Kitchen LTO Chef Blythe Beck on Global Culinary Domination and Sexism in the Kitchen
In her relative short time as executive chef of the former Hotel Palomar's now-defunct restaurant Central 214, Blythe Beck quickly made a name for herself. Known as "The Naughty Chef" from both her Oxygen reality show and the combination of "booze, butter and bacon" that made her famous, Beck is now back in Dallas after a two-year hiatus as a consultant in Arkansas.
Surprisingly enough, Beck isn't helming her own "swanky Southern" joint, but has been chosen as the next executive chef at Casie Caldwell's permanent pop-up restaurant Kitchen LTO. Even though she'll only be there for four months, Beck is beyond excited to be bringing her flavors back to the city that helped propel her career to new heights. I sat down to talk with Beck about why Dallasites love her food so much, why she chose Kitchen LTO, and her quest for global culinary domination.
What has it been like for you to come back to Dallas and have such a great reception from people who clearly loved your food at Central 214?
Being back in Dallas is the best thing ever. Arkansas is great, and it was really great to me, but the whole time I was wondering what was going on at home. The reaction has been humbling, but it's also been very exciting. To be back in a brand new kitchen with an entirely new staff doing my own thing again is going to be really great.
What about the short-term nature of Kitchen LTO appealed to you?
Everything about it appealed to me. It's actually a double-edged sword because you work with these people in the kitchen and front of house, and they really become your family. It's sad to leave them, but as chefs, we get itchy to move onto bigger things. I've known [owner] Casie Caldwell for years, I consulted on Kitchen LTO in its beginnings, and the timing of Kitchen LTO 4.0 was just perfect. I spent all summer shooting some television, so it was a perfect time to come back to Dallas. I love cooking in the fall here. I was pretty much willing to do whatever it took to come back to Dallas, and I got lucky in that this was just a perfect opportunity.
What about Dallas makes it such a good home for you and your food?
Well, first, the Dallas Cowboys because I'm a big fan. This is where I grew up culinary-wise. I started working with Dean Fearing at the very beginning of my career, and the people in this scene are the ones who raised me into the culinary world. This town is one that has supported me. As much as I love other cities, Dallas is my home and Dallasites are the people that I love to cook for.
Do you feel like you left Dallas on good terms after leaving Central 214? I know everyone was sad to see you go.
Absolutely. I left Central 214 because I had an amazing consulting opportunity. And, you know, money talks. It was a great decision for me to do at the time, and then I went to Arkansas, which was really only supposed to be two weekends. Then I found myself staying there for almost two years. I'm always very careful to leave things and relationships better than you found them, and every restaurant person has been great to me here.
Were you sad to see Central 214 close?
It's always sad to see a restaurant close, especially when you've poured so much of your time into making it great. I was sad when Hector's closed, and when I heard some things about the changes at The Mansion, they made me sad too. No matter how far you are removed from working at a place, it always feels like home to you. When I think back to my time at The Mansion, I sort of go into the fetal position because it was so hard, but at the same time, that's where I was raised. You always are sad when anything closes because it's kind of the end of an era.
Speaking of what's going on at The Mansion, specifically that servers and kitchen staff seem to be unsatisfied with the more casual direction the restaurant is taking: Do you think that The Mansion is kind of operating on an outdated fine dining model, and thus the rub?
I will say this. Those servers and station captains are some of the hardest working people in the industry. The standard that they had to keep was just impeccable. When you get to that level and you're cooking and serving at that level, to see that diminish in any way is painful. To me, it says a lot about the wait staff that they're so upset about this direction because they take so much pride in their work and how invested they are in making The Mansion what it is. So I say kudos to them for that. That is about work ethic, honor and respect for what they do. And they've been working there forever.
But yeah, as far as fine dining like that, it's tough. It's tough in Dallas, Texas, to make a man wear a coat to dinner, especially when it's September and ninety-five degrees. It's tough to tell people that are spending that kind of cash what they can and can't wear. And let's be honest, Dallas does Dallas, and they're not going to change that. So yes, I think the days of the white tablecloths and thousand-piece place settings are over. At least for the vast majority of people.
Is that true in every city, or is that something unique to Dallas?
