In a small and reliably stodgy restaurant scene like Dallas', change isn't something that comes easily. At Kitchen LTO, though, change is the only thing reliably on the menu.
This "permanent pop-up" concept is now in its third incarnation, with a brand new chef, Brooke Egger, who's largely unknown to Dallas diners. Just one month into her four-month stint, I sat down to talk with Egger about her experience in California, adjusting her cuisine to the palate of Dallas diners, and the time that a Laotian Hill tribe killed a water buffalo in her honor.
Dallas has a lot of restaurants that are run by chefs from California right now, maybe more than ever before. I'm interested to know your thoughts on what would attract chefs from Napa and Santa Monica to Dallas?
People eat here. I'm dead serious. I tell tables this all the time, and I think it's kind of amazing. When I go out and talk to my customers, I notice that there will be a table of four ladies dressed to the nines and they're all eating a filet Oscar. This is one of the only places that I've cooked in the world that's like that. People like to eat here, and they're excited to eat. They're not weird and doing faddish diets and have all these restrictions, so it's really cool to be a chef here.[jump]
When I talked to Melody Bishop and Dennis Kelley at Lark in the Park, they noted that people in Dallas like their food much spicier than people in California. Were you excited for that?
Most definitely. I really like bold and spicy flavors. Flavor forward food is my thing. I like minimal ingredients, but the flavor profiles have to be, well, forward. It's cool because people are really accepting of that here. I don't know, maybe Santa Barbara was kind of the same way, as far as flavor goes, but the portions here are totally different. I can have heavier items on the menu, so maybe there's a little more variety here than there.
What was it that made you want to come to Dallas?
This job. I tried out for this job, and I won, so I moved here.
Did you know much about Dallas before you came?
No, nothing. I had actually been here once before, on my way to culinary school in 2002. My nephew's uncle played for the Dallas Cowboys, so I came in and stayed with them for a night or two as I moved from Atlanta to Santa Barbara. I've been in the airport a million times, but that really doesn't count.
What about this concept was particularly appealing to you?
For me, this was really exciting because my background is being a personal chef and doing catering. I've never really been about being in a restaurant and being stationary for too long, or at least I didn't think I would be. It was cool that I could come here for four months, do some networking, try some new things. Traveling is my favorite thing in the world, and I like having as many experiences as possible. Experiences make you who you are.
Did you know Eric Shelton, the previous executive chef at Kitchen LTO before you came?
We met on Cutthroat Kitchen, and we became friends. He told me that they were looking for fresh talent in Dallas, so I thought that I would just try it out and see what happened. But I never thought in a million years that I would get picked for something like this.
How was the experience of being on Cutthroat Kitchen?
Well, I didn't win, so that sucked. But it's just like a game show, it's The Price is Right of cooking. It was fun, it was a great time. I got this out of it, you know? If I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have ever had the opportunity comes here.
You really didn't think you'd get picked to run Kitchen LTO?
I'm not a Dallas native, you know. I didn't know if people would vote for me or not. It shocked the hell out of me when I did win, honestly.
What about making this transition as a chef? How have you adapted your cuisine to the Dallas market?
I specialize in wild game, so I actually had to cut back a little bit. I think people here want something that is a little more relatable, but I don't think I've changed my style too much. I like taking something that's already established and kind of make it my own. Like the Frito Pie on the menu. I had never had one in my life, but I saw it when I was doing research about Dallas and I knew that I had to make it, but I have to do it my way. That's kind of just what I do. I can play a little bit more here, so that's been really fun.
Let's talk about wild game, which has been a huge part of your cuisine in the past. There's some on your menu at Kitchen LTO, and it's definitely something that you see on menus here, but it's not all that common. Do you have any thoughts on why?
I think people just really like beef here. They don't mess around and just get straight to the point. And that's cool, really. If you want beef, you want beef. I get it. The familiarity thing also factors in, I think. People like to be adventurous, but they aren't going to be too adventurous, you know?
Why wild game?
I grew up on the border of Canada in a little town, and I grew up hunting. My dad was the national vice president of Ducks Unlimited for 11 years, so I did a lot of duck tagging, making duck boxes, just being out in the wilderness. Wild game was big in my family, maybe not big game, we would buy that or get it as a gift sometimes. But birds like turkeys and pheasants? We ate a lot of that.
You were in Santa Barbara before Dallas. What about before that?
