Most of the time, we tend to think about the foods that are good for us as things that we “have” to eat. It isn’t often that you get an insatiable craving for a big bundle of kale or some chia seeds, which means that eating healthy sometimes feels like drudgery when you could be having all that bacon and chocolate and butter. But at Unleavened Fresh Kitchen in Lakewood, Tom Dynan is working furiously to change that perception.
A veteran of hotel kitchens and fine dining, Dynan traded in his toque for a much more casual atmosphere. In opening his comfortable and calorie-friendly Unleavened Fresh Kitchen earlier this year, Dynan is living the dream. We sat down to talk with him about getting his culinary start, cooking for a discerning clientele, and how to make gluten-free, vegetarian and otherwise “healthy” food actually taste good.
How’d you first get started in the kitchen?
I’m originally from south Florida, and I worked in mom-and-pop Italian restaurants through high school. I went to Florida State for college, and I really learned how to cook at a fine dining restaurant that I worked at when I was living in Tallahassee. That was the first place where there was a real hierarchy of cooks and sous chefs and all that. I started as a cook and worked my way up, and worked at a couple of independent restaurants after that.
I moved to Texas in 2007 because my wife was here, and I did the Ritz Carlton pre-opening. Worked there for about four and a half years on the hotel side, and did breakfast at Fearing’s with Dean Fearing. That’s what really transitioned me into believing that this could be a real thing for me and that I could take this places. I got my first executive chef position at the Marriott across from Parkland hospital, and bounced around to the Gaylord, the Marriott Quorum in the meantime. This idea was always on the back-burner. I had a passion to build my own brand. I had the opportunity to start doing this full-time in April, and we launched in August.
Was moving from fine dining to a more casual atmosphere always part of the plan?
It was so beneficial for me to start in fine dining. I have an elevated standard now because of it. You look at the food that’s coming out of these kitchens and you know what looks right, as opposed to what “looks right” at a Cheddar’s or a chain restaurant. Then, I was able to bring those principles to this price point. We added some service touches that you don’t find elsewhere, and that’s really where my passion was. I wanted to make a place where you could come multiple times per week as opposed to cooking very expensive meals every night.
Why does that appeal to you?
I really like the fact that we’re building a community atmosphere. Landing here in Lakewood was really perfect. The community has really embraced us and we’ve been lucky.
Lakewood seems like the perfect place for a healthy, progressive kind of restaurant. Are there places here where this concept wouldn’t work?
I think the only problem would be the beginning. If the food is good, once people taste it, you can retain it. People come in here and aren’t real sure what sumac or crema is, but once they try it, they know it’s approachable.
Do you feel like you’re cultivating that community — namely a good set of regulars — that you wanted to build?
Absolutely. We have been overly blessed. This location has really blown us away. The community has embraced us, and Lakewood is very much a “win or lose” place. People are very particular about their food, but that just lends itself to having a really high standard. When people come in here and they see the food and the atmosphere and hear good music, they know they’re in a good place. We also used a lot of local food when we were putting together the menu because we wanted to highlight things from this neighborhood. The coffee is Noble Coyote Roasters; we have Pop Star Popsicles; you can get a Lakewood Lager or Four Corners Beer. That was part of our strategy — we have these things that you love, so come try us out. Business here has been incredible. I don’t think we could have expected better.
Were you worried that you might “lose” with the neighborhood? That if this place didn’t start bustling in a few weeks you might be in real trouble?
Absolutely. This is the first restaurant that my partner and I have ever opened, and it’s just worrisome to open a restaurant, period. We had a feeling about Lakewood for sure — Scott lives in Lakewood; I live in Lake Highlands. We’re both East Dallas, and we know what we would like in our neighborhood. We’re learning some things, too. Take-out is a huge component, and it’s been super significant for us, and we didn’t plan that. Partnering with the local delivery services has also helped with that. I really can’t say enough good things about Lakewood.
Do you think you have to fight the perception that healthy food isn’t going to taste very good?
Definitely, which is exactly why we didn’t lead with the h-word. We’re a fresh kitchen, but there’s plenty of stuff on this menu — fried chicken and sour cream — that is not your typical low-calorie food. We wanted to find a balance between food that is good for you, tastes good and makes you feel good. We have a lot of superfoods in our stuff that [are] sort of hidden, like replacing poppy seeds with chia seeds. We want people to feel good when they leave, and that they haven’t been robbed because the food is too expensive.
So we’re basically like 3-year-olds and you have to hide the good stuff so we’ll actually eat it?
Sometimes, yeah. Even for myself. Having a 2-year-old, I find that it’s a helpful trait to hone.
