Bolsa Chef Andrew Bell on Cooking Local and the Most Important Tool in a Chef's Arsenal

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For the past few years, an increased focus on local produce has dominated menus across the city. Chefs began to move away from using the bland produce that is available year-round in favor of a more seasonal approach that makes fresh produce shine on the plate.

No restaurant has been more representative of that than Bolsa. Under chef Jeff Harris, Bolsa earned rave reviews from critics and diners alike. In November of last year, Andrew Bell took over the reins and made plans to tweak and improve the restaurant that has been driving the growth of Oak Cliff and the Bishop Arts District for the past seven years. Six months later, Bell has made subtle changes to the menu that really drive home the farm-to-table concept.

I sat down with him to talk about how he's changed Bolsa, local produce, and what he's learned from 23 years in the restaurant industry.

What was it like to come into a well-established restaurant like Bolsa with your own philosophy on food and cooking? It was a good fit. The owners of the restaurant and myself all have very parallel views on food and ingredients, and how to present them to the customers.

When you came to Bolsa, were there some fundamental things that you wanted to change? Not really. I brought a level of organization to Bolsa that was here but needed to be polished a little bit.

Tell me a little bit about your journey from starting work in the restaurant industry to where you are now. I got a job in a kitchen when I was 15, then I moved to Austin to go to college and then dropped out so I could go back to work in restaurants. I've been in restaurants ever since between Austin and Dallas. I've worked at Wink and Uchi in Austin, and Mercury, Aurora, Nosh, The Mansion and Citizen in Dallas. Oh, and Bolsa Mercado.

So you worked in the market next to Bolsa before actually heading over to the restaurant to lead the kitchen? Yeah, I worked there for two years and then I went to The Mansion. I was the chef at Mercado and left to go work banquets at The Mansion when my girlfriend and I found out that we had a kid on the way. It was a good opportunity, but when this opened up, I couldn't pass it up.

After working at The Mansion, were there things that you changed about your approach to cooking? [It] just reinforced my philosophy. They have a tremendous amount of respect for the ingredient, and that's really nice to know. For myself, I was 31 before I ever ate a canned vegetable because growing up we always had fresh vegetables on the plate. I grew up here in Oak Cliff, and my mom grew up in New Orleans and came from a time period where people had a garden in the back of the house. But also, markets were different. People grocery shopped every day, more of the European-style thing where you picked up what you needed for dinner that night. We also didn't have meat at every meal, but there were always three vegetables on the plate. We weren't vegetarians by any means, but there was a lot of focus on fresh produce.

Was your mom an awesome cook? She was a very good home cook. She certainly was not a chef, but everything was from scratch, there was very little processed food in the house -- no sweet cereals or sodas. They were treats, and the food my mom was cooking was always good. Our friends came to our house for dinner.

Are there any dishes reminiscent of things your mom used to cook on the menu at Bolsa? Or did you learn more philosophical things from her? Just eat your vegetables. My style of cooking is not necessarily home cooking, so there's not many of the same dishes. But there's still that respect for the ingredients.

I think that's sort of a long time coming. Chefs are transitioning away from specializing in one type of cuisine and moving toward making the ingredients on the plate the focus of their style. You'll see that a lot of fine restaurants will have morels or black truffles or lobster on their menus. These ingredients are treated with great reverence, but at the end of the day, a potato and onion still cost money. If you don't take care of your product, your product isn't going to take care of you. You'll waste money making bad food, and your business will no longer be open.

Do you think you have a good grip on the business side of running a restaurant? Yeah, I've opened and closed a restaurant, and have been part of many openings and few closings at other people's restaurants outside of my own. I have been privy to the ups and downs and everything it takes to make the restaurant make sense.

Tell me a little about your experience of opening and closing your own restaurant, how was that? I had Dr. Bell's Barbecue in Downtown. It was a Texas barbecue place on Main Street right next to City Tavern. It was open for about two years, from 2007 to 2009. It was a good concept, but it was a bad location. Downtown wasn't quite where it is now, and unless you were associated with a hotel, it was hard for an independent operator. I don't go downtown much, but the city of Dallas could take some lessons from Fort Worth and offer free parking to get people down there.

