An Interview With Ser's Anthony Van Camp, One of Dallas' Up-and-Coming Chefs

To be called a chef is to have earned respect in the culinary world -- or at least that's the way it used to be. Now, more and more people who have attended culinary school and cooked in a restaurant for a few years are champing at the bit to designate themselves a chef, or worse, a goddamn "celebrity chef." Sometimes, though, there is a young chef who stands out amongst his peers, and quickly rises through the ranks because he's actually really good behind the line.

Anthony Van Camp is one of those guys who quickly earned the title of "chef," but not without a lot of hard work. After rising through the ranks under Anthony Bombaci at the Hilton Anatole's storied (and now shuttered) restaurant Nana, Van Camp quickly became executive chef of Ser Steak + Spirits when the hotel decided to remodel the formerly Italian restaurant into a casual steakhouse. In the few short months following this transition, Van Camp has been working his ass off to fill his predecessor's massive shoes. According to the critics and the diners who pack the restaurant every night, he's clearly onto something. I sat down to talk with Van Camp about his rapid ascent in the restaurant business, what it takes to serve great steak, and how he feels about modernist chefs dumping on traditional steakhouses.

You're a pretty young guy to be wearing that executive chef's coat. Can you talk a little bit about your trajectory from the beginning of your career to now? I've just always loved to cook. When I was in kindergarten, they asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told them that I wanted to be a "chicken barbecuer." I grew up cooking with my mom, and I've only really had one job that wasn't in a kitchen. I moved back to Texas after living in California because this is where my mom is. I hadn't lived in Texas for a few years, and I had to look around and try to find the best chef around.

I found Anthony Bombaci, and he was working at the old Nana Restaurant in the [Hilton Anatole] hotel. He had just trained in Spain for several years, so I thought that seemed like a good fit. I called him up and it worked really well, maybe because we're both Anthony. I worked as a cook, lead cook, sous chef, and executive sous chef, and when they decided that they were going to remodel and change the restaurant to Ser, the old executive chef didn't want to work at a steakhouse. Naturally, they asked me because I had been doing well here. I thought about it for a day, and told them yes. It's really that simple.

Has it been difficult for you to earn the respect of your peers? Many won't get an executive chef opportunity until well into their thirties. Of course. People are very quick to pass judgement, especially if they perceive you as not having done your time. I'm a really humble guy, and that's a quality that I really despise in other chefs. They think that they're badass, and they might be very good at what they do, but they're not good at being a human being. Maybe that's why I'm not super critical of other people. I don't talk shit about other people, that's not my style. People here in the restaurant will even bring it up. They'll tell me to send out the real chef. I try not to let it bother me a whole lot. I'm a pretty easy going guy, so it doesn't really get to me.

What about cooking in a steakhouse appealed to you? That's why I had to think about it for a day. I wasn't really excited about working in a steakhouse. I was excited about the executive chef job, obviously, but I wasn't sure. As I thought about it, I really considered the appeal of a place like this. A fine dining, white tablecloth restaurant is pretty limited in who it appeals to, and we really just weren't that busy when Nonna, a fine dining restaurant, was here. I want to reach as many people as possible. It doesn't matter how good the food you cook is if no one is eating it. It doesn't matter. Being able to have a broader appeal and still do a really good job and have fun was really what made me say yes.

Steakhouses are obviously a very integral part of Dallas' culinary scene, but I think they also take a lot of shit. Chefs and critics say that they aren't creative, that they aren't that great. How do you fight the stereotype of a mediocre steakhouse? We are different in some senses than your traditional steakhouse. When this restaurant was being remodeled, I ate with all of my bosses at a bunch of different steakhouses, which was not as enjoyable as you might think. I ate some good stuff, but I ate a lot of not-so-good stuff. As far as it goes with the entrées, it's kind of a la carte, you just get a piece of meat on a plate. We have all of our steaks paired with sauces that specifically helps accentuate the qualities of that cut of meat.

There's also a couple of things on the menu that are holdouts from Nonna. A lot of people requested that we keep a few things on the menu, like our ribeye. That's something that predates Anthony Bombaci as well. I'm not sure whose concept that is, but it's something that we're still doing.

Is there also something about being in a hotel that has some appeal for you? Something that drew you to the Anatole? There are a lot of things I like about being attached to the hotel. It's really legit that all my cooks have health insurance and paid vacation days. You can't really say that for private restaurants, and I've seen that a lot. I have friends who work for these restaurants and don't have insurance, and that's not a good position to be in. There are pluses and minuses, but it is definitely fun. When you work at a small restaurant, things are tighter. There's no money in the bank account. I don't always have that problem. I've known people who have gone to cash their paychecks, and they bounced. That's not something my people have to deal with.

What does it take to do steak well? You can pay whatever you want for a steak, but they're not all that great. The quality of the meat is huge. That's why steaks at restaurants taste better than steaks that you get at the grocery store. A lot of people think that they can get a New York strip at Tom Thumb for seven dollars, and they don't realize the difference. That's why your $7 Tom Thumb strip steak isn't very good. People don't think about it in the sense that we're serving all prime cuts, and that is a big deal. The price difference varies from cut to cut, but it can make a huge difference in the price of that beef. But you get that marbling, which makes the steak more tender and more tasty.

The issue of cost is really interesting, especially in a steakhouse. All food is expensive, but prime steaks are really a punch in the nuts. There's a way that you figure out price points in your restaurant, it's a whole formula. With steaks, that formula doesn't really achieve your food costs. You can't charge people $125 for a steak so you can meet your food costs. You have to be creative to make up that difference. A lot of our steaks are priced right up the middle, like our New York strip. The price fluctuates, but it's between $26 and $28, and that's our cost. We sell it for $48. Running that 65% or whatever percent it is food cost isn't really that good. That doesn't cover your utilities and overhead. But that's how much everyone else charges for a New York strip, so we have to be relevant.

