Food News

Komali Chef Abraham Salum Knows What Dallas Wants, Knows It Will Change Next Week

When we talk about the burgeoning culinary scene that exists in Dallas today, it's sometimes easy to forget about the chefs who spent years trying to convince us that great food was worth a little extra cash. Abraham Salum's eponymous restaurant Salum has been a fixture of the Dallas food community for almost a decades now, and Salum cemented his status as one of the city's most authentic Mexican chefs after opening Komali, his interior Mexican restaurant located next door.

Still, Salum isn't slowing down. When I originally tried to schedule some time to talk with him, Salum was traveling in Spain and introducing real Mexican food and tequila to a group of chefs at a Michelin-starred restaurant outside of Barcelona. From there, he went on a sightseeing trip to Morocco. When he's not jetting around the world, you can find Abraham Salum in either of his successful restaurants, volunteering for charities, and catering some of the most exclusive dinner parties in the city. Somehow, Chef Salum found time to sit down and talk with me about how he's learned to please the finicky Dallas clientele, legit Mexican food, and why people are so much more in love with food than they ever have been before.

Are there are flavors there that you think you'll be putting on the menu at your restaurants?

I had a few dishes in Spain that I will try to work with. I had an octopus that was made with these potatoes sauteed in paprika, and it was to die for. I have pictures so I wouldn't forget about it, but it was one of the best dishes I've ever had. I had a salad made with a kind of sweet shallot that is used in Spain. Our shallots are very pungent, but I thought of using Vidalia onions in this Spanish-style salad and I think it would be really great on the menu here.

You've been cooking in Dallas for a long time. Salum has been open for nine years, and I wonder what you think the biggest evolution in the local food scene has been in that time?

I would have to say using local ingredients. All the chefs are gravitating toward using things from local farmers, and that goes beyond produce. We're buying as much local meat as we can, and even sticking with seafood that comes from the coast in Louisiana. I was born and raised in Mexico City, so the food I ate growing up was very different.

In the 1950s, the U.S. became so efficient at transporting food across the country and storing food, so you could get anything you wanted all year round. And I think the regional cuisines of the United States kind of got diluted from there. They lost some of their identity, and I think those strong identities are coming back. There's a Texas cuisine, and it's not what people think it is. It's not Tex-Mex. We have whiskeys, vodkas, wine, everything to pair with our food. It's an exciting time to be a chef here.

What flavors do you think characterize Dallas cuisine? Even though that's not really your style, it seems like you would know a lot about it.

I don't know that there are necessarily flavors that make up our scene, but the palate here is evolving. It's more sophisticated because people are traveling abroad and learning about food. Now we're getting away from things like Americanized Italian food or Tex-Mex and getting back to authentic Mexican and Italian food. That's opened up a whole new array of flavors and cuisines for everybody. But that's only becase people in Dallas have become more accepting.

So what do you think you wouldn't have been able to do in your restaurant, say when it opened, compared to now? How much have things changed?

At Komali, a lot of the chiles and strong, spicy flavors would have been impossible even a few years ago. Monica Greene opened Ciudad several years ago and she was very successful, and she was ahead of her time. Some people loved it, but others thought it was really strange because they grew up on Tex-Mex and that's what they called Mexican food. In restaurants nowadays, we're also using certain cuts of meat and products that you never saw on a menu. Like that pig head that CBD Provisions is serving. That's fantastic. We've put calf's liver on the menu, which isn't necessarily trendy or exciting, but we sold that like crazy. People want to be adventurous and try things.

Did that surprise you?

It surprises me less and less. Fifteen years ago I would have never thought of putting blood sausage on my menu, and now a ton of restaurants have that and it's delicious!

Fine dining has kind of forcibly become more accessible to not-rich people thanks to the prevalence of foodie culture. Even though we can't necessarily afford it, more of us broke folks are going to nice restaurants. Do you think that's what's driving some of this adventurousness?

There is just a bigger conversation about food now. People go to try new restaurants all the time instead of going to their favorites over and over. I think long gone are the menus that are these huge, twenty-page tomes. People want to go to a place where the food is fresh, and clean, and not frozen out of a bag. There will be people who still like the chains and they'll keep doing great business for a long time, but more and more, people are excited about trying the food that chefs are making. It's a good time to be a restaurateur.

So how do keep innovating and not let yourself be out-shined by a new crop of young, bright star chefs? We were all bright young stars once, but with age comes reliability. You respect your food, you respect your restaurant. Salum has changed its menu every single month since we opened nine years ago. And we don't repeat. Sometimes we'll do variations on popular dishes, but we've never repeated a full menu. We see what other people are doing and take inspiration from that. I don't have competition, I have peers. We're all working together to make the restaurant business here very strong.

So do you think you have a pretty good grip on what Dallas wants in a restaurant?

Service is super important. People will definitely come back for a good meal with excellent service, but a great meal with bad service means that people won't return. Servers are the first and last people to touch the table, and they can make your food look and taste beautiful, or ruin it for everyone. That matters so much here. People like to be recognized when they come to restaurants. They appreciate when we remember their names or remember their favorite wine. I've had servers on my staff for nine years, and they have their weekly regulars. We bring their drink to the table without them asking, and everyone is really happy.