Do you think that's why restaurants have sort of migrated into these smaller up-and-coming neighborhoods like Knox/Henderson and North Oak Cliff? I think what started down here in Bishop Arts is Dallas' first true sense of community. The rest of the city has kind of taken note as to what you can do with a neighborhood that is coming up, and how to re-think an already established neighborhood when you go forward with building infrastructure. People who are there build a sense of community, and the people who aren't there want to come down to Bishop Arts and see what is going on.

Do you think Bishop Arts is still considered an up-and-comer, or is the trendiness starting to wear off? I think Oak Cliff, Bishop Arts, and Sylvan Thirty are still growing, and I think they're going to continue to develop. There's a great foundation here, and I don't see Oak Cliff falling off the map. Trends are cyclical. Right now, Greenville is hot. Deep Ellum is trying to make its third, fourth, fifth, whatever comeback. They're rethinking the Farmers Market area, and that's going to be great for those areas. Overall, I think Dallas is making some very progressive steps forward in building a city with a little more culture and more of a sense of place.

Obviously more culture in Dallas is a good thing, but what do these changes mean for restaurants and restaurateurs? That's a tough one. I think it means that they need to think about the neighborhoods they're going into and think about what the clientele is going to be. But they have to be broader than that. They have to bring in people from outside that neighborhood, so they have to respect and have appreciation for the people that live in that neighborhood, but also have some way to attract people to their restaurants. A lot of people that come to Bolsa aren't from Oak Cliff, but we've created a very hospitable and consistent environment that brings them back.

Now that it's spring, I can imagine that you're pretty excited about the garden bounty that is coming. Spring gets a lot of attention, but we really only have about two and a half seasons in Texas. Anytime the season changes, chefs get excited. You've spent the last two or three months cooking the same product, so it's exciting to get some new inventory in and start cooking new things.

How have you adapted the menu at Bolsa to accommodate seasonal spring produce? We've incorporated as much local as possible. This crazy late winter delayed spring, and these cold spells have really taken a bite out of some of the local farms. They're outside the city, so some of the temperatures are lower than they are in town. The crops have had a hard time getting started, but it's happening now. I'm getting more and more product, but it's touch and go.

Is it difficult to build a menu around that uncertainty? Not necessarily difficult, but it does takes a little more planning. I text and talk more with the farmers than I will once the season comes on board, they tell me what they have, and I'll take it.

When March or April roll around, what are some of the ingredients that you get really excited to work with? Right now we have green garbanzo beans on the menu. A lot of people don't recognize it because it's still green because it hasn't been dried out, and that's a lot of fun. I also like English peas, fresh fava beans, asparagus and artichokes. We're not 100 percent local right now -- I wish -- but I think we'll eventually get there.

Do you think that's something that most of the restaurants in the city are working toward? I think it's grown up a tremendous amount in the last three, five years? You have Tei-An, you have Spoon, Oak and Bolsa that's been here for almost seven years now. All of those restaurants have brought a level of creativity and playfulness while still using fantastic product that wasn't here before. Before, Dallas was a caricature of Southwestern food. When people come there, they want to go to a steakhouse. And steakhouses are fine, but if you've been to one steakhouse, you've been to 50. We're slowly developing an identity beyond the steakhouse, and that's been nice.

What are some dishes that you see on menus that you would prefer to see less of? I have no place to tell people what they should put on their menu. I'm not the food police. I don't go to the chain restaurants, so most of the places I'm going, the things on their menu, I want to eat. If I go to Lucia, Oak, or FT33, there isn't really anything on the menu that I don't want to eat. I eat pretty much everything. I'm not crazy about cream cheese, and I don't eat a lot of natto, but outside of that, I'll eat it.

Do you see a similar openness in the diners that come to Bolsa? There is that adventurous clientele, the true diner that wants to go out for the experience. Most of your customers? No. They're going to dinner for the social aspect. They like to eat, but they aren't going to Alinea once a year. That doesn't take away from their importance, you still have to cater to them. It's a balancing act, you know. We're cooking because we love it, and we're cooking to blow that 5 percent of diners away, but you also have to make the 95 percent of diners who aren't so adventurous really happy, because they're the ones paying the bills.

When I think about the concept of seasonality, there are a lot of places that stretch the definition of what is local and fresh. Does that bother you as someone who is really committed to a local menu? I'm really busy, I don't have time to pick apart everybody's business philosophy. Like anything, catchphrases like that come along for marketing purposes and people grab it. It's human nature. But it's not my job to be the restaurant judge. I'm busy over here.

