How The Grape Chef Sarah Snow Keeps Things Moving, and Changing, at a Dallas Institution

Sarah Snow, Executive Chef at The Grape
Sarah Snow, Executive Chef at The Grape
Courtesy The Grape

As we've mentioned, 2014 has been the year of the young, up-and-coming chef in Dallas. The old guard continue to be successful in our city's food scene, but it's the youngsters who have really driven this period of innovation and revival in Dallas cuisine. Sometimes that innovation doesn't even have to come from opening a hot new restaurant. Even the city's most beloved dining institution is open to a little change.

Earlier this year, The Grape's Brian Luscher stepped aside from running the kitchen at the Greenville Avenue restaurant and handed over the reins to former chef de cuisine, Sarah Snow. Snow has quickly risen through the ranks in her time in some of Dallas' best kitchens, but scoring the executive chef job at The Grape earlier this year has really given her room to grow. I sat down to talk with Snow about working with the inimitable Brian Luscher, keeping things fresh at the 30-year-old restaurant, and her lightening-fast ascent from line cook to executive chef.

You spent a lot of time working at The Grape before taking the executive chef job. Can you talk a little about your history with this restaurant?

I started working for Andre Natera, that's kind of where I got my name out there, at The Pyramid Restaurant. Brian and Courtney came and ate their anniversary dinner there, I was probably 20 years old or so at the time, and we all walked out because it's Brian Luscher, you know. From there, I kind of worshipped The Grape. I was reading all about this restaurant and Brian's cooking, Facebooking, and just keeping track of what was going on here. I've always had a passion for learning more about charcuterie, and this was probably the best place to do that.

I heard about the job when I was working at The Common Table, so I applied, and here I am. I had only ever eaten here a couple of times because, you know, it's a fine dining establishment and I work on a chef's salary.

Coming from a pretty diverse kitchen background, can you talk about how you bring your past to this restaurant? I've worked in all areas of the business, really. I started at Great Wolf Lodge as a pastry cook because I wanted to be a pastry chef. Then, I moved to The Pyramid and got my fine dining experience, and left there for The Mansion because I really wanted to work for Bruno [Davaillon]. I ended up leaving The Mansion because I got an opportunity to go to The Marquee Grill to be an executive sous chef for Andre Natera.

I ended up working at The Common Table, but my dream has always been to own my own bistro. I wanted to own this family-filled restaurant with finessed food, but a place that isn't uncomfortable, but also not a brewhouse like Common Table. I learned a lot about how to make food nicer for beer drinkers and that was a really great experience, but this is the medium that I feel most comfortable in.

When I was in college, I was a hospitality management major at UNT initially, there were really three Dallas restaurants that I wanted to eat at before I died, and The Grape was really the top of that list because it's this iconic Dallas institution that has been here forever. You walk in here and it feels like your grandmother's living room but with this really refined food. I'm kind of a small-town kid, so I got obsessed with this restaurant, and the story started from there.

Your ascent has been pretty fast, right? You made the journey from cook to chef pretty quickly. I feel like I was a line cook for a shorter amount of time than most people, and sometimes it's really to my disadvantage. I have a few younger cooks that work here and I tell them to enjoy every minute of this and constantly ask questions, because what would I give to go back to that time? It did really escalate quickly, I guest. At Marquee, I was a sous chef for about a year before moving up to executive sous chef, and then I became the executive chef at The Common Table all within about a year. It was fast, but I don't know, I don't necessarily think that it was a bad thing. If I had to do it all over again, maybe I would have staged, but that's what I thought was best at the time.

How do you and Luscher handle the menu and the planning here of the restaurant? Now that he's opening his hot dog shop, how is he involved here at The Grape? When he hired me, we kind of agreed together that I would write some menus and Brian will see how they work and flow and provide feedback. About the middle of each month, I write next month's menu and he overlooks it, gives his opinion, and we go from there. As months go on, he's really turning down my ideas less and less. I think that he really wants to hand over the keys to this kitchen, which says a lot about him. I know this is his baby, so that's got to be hard for him. I know it would be hard for me.

Was it difficult to walk through the doors of this institution and take the reins from a much-loved chef? Writing menus wasn't that hard for me. It's always been my passion to work in this kind of restaurant, so bistro food has always been my focus. When I worked in fine dining restaurants, my food wasn't fancy enough, and when I was at Common Table, the food was too fancy. I wasn't so much nervous about cooking the food as I was the charcuterie program. I was walking into this charcuterie-focused restaurant and I was terrified. I've probably never been more nervous walking into a job.

But Brian is incredibly knowledgeable and makes it so easy to get comfortable quickly. He'll teach you anything you want to know if you ask him questions, so it wasn't as stressful as I'd made it out to be.

