Over the years, Shannon Wynne’s beer-driven gastropub Meddlesome Moth has seen some ups and downs. When it first opened, the Moth had a dedicated following and continually cranked out some of the best swanky bar food in the city. But as is always true in fickle Dallas, somewhere along the way eaters moved onto newer, shinier joints popping up all over town. Still, Meddlesome Moth persevered, even if the concept did sort of drift from its roots.
Now, the Moth is laser-focused on again becoming one of the city’s best gastropubs, with Chef Richard Graff at the helm. At the age of 45, Graff’s passion for food sent him to culinary school, and from there, he’s worked in some of the city’s finest kitchens. Now, he’s dead-set on making the Meddlesome Moth the best place to grab a beer and a bite. We sat down with Graff to talk about his midlife career change, how he plans to keep his food evolving in a casual environment, and why you’ll never see any mac and cheese on this chef’s menu.
You’ve been in the kitchen at Meddlesome Moth for just a few weeks. Can you talk about the trip through the culinary world that landed you here?
I’m a midlife career changer, I was 45 when I went to culinary school. My first job out of culinary school was with George Brown at George, where Fireside Pies is located right now. I worked with him there until George closed, and from there I went to Craft. When I first started there, I was a cook, and within a year I was working as a sous chef. I worked several chef positions there, including catering, and when they shut Craft down, I took over as chef de cuisine at Cook Hall.
I did that for a year, then decided it wasn’t what I really wanted to do anymore. I left and started looking for something that fit the food that I wanted to be making. I was looking for another job, and I talked a bunch of different people about different positions before I found Stephen [Rogers] and Allison [Yoder] at Gemma. I spent almost two years there before Meddlesome Moth came into the picture, and now I’m here.
That’s a pretty high-end trajectory.You didn’t make too many detours through restaurants that didn’t make it very long in Dallas.
I was older, and I guess more mature. My clock isn’t as long anymore, so I was a lot more serious than a lot of cooks in their 20s. Coming out of culinary school, I was very pointed in who I wanted to work for and work with, and I took it very seriously.
A number of people have come into the culinary world later in life. Are there specific advantages or disadvantages to making that switch when the rest of your co-workers are going to be in their 20s?
It depends on the person, I think. I guarantee you that I can run circles around some of these cooks that are much younger than me. That’s just me, though. There are plenty of people my age working in this business who can’t, and maybe it’s because they started in their 20s. At my age, I’m still hungry. I still feel like a babe in this. I’m excited every day when I come in. It’s not old hat to me.
That seems like a really distinct advantage — to come at the executive chef role with a strong sense of identity and maturity. Does that make your life a little easier?
Maybe it’s made my career path shorter. Instead of taking 20 years to get to where I am now, it took 10. Maybe that’s what it’s done for me.
How would you describe the cuisine that is uniquely yours?
When I’m cooking for myself, I like to get back to the food I grew up with, food I’d make for a family. I grew up in a German household. We did a lot of braised things, and goulash and spaetzle were a common fixture. Between all the grandmothers, one of them was cutting the spaetzle by hand from a wooden cutting board and making goulash all day long. I always gravitated toward that, which is what I liked about my experience at Craft. We did a lot of braises and working with off cuts, and created our own cured meats and charcuterie program. That’s the stuff that I like to come back to, that’s where my comfort zone is.
Both are comfort food, but executed in a completely different way. How do you execute that overlap?
You have to always engineer a menu that encapsulates enough people. You don’t want a party to come with four people and one person feels left out. You have to have the more mainstream items on the menu, but you can also branch out and offer sweetbreads and other unique offerings. You can get fancy with things like charcuterie and nice cheeses, which is one of the reasons they brought me on board. Meddlesome Moth sort of came from that in the beginning, and somewhere along the way it got a little diverted. We want to get back on that path.
How do you keep your cuisine moving forward? How do you re-evaluate the food that you’re making and make sure that it’s evolving?
You have to find a place that’s doing what you want to do. Every owner, whether it’s an individual or a group of restaurants with more of a corporate structure, they all have a vision for a particular property. It’s really all about finding the right fit, and that’s what I think a lot of chefs make their mistake in doing. They think they can come in and strong arm and take over, mold the restaurant to their will. Unless it’s your money that’s put this together and it’s your baby from the beginning, you’re more of a caretaker. You want to put your thumbprint on your restaurant, but you have to work within that original concept. You grow with it, you don’t take it over. You mold with it. You’re working around yourself.