It's happening all over. Look at Wylie Dufresne's restaurant in New York. It's closing, and it had been there for forever. First of all, people can't afford to eat like that anymore. It used to be when I was cooking at The Mansion, it was the upper echelons of people. It was movie stars and politicians and professional athletes. Now, everyone knows about food. Thanks to Yelp! and OpenTable and all those food blogs, everyone is a food critic now and stuff like The Mansion is much more accessible. I don't think that's how people eat anymore. Now people know what they're getting. It's tough to sell a $65 steak to people no matter where you are. It better be the best damn steak they've ever had.
Our cuisine here in Dallas has changed so much. All these restaurants are doing this fresh, modern, light cuisine, and your food stands completely in contrast to that. Is it difficult to make people that are now always on a diet love really rich food?
I'm going to tell you a story. People are going to tell you they're always on a diet. Tell you they don't eat carbs or gluten or whatever. Those are also the people who tell you that they only have one glass of wine a night. I don't believe them. When you come out and have a chef cook for you, you want to be naughty. Is my chicken-fried steak a rib eye? Yes. You don't see me battering it up and all that, so it doesn't count, right? I get critiqued and criticized for cooking with butter and cream and all that, but everyone cooks with that stuff. It's what makes food good. These other chefs may not profess their love of bacon, butter and booze as much as I do, at least not publicly, but that's what restaurant food is. I respect the people who do the no-carb, no-wheat, no whatever, but that's not how I cook. I'm the one that you come celebrate cheating on your diet with. You don't eat this food every day. I don't eat like this all the time. We're the naughty splurge. I'm not here to judge, I'm here to feed you.
Rein it in? Blythe Beck? People have tried. You always go out there thinking that you're going to conquer the world and have to come back to reality a little bit. After a few glasses of wine I am just brilliant, a rockstar when I haven't slept in three days. I write everything all out and go through and self-edit. Now I have this amazing sous chef back in the kitchen, and she and I do a ton of collaboration. We always go really big first, but it has to be doable. My kitchen has to be able to make it, my servers have to be able to sell it and my diners have to want to eat it.
Now I'm not just frying things just to see what I can fry, like a deviled egg or whatever. Now I'm finessing and adding more technique to what I'm doing. But reining it in isn't really what I do. You've got to spread those wings and do your thing. And then get ready for the criticism.
What about the kind of criticism that would say that Southern food is outdated? Surely there are people who say that you can't do anything creative with a chicken-fried steak and pile of grits?
Comfort food is the ultimate. It's always the food that you keep going back to. You can't beat that ever. So all these people who use all these techniques and are making these foams and fizzes, that's just not me. Everything you have to do, you have to do well. My food isn't modern in the sense that no one's ever seen it before, but let's be real. Everything has been done before. My food has my stink all over it. Who fries a rib eye? Blythe Beck does. Who makes the best mustard greens in the world? Blythe Beck. Comfort food will always be comfort food, and that's how I feel about my food.
So if someone comes in and asks you to make something "healthy," what do you say?
We just did a full vegetarian tasting menu last night, and I am totally comfortable cooking vegan food or whatever else it is. I'm also not opposed to modifications on my menu. If you want double greens and no mashed potatoes, I'm happy to make that happen for you. My ego is not such that I can't make any changes to my food.
How does one do naughty vegan food?
You use lots of fresh herbs, spices and love, you know. You use acid, like lemons and limes or vinegar. Herbs and acids are your best friends in any kind of cooking, but especially so in vegan and vegetarian. We're not just throwing raw vegetables on a plate and pretending like that's a vegan meal. We have to care for the veggies as much as we do a big, fat, juicy rib eye.
I talked to Chef Brooke Egger, your predecessor at Kitchen LTO, when she came here, and her food is so wildly different from what you're doing. How has it been to work in her kitchen for the past few days before you take over the restaurant?
I will be completely honest. It kind of makes you bristle a little bit as a chef to serve someone else's food, but I respect Brooke Egger as a chef and as a female chef. Her food is diabolically different than mine. She uses a lot of garnishes, and her cooking style is the antithesis of mine. There are so many components to her dishes, and mine is very simple. I never want people to need a dictionary or thesaurus to understand my menu, because I don't want people to feel stupid. But her food is completely delicious. That's what makes Kitchen LTO so great. You can have California modern cuisine and then some really traditional Southern food right after that. I had never had hibiscus salt before, but it was pink so I really liked it.