What do you think, as a chef, is the most important part of running a restaurant -- writing the menu, making the food come out perfectly, or something else? Time management. I also have to make sure that my staff conveys on a plate what's inside my head. Without my staff, I can't do anything. If they don't believe in me or understand me, then everybody fails. Everything worthwhile is hard, the easy button doesn't exist. If it's not, the first wind that comes by is going to knock it down.

What do you think it takes to build a good team in the kitchen? Dedication. I don't really know the secret, if I did I would write a book and I wouldn't be working.

Well, if you weren't a chef, what would you be doing? Maybe making furniture? I don't know. I've made stuff with my hands and done light construction with my hands at my own house, and that's fun because you have something tangible at the end of the day after working for it.

Do you think that's part of why you enjoy cooking, you take these raw ingredients and end up with a beautiful finished product? That's definitely part of it. The other part is that I was hungry, so I started cooking when I was about 5 years old. I would make scrambled eggs and potatoes and whatever I could throw into a pan,

Bolsa is seven years into serving farm-to-table food, what do the next five years look like? I don't anticipate any major changes outside of just getting better at what we do. I want to polish the little gem that was already here.

How do you do that? Practice, and surrounding yourself with better people. Constantly looking for the best employees you can find and instill in them the things we're doing every day. Ideally, in five years, the dining scene in Dallas will be even better than it is now and we can do more.

What do you think your biggest strength as a chef is? What about weaknesses? I'm open to criticism, and there's not a lot of ego on my plates. For me, it's a love of cooking. I have my sous chef Ethan Phillips and a few other guys in the kitchen, and they pour their heart out in the back of that kitchen. I listen to them, take input, and it makes a difference. Being able to listen and change are my strengths, and patience is my weakness. I'm a laid-back person, and I keep that impatience in check until it reaches a certain point, and then I'm really horrible to be around. I don't throw stuff and I don't cuss, but there is no mistaking if I'm upset about something. There's no gray area. You know that Andrew is upset, and when you go home, you can reflect on that.

Are there any specific areas of your cuisine that you're currently working on perfecting? You're always trying to perfect all of it. We are a rustic American restaurant and we're not looking to lose that, but at the same time, we could refine a couple of aspects. Just dial in stuff, clean up presentation a little bit. But for the most part, I'm happy with the menu. I think the spring menu right now speaks of spring.

What's your favorite dish on this new menu? The fish is really nice right now, and I love the veg plate and quail. I wanted to make a vegetable dish that was satiating but light, and to make something that tastes like spring. It's heirloom tomatoes, artichokes, a tomato-mint sauce, shaved pecorino. It's very satisfying without being stuffy.

And that kind of seems like that's your overall goal -- really satisfying dishes that aren't heavy. A lot of restaurants you go to, the menu will be very masculine. Heavy will dominate the menu, but there are a few plates for "the lady." A chicken this or a fish that, but I think it's nicer when you strike more of a balance and have a feminine and masculine side on the menu.

Do you think that "masculine" dominance in restaurants just stems from the fact that there are more male chefs than female chefs in the industry? I think that comes from the old steakhouse thing. Dining has changed so much in the past five years, even. Fine dining is almost off the map, true fine dining with full service like what The Mansion does. It's difficult for an independent operator to do that these days, and I don't think the diner really wants that. They want the nice food and they want the luxury, but they don't want pretense. You don't need cloches to be removed at the same time when the food hits the table. There's a level of stuffiness that has gone away, the times have changed.

Have restaurants driven that change or have they had to adapt? It's both. There are restaurants out there that pushed the envelope and made the change on their own, and the customers followed. Sometimes it was opposite.

Do you think chefs are scared to shift away from heavy, traditional dishes because they're just as much businessmen as creatives? No, I think chefs always cook what they want to cook for the most part. Some chefs certainly have to stay within the parameters of a business philosophy, and some have a greater level of creativity and expression. Every chef at every restaurant has a different set of problems to deal with. We're fortunate here in that as long as the food is good and the numbers are in line, we can cook whatever we want.

You can't change everything all at once or you'll alienate the customers, though. When I came in, we changed a lot of things, but we left things on the menu, too. The twig and branch flatbread, the Margherita flatbread, those aren't going anywhere soon. There are people who come in once or twice a week for those dishes. I didn't make them, but I'm responsible for making them good.

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