(This is the first part of a three-part look at Jeff Harris, executive chef at Craft. Tune in tomorrow for a Q&A with Harris and Friday as he demonstrates how to prepare one of the restaurant's dishes.)
Jeff Harris was raised in a small town in East Texas near Gilmer, the mud-bog capital of Texasm, on a farm where his family raised cattle and his grandmother had a massive garden. Growing up, he naturally developed a passion for food, but he didn't worked in a restaurant until he was 27.
"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, so after graduating from University of North Texas I got a job at a bank, Jacksonville Savings [in East Texas]. I was doing really well and moved my way up to assistant branch manager," Harris says.
At 26, Harris was at a crossroads. He needed to decide whether a career at a bank desk was what he wanted to do with his life.
An avid Emeril and Bobby Flay fan, Harris took a leap of faith and enrolled in culinary school in New York City at the Institute of Culinary Education.
"There I was at the bank. When I wasn't working I would check out cookbooks and watch hours of the Food Network," Harris says. "I became interested in types of food I had never seen before. This was when the Emeril Live show was really hot, and I felt this was something I really wanted to do."
So Harris followed his dream and became a chef.
"I loved my experience in New York. I was surrounded by some of the best restaurants in the world. Loved China Town. Also, I was just a few blocks from Union Square Farmers Market," Harris says.
After graduation, Chef Harris moved to Austin for his externship at Hudson's on the Bend, the quirky restaurant that serves Texas Hill Country fare of wild game and smoked meats in huge portions. Hudson's also has an incredible ration of tasting menus, so it's a perfect restaurant for an aspiring chef to immerse himself in Texas cooking.
"They were not able to offer me a position at Hudson's to I moved back to New York. I was there literally two days when I saw an ad for a job at Tom Colicchio's Craft. I had always loved what Tom did at Gramercy Tavern and Craft and really wanted to work for Tom," Harris says.
He began his first paid cooking position at Craft, one of New York's top restaurants, as garde manger, otherwise called a pantry chef, who's station is in charge of salads, cold foods and charcuterie.
"Working with Tom is really a dream," Harris says of the ultimate Top Chef. "Tom is not just a figurehead. He can really cook, and it is fun when he is in one of the kitchens. He likes to get on the line and cook."
It wasn't long before Harris moved back to North Texas to work at Craft Dallas at the W Hotel. After a short time, the executive at the time, Anthony Zappola, was transferred to Craft Los Angeles, leading to Harris' promotion to chef de cuisine.
"Of course I was thrilled, but now there are more meetings and responsibilities. I enjoy being on the line cooking. I am really into charcuterie and love working with the incredible produce and meats we are able to get," Harris says.
Since Craft is a hotel restaurant, its kitchens never close. When not serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and an incredible Sunday brunch, it must still accommodate hotel guests 24-hours a day.
We had to ask Harris if he had any Top Chef aspirations, and he assured us he did not. But, as with all good chefs, he shared his idea of a dream restaurant.
"If I did something on my own, it would be affordable New American cuisine with fresh pastas, really neat ingredients with few components. I would have a nice bar area where people could hang out," he says.
Sounds marvelous, since we all like the idea of inexpensive restaurants serving great cuisine. Asked about Craft's prices, Harris pointed out that its dishes are all served a la carte and could be enjoyed family style. For instance, the Elysian Fields lamb saddle (which is an exclusive for Craft in this area) is large enough to feed several people. These items are served in copper turines, so several people can easily nosh on one entree, making Craft one of the more affordable upper-end restaurants in Dallas.
"Craft really believes in hospitality, which makes it a perfect companion for the W Hotel. We try to honor all requests," Harris says.
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Oh really? What about a foie gras and peanut butter sandwich?
"Funny you mention that," he replies with a laugh. "We did an amuse last week that was a play on that using peanut butter and foie."
From his East Texas farmhouse to one of Dallas' finest hotel restaurants by way of New York City, Harris makes a fine addition to our city's dining landscape. He is expecting his first child soon and plans to stay in Dallas a long time.
Craft 2440 Victory Park Lane 214-397-4111