What lessons did he leave you with in running this place? I imagine that Brian Luscher has plenty of wisdom. He has a lot of -isms. Brian might be the king of -isms. In my first interview, and still probably every week, he has his three things that he lives by -- team-building, time management, and financial responsibility. He says that cooking comes at number 7, or 10, or 15. He expects those three things before he ever expects us to cook good food. He has lots of notable quotables, but I can't think of any funny ones right now on the spot. If you ask anyone who works here, they're going to say that it's all about team-building, time management, and financial responsibility. The rest will figure itself out.

Is he 100% right on that? Oh yeah, for sure. I've learned so much about being a good manager. In your younger years in your career, you learn how to cook. The higher up you get, you have to learn how to manage people and make them want to do a good job. The longevity of all these cooks at this restaurant is really amazing, some of them have been here for 12 years. That says so many things about a restaurant. At hotels, they have people who have been there for 35 years, but that's really unheard of for a restaurant.

What do you think makes people stick around here? It's obviously a close-knit group of people, but there has to be more to it than that, right? Someone asked me this question the other day, and it really is this family. Every Saturday, we do family meal, and it's not like other restaurants where we just throw this food out and don't really care if anyone likes it. We actually have a family meal, and we sit together and go over the specials and positives and negatives of the week. And after that, we have this joke hour where we just talk and eat. That says a lot about Courtney and Brian. They don't treat you like employees, they're really more of your parents. They take you in like family, and I'm not just saying that. It's really crazy how close everyone is, and as soon as you walk in the door, you're part of the family. There's no awkwardness.

I've also heard, though, that Brian Luscher can kind of be a tough guy to work with. He's known for pretty exacting standards. Do you think that's accurate? Brian has his ways of doing things, and he will tell you that. But you don't really want to argue with him about it, you want to learn how he wants you to do it. Some people, really headstrong people, you might not feel that way. Brian is actually pretty receptive to that, though. If you have another way that you like to do something, he's actually pretty open to talking about it and seeing if it actually does work better.

But yeah, I could see how some people could say that he's hard to work for because he is very anal about things always being in their place. I grew up with a father who is a mechanical engineer, though, so I grew up with him always being that way. If the books weren't pushed together and in chronological, alphabetical order, it was chaos. Here, all the hard spices have to be together. The red spices have to be together. I get it, because my father was that way, but I could see how some people might think that was overbearing.

How do you keep a restaurant like this fresh? French bistro food can be stuffy in the best of circumstances, so how do you keep being innovative? I think that has a lot to do with purveyors. I'm always calling my produce rep or meat guy to find things that are interesting and cool and rare. I want to find something that might not be the expensive dry-aged ribeye, but maybe some of the fall-off. What can I do with that? Our produce purveyor is really incredible, they have the best variety of produce all the time, and they get weird stuff all the time. If I hear about something that I'm not familiar with, I want to try it. You also have to keep up with your peers and find out what other people are doing. One of my cooks just went to Le Bernardin and she was talking about all of these crazy things that she saw there, and she got inspired from what she learned there.

What about your clientele? People who have been coming to The Grape since it opened, how do they feel about you trying to keep it fresh? That's why our menu is written the way it is. There's the "bistro favorites" that will never leave, nothing will ever change about those because the people who have been coming here for 30 years don't want them to change. The chef's menu is really where you get to play, but even then, we have a framework that we work within. Desserts, for example. We have to have something gooey, something fruit-based, and some kind of tart. That's how great guests want their desserts.

They want the chocolate terrine and creme brulee that's never going to leave, but you can still have fun with that framework. If someone wants fruit, I don't have to do something boring like a bowl of fruit or a poached pear. But there are some things we could never do. I've tried some things that were a little out there, and people just didn't respond. Right now, we have an apple crisp on the menu, and it's served with a foie gras ice cream. People will order the apple crisp, but they want the vanilla ice cream instead. So you pick and choose - part of your menu has to appeal to your regular guests. But you can have fun with a pork chop, you know? You don't have to serve it with mashed potatoes and green beans.

What about keeping people interested, though? People always want to try new restuarants, so how do you keep people other than your regulars coming back? This probably sounds weird, but the front-of-house has way more to do with that than the food. You go into a restaurant and think that you're a chef, you're going to be focused on the food. I've never worked in a place where the front of house is so amazing. They're so passionate about what we do in the kitchen, the wines the we sell, and the specials. Most places have daily specials that they rarely ever sell. The servers are in a rush, so they don't really do a good job of explaining chef's specials.

I was amazed when I first started working here how many specials we sold, because it's really unheard of. The overall experience keeps people coming back, and that might be a cliche thing to say. The warmness that you get at The Grape is important, and you really do feel like you're in this bistro in New York City or something. And, of course, the food is good.

