Taylor Kearney Is Reinventing Front Room Tavern, and This Time, It Might Stick

Chef Taylor KearneyEXPAND
Chef Taylor Kearney
Amy McCarthy

They say if you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait five minutes — it’ll change. For the past year or so, the same could certainly be said for Front Room Tavern, the swanky restaurant inside Highland Park’s equally swanky Hotel Lumen. This place has seen a name change, a few chefs, and an interior facelift, and that’s just in the past year. Now, though, Chef Taylor Kearney is ready to make Front Room Tavern his home.

And really, they couldn’t have gotten a better guy. Kearney has worked in some of Dallas’ finest kitchens, and spent time in New York, Las Vegas and France honing his skills. We sat down to talk with Kearney about his rapid-fire trajectory from line cook to executive chef, what he’s learned from the culinary juggernauts he’s worked with, and why Southern food resonates with this locally born-and-raised self-described “Texas boy.”

You’re a pretty young guy to have a big gig like this. There aren’t a lot of 26-year-old executive chefs. Can you talk about coming up in the culinary world?

I graduated high school a little early, I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I’m a fat kid who wanted to cook for the rest of his life, so I went to the Art Institutes and then moved away for a little bit. I worked at a few places in Las Vegas, a few places in New York and worked in France for around 11 months. I really liked the way that Charlie Palmer ran his kitchens, and I had looked up to him.

When I came back to Dallas, I had worked here before at the Hilton while I was in school, and it just worked out that there was a job here for me at Charlie Palmer. Within about two months, I was a sous chef under Scott Romano. When I left there, I went to work with Randall Copeland and Nathan Tate at Ava, and then went with Nate to Boulevardier because I had some experience with French food. After that, I took a brief detour back to New York, then came right back to Dallas to Nick and Sam’s. Which was interesting.

I’ve heard that can be a pretty crazy job. I don’t think most people realize exactly how busy a place like Nick & Sam’s is.

It was. That was the experience that I wanted, though. I already had fine dining experience, not to say that Nick & Sam’s isn’t, but I needed volume. I was used to doing maybe 200 covers a night, and I heard that this place was kind of the juggernaut, doing like a thousand covers a night. That job had a very big learning curve, it opened my eyes a lot to what I really wanted to do. After 3-plus years there, when this gig opened up, I decided to take it. It was more my style — still kind of busy, but more refined.

That’s a pretty high-end resume. It seems like you didn’t have to do a lot of bullshit jobs at bullshit restaurants along the way.

I definitely have done the bullshit jobs, that is for sure. I’ve staged at every restaurant you can think of trying to get a job, and right out of culinary school, it was hard. Everyone thinks you’re this dumb culinary kid who thinks they can be a chef three weeks after school is over, but I knew full well that wasn’t the case. I had worked in the restaurant business since I was 13. I think they treat you differently coming out of culinary school now, but I never thought that I was a chef right out of the gate. I didn’t want to take over and be the chef right away. I wanted to learn my craft and refine my technique and learn about food.

Based on what you were talking about earlier, it seems like you can’t stay away from Dallas. After being in Las Vegas and New York, what keeps you coming back here?

It’s Dallas. It’s home. I’m from Caddo Mills originally, and there’s something just about the lifestyle here. It is a touch slower paced, and I don’t have to live far away from my family to do my job. The way of life and the people here, the farms and produce that we can get are all a huge part of that. I love Texas. I’m a big Southern boy, and I don’t think I’ll ever move again.

In terms of the sourcing of good, farm-raised food, do you think Dallas has a leg up on other cities in that respect? Do we have a leg up on any other city?

I wouldn’t say that, but we’re bigger. We have more land, we have more opportunity to do those things. In New York, you have the Hudson Valley and a lot of great local farms, but Texas has so much opportunity. For a while, Texas was lagging in certain areas of cooking and cuisine, and that’s not true anymore. We have a ton of up-and-coming chefs and a ton of seasoned chefs that have led us that way. But I wouldn’t say that we have a leg up, not at all.

Was it challenging for you to come back to Texas after leaving a place like New York, where you can go buy fish off the docks that was caught fifteen minutes ago, or go to dozens of ethnic markets?