That seems very distinct from many executive chef’s philosophies — they’re bleeding on the plate, they say. How do you balance working within the vision of a restaurant and staying true to yourself?
I don’t think of it as just all about me. Maybe that’s the difference. That could be because I spent 20 years in sales. I’ve worked in corporate environments. I’ve learned along the way that there is very little in life that you can manhandle and make perfect on your own. In this industry, it’s more true than anywhere else — it takes a good team to do a really good job. I’m here to please guests, I’m not here to please myself. I want to do something that I feel really good about, but I’m ultimately here for the guests. If a guest doesn’t want a tomato on something, I’m not going to have a fit because that’s the way I envisioned that dish. The guest gets their dish without the tomato. I may not engineer a menu around that kind of accommodation, but I have to be open to that. If I’m not, then guests aren’t coming here and spending money, and that means that my servers, myself and my owners aren’t making any money.
Coming from Gemma to Meddlesome Moth is a pretty big leap in terms of style. What made this environment so appealing to you?
There’s always the part where it becomes more like your kitchen. There’s a lot of gratification in that. At Gemma I was the executive sous chef, and for the most part, I was executing Stephen’s vision. Don’t get me wrong. He has a great vision, and I loved working for those guys. They’re probably the best people I’ve ever worked for in my entire life. I learned a lot from them, and I matured a lot as a chef there. I felt that it was time for me to take that experience and take more responsibility at a restaurant with everything that I’d learned there.
So this is your very first executive chef role, then?
Yes, first executive chef job. I’ve been chef de cuisine, various sous chefs and executive sous chefs.
Was that a big leap from what you’d been doing before?
Operationally, it’s not a big leap at all. At Gemma, I was making sure that everything was executed properly. The rest of the team there was very talented, and I could rely on them. Operationally, I didn’t feel really any difference, but there is more pressure. You have to think about whether or not the decisions you’re making about the menu are going to work, and there’s all eyes on you to see how you do. Everyone here is a really great group, though, and I’ve been well received. I feel really comfortable here. We can step up the game and make the customer and everyone who works here happy and proud to be here.
What does stepping up the game mean for Meddlesome Moth?
We want to do a little more in-house items, things that we make here instead of purchasing outside. I want to get into a little more local product. We do some of it, and I think we can do a better job. We’ve been trying local product for the specials that I’ve been running, and it’s just a matter of working those products into the menu. I’ll start working on concepts for the fall menu, and we’ll work with management to get those approved and executing them in the kitchen.
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Moving into the fall, you’ll get to do more of the braising and comfort-style food that you’ll love. Are you planning any major changes to the menu?
Not really. It’s still a gastropub. I’m not going to turn it into a fine dining restaurant. The basic structure — small bites, shared plates and a few options for people who don’t like to share — will largely stay intact. I’ll probably have a few more items that are vegetarian, vegan or health-friendly, but also have those rich, homey dishes that no one wants to know what they’re going to do your arteries.
Four weeks into your first executive chef gig, what do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in this process?
The lessons that I’ve learned are all lessons that I’m bringing from the past to do this job. I’ve had to learn to not wholesale change everything. That’s the quickest way to make a kitchen crash. I’ve been there before where a chef says that everything is crap, they have to redo everything, and that’s overwhelming for everybody. I like to break it down in stages and work on what’s most important first. I want to be able to bring everyone in my kitchen along without affecting the guest. That’s what takes the most work to figure out.
You mentioned that you’re focused on keeping Meddlesome Moth back on the track that it was intended to be. How do you plan to do that?
Just in being true to the standards that I grew up with in this business. The quality of food and how you execute it, that’s what we’re going to focus on. That’s what I need to do. When we do the fall menu changes, we will do some tweaking. Some of it will be seasonally focused, but I’d also like to get some dishes that I’ve been wanting to do on there. I want to get some homemade pastas, because people love great pasta. I need to be true to the food that I believe in, without being fussy and trying to be fine dining. You can take those techniques and translate them to a casual, pubby environment without giving people something that’s opened up out of a box and fried.
So no loaded cheese fries on the forthcoming menu?
No, I don’t think you’ll be seeing any loaded cheese fries here. Or mac & cheese. Everybody does it, and we don’t need to.