The Grape is an institution, no doubt, but how do you stay relevant among your peers? Everything related to food in Dallas comes and goes, except for The Grape. I think it has everything to do with Courtney, Brian, and the owners. They never rest. If they say that we're going to do a wine dinner, a beer dinner, and whatever else this month, it happens. They stay on top of their stuff, and that's the big difference between this place and other places that I've worked in. I've worked for countless managers, and these two really have good heads on their shoulders about staying fresh with their restaurant. We're doing beer and wine dinners every month now. People still call The Grape the place that you take your first date, and I think that's always what this place will be. It's not overly expensive, it's fun food. It's not like The Old Warsaw or something that's just selling you steak and chicken and salmon. At our price point, I don't think there's another place in town that offers an experience like this. And that's because our owners never get comfortable.

The point of doing beer and wine dinners at The Grape is interesting. Coming from The Common Table, is the interaction between booze and food something that really interests you? I'm definitely interested in it, but I'm not entirely knowledgeable about doing it. I think that beer is a hundred percent easier than wine to pair with food, but I'm learning. The Pyramid Restaurant was very wine-focused, and I didn't really get it. But after working at The Common Table, I learned so much more about picking flavors out and really tasting the wines. Now, I'll sit down with Courtney and we'll talk about flavors and it makes sense to me now. It really didn't, you know, seven years ago.

Is there one that's more fun for you? Right now, beer, just because I'm more comfortable with it. The Grape is more appealing for wine dinners, though. We had a beer dinner a couple of weeks ago and the crowd was totally different than what is usually in the restaurant, and that's really cool. We want to appeal to all kinds of people, but as far as our clientele goes, I want to learn more about wine dinners and do those better.

Do you drink more beer than wine yourself? Are you a craft beer nerd or something? When I worked at The Common Table, I grew this appreciation for beer that I'd never really had before. Before I worked there, I drank Coors Light. We're drinking shift beers and after work and they're horrified that I'm ordering Coors Light. I grew up in small town West Texas, so I knew nothing about this whole world of beer. But for me, sitting down with a bottle of red wine and silence is the best therapy there is.

You seem like a pretty low-key person, which I imagine was a little bit of a change for the kitchen at The Grape who were used to working with Brian Luscher's very energetic presence. How did the kitchen handle that transition? I feel like that it all went fine, really. I don't ever get too wound up about anything, and I think that's sometimes frustrating for Brian. He tells me that I'm so hard to read, that I need to show a little emotion, and I really think that's what they were used to here. From what I'd heard about Danyele [McPherson], if she was mad, everyone knew. I'm not really like that. But with the staff, no one was really shocked that we clicked well. I think that I calm him down, and he comes in and gets us amped up for service. It's a good complement, I think.

How do you interact during service? Does he just show up and supervise the kitchen? Right now he's very busy with his hot dog joint, and he really has been since I got here. He'll be at the restaurant all day to answer questions and talk with me about what's going on in the restaurant, and he's always here for pre-shift. But he's not cooking on the line or anything, really. He has an office in the back of the restaurant, so he's always here if we need him.

What do you guys have planned for the next year? Any crazy changes to expect at The Grape with Sarah Snow at the helm? Right now, Brian and I are talking about a bunch of big charcuterie projects that will circle into the New Year. I don't have a vast amount of knowledge in charcuterie, so we'll be starting a few cured meats in the next couple of weeks. We're going to bring in a whole pig to make pancetta and things like that. We really want our charcuterie board to have more variety than the standard chicken liver pate and the sopressata that we're known for.

Can you talk about what you've learned about charcuterie since you've started working here? Right now, we have a pheasant sausage en creponette on the menu, which means that it's cased in caul fat wrapping instead of a regular sausage casing. When I started here, I wanted to learn more about making sausage and how we could wrap them in different things. I've been reading a lot about charcuterie, but it's all still fairly young to me. Right now, I'm just trying to get through the holidays, but after that, that's going to be a big focus. I've also learned so much about sausage-making. If anyone has perfected that process, it's Brian Luscher, so that's also really important to me.

Do you feel lucky to be at The Grape? That's kind of a tricky question because if you say "yes," you're kind of implying that you didn't earn it, but on the other hand, getting into a good situation is what it is, right?

I will honestly say that I don't know if I necessarily deserved this job. I think it's great that he considered me, but I was really shocked when he called and told me that I had the job. But he also said that hiring me wasn't some coincidence, I was meant to be at The Grape. I always had this feeling that I wanted to work at The Grape, and Brian and I have always been cool. I definitely feel lucky to work here.

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