Do you think people just don't know how much prime steaks and fancy ingredients cost? Yes and no. A lot of people think "I can get a New York strip at Tom Thumb for seven dollars or less," and people don't realize that's why the steaks you cook at home aren't very good.

Do you guys pay attention to the grassfed beef trend? Do you worry about whether or not it's healthier than cornfed beef? Sure. That's one of those trends that you have to try. When grassfed was very cool, we had some stuff on the menu that was grassfed, and people didn't really like it. A lot of people were used to eating that Midwestern, cornfed beef, and you want them to taste like what you're used to. Grassfed beef tastes different, it tastes grassier. It's not bad, I like it, but our audience didn't particularly care for it. It was one of those things we tried, but it wasn't something people were really into. Maybe one steak on the menu might work, but we're not going to sell a lot of grassfed beef. Especially now, it's not really the hot thing anymore. It's hotter to saw your own ice cubes at the bar.

You think that trend isn't relevant? I'm not so sure I agree. The hottest steakhouse in town right now (Knife Modern Steak) focuses almost exclusively on grassfed beef. The general roar of the public. The reason we put it on the menu was because people were requesting it, and I can't remember the last time someone requested grassfed beef.

Do you think that's related to the clientele of travelers that you're getting at the Anatole? Maybe.

What about for you as an eater, not a chef? Do you prefer cornfed beef or something more natural? That's a trick question. I am particular about certain things. The fryer oil we use is all non-GMO and expeller pressed, and it costs us twice as much as hydrogenated oil. It's important to me because I eat things out of that fryer, so we do it. Grassfed beef is superior in terms of what it means for the environment, but I don't know where I land on which tastes better.

Why do you think steak is so successful in Dallas? I think that's what people in general associate with good food. My view is skewed because pretty much all of my friends work in this industry, but the general public loves steak. And honestly, I'm not going to lie, a good steak is really satisfying. With us, we do a lot of business from the hotel, so we have people traveling from all over the world to Texas. You come to Texas to wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats, and to eat steak.

So if everyone loves steakhouses, why do you think the snobbier chefs decided to dump on steakhouses? Somebody's gotta get dumped on, right? There is part of me that misses doing 60 covers a night and not making much money, just covering expenses. The spectrum of people you're appealing to is small. But a steakhouse is always busy, and they're always bringing in lots of money, so they're easy to dump on.

Do you think those chefs view steakhouses as less creative? How do you combat that? With our menu, we have certain dishes that you could very well find at a more upscale restaurant. We do those things to make ourselves sane because doing 300 covers a night and serving 150 of the exact same filets gets a little monotonous. There's no less care taken in what we do, but you almost feel like a robot at the end of the night. We have a pretty good mix of things that are fun that we can fire while we're really busy. When I was at Nonna, the biggest night I remember was maybe 180 covers. Here, we've done crazy amounts of food. Twice that in the dining room, plus banquets in the back? That's definitely cool to know that you just served 600 people in one night versus 80.

Seems like that might be a good fit for a young guy, but do you think it will help you build on your creative interests? Just because we do a lot of covers doesn't mean that we're being less creative or working less hard. We're always doing something else, like having wine dinners and brunches and holiday events. That keeps things interesting.

Outside of steak, where do those creative interests lie? What kind of cooking appeals most to you? I just like to cook in general. And eating good food. It doesn't matter. I dabble in everything.

You don't wish that you were at some kind of molecular, crazy restaurant? There's lots of cool things that they can do at places like that and they also have a lot of people who are interested in learning what they're doing, so they have people who stage for free. I would love to go stage at those places, but at places like El Bulli where you have six people on staff and everyone else works for free, is that a sustainable business model? We're able to be successful and do cool things. I've found that it takes a really, really skilled person to make that technique-driven stuff work, and that can be hard when you don't have 10 highly skilled chefs working for you. When that food is done poorly, it is not good.

We've got some foams and clouds and different things, though. We process our cheese and use meat glue, but we've struck a balance between cool, tricky things and making the technique help the food that we're doing. We use things like xanthan gum and glycerin in little touches, but they don't take the focus away from the food.

Based on what you're talking about, you as a chef seem more business-oriented than a lot of chefs out there. Ultimately, unless you're going to buy your own restaurant, you're working for someone else. Unless you're rich, you're not going to make enough money doing this to buy your own restaurant, so you're ultimately always going to be working for someone. There are people who care about Ser as a business, and you can't have a business that isn't making any money. You have to care. I know lots of people who want to do their thing, and there are tons of restaurants owned by chefs who get to do what they want to do, and that's enviable. For the majority of us, we're working for someone else, even if it's a restaurant you've opened. You're going to have investors. They care about getting their money back.

Speaking of trends, chefs are incredibly focused on being "local" right now. What is your focus as a chef? I want to be true to my customers, and just generally be an honest person. I'm honest with my cooks, they're honest with me. We want to create a whole culture around that, down to our servers. That's very near and dear to my heart, and that goes for our vendors, which is why I care about local food. We get our microgreens from a lady that showed up in the restaurant one day and brought us a sample. We had been buying microgreens from California, and they helped us get free shipping on an order that we were planning. The local microgreens are more expensive, they're more difficult for my prep cook, and we don't get free shipping anymore, but that's alright. It's really cool that they're growing those microgreens for us.

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