I was in Atlanta before Santa Barbara, and that's really where I decided that I wanted to be a chef. I was doing architecture and working as a personal stylist in the fashion industry, and I went to a three-star restaurant with my parents and told them that that's what I was going to do.
They looked at me like "nice try, you can't even cook Top Ramen." I was 21, and they told me to figure out how to do it on my own. I got my first kitchen job and I sucked, at Mumbo Jumbo under Sean Doddy who is a fantastic chef, and I think I got fired or something. Then I decided to move to California to go to culinary school. Once I got there, it really all sunk in and I started to love it. It made me realize how much I didn't know. Everyone in my family is a cook in their own right, so I had all of that knowledge, and it just kind of came out through osmosis or something. All the traveling I've done in my life has also helped spark that in my brain, all those flavors that I've tried in going around the world.
When you are traveling, what kinds of of food experiences do you seek out?
I travel through my stomach, honestly. Whatever I see, I eat it. I'm not one of those people like Andrew Zimmern eating all those weird bugs or anything, because I'd probably get sick and die, but I'm pretty adventurous. I love barbecues of all kinds and weird rices. I don't know, I just like weird stuff. I guess I'll try bugs, but I'm not seeking them out.
Can you think of a particularly adventurous food experience in your travels?
Yeah, I got stuck with a Hill tribe in Laos for a month, and they didn't have running water or electricity. We would go forage for our meals every day and everyone would share like, a chicken. They were doing a kind of "goodbye, good luck" ceremony, and they told me that they were going to kill a water buffalo in my honor. All I could think was "awesome, I'm finally going to get some meat!"
When I came down for dinner, I was so disappointed because it wasn't meat, it was all innards. You can't turn down food in that culture because it's disrespectful, especially when they went out and killed it for you, you know? So I'm eating all these organs that they mixed with spices, and they told me that they gave all the meat to the orphans. The neighbors brought another dish made with fish innards, and there was still no meat. But it all tasted pretty good.
Are there any dishes on your menu that you feel like you've had to prod diners into trying?
Yeah, the caprese fredda just simply because it has tomato aspic. People don't really know what that's going to be. Watermelon gazpacho is also kind of weird for people. I guess they're thinking it's going to be it's something sweet or dessert-like.
A month into Kitchen LTO, I'm interested to know what you've learned about being in this environment that is new for you in so many ways.
I've learned that it's really hard to not know who your purveyors are. If you don't order something here, it won't come. And it's not like Santa Barbara where you can just walk across town in an hour and get it. I haven't really had any other major issues, though.
Were there any ingredients you were particularly excited to work with when you got to Dallas?
You guys have this royal butter lettuce that I've never seen before, it's purple and really good. I'm sure we had it in California, but it was new to me. Ingredients don't really shocked me. I'd already cooked in Atlanta so all the southern ingredients weren't really new. I'd probably say I was most excited about working with Frito Pie, if that's even an ingredient.
Restaurants obviously change their menus and evolve, but how do you do that in such a short period of time?
We're keeping the menu the same the whole time, and the specials will really be our menu changes.This kitchen already has to change every four months, so they're kind of starting all over every time. I want to keep it as easy on them but make sure that they can learn as much as possible. Everything is working out in my favor at this point, so I've slowed down a little bit.
Do you think that Dallas is the kind of place that you would stay after your time at Kitchen LTO is over?
Definitely, I've been having a great time here. I don't see why I wouldn't leave the option open and just see where things go.
What about continuing to work in restaurants? Do you want to go back to catering, or does being an executive chef feel right?
I can totally do restaurants, but I love catering and doing personal chef work too. I just go with the experience or the opportunity that I really like. The restaurant scene is really fun here. It seems like everyone, especially in this neighborhood, is really friendly and good to each other. I haven't seen that in the other places that I've worked in really, but I also haven't been around restaurants either.
Still, this seems like a great environment for someone that has a free spirit and wants to experiment without having to make this huge investment in owning their own place. What do you think this kind of restaurant does for the restaurant scene in Dallas?
I think it's a great opportunity. It allows some people who maybe wouldn't have gotten the chance with traditional investors to shine and really show off what they're good at. Cheffing can be a cut throat world not to play on that show, but there's favoritism just like with everything else. With Kitchen LTO and the public voting, the politics are a little bit less. It's a starting point for someone who hasn't had the chance to be an executive chef.
How has the role of executive chef suited you? Obviously you've been in charge of kitchens before, but this is the first restaurant where you've held that title.
It kind of feels like riding a bike. It's cool. I like it.