When we talk about “Dallas” food, we’re often leaving out a crucial half of the culinary landscape — Fort Worth. Our sister city may be a good haul away from Dallas, but its restaurant scene, while independent and unique, is viewed as a sort of extension of our own culinary world by outsiders. It’s easy to see that Fort Worth doesn’t always get its due when it comes to highlighting the area’s best restaurants. Despite this lack of attention, chef Blaine Staniford has been turning out excellent food at Grace in downtown Fort Worth for seven years.
And yet, Staniford isn’t bitter. He’s thoroughly energized by the massive change Fort Worth has seen over the past few years, especially in the explosive growth of its restaurant scene. We sat down to talk with Staniford about his journey to Grace, how he’d compare Dallas and Fort Worth’s restaurant worlds, and how he’s seeking a louder microphone in the culinary conversation.
Since you're in Fort Worth, many people in Dallas don’t know what you’re doing at Grace, even though you’ve been working here for awhile. Can you talk about your history in the kitchen?
I’ve been cooking professionally since I was 14 years old, so I guess I’ve been working for 20 years now? I’m from Dallas-Fort Worth, and I graduated high school early to head directly to the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, New York. After school I worked at Aquavit with chef Marcus Samuelsson, then went to San Francisco to work at a restaurant called Aqua with chef Michael Mena.
I said I would never come back to Texas, but I eventually came back to Texas, and cooked in Dallas for a long time. My first sous chef job was at a classic French restaurant called The Riviera — it’s a Fireside Pies now. Then I worked at a place called Lola’s, which is also no longer there. I worked with Consilient Restaurants for awhile, and worked at Hibiscus in the beginning stages, and opened up a couple of restaurants. I was a sort of traveling sous, and I worked at four restaurants in one day sometimes, just depending on what was going on.
I opened Fuse in downtown Dallas, and it was open for six years in the Dallas Power & Light Building. Things were going well, so we decided we would open another restaurant. Once we got open and running, the economic downturn hit everyone. That was at the end of 2007, and we’d just opened and just hadn’t had a chance to establish a clientele. I ended up closing that restaurant, which was called Scene, and went back to Fuse for 6 months before my teammates there wanted to go in a different direction. I’m kind of food-driven, and I’m not going to sacrifice the food for a dollar, so I left. I met with [restaurateur Adam Jones] here at Grace, and my first interview here was in a big construction zone. We talked for two and a half hours, and really hit it off — talking food, talking New York and talking restaurants. I thought of him as a second dad, and I wanted to start working for him. That was almost seven years ago.
Do you feel like Fort Worth was a friendlier home for what you like to do than Dallas?
Fort Worth has changed so much in the last seven years. When I first came here, I think maybe my food was a little too cutting-edge for Fort Worth. On my opening menu, we served this halibut in a simple seafood broth, and people here were not used to their fish swimming in broth. I had to take it off the menu within a couple of months because we weren’t selling it, and now when I do something very similar, they get it. They needed a little bit of education. Fort Worth is definitely a steakhouse city, and we’ve never wanted to have that persona. We have great steaks here, but we’re more than just a steakhouse.
What do you think has driven the change in Fort Worth?
The city is adapting, it’s not just the Stockyards anymore. The West 7th District is growing, Magnolia is growing. These non-corporate restaurants can come in, and they can afford to pay the rent in these newer neighborhoods that are coming up. They don’t have to compete with these big corporate powerhouses that have millions of dollars. In Dallas, it seems like a restaurant opens up every week, and if you don’t get a great review and grasp a clientele right away, you’re really not going to succeed. Fort Worthians are very dedicated to their restaurants.
Which is sort of in contrast to the perception of what people in Dallas like — the newest, hottest, trendiest restaurant. Does that mean that it is easier, if even a little, to succeed in Fort Worth as a restaurant owner or chef?
There’s plenty of disposable income here, and people want to go out and entertain. It’s summertime, and a lot of people are out of town when it’s this hot, but we still have plenty of people to take care of. Is Fort Worth dedicated to their restaurants? Sure. They’re not going to like them all, but as long as you don’t get too crazy with your food and you have some familiar things, you can sneak in some things for people who want to experiment. That’s how you do well here.
Are there certain things that you just can’t do here?