Dallas' palate changes all the time. We go through phases. A few years ago, it was fried chicken everywhere. Everybody had fried chicken on their menu. Now it's barbecue. And something else will come along soon, too. But you can't eat fried chicken and barbecue every day.

I think of Interior Mexican cuisine as relatively straightforward, maybe not as flashy as other food?

No, I think it's exactly the opposite. Interior Mexican food can be really flashy. When we say Mexican food, there are 32 states in Mexico, so there are 32 regional cuisines. Sure, everyone in Mexico eats tamales, but they're different in every single region. And they're nothing like what we serve in Texas. You wouldn't cover them with chile con carne in Mexico. That just doesn't exist. By the coast, you have seafood. Toward the center of the country, you have more meats and starches.

But if you go to Mexico City now and check out some of the new restaurants, they are so flashy. Mexico City has I think four of the top fifty restaurants in the world. The culinary scene there is just amazing. These dishes are very delicate, very well executed. And in Mexico, we have a custom of enjoying long meals. Nobody sits down and eats in 20 minutes and has to run. If you're going to lunch with someone, you're not going back to the office. But at the same time, the cuisine can be very rustic. So it goes from the very basic to the extremely elaborate fine dining. There's everything there.

Do you think Texans and Americans in general have a really dumbed-down understanding of what Mexican food really is?

Unless you've traveled outside of the tourist resorts in Mexico. I wouldn't say it's necessarily dumbed-down, but it's different types of cuisine. You have southwestern and Tex-Mex. The only problem I have with that is that everyone calls it Mexican food and it's not Mexican food. So when we talk about "Mexican" food, you're thinking of one thing and I'm thinking of another. You're thinking of enchiladas covered in yellow cheese, and I'm thinking of enchiladas covered in a tomatillo salsa.

Do you see that misunderstanding a lot? People come in to Komali and ask for yellow cheese?

Yes, we do. People come in and ask for fajitas. We have quesadillas on the menu, and they're not what you think they are. You can go to Mexico City and get a quesadilla that is flour tortillas with cheese in it, but that's not how we make it. We use masa and make it like a little empanada, and right now we have it with calabacitas and queso oaxaca, and people look at it and think it's not a quesadilla. At Komali, our tamales are wrapped in banana leaves because that's how they're made in Oaxaca. People are open to try new things, but if you go to Komali expecting to have Tex-Mex? You're not going to find that.

How do you accommodate that? Do you keep the yellow cheese behind the counter?

We don't. We will grill someone a chicken breast and serve it with beans and rice for fajitas, but that's as far as we go. There is a Tex-Mex restaurant in every corner of this city, and we don't need to be another one.

The fact that you're getting away with that sort of makes me think that diners maybe feel a little less entitled at dinner? Maybe they have more of a mentality to let chefs do their thing now? Do you think that's true?

I'm not sure. There's plenty of the other type of diner, but that has nothing to do with Dallas. That's just people. For years, people said that there was not a restaurant like Salum in the '80s. But there were. There have always been progressive, really great restaurants in Dallas. Think about Parigi. It opened thirty years ago because people really took to it, but some people still thought it was weird food.

I still have people come to Salum and when you ask them how they want their meat cooked, they just say "done." You try to talk them out of a well-done steak, but you can't. It does seem like there is a greater respect for our business, and I think we can thank television for that. TV brought chefs to the front, but on the other side, everyone's a chef now. People tell me that they've got recipes to give me. And I say "Sure." People tell us all the time that the food at Komali needs to be spicier, but that's just because they like spicy food. We're not cooking for you, we're cooking for everyone.

It seems like a bad idea to tell your Mexican chef to make the food spicier. That sounds like a dare.

Yeah, well, that's their problem now. Ha.

Komali and Salum have really become neighborhood restaurants. Looking around, you wouldn't think of Salum as a neighborhood restaurant until you consider just how swanky Uptown is. How has this community been for your restaurants?

We're right on the outskirts of Highland Park, and I knew that Uptown was going to be tremendous in ten years, and that was ten years ago. And it's huge. It's full of young people who like to spend money on good food and good wine, so it's a great place to be. I was a chef at Parigi for four years, and I was lucky enough to work in an open kitchen there. When I opened Salum and it was only a mile away, people here would eat here one day a week, then go to Parigi their other night out of the week. I know a lot of my customers' names, and it's exciting that some of our older clientele, we see their children coming into the restaurant. And that feels amazing.

It's interesting that you talked about how willing young people are to drop coin on food and wine. I see a $100 dinner as a value, but someone like my mom would think that's completely exorbitant. Why do you think that is? It's just a different time. They grew up in a time when you could have dinner for two for $25 with a bottle of wine. They were going to all-you-can-eat buffets instead of chef-driven restaurants. Sometimes we have people who are very wealthy and complain about $13 glasses of wine. But it's a great glass of wine! I had one lady say "long gone are the days of $5 glasses of wine," and I though yes, they are. They're gone. If we were going to serve you a $5 glass of wine, it's not going to be very good.

Instead of seeing food just as sustenance, we see it as an experience now. And I think that was lost in the United States at one point. You ate because you had to live, and now you eat because you really enjoy it. Now people are cooking nice meals and going to farmers' markets, and know a lot about food. I always hoped that this was going to happen, and I'm glad it did.