Sundown Chef Patrick Stark on Avoiding GMOs and What Greenville Avenue Needs
Patrick Stark in front of his restaurant Sundown at Granada
At 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights, Sundown at Granada's executive chef Patrick Stark unties his apron and steps out of the kitchen into the bar. Half-price whiskey, live music and a late night menu, it's little wonder Stark can't drag himself away.
"I'm trying to break myself of this, but I'm a creature of habit," Stark says on a pleasant December afternoon. "I find myself going to the same places to eat, or just cooking at my house. And on my nights off, I'm usually still at work."
Since opening in early 2013, this Greenville Avenue restaurant consistently earns accolades for his vegan-friendly menu and commitment to non-GMO foods, while complementing its parent music venue with late-night music and rooftop movie screenings. Leading the kitchen is the health-conscious Stark, whose bright red Mohawk makes him one of the most recognizable chefs in Dallas.
Our conversation led from his passion for music, the future of non-GMO food and what 2014 has in store for him and his restaurant.
Walk me through a little bit of how you got here -- what does it look like when you look back?? I'm very blessed and fortunate to have been able to go and experience and travel, to have been part of the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA is the quote unquote top culinary schools. But it's like anything, sometimes they produce ringers, but they don't always produce good ones. Sometimes it puts your foot in the kitchen and sometimes it puts a giant crosshair on your forehead - you have to produce and show what that school's made of.
I went to the CIA when I was 17, graduated with two degrees before I was 21, then I went the corporate route and learned how to play with other people's money - how to mass produce quality in volume. Shortly after chasing the proverbial corporate carrot, I got tired of that. I think at that time I was only about 23 or 24 and I realized that before I got too old and started having kids or whatever I wanted to play music. The only place I hadn't been yet that I wanted to go was Dallas, Texas and my brother, who lived here, was getting married.
So you came here for music? I'd heard that Dallas had a really great music scene, so I just packed up my stuff in my car and came here. Had nothing lined up for work. It felt like the quintessential Catcher in the Rye story. I started doing private cheffing in some celebrity homes here in Dallas and I started to roadie for a few bands at night, trying to figure out how I could get into the music scene.
Any bands we might still recognize today?
There is one that is notable called Strangleweed -- they disassembled maybe five years ago. There was a 10-year run on that project. Somewhere in between there, while I was playing music, private cheffing, and traveling, I had the opportunity to move to Mexico to open up a dinner-and-a-show themed concept. I spent about three years there trying to open up a restaurant in a third world country. The language barriers, to the measurement systems, to being a gringo with a Mohawk were all strikes against me. But that was a great learning experience. When that finished, I came back to Dallas, consulted on a few restaurant projects. Lo and behold, my drummer at the time told me that they were looking for a chef next door at the Granada Theatre. Five years ago I started there, trying to fix their hospitality operations and trying to grow their catering and private events. Two years ago, this property came up on the market and I looked at the owners and I remember talking to the owners about what a great opportunity it could be for them. And that sort of brings us up to now.
How successful have you been at being a musician in addition to a chef? I try to piggyback my two careers, I guess. I suppose it helps to not have a wife or kids (knocks on the wooden patio table). But it's all been very serendipitous, just the fact that I'm cooking and being around music next door. This year I started a charity called Mohawk Milita that raises awareness about the non-GMO movement and I created a band called Amuse, which is a play on an amuse bouche. What I'm hoping for next year is that once a month, we'll be doing a night with the chef, which would be a fundraiser for the charity, but it would incorporate and play on all the senses. Live painting, music in accordance with the food that comes out and include my friends who are chefs and musicians. I'm looking at 2014 as the year that it all comes together.
This year you've been on TV, right? It's been a blessing. I didn't think anyone would want to look at me to be honest. One of the shows was Cutthroat Kitchen, which actually invited to return for another episode, so be on the lookout for that in early 2014. And there's another show on ABC I can't disclose yet. It's been an exciting year, just the support of the local neighborhood and all of Dallas. I'm lucky to have the support of the owners and my awesome kitchen staff.
So are you a vegan? No actually, I'm not. I've started over the last six months to practice being a pescetarian and being gluten-free. It really is amazing to see the differences that eating has on feeling better. I eat a lot more vegetables and things like quinoa, I could probably go vegan if I had to, but as a chef I want to be able to taste all my food.
