Miss Behavin': Central 214's Blythe Beck Gets Down, Dirty and Delicious
Central 214's executive chef Blythe Beck
Photo courtesy of Central 214
Her first name ain't baby, it's Blythe, Miss Beck if you're naughty
She dresses in pink. She loves diamonds. And she says that what food really wants is for you to "love on it." I'm speaking, of course, about Blythe Beck, 30, also known as The Naughty Chef. She's executive chef at Central 214.
If you need the whole boring bio thing, here it is in a nutshell: Beck went to Xavier University in Cincinnati; worked part-time at The Cooker restaurant there; left Xavier; traveled Europe; got a hotel restaurant management degree at UNT; did an internship at the Mansion; landed an apprenticeship with chef Dean Fearing; became the sous chef at Hector's on Henderson; was quickly promoted to executive chef there; and is now, of course, at Central 214.
But that stuff doesn't tell you a thing about her. Eating with her, however, explains it all.
It was the Friday before Halloween when I went to visit Beck, and the bar staff was dressed up as cowboys and Indians. Beck had told me I could come talk to her but that I better be prepared to eat. "I'm going to feed you," she told me by phone in no uncertain terms. I won't lie. I was a little scared.
Sure enough, the first thing Beck says when she sees us is, "Are you hungry?" My companion and I were, and it was a damned good thing.
We tasted a parade of items from Beck's fall menu which, just like the weather that night, was unequivocally heralding fall. She describes it as "braised meats and fried things" and debuted it this past weekend.
We started with spreads of pimento cheese and smoked trout served with unsalted butter and crusty bread. Then we had what the waitress called "fall in a bowl," pumpkin soup with gingerbread croutons, something truly naughty by Beck's definition -- rich with as much cream as there was pumpkin. It made my dining companion want to fall into that bowl.
Then it was on to a spinach and frisee salad with Champagne mustard vinaigrette, pancetta lardons, a bacon soaked crouton and a poached egg with cayenne pepper. It seemed to encompass every possible taste and texture -- salty, gooey, rich, crispy, crunchy. You get the idea. The fish course was a buttery diver sea scallops dish and a grilled, spiced bass that was salty, saucy and flaky. Our meat courses were a lamb shank marinated for 12 hours and served with carrot mash (and, yes, it is as earth-shattering to the mouth as it sounds) and fried chicken with butter-soaked waffles and jalapeño gravy.
After we tried the meat course, Beck came by the table and asked, "Do you feel a little dirty in your naughty parts? Get ready for dessert. Cause you know it ain't sorbet."
When she returns, she sets down a fudge waffle with peanut butter ice cream and caramelized bananas on top. "This is what got me my job here," she says. Next to it, she places banana pudding with house-made, Maker's Mark-soaked Nilla wafers in a Mason jar (which Beck describes as the vision for her fall menu), and a vodka funnel cake with cranberries that one of the waiters told us they have to card people for because there's so much vodka in it. "And this is only half the dessert menu," Beck says.
Being at Central 214 with Beck reminds me of what food used to be. Before it was all foam and dainty servings. Beck's style is fine dining in a hip atmosphere that you definitely do not leave hungry. "I could be all subtle and serve small portions," she says when I asked her about the molecular gastronomy and nouvelle cuisine movements. "But that's not right."
Eschewing popular food phases is one of the reasons why people call her the naughty chef. But as far as I'm concerned, it's also because of the noises you're bound to make when you eat her food. It's moan-worthy.
Beck is perverse, offering the palette its every desire. Dieting be damned. It's not that she isn't aware that some people are minding the scale. "I've heard that rumor. I don't really like that talk in here." It's not that she doesn't care. It's just that it seems like a waste to her, all those things you'll miss if you deny yourself certain ingredients.
Despite the fact that she's not a big fan of calorie counting, she's happy to oblige to whatever requests customers have. "Just the other day I made a five course vegan menu. I feel blessed to have you here," she says of her clients, so she has no problem doing as they ask. "But if your ever gonna cheat," she says. "I want you to be dirty with me."
Part of Beck's persona is all things naughty. In other words, cooking with the good stuff -- like butter, cream, fat and oil -- without apology. But the other part is surprisingly girly. "When I was coming through the line at the Mansion, you had to wear black clothes and a white baseball hat." Now that she's running the show, things are a little different. Actually, a lot different. Now she's the "chick in charge," she says, emphasis on chick.
