you need to hurry that the fuck up.' HR departments don't like the word 'fuck,' but it gets things done.
There is definitely a lot of intensity bubbling inside Norman Grimm, hidden coolly by a collected and laid-back exterior. We'll see if "fuck," and maybe some sly pork, helps him turn things around at Hotel St. Germain.
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