How did you start cooking really good vegan food? When I started cooking for the bands next door, I would have flashbacks of what it was like when we were on the road. If we were in Arkansas or somewhere, middle of August, we've have some Pepperidge Farm cheese and sausage platter and a 10-pound bag of pretzels and I remember thinking that the body can't survive on that -- maybe in your 20s with enough Jagermeister could you survive that. But it wasn't until I started working at the Granada, I started to notice that the majority of them are all vegan or vegetarian. Some really heavy metal bands would come in and it wasn't like Ozzy biting the head off bats, or everybody eating raw meat like you imagine, Twisted Sister-style. They were all vegans. So I started playing with different vegan meals back stage. And that was a huge influence because they were educating me on some of their favorite dishes and that's when I decided I needed to take those foods up a notch.
Next: His favorite Dallas restaurants, and what Greenville Avenue needs.
?How would you describe Sundown? I'm a very eclectic person, from what I look like to the things I'm into. The restaurant is like a bad OSHA poster. We're an equal opportunity menu here; we support vegans, vegetarians, omnivores, carnivores. We support local farm to table. We have global flavors here, we play on seasonality, but we also cater to the picky eaters.
Let's talk GMO's for a minute. You have a pretty strong opinion about the non-GMO movement. Yeah, in this past year we've been striving to become 100% non-GMO at Sundown. But let me tell you, I started researching how to do this in February and it's taken me all the way to December to have only one item in house that isn't fully non-GMO.
Which is what item? It's the sweet potato fries and it's because of the GMO oil that they are blanch-fried in before they are quick-frozen. I was just pushing to get rid of the fries completely, but as an alternative we have a non-GMO, gluten-free fried falafel.
As a chef what are the biggest struggles in working towards that? I was lucky enough to work with Chef Mike from United Natural Foods, Inc. The products they hold in their inventory helped me out a lot. And we use Organic Valley for the dairy. But to keep the prices down, we had to get pretty creative. So I started looking at Europe, where GMOs are banned, to see if imported cheese would help get my prices more in line. With seafood, you don't want to get farm-raised - you always want to get wild. It's been an awesome little experiment and research project.
For me, it's not about bragging or having an ego-driven concept, it's about trying to educate or share. I mean the laws of supply and demand are in favor of getting more people to buy the better products.
With that in mind, what are your favorite Dallas restaurants? I love 20 Feet Seafood and the work that Marc Cassel is doing there. And I'm a big fan of Justin Box over at Bolsa.
Do you have favorite music spots besides the Granada? I am always at Lee Harvey's. It's my favorite dive bar in Dallas, because of the outside stage and great patio. And I like the way that it caters to different walks of life. Pardon my French, but it's nice to go somewhere where nobody gives a shit. On a nice fall or summer evening, it's the perfect place to be. I go to Trees a lot too. Clint and Whitney down there are doing tremendous things. I used to know them back 10 years ago when Clint was playing drums for Vanilla Ice and now they own Trees, and they just bought the Bomb Factory and I can't wait to see what they do with that. It's cool to see everybody maturing and becoming more invested in what they're doing. It's great to see that Deep Ellum and Greenville really try to support the growth of the community. I don't see that so much in Uptown, where it's a little bit more catty.
Has it been interesting to watch the evolution of Dallas in both food and music? Totally. I came towards the end of the golden era of Deep Ellum. Like Drowning Pool was getting signed; Pantera was killing it. But then it died. After '06 or '07, I realized that Deep Ellum was on the mend again, so it's been cool to go from hearing the stories of the legend of Deep Ellum, to watching it flat line, to begin to come back.
On the food end, things are really beginning to change. When I came here, people would knock Dallas because we didn't have a food scene, but now chefs are really earning us a reputation. We've got king Matt McAllister at FT33, Omar Flores at Driftwood, they've really raised the bar here. I've never been the type of chef interested in Zagat ratings or stars, but I have a lot of respect for them. And I don't think I could've ended up in a better spot.
The joke when I came to Texas, was "you've got a sunburn, put some ranch on it." I never even liked ranch. It's great that the city's grown more sophisticated, more mature.
Explain the hair to me. Believe it or not, last year at this time my hair was down to my shoulders. I had gotten away from the Mohawk for a few years, because I really just wanted to be judged as a chef and not some guy with crazy hair. When I confirmed my charity as a 501(c3) charity as the Mohawk Militia, that's when I brought it back. In a lot of ways the hair keeps me out of mischief because everyone notices me.
Does anyone criticize your Mohawk? It's great to be respected as a professional with this haircut. No one ever really says to me that I should spend more time on my food and less on my hair. And let's face it, Dallas can be finicky about things like that sometimes. I just wanted to be professional, but when I brought it back this year I didn't have to worry about it anymore.
What do you think Greenville Avenue is missing? A titty bar. I'm just kidding. What don't we have? Oh, a bowling alley would be fun.
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