As you take on this latest project, you've got a pretty impressive resume behind you. How do you feel about where you are in the culinary world right now?
Well, I'll tell you that I'm on a mission for total world culinary domination. It's not just an expression. I have a list, and every time I hit one of those goals, I mark it off. I feel like there's so much more I can conquer. In the restaurant business, in my charity work and everything else. I want to feed 2.2 billion people, which, you know, is a pretty small goal I guess. I want to cook on the Great Wall of China. Everyone's got a story, and we tell those stories through food. No matter what you look like, no matter what you believe in, food binds everyone. I don't sleep very much because I'm thinking about what to do next. I've got a long way to go. I haven't cooked for New Kids on the Block yet, so I still haven't achieved all I can yet. Every living president except for Obama? Check. But New Kids On The Block? Still waiting for that to happen.
You mentioned that your sous chef is also a woman, which makes me think that you're one of the very few (maybe the only) executive chef-sous chef duo that is exclusively female.
Let me tell you about my sous chef. Remember the name Megan Potts because that is my girl, and I've only known her for a week. She's younger than I am, but it was like we were sisters and she never knew it. The girl has got flavor, and her soup from a tasting the other night is actually going on my menu.
But not only do we have a female executive chef and sous chef, I have female saute cook, a female lunch cook, and the owner is a female. I love that. When I started in the kitchen, I was the only girl. And I wasn't even really allowed in the big kitchen at first. I don't think we give enough credit to women who work together because there's this automatic assumption that the kitchen's going to get catty or bitchy. It's not like that at all. She makes me have moments. I saw her making my food last night, and I was in awe of her respect for my food and the finesse that she has. She was in the running for executive chef this time at Kitchen LTO, and I have no doubt that she'll be the winner for 5.0. And she'll have all my backing and support because she is a rockstar. She's not "a girl," she's a badass.
Do you think the kitchen is finally more hospitable for women?
It's not more hospitable at all. When you're in an environment like that, you're seeing women who have forged through all the bullshit to get to where they are. I saw so many women come through at my time at The Mansion and Hector's and Central 214 that had to fight it out knowing that bad language won't hurt you. Being called names won't hurt you. And you should expect sexual harassment, and it won't hurt you, as long as they don't touch you. A kitchen is essentially a man's locker room, and we've had to fight and show everyone that we belong back there. There's nothing more empowering than taking raw ingredients at the beginning of a busy night, making them your own, and killing it. Women fought hard, and there still aren't a ton of us.
You worked for Dean Fearing and he's the grandfather of all this culinary growth. Do you think he gets enough credit for that?
He doesn't. He raised so many of us babies. If you pick any amazing restaurant in Dallas, there's a 90 percent chance that the chef worked for Dean. He raised us so well. He was harsh in the sense that everything had to be right, and right the first time. He took so much pride in his food. When you were a saucier, you were making 19 sauces a day for him, which was just insanity. So many people that have worked for him, like Scott Freeman and Amador Mora have gone on to do these amazing things. That's why I call him Big Daddy, because he is. It's an honor to call him my mentor, and Dallas is so blessed to have him. He never left and went to New York or L.A.
When you're on the other side of working at The Mansion, you almost can't believe what you had to do when you were working there. His standard of excellence was just amazing, and that has bled through to all of us. We're all 10 years out of it, and we're still doing things "The Mansion way." We're still texting and asking each other old recipes from our time there.
So what do you think the biggest thing you learned from him that you bring to your restaurants?
Seasoning everything. He is the one who taught me about salt and acid, and seasoning everything. You can always taste a chef that was trained by Dean just based on the way that they season their food and create flavors that just dance.
Now, back to the future, you have four months at Kitchen LTO, are you planning to stick around in Dallas after? Maybe with your own permanent spot?
Absolutely, but four months is a long time. Who knows what's going to happen. We have a lot of football to play and a lot of food to cook, so who knows? My plan is to stay here.
What about the menu at LTO? Is it going to be similar to what we saw at Central 214?
Some of it. When the announcement was made, I got 55,000 emails from people requesting dishes that I had on the menu there. The deviled eggs will be back, but they're going to be rotating out each week with different flavors. My chocolate fudge waffle, which actually got me the job at 214, is coming back, and my Maker's Mark banana pudding debuts tonight. Everything else, though, is new. It's my flavor and style to the core, but not the same dishes at all.
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