Since the Observer recently named Charlie Palmer at The Joule the city's Best Fancy Restaurant in this year's Best of Dallas issue, we thought now would be a good time to get a look at the man behind the kitchen, executive chef Scott Romano.
Like many of the chefs we have interviewed for this series, Romano began his road to executive chef by washing dishes. He started among the suds in a Middletown, New Jersey, pizzeria and by age 15 was making pies. Soon he moved on to Romano's Macaroni Grill. (No, he's not related.)
"At Macaroni Grill I met the general manager, who had graduated from the bachelor's program from the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and he encouraged me to visit the campus. I went up and spoke with them, and went home and told my dad I started school in three weeks," Romano recalls.
His dad, a firefighter, nearly had a heart attack -- not because his son wanted to become a chef but because he faced bankrolling tuition at one of the country's most expensive culinary schools
After graduating -- paying for the education all worked out somehow, as it often seems to do -- Romano found himself in Charlie Palmer's internship program. Soon after, he was in the Flatiron district in Manhattan, running Palmer's neighborhood restaurant, Alva, as chef de cuisine. In 2002, he reinvented Alva as Kitchen 22 and opened a second restaurant, Kitchen 82, on the city's Upper West Side.
"In 2004, chef Palmer asked me if I wanted to run Astra in LA. So I went from running a 150 seat restaurant and an 80 seat restaurant to catering the HBO Awards for 1,800 people. It was a big jump for me. A huge learning curve," Romano says.
About a year later, Palmer sold his interests in Los Angeles to Wolfgang Puck, and Romano found himself working for the California legend. He was moved to Puck's Spago, working under chef Lee Hefter. "I learned so much from him, and it was a tremendous experience," Romano says.
Later Romano was asked to help open a new Puck restaurant in Las Vegas, but was lured by Palmer once again to help open a Reno, Nevada, restaurant with chef Matt Hill and then was dispatched to Dallas to run the restaurant at Joule, which opened December 17, 2007.
"One of my favorite features here is the dry-aging room. We dry our own sirloins for 23 to 28 days," Romano says. "I have two very talented sous chefs who run the charcuterie program, Richard Blankenship and Taylor Kearney. Right now we have about six prosciutto's hanging, one of them has been in there for eight months. We have all sorts of beautiful meats curing, including a duck prosciutto and a lamb prosciutto. We cure over 30 things," Romano says.
The aging locker can be partially seen from Charlie Palmer's main dining room as dangling cuts of meat cast shadows on an semi-opaque back-lit window. The restaurant procures two whole hogs each week for the charcuterie program.
"When I was sous for chef [Palmer] at Aureole we would cure meats in the wine room because it is the best environment for charcuterie. Charlie would come down and see this and would say we had more meat in the wine room than wine, you guys have to chill out. And it was true. So when we opened this place he actually built me my own room and said to keep out of the wine room," Romano says with a laugh.
Although the restaurant stays busy with hotel guests and downtown's growing population of residents, it still maintains an active event program. Among them is the upcoming Big Red Epicurean Weekend, featuring celebrity chefs, sommeliers and food and wine enthusiasts from across the country united to celebrate Texas wines and food. It will include an Iron Chef type of an exhibition with Charlie Palmer and Dean Fearing battling Top Chef upstarts Michael and Brian Voltaggio. This year's event takes place November 5 and benefits the North Texas Food bank.
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As far as weekly features that should entice nearly everyone is the Palmer happy hour each Thursday, when the bar menu drops to half price. During happy hour, a large charcuterie plate served with house-canned spicy green beans and thick slices of potato bread is $7, and the signature bacon- and jalapeno- stuffed quail legs are $5.
Bar Bites, available until 2 a.m., include the lobster corn dogs that Romano came up with for a demonstration he did at the State Fair a few years back. He also sends out the fried lobster as his evening dinner amuse.
In Romano's down time you can find him hunting or spending time with his fiancee, who also works in the food industry at the Elbow Room. From the son of a New Jersey firefighter to working for one of the nation's most respected restauranteurs, Scott Romano has been heartily welcomed as one of Dallas' most respected young /chefs .
Find out more about Romano tomorrow when he answers questions about where he likes to hang out for a beer and who his pick is in the ongoing taco wars. Friday, we enter the kitchen at the Joule for a recipe you can make at home -- but might be better left to the chef.