Time was, the only chefs most of us knew by name were Julia Child and that Boyardee guy. Not anymore. With the crush of talented wizards working magic in Dallas kitchens, it pays to know just who is behind the saute pan at your favorite eatery. To help you keep track, this week City of Ate kicks off Three-Course Meal, a three-part chat with some of the best, most inventive chefs in town. We begin the series with a quick profile of The Second Floor's executive chef J. Chastain. Tune in tomorrow for our Q&A with Chastain and Friday for a how-to from one of his favorite recipes.
We first met with Chastain two weeks ago when he demonstrated some of the molecular gastronomy techniques he was introducing at the Galleria restaurant's new Friday night cocktail hour. His super-cooled concoctions were a treat, but foams, gels, powders and a tank of liquid nitrogen hardly define the 29-year-old chef.
Instead, Chastain combines a passion for quality ingredients and intelligent outlook on dining that blends innovative and classic techniques. The latter is demonstrated by his duck prosciutto and foie gras sausage, which uses a charcuterie techniques growing in popularity among chefs like Chastain.
"We make every single thing at Second Floor from scratch -- from ice cream, breads and sauces. There is nothing brought in pre-made," he says. "It is just better that way."
The chef has risen like a savory souffle for that reason. Chastain has high regard for the culinary world and is in constant gravitation to new techniques and innovation. Chastain is also looked upon by his industry as one of the fastest rising chefs in our area.
"Jay is a skilled professional and very seriously committed as a chef," says Christina LaBarba of FreshPoint, Second Floor's produce purveyor. "We enjoy working with him and his staff." LaBarba says she enjoys being challenged by the chef to seek out the best of local produce, like Young's Greenhouse in Wichita Falls for fresh herbs and Cooper Farms peaches from Fairfield.
The afternoon we first spoke with chef Chastain, we sat in the quiet emptiness of the post-lunch service. He spoke with a relaxed authority as we discussed how he rose so quickly to an executive chef position in a series of carefully considered career moves that began with a stint at the University of North Texas followed by a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in Denver. After graduation he worked up to sous chef at Cooks Fresh Market in Denver, a high-end Eatzi's-style market run by one of his culinary professors, Edward Janos, who is titled a Culinary Master Chef.
The snow in Denver brought our Texan back to Dallas, where he worked for the Dean Fearing-era Mansion on Turtle Creek for two and a half years starting as a line cook and working once again into a sous chef position, leaving a few months before Fearing himself went on to create his own restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton.
"One of my favorite memories of the Mansion days was the night the electrical grid went out and there was no power to the hotel whatsoever. We set up candles on the line and were grilling on the loading dock. The guests were dining by candlelight and everyone had a great time," Chastain recalls.
The Southwest cuisine at the Mansion made it natural for Chastain to join Stephan Pyles as executive sous chef when Pyles opened his namesake restaurant on Ross Avenue. It was here Chastain was able to expand his technique, as Pyles was beginning to broaden his menus with more Spanish and Mediterranean style cooking.
"It was during this time in my career I had been working with menus heavy on components and really desired to work with fewer ingredients and menu items that were heavy on cool techniques," Chastain says.
Chastain went on to be executive sous chef at 1717, then eventually landed the coveted executive chef position at The Second Floor at the Westin Galleria, where the restaurant is overseen by chef Scott Gottlich of Bijoux.
"I have enjoyed learning about Scott's style that is influenced with French techniques and different types of flavors. I also enjoy a great amount of freedom to develop my own menus using interesting ingredients that come available through our purveyors and local farms," he says.
A shining example of the elegant simplicity that Chastain speaks proudly of can be seen in the December 2009 James Beard Foundation dinner at which he joined Scott and Gina Gottlich in New York City in what can only be described as a chef's greatest honor.
The foundation dinner included such simple but ingenious dishes as scallops with celery root, carrot and Brussels sprouts and their pork and egg duo with slow-braised pork belly and candied bacon.
When you look at the James Beard menu you can see what Chastain means when he speaks of his simple take on dining.
"It was suggested that we not use the faddish pork belly at the dinner, but what is faddish about a great ingredient like pork belly?" he asks.
During the chef's down time you might find him at one of the Dallas pubs where he enjoys a craft beer at Black Friars Pub, or sipping an Irish Whiskey such as Tullamore Dew at the Londoner. But in the mornings he spends time working on the '69 Plymouth Barracuda he has fondly dubbed "Shelley".
"I am basically self-taught in all my automobile work, and I love spending time working on her."
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As for the latest technique being used at Second Floor, the first installment of his molecular cocktail hour was a success with 14 reservations that kept the chef busy behind the bar concocting fun cocktails and enjoying entertaining culinary conversation with his guests.
It is this innovation to attention to his guests' needs, not the molecular technique, that makes youthful chefs such as Chastain successful. Dining out is entertainment, and these chefs make great theater.
Look for chef J. Chastain at Second Floor located at the Westin Galleria nightly, and Friday's for his molecular cocktail hour.
The Second Floor Westin Galleria 13340 Dallas Parkway 972-450-2978