Seven years ago, when we first opened, that was totally true. For me to serve uni or squid ink pasta or whatever, they would have laughed me out of Fort Worth. Now, we can implement those things, but as accents to dishes that people are familiar with. We still have guests who just want the rib-eye and potatoes, and they’ll be perfectly happy. But maybe their wife only wants to see the new and unique stuff. Over seven years, we’ve built that clientele that knows that we can do the best of both worlds.
We’ve always been very seafood-driven here, and we import a lot of fish from the Brooklyn Seafood Market. We have a lot of fish that you don’t see in other restaurants in DFW, that you can’t just go to Central Market and find. We want to give people an opportunity to try new things without being scared. Fort Worth is low-key. We don’t have the snootiness that you would see sometimes in Dallas, and we come out and talk to our customers and get to know them. We’re a fine dining restaurant, but people still bring their koozies here. It’s kind of funny.
You said that people in Dallas don’t want to drive to Fort Worth, but it seems like the city is finally starting to get some bigger attention from diners in Dallas. Do you feel like people are “discovering” something you’ve been doing for seven years?
I just let my food stand for itself. There are going to be people who like it, and people who don’t like it, and I don’t really care. Myself and my staff work really hard to put something amazing on the table, and we don’t dress it up too much. We season things properly, we buy things in season, and put it on the plate correctly. That’s all we do here. We’re a big restaurant, too. We have four private dining rooms and a huge dining room and a 100-seat bar, so I can’t sit there with tweezers and garnish every dish and expect to execute on the level that I expect.
In recent months, you’ve been getting more exposure in national food press, such as Food Network appearances. Are you seeking out those opportunities or are they finding you?
I think we’ve been working hard to push my name out there a little bit. Over the last seven years, Grace has had some amazing press. We don’t want to get lost in all these other new restaurants, and we have to think creatively about how to keep putting a seven-year-old restaurant on the map. We might not be the newest and most cutting edge, but I’m willing to put my restaurant against any restaurant anywhere in Texas.
Is it more challenging to prove yourself in the context of Texas cuisine when you’re from Fort Worth?
Much of the food here is Southwestern, and that is definitely not what I do. Sometimes I do implement flavors like cumin and cilantro, because I do like those flavors, but I don’t think guests really go out and seek Southwestern food. I also don’t think that people coming to Fort Worth expect just Southwestern food or cowboy food.
I think I would expect that. Even in a pricey, fine dining setting, I think most people would expect a lot of pandering to the cowboy aesthetic that Fort Worth is known for.
I traveled back and forth between Dallas and Fort Worth for two years because I was from Dallas and I wasn’t sure. There was a stigma at first, maybe, but now I’ve been here for so long that I realize that Fort Worth is so much more than the cowboy thing. We have phenomenal arts, and people don’t always realize that. We’re a major metropolitan city. We do have the Stockyards, and people who live in Fort Worth don’t go to the Stockyards. I don’t go to the Stockyards. That’s a tourist destination. There are a huge amount of people in Fort Worth who are city-going people. They want to be urban and sophisticated. You see that development happening a lot more, especially in these areas like Magnolia.
Do you have bigger aspirations to be part of the broader culinary conversation?
I got in this business to cook food. When I just started out, Food Network was in its beginning stages. I would say that earlier in my cooking career, I was a lot more of a food-TV watcher, and now I think that it’s gotten a lot more into the world of reality television instead of being about cooking. If I continue to do things on Food Network or anything like that, it has to be food-driven. It won’t be me tying my hands behind my back and trying to cook with a spoon in my mouth. That’s great for people who want to do that, but I don’t think it does anything but put your name out there. I didn’t get in this business to make a fool out of myself. I don’t want to be putting on a show, I want it to be about food. If it happens.
When you have been in a restaurant for seven years, is it challenging to keep it fresh? Is it challenging to push your own cuisine forward?
The interesting thing about Grace is that, from day one, we’ve had basically our original management team. You don’t see that often in restaurants at all. There are seven of us in management, and we’re really tight like a family. Every single one of us pushes the other to continue to stand out. We don’t want to be known as that restaurant on 7th Street that’s been there forever. That you just go to for birthdays and random celebrations.
We want to be a dining destination. Any night you want, you can come in and shake hands with the owner. He’s working the front door. My staff is very seldom turned over, and we just have a team that is very dedicated, from the dishwashers and busboys to higher-level management. Everyone here is really pushing for excellence here. Don’t be afraid to come from Dallas over to Fort Worth to see — we’d love to take care of you.
Find Grace at 777 Main St., Fort Worth; 817-877-3388.