On that Friday, when I stop in to see her, she's wearing her characteristic pink chef's jacket along with a pair of black chef's pants with a pattern of flying pigs. "My mommy buys all my chef's clothes," Beck explains. "She makes all my T-shirts too."
When I ask Beck about trends in the industry, she shakes her head at me and it's the first time I see her frown all night. "I don't ever follow trends. That's issue one. My job isn't to manipulate food. It's to love on it and take care of it. If you come into my restaurant, it's not about me. It's about you and the food."
She quickly launched into a story about a meal she had while out in Los Angeles. "The first course came out, and I shit you not. It was half a shrimp on a white thing. 'It looks like styrofoam but it's edible. Isn't that great?' they said to me. I thought it was an amuse bouche." I can assure you, her bouche was not amused at all. After that meal, she told her hosts she was going to need an In-N-Out burger. "The man who taught me how to cook doesn't make that food. I don't get it. I don't think Dallas diners want that. They want food they can pronounce and that will fill them up. No bullshit."
What kind of food does Beck make then? "sexy new American," she says. "Food you ate growing up, but naughty." She says when she made that realization, it was like hearing the voice of God. "Eat the way you want to. The butter. The cream. I had always been cooking like that but I didn't know what to call it." What Beck crafts are meals to linger over. And they are anything but dainty. Consider yourself warned. "I just laugh when girls come in here with their Spanks on," Beck says.
She spends every minute of her time at the restaurant in the dining room -- standing at the kitchen counter directing, visiting the tables, serving much of the food with the waitstaff. "I touch every table," she explains. And she talks to everyone who approaches her. "People say, 'Oh my God, you're exactly like you are on TV.' People come up and say, 'You're just like me.' People say you inspire them. I get emotional. That makes it all worth it. 'I know you're important,' they say. Like they're bothering me and I say, 'So are you.' Everyone's got a story to tell."
If you know anything about Beck at all, you know that she had a reality show on the Oxygen channel for a short time called The Naughty Chef. When I ask her about the show, she seems neither happy nor sad about it having come and gone. "The one thing I'll say is that none of it was contrived. I'm not a Kardashian. I was working 18-20 hours. I had two full-time jobs." She says she loved it. But she'll be the first to tell you that it wasn't easy, especially the bad reviews.
"It was tough. The recovery time for TV is long. I called my mom. I cried to my hairdresser, to my makeup artist. All I could think was, 'You sure spend a lot of time hating me.' I would always turn things around to make it about me. That's what chefs do. I know there are people who hate me. I've seen blog postings. They don't like diamonds on the line. Or whatever. The thing about it is, if you hate me, there's got to be something about me that reminds you of yourself."
One thing people are particularly rough on her about is her appearance. Beck didn't make it a priority to get all dolled up for the show every day, because, she explains, that's not real life for her as a chef. "Listen, I do not have the time or the inclination to worry about that. It wasn't what I was going for. I do not spend my life worrying about that. When I do appearances, I do it up. Girly on top. Chef on bottom."
Still, the gig had its moments. "Everywhere we went, these women would try to get in the background, waving their arms. My producer would go over to them and say, 'We're shooting a Valtrex commercial' and they would disappear," Beck recalls with a laugh. It's all part of the deal, she explains. Before doing TV, "you never went to the bathroom and have someone slide something under the stall and saying, 'Can you sign this?'"
As for the future for Beck, well, she says, "I'm never satisfied. I am after total world culinary domination." Not that she hasn't done a lot already. "Today Show. Check. Rag magazines. Check. Jewelry. Check." Still she's after even bigger things. "I want to make great television that makes people feel good. I want to get a pink bus and go on tour and bring my BFF Cory. I want to go to the homes of my naughty army [fans] and share our dirty secrets. I want to make great food and great TV."
The only thing holding her up, she says, is the fact that "TV has a lot of politics." Still, she knows it'll happen one day because she has a "laser focus on it. I belong with the people. I belong on television. I belong with the naughty army. I'm a chef. I'm a Texan. I'm hungry." Guests to Central 214 should be too.
And if you go, for God's sake, listen to Beck and wear your stretchy pants.
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