Absolutely. In New York, you could go down the street and buy bao buns or the freshest crab or whatever you wanted. Here, it is a little more challenging. We use a lot of Gulf products, like bycatch. I was introduced to that a long time ago, and I’ve built up a good relationship with a few vendors who bring me really good stuff. I’m not going to say that we can’t get the freshest, I can have something come off the boat this morning and it will be here by 1 p.m., but in New York, you can just go grab something directly off the boat whenever you want. I don’t think we’re sacrificing quality like we used to back in the day.

Do you feel like being a young guy in the kitchen, it was difficult to get respect from older chefs and cooks?

In the very early stages of my career, yes. It was very difficult. But after my first sous chef job, I think I kind of proved myself and let everyone know that I’m not just some punk who expects everything to be handed to him. I work my ass off, and I think that’s what being a chef entails. I earn the respect of my guys, I don’t just tell them that I’m the boss. I try to be a leader.

How did you land on your American comfort food style?

It’s what I was raised on. I think everyone reflects back on what they were raised with, whether that’s Southern or Creole or whatever. Wherever you’re raised, that’s going to have an effect on your cooking and your palate. I think I landed on that for this location because there’s nothing like that around here. I think the food may have been a bit too complicated before, and I think we’re trying to make it more approachable. Southern food is really trending right now, and there’s no reason why you can’t make something simple and do it really well.

This location seems very challenging. Is that the case? Does the clientele respond well to creativity?

Everywhere in the world, you’re going to have challenging customers. It’s how you adapt to what they want and how you explain your food to them. People here are very health-conscious, which is something that we try to keep in mind, but at the end of the day, I’m just a fat kid who loves to cook. So I have to mind my Ps and Qs. But I wouldn’t say that Highland Park or University Park is any more difficult than anywhere else in Dallas. After working at Nick & Sam’s, which had a very interesting clientele, you did have a lot of interesting diners. They demanded a lot from you, and they should, it’s their money.

You’ve worked with a lot of really talented guys in the local culinary world — Scott Romano, Nathan Tate, Randall Copeland. Can you talk about what you’ve learned from those guys?

It’s funny because I met Randall when I was in Las Vegas. He was working at Bradley Ogden. We were very, very good friends, but I never really got to know Nate before I started working with them. Scott was very strict, and he was immensely talented at what he did. Without Scott Romano, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He really pushed me to do better every day, and he never let me put up anything subpar.

That really sticks with you as a young cook. I had eaten at Ava a dozen times, and I was still living in East Texas, so going from Charlie Palmer to Ava, they weren’t the same way, but they didn’t put up anything subpar. When I first started there, the menu changed every day, it was a much smaller operation, and you were busy. Both experiences meant a lot of learning. I gave up busy and more refined for more casual, but way more farm-to-table.

Not gonna lie — Front Room Tavern has seen a lot of changes, from its name to the chefs in the kitchen. If the goal was for this to be a neighborhood spot, it doesn’t seem like that’s happened yet.

I think the food from the previous chefs was just a little bit too unapproachable. They weren’t accommodating. If a guest comes in and wants something split, you have to split it. You can’t do a split charge. If someone comes in and wants barbecue sauce on a burger, or a different type of cheese, you have to give them what they want. In the past 9 or 10 weeks that I’ve been here, that’s what I’ve been working on the hardest.

The menu is very simple right now, and I’m hoping to expand it in the future. But you have to keep the asses in the seats, and that’s something I learned very quickly at Nick & Sam’s. You have to keep people happy, otherwise the restaurant’s bills aren’t paid, my bills aren’t paid. If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a restaurant, and that’s what’s always been key for me.

You’re obviously very focused on guest experience, but how do you balance that with your own creativity?

Of course I want to be doing torchons of foie gras and more molecular stuff on the menu, but at the same time, the guests have to be able to approach it. Our scallop dish is just described as scallops, roasted cauliflower and brown butter, but we mess around with that. We’ll do a roasted cauliflower or cauliflower purée, or try a brown butter powder or blood orange gastrique gel.

Do your guests give you feedback? Has it been mostly positive?

They do, but honestly, I try not to focus on the positive. I don’t learn from positive. If a guest comes in and says that something is too salty, we need to reevaluate what we’re doing. The pat on the back at the end of the day is nice and all, but I want to be able to fix problems. I want to make things better. We had a few dishes when I first started that just didn’t fit, and we want to evolve to where every dish is a big hit. I don’t want to hear about the greats, I want to hear about what’s wrong, so we can fix it. 

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