For most chefs, the allure of the big city is too much to resist. Many talented chefs spend years working for other people in establishments that have more prestige than room to grow. As a result, you might have noticed that plenty of young chefs and restaurateurs are looking to less conventional places to open their concepts. The growth of Plano and Frisco’s restaurant scenes has been explosive, and it looks as if McKinney may be next.
That has a lot to do with Jon Thompson, chef-partner at Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen in downtown McKinney. Thompson’s culinary background is impressive, including stints at Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas and working with Stephan Pyles at Stampede 66. Now that Thompson has opened his own place, he’s zeroing in on New American cuisine in his own way. We sat down to talk with Thompson about his culinary background, what “New American” really means, and how to persuade Dallasites to make the 30-mile-plus trek north to McKinney.
It’s interesting that someone with your diverse culinary background would decide to open a restaurant in a place like McKinney. What was the thinking behind that?
Well, I live in Plano, so I’m familiar with the scene up here in the northern part of the metroplex. I always wanted to do something outside of downtown, where I was always working, so I decided to look up here and see if I could do something interesting. Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen was the result. When this idea was brought to me, that it would be possible for me to do this here, it was already something that I was interested in.
When you say that you wanted to move north, you went way north. What was it about this area that was so appealing?
Originally, I’m from the East Coast, a town that’s pretty similar to McKinney. It had an old town square kind of vibe about it, and I always loved that, and it’s what I love about this part of McKinney. You don’t just drop your car off at the valet, eat and leave. You can park your car, walk around in this charming district. I don’t find that in too many places around the area. I like the historic charm that exists here that you don’t have in newer restaurants.
When I first heard about Sugarbacon and its location, my first thought was about Restaurant Ava, which was very successful in Rockwall, also pretty distant from the rest of the dining scene. Did you take some lessons or influence from that restaurant?
I learned a lot, actually. Randall [Copeland] and I were pretty close friends, we had been line cooks together back in the day working in Las Vegas. We talked a lot about Ava and its development. At the time that he passed away, he was talking about turning it into a more Southern comfort food restaurant because he thought that was more of a fit there. The style that he was cooking at Ava was very similar to what we had done together at Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas, this very modern, New American cuisine.
What I gleaned from that information that I learned from them was to make the menu very approachable. Hopefully it’s been executed better than the dishes that people are familiar with, but I think even non-foodies can look at the menu here and be comfortable with it. If people tell me that they want more adventurous stuff, I can build that out through my specials. I learned to not force my own agenda or wow you with my creativity — I just want to make really good food that people like.
When you talk about the simplicity of the menu, that almost seems like a requirement. Being in a suburb presents a certain set of challenges in terms of what you can serve, how adventurous you can be, even down to the price point. Do you have to run a restaurant differently in McKinney than in Uptown or elsewhere in Dallas?
There are a few things. You might do a few more showy dishes in Uptown, where that might be a little more appreciated. Here, I’m focusing on dishes with a little more substance, and not [worrying] about being flashy. That was our focus, to make it more about the taste and flavor. The price point is an interesting point, because we do have a few dishes that we could charge more for in downtown, but the rent is more expensive there, so it all seems to wash out.
You’re not from the South. How did you start studying Southern food and end up with such a classic, Southern comfort food menu?
I tried not to make it too much in the comfort food space. There’s not many creams or gravies. We’ve got shrimp and grits and chicken with creamy mashed potatoes, which is kind of comfort food, but we tried to keep it less regional. We call it “New American with Texas undertones.” We’re doing a lot of smoking and adding some barbecue-type components, but we didn’t want to be too heavy with the menu.
I’m from Maryland, and it’s technically the South, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve done a lot of cuisines throughout my career — Modern American, Indian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, French — I haven’t pigeonholed myself into any one cuisine. I wanted to learn about a lot of different cuisines, what makes them work, and execute them well.
What about the Southern culinary flavor palette appeals to you?
I think it all has to do with flavor, that’s probably the most important thing. Southern food has a lot of bold, rich flavors. The part that I try to move toward more is the barbecue side of things. Our Sugarbacon dish is a barbecue-type dish, and we smoke pork chops and pulled pork and other components. It’s a very American thing, something that I love doing. I like being an American chef.
There are people who like to roll their eyes at American cuisine or act like it’s somehow inferior, but I think we should really be proud of American food. I don’t think you’d find too many French or Italian people complaining when someone opens a French or Italian restaurant. It’s something that is very important in that culture, and I think it should be the same here. As an American chef, I want to know everything I can about that cuisine and prepare it the best I can.
I think that may have something to do with the fact that people look at American cuisine as fussy, expensive, more about the spectacle than the flavors on the plate. Is that perception far off?
The most difficult thing in the perception of New American cuisine is that nobody really has a concrete idea of what it actually is. You have things like what Matt McCallister is doing, this really edgy, forward-thinking stuff that is on a totally different spectrum from a place like this, and it all falls under this umbrella of “New American.” But for me, New American means breaking away from classic French flavors. It means “not French.” You don’t find a lot of reduced veal stocks or demi-glace or red wine sauces. That concept is broad, it can be what you want it to be, and as long as you execute, people aren’t going to complain about you calling yourself a “New American” chef.
