Sundown Chef Patrick Stark Talks Sourcing Locally and Scorching Hot Pans
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Patrick Stark, chef at Sundown at Granada, enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America fresh out of high school at 17 years of age, partially because he just wanted the get the hell outta town. He's worked throughout the United States, a few spots in Europe and had a two-year stint in Mexico. After serving as a private chef in Dallas, he's now loving his new gig at Sundown and, more than anything, his new band.
So you enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America at 17. That's pretty young. My dad wouldn't let me graduate from high school early unless I had a career in mind.
Why such a rush to get out of high school? Minimal overhead and the food is great. I just hated high school. I really didn't connect to that mindset much. I graduated with honors and all that, but I was a punk kid. I quit sports my freshman year and joined a band. My older brother was constantly on me to not get stuck in the town.
What was your first gig in a restaurant? While in high school, I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant with CIA alumni. These guys were super nice and let me study on my breaks. They introduced me to music and took me to concerts and stuff. It was nice to have a mentor in that capacity. Then one Friday night, a guy didn't show up so they asked me if I wanted to work the grill, and I said sure. I ended up getting a job on the line, so, I was like, "All right, Dad, if I have to roll the dice, I'm going to be a chef."
Was dad supportive of your culinary ambitions? He wasn't sure that I understood the industry -- the drug rate, the divorce rate, the alcohol rate. He said he would totally support me if that's what I wanted to do, but he wanted me to get a bachelors degree so that in case I didn't like it later in life, I had a safety net. And I recommend this to anyone going into culinary or any industry that has to do with art.
What was your first job or stage as a young chef? I worked outside Chicago at the Sunset Ridge Country Club with master chef Steven Jilleba. I credit him for separating me from the boys and giving me my stripes.
How's that? I was really young at the time and he would test my limits. The first few weeks he wouldn't even let me in his kitchen. He'd bring out these 50-pound bags of carrots, onions and celery and show me a dice cut and say, "Whenever you chop all of these you can go home." And he would come down and if they were too big or too small, he would swipe them into a stockpot and make me start over. He was testing my integrity.
What does it take to get through those early years as a young or apprentice chef? I think it's the ability to take direction, put your ego aside, and follow directions. Once I graduated from prepping in the basement I was finally on the line. It was a Saturday night and I was on a 16-burner range. The chef asked me if I was rotating my pans and I said, "Yes, I am." But one was scorching hot in the back. There was a piece of halibut in a flour dredge and he asked me again and I said, "Yes, chef." And he took the fish out and threw it in the pan of hot oil and it went all over my arm and I got burned badly. As I'm watching the skin on my arm rise, he put a towel over it and popped it and looked me in the eye and said, "Do you want to be a chef or do you want to be a cook?" So these stories of hard-core knocks are things I wouldn't change or give up. They help shape us. By the time I left there, I was running all the catering in his kitchen.
Where else have you worked? I actually had an opportunity to go to Europe between semesters at school. I had about six months off and a friend from high school invited me over to stay with him. I worked it out so that I could stage at different places.
What were some of your favorite cities? Dublin and Amsterdam -- I didn't really like France, to be honest. Then I also spent three years in Mexico helping design and create a Cirque du Soliel concept.
How was Mexico? It was a lot like an Anthony Bourdain episode. I went to a third-world country that loves to kidnap people. I was trying to find stuff that tastes good and places that had safe, edible food and were using safe, irrigated water. I went to so many produce shops and everything was laid out on their back dock, nothing was refrigerated, there were flies everywhere and they were using water from God-awful places. Also, the water was different so a lot of the food just seemed off to so many tourists. I had to rely on translators because, despite being able to speak decent Spanish, it was so hard to conduct business, especially since we were right on the edge of the Yucatan and there were so many different dialects. I can't complain much because I was living in paradise, driving a Jeep and living on the water. It was awesome, but it was a lot of work too.
You mentioned you're working on a book? Yes, I'm writing a book called A Recipe for Disaster. It's a little bit about growing up, your first love and jobs, 401K and insurance plans. There aren't a lot of mentors around for that kind of stuff, so if someone can laugh and learn from me, then great.
How do you manage your kitchen? At the end of the day, you're only as good as the people you surround yourself with. The art of delegation is really important and I make sure I take care of people so that when stuff hits the fan, I've got a lot of people on my side. I've got the help of my sous chefs Rolo Cantu and Billy Cooper. I don't do a lot of yelling. I still test people on their knife skills and stuff, but if someone is not doing what I ask, then I'll just tell them to punch out and go home. I don't have to yell at people. You either want to be here or you don't.
You're also in a band? When I first moved to Dallas I was a private chef around town and at the time was able to find a group of guys and we had a band called Strangleweed. We got to play with a lot of bands and traveled all over the place. Now I have new band, Backseat Continental, with Ms. Autumn Barr. We're in the last stages of mixing and mastering with Pappy Middleton at Palmyra Studios in South Dallas.
How was cooking for Will Ferrell? Will was super classy, down-to-earth and very appreciative. He was just so nice to everyone here. It's motivating and inspiring to meet people that are in it for the right reasons.
You use a lot of local ingredients in your recipes, is that for you or your customers? It's a mix of both. It requires more work and management in terms of tracking stuff down. And I've had several of the small local guys that I've been using for a couple months shut down now recently. They have a really hard time with distribution. So, it means a lot to me to support those small local artisans especially since they're doing something really cool and unique. The interesting thing about Texas, though, is we can only grow certain stuff, so that is another aspect that is really challenging. I had a guy argue with me in the dining room about salt. I told him that we strive to be local.
How has the Dallas dining scene changed since you've been here? I think we're finding more of the middle- or upper-middle class restaurants where you can come in and get a really good local grass-fed burger and fries for $9 or $10. But, there are still a lot of people with old money that still drive their '94 Suburban and every Tuesday they go to Texas Land and Cattle because that's what they like. If we want to be a great food city, we have to go out and support those upper-middle-class neighborhood places, like Brian Luscher and Marc Cassel.
What are some of your favorite local places? My favorite pizza is OT Tavern. I like Good Friend burgers, Lee Harvey's. I also like a lot of the places in the Bishop Arts and Campo.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.