The City of Ate Interview: Union Bear's John Kleifgen
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Dallas native John Kleifgen took his first job at a restaurant as a teenager because a gig carrying mulch at Calloway's didn't provide much entertainment. So, when a friend told him about a kitchen job for the Lakewood Country Club, he weighed his options and wisely chose a country club scene instead. After high school he dabbled in college at Texas Tech, then headed off to culinary school at the CIA in New York.
After graduating, he worked in Boston for four years at L'Espalier and Sal de la Terre, then after returning home to Texas, had a quick stint at The Office, which didn't work out so well. Now he's with the Spillers Group as chef of their new spot Union Bear.
How did you like going to school in New York? Living in the Hudson Valley is cool because the produce is amazing. Here we don't have seasons - except football, Christmas and summer. Although we do have some advantages here that they don't have up north, like much longer growing seasons. But, the Hudson Valley is a basically a giant salad basket for the city. Every great food has something. France has the Loire Valley, San Francisco has Napa and Sonoma, New York has the Hudson Valley.
"Local" is key at Union Bear. Do you think Dallas as a whole is making any substantial headway? I hope so. I've only been here for a year. We're definitely trying to source locally as much as we can, like the Paul Quinn Farm. It's kind of like we're all in this together. The chefs have to learn how to use it and the farmers have to learn not only how to grow it, but also how to sell it.
Is it a challenge to track down food? Yes. It's a lot of luck and happenstance, too. For instance, before I worked here I was at Eno's and I met Andrea (manager at Paul Quinn Farm) and it was just luck that I met her. Also I try to network through people. Like we wanted to use fresh cream to make our own butter, Tom Spicer sent us over the Lucky Layla Farms. So, now we churn our own local butter.
You're getting a reputation for your eggs. What makes the eggs here so fantastic? The biggest thing with eggs, as with most things, is what it eats. If the chicken is eating soy pellets, then the eggs taste like soy pellets, and they have that really techno-yellow color that no food should ever have. If the chickens eating a lot of bugs and natural stuff, you get a much deeper yolk and lot more natural flavor.
But, I'm not going to all these great distance to get these great eggs and local produce because I'm a nice guy. It's because, well, part of it is because I'm a nice guy, but also it's a responsible way to run our business. It helps farmers and people like Urban Acres. But, really it's because they're ridiculously good eggs. It's worth it for us to go that extra mile to get them.
That's pretty much a top-down prerogative for this organization, correct? Yes, and the whole building is a testament to that. From the local art on the wall to the local company that makes our sodas.
What are some of your favorite restaurants around here? Other than Whataburger?
Do you like their spicy ketchup? That's a sore subject for me. I'm not sure if I'm ready to talk about it yet.
Let's work through it... When I was living and working in Boston, I would come back to visit and eat at Whataburger like two or three times a day for no other reason then to load-up on their ketchup. And I would take bags of it back to Boston with me.
What's the deal with Whataburger ketchup? It's just the best ketchup ever.
Really? Isn't it just high fructose corn syrup and tomatoes? Oh yeah, it's crap, but it's delicious! I don't know what it is. Now that you know this, the next time you go to Whataburger you'll try their ketchup you'll be blown away by it.
But, why is it a "sore subject?" So, I pulled up one night, or morning-- somewhere in between there -- and they asked me if I wanted spicy or regular ketchup and it blew my mind. It was the most brilliant thing I had ever heard.
Now they discontinue it.
It's like the McRib. I'm sure there will be more tours... But, like everything else, we make our ketchup from scratch. So, I had to go get extra spicy ketchup from Whataburger to make one as good as theirs and I think ours is actually little better than theirs. Now they discontinue it so there's no standard.
Do you eat anywhere else? The real places I like ... Meddlesome Moth, Good Friends and Common Table.
Where did you work after the CIA? After school I went to work for L'Espalier in Boston. It was an amazing experience just to be around that group of people [Frank McClelland, chef and owner of L'Espalier won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Northeast Chef in 2007]. It was great knowing that whenever I was at a station, the guy to the left of me and the guy to the right were probably two of the best cooks I'd ever be around.
After L'Espalier, you moved to its sister restaurant Sal de la Terre. How was that different? Right before I moved over there, the chef [Frank McClelland] bought a farm. So, every few days I had to go work on the farm. That's when I really learned about local purveyors.
Literally, you worked on a farm? Chef McClelland was crazy. He would get up at six in the morning, work in the fields then start harvesting things around eleven or noon, bag it all up, take it to the restaurants, change into his whites and expo until 10 or 11 at night. Then, go back home to his personal trainer wife and get up and do it all again.
But, one thing he figured out was that he could grow really fast was bok choy. The funny thing about that was if your purveyor is Sysco and you don't want something, you can just say, "I didn't order this, take it back." But, if your purveyor is your boss, you had to take the 80 pounds of bok choy. So, the real reason I went to the farm was to try to cut the supply of bok choy. I'd get all the baby carrots and heirloom tomatoes.
Did you learn to get creative with bok choy? I will never again in my career cook with bok choy.
How do you run your kitchen here? Learning to manage is a big thing. People are individuals. We have two guys in here now that are at completely different levels. Kevin has worked at some really good restaurants and he knows what he's doing. I treat him a lot differently then the kid washing dishes.
How do you treat that kid? I try to maintain the hierarchy. I want Kevin on his ass, saying something to him all the time. That way Kevin is also learning how to lead.
Let's wrap it up with one more question about the local movement. What do you think needs to happen to sustain the trend? I'd just like to see it grow. What we're trying to do here is 'as local as we can.' Yet never compromise. There's no reason that we can't all buy cream from a local dairy. I realize it can be expensive, but people have to use it judicially and be smart about it. I'm excited about the opportunity to proving that it can be done.
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