Food News

Screen Door Chef David McMillan on Overcoming Dad's "Shit on a Shingle"

When Chef David McMillan first came to Dallas he was the chef of the Anatole's five-star restaurant Nana. A few years later he opened his own place, 62 Main, in Colleyville, and he's now at the Screen Door in One Arts Plaza, which is a modern southern kitchen. Over the next three days we'll learn about how he became a chef via a public library card, red food coloring, Berkeley and the Navy.

How did you initially get into cooking? I started cooking really young, like when I was four or five.

Did your parents cook? My dad was a terrible cook. The Navy ruined him. He would make things like "shit on a shingle," which is that jarred dried shaved meat on toast and it was incredibly salty. One day for breakfast he made us crushed Oreos in a bowl of milk. We thought, okay you can cook breakfast for us! I still have a fondness for Oreos.

Obviously you didn't hone your cooking skills from your parents -- so, how did you pick it up at such an early age? It's weird -- sometimes you just take to things. Like you take to having a dog or painting. I got my first cookbook from the library when I was six years old. It was a Chinese food cookbook. And, as I got older, I cooked all the time with my family. For years my mom, sister and I had this system where one person would cook, one did the dishes and the other had the night off. It was great.

But cooking just made sense to me. It's very science-oriented. One of the first dishes I did was sweet and sour pork, which is pretty magical if you're a kid because what you do is cook bell peppers and onions until they're soft -- this is the old way -- then, you add the pineapple juice and a bit of corn starch and water and stir that until it would thicken up. Then you add a couple drops of red food coloring to get that sweet and sour color that Chinese restaurants all did back then. I progressed through the cookbook, on to dumplings and Asian ribs, which also used red food coloring. It was just really cool to me as a kid.

You grew up in Berkeley, California. Did that influence you as a chef? Berkeley is a great microcosm of the world. You have all the Asian influences, Indian, Jewish, Latino, gay, homeless, intelligentsia. It's all there. Plus, it's beautiful. So, things that are still odd coming into Dallas, it was all pretty normal for us. We used to go to this one restaurant that had a big neon sign out front of a cactus and a wagon wheel with an arrow stuck in it. And it was a Chinese place called The Wagon Wheel. It was just crazy, but back then the Chinese would sort of do anything.

What was your first job in a restaurant? In the early '70's I worked at a place called The Cheeseboard, which is still there today. We baked a lot and it was just tremendous. They had very French-centric cheeses.

You left Berkeley when you were 18 to join the Navy. Why the Navy? I joined the Navy to travel the world.

Check back Wednesday and Thursday for more on Chef McMillan including a few Navy stories and some of his favorite spots in Dallas.