When you were building this menu, what did you want it to be?
I’m looking for fresh, colorful, fun, interesting and approachable. I want to be able to serve the food that I’ve made in high-end restaurants in a way that soccer moms and the folks next door can have. People are not necessarily going to try something like harissa, generally. If you’re outside of the culinary world, you might not know what it is. But if you try it, you’re going to like it. That’s our whole approach — just try it.
In six months or a year when you’ve sort of settled in, can you bring even weirder things to the menu?
We’re already trying. We have the “House Guest,” which is our limited time offering. Right now, we have the Luau, which is based on a dish that I had in Hawaii, and it has kimchi on it. People have been so excited about the kimchi. You don’t realize how many foodies are out there. Next time, we’re going to try breakfast for dinner in a wrap and something for Thanksgiving. The menu will change with the seasons, and the House Guest isn’t limited to just a wrap or salad.
What are the challenges of making everything from scratch and running a “fresh” kitchen?
Volume definitely helps, and a lot of our ingredients are cross-incorporated across the menu. When we made the spreads and dips, that was done strategically so we could cross-utilize our product without making everything taste the same. Produce is always the best way to do that. When we did tastings for this concept, we would grocery shop at Central Market and Whole Foods because we were doing it in our own kitchens. It was crazy because we would spend two hours in the produce section and five minutes in the aisles — everything here is fresh except for, like, rice. We rotate our cooler every day and a half, Fresh Point delivers produce every day and our freezer is tiny. Just big enough to hold ice cream and popsicles.
This seems like a sort of Mecca for Dallas vegetarians, who frequently complain about a lack of diverse options. Did you consider that from the beginning?
Yes. Vegetarian is huge, and so is gluten-free. People who are looking for those things know to look and they know where to look. There’s not a huge population of gluten-free eaters in terms of medical reasons, but it is a huge population in terms of people who are making that decision as a lifestyle choice.
I imagine if you did a heat map of gluten-free diners in Dallas, the hottest spot would probably be in Lakewood.
Probably, and we tailored the menu to that. Every single wrap is gluten-free or can be made gluten-free with our brown rice wrap. All the ingredients inside are gluten-free, and everything is clearly marked on the menu. We set it up that way so that people could order what they wanted and so that those people who aren’t gluten-free wouldn’t automatically turn their noses up. We’re super keen on accommodating people. We don’t want to be Chipotle-style where you build your own, but we’ll definitely alter something for you.
Was there a point where you were skeptical about accommodating gluten-free diners while maintaining your quality? Let’s be real: gluten-free wraps and bread can be really terrible.
We didn’t have the gluten-free wrap for the first month of service because I couldn’t find one that I liked, but I finally did. And it’s good. I actually had one the other day for lunch just to make sure that they were good. The one we have is fantastic, and I wouldn’t serve it if it wasn’t. We originally weren’t going to have a gluten-free wrap and just offer a salad as the gluten-free option because we knew that we could do it well and people would like the salad. But we got a lot of requests, so we figured it out. People seem to like it, so that’s good, and it means that they don’t have to order a salad every time they come in.
The gluten-free, vegetarian, healthy-oriented crowd can be pretty vocal, especially when it comes to getting things right. What kind of feedback are you getting from your customers?
Everything has been awesome, it’s kind of been unbelievable. People here know what they like and they have a standard that is just higher. They’ve experienced different foods in different places, and they know what those things should taste like, and they’re getting that here.
In the beginning, you talked about building a brand. Is this a concept that we’ll see expand?
The goal from the beginning was to have multiple locations. Right now, we’re focusing on Lakewood and want to make sure that everything is going smoothly. We’re in no hurry, we have no rapid expansion plans, but we wanted to to be scalable. It’s a lot easier to do this kind of restaurant than a large-format restaurant on a big scale.
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It seems like there are some chefs who want to build their little eight-seat restaurant where they can do whatever they want, and others like you who want to build an empire. What about having multiple restaurants appeals to you?
It’s just ambition, I think. I very much want to have 50 of these. I think it would be great. Once you get to that level, you can do your dream projects in a way that’s above and beyond what you could have afforded to before that. But we’re mostly excited about being able to bring something that we’re proud of to multiple places. It’s not about building an empire, it’s about building a concept that we feel great about and built from the ground up and sharing it.
So when you do build your empire and there are 800 Unleavened locations across the country, what is your dream project? What are you going to be doing?
I’m not sure yet. It’ll probably change all the time. I think 800 of these would be the dream. We’re opening our dream restaurant right now, and once we’re at the point of exploring other restaurant options, we’ll decide what we’re going to do then.