I think the same could be said for what describes “Texas flavors,” too, right? What does that flavor profile mean to you?
I got into that a lot at Stampede 66 when I was working with Stephan Pyles. Here he is, a sixth-generation Texan doing his own food, but no matter how many times we tweaked a recipe like chicken and dumplings, it never fit anyone’s grandmother’s recipe. There are so many dishes that people have a very personal connection to because they’ve grown up with them, and they can resent any interpretation of those classic foods.
There’s a lot of personal attachment to those kinds of dishes, so that was something that was hard for me to figure out. Where can I play with things when I’m making Texas food for Texans? People look at it different ways, but if I cooked it well and seasoned it right, I thought people would be happy. And sometimes they wouldn’t be. It’s always going to be a challenge, and you’re not going to make everyone happy.
But surely there’s no one better to apprentice under and learn Texas flavors from than Stephan Pyles. Can you talk about your experience at Stampede 66, and what you brought from that to Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen?
Working for Stephan, you learn an impossible amount. He’s not just in the kitchen practicing his craft, he’s up on a ladder fiddling with a light or proofreading a menu for grammatical errors. When you become an executive chef, the whole job really changes. When you’re a line cook, you’re just responsible for your station. Then, as you move up, you start to take on more responsibilities, like inventorying and ordering, that have nothing to do with what you’ve been doing previously.
Once you get to ownership, you’re doing everything from picking out cocktail menus to finding the right check presenters. I learned a lot of that from Stephan. Everything that left the kitchen was a reflection of his name, and he took that very seriously. From a cooking perspective, his flavor profile and how he really loves over-the-top flavor and presentation, and I brought that here to some extent. I’m not doing his style here, I’m not cooking any dishes that I learned from him, but working for a big chef like that, you learn so much. He looks at his role as not just a guy in the kitchen, but also a chef in this city with broader responsibility. I hope to be at that point.
It seems like he does have a lot of responsibility though, right? Do you feel like guys like you who are newer, opening your first concepts have a little more freedom to fuck up?
There is maybe some stuff along those lines that happens. People go to Stephan with higher expectations and coming here there would be a totally different set of expectations. A celebrity chef’s name attached to something does mean higher standards. He doesn’t open shitty restaurants, he stays personally involved in all the ones that he does open. It took him a long time to delegate Stampede 66 to me because he’s not the guy who just opens a restaurant and then leaves.
One thing that does seem a little easier to do in McKinney than Dallas is source locally grown produce and meats. There’s tons of it in your backyard, like the massive farmers market and Local Yocal meats. Has that been easier or harder than you thought?
We do a fair amount of local food here. It’s great to have Local Yocal here, they basically grind our hamburger meat practically to order, and that’s been really incredible. Our farmers market is one of the largest in the country, and there is so much great stuff there. This town has been so friendly and receptive to what we’re doing, and that includes the farmers too.
Do you feel like that’s dramatically different than downtown?
Yeah. Without a doubt. Downtown is a weird neighborhood. People go there to work, and maybe they come back at night. Here, we have a lot of great local clientele. We’d heard that about 60-70% of people in restaurants here were coming from Dallas and elsewhere to eat, but we’ve seen almost the exact opposite. This place is much more like a neighborhood spot, and that’s really exciting for us. Even when we were in construction, we would have 10 or 20 people a day just coming in to introduce themselves, tell us how excited they were that this place was opening.
As much as you want it to be a neighborhood spot, though, it seems like you’ve got to bring in people from out-of-town to sustain a restaurant like this and make it a successful business. How do you do that?
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You do what you do really well, and you practice good cooking and great service. The word will spread. We feel like we have a pretty good vibe going on about us right now, people seem to be really interested, and that will spread. People will eventually trek up here.
We’ve seen people from downtown, and they’ve told us that we’ve given them a reason to come to McKinney after not coming here for years. We feel like we can draw from Frisco, Allen, Fairview, Richardson even. There’s a lot of areas that are easily accessible to this part of town, and those cities are growing really fast. If we end up being a regional restaurant, that’s fine too.
I feel like a catchy-as-hell name like Sugarbacon probably doesn’t hurt either, right?
No. I have a Sugarbacon t-shirt and if I wear that out, I get stopped and asked about it more often than any other article of clothing I’ve ever worn before. It’s almost like being pestered sometimes. People want to know what we’re all about just based on the name. People love it, and it makes people smile when they hear it or see it. The name came first, and then I had to make a dish to go with it. I couldn’t have a name like that, and then that’s when we came up with the Sugarbacon dish. It’s about a three-day process to make it, but we sell more of that than any other dish I’ve ever made before. Every table gets it, to the point where we’ve sold more than 150 orders of it per day. At Stampede 66, we sold a ton of fried chicken, but I don’t think we ever sold 150 portions of anything. That’s just an insane number.