Recently we sat down Bolsa chef Jeff Harris at the new sister store Bolsa Mercado, which is a neighborhood market with unique items, Texas fare, good booze and a bevy of fresh from-scratch breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Harris grew up in East Texas surrounded by farmland, eating his grandparents' farm-to-table meals. After culinary school in New York City and a seven-year stint at Craft (NYC and Dallas), he's leveraging the locavore movement in Oak Cliff.
Where did you grow up? In East Texas, a small town outside of Longview.
How did you get into cooking? Both my grandparents were great cooks, they lived on a farm and my mom's parents had a dairy farm with huge gardens and my grandmother was always canning stuff. I actually went to college at North Texas, graduated and worked in real estate and for a bank for a few years, but when I was at the bank I was literally reading menus all day. I started watching the Food Network and the Travel Channel and then looked into culinary school and just had a feeling that was what I really wanted to do. So, I went to culinary school in New York City (The Institute of Culinary Education).
Did you enjoy going to school in New York City? Yes, it was great because it was near a farmers market and surrounded by all these great restaurants. It was a great experience. I was there for three years and after I graduated I did an externship in Austin at Hudson's on the Bend, but they just didn't have any room for me there, so I went back to New York and got a job at Craft.
Working there was really eye-opening. When you get out of school you realize how much work it is -- you just have to stick your head down and work. It was pretty intense and we were super busy, so it was definitely very difficult but also an amazing experience. Then after three years I moved down here to open Craft in Dallas.
How did you end up at Bolsa? I left Craft last January, then me and Matt went to open RedFork, then left shortly afterward and came to Bolsa in September.
How has the Dallas food scene changed in four years? It's definitely evolved in the four years I've been here. There's the older guard -- Stephan [Pyles], Dean [Fearing] and Kent [Rathbun] -- those guys are still doing amazing stuff and they keep pushing. Stephan is doing different stuff all the time. Then there's also a group of younger chefs, like David and Lucia, Tim at Smoke, Tiffany, Jay and a lot of people that are offering different things. I think it's a very exciting time for the city.
Do you think the Dallas diner helps grow and sustain the local food movement? I think so. I think part of it is that more people are aware, they're also more health conscious and know more about different types of food. I know it's challenging getting farm-to-table food here. When you talk to farmers during the summer, they just don't have anything because everything is dried up. But, as far as farmers markets and stuff, you see places popping up like Local Yocal in McKinney. Here at Bolsa Mercado we've been reaching out to people who do local things. That's why I was so excited about this store, it's really a platform for a lot of local food. Could there be more Bolsa Mercados in other parts of the city? Possibly. It's not something we're thinking about right now, but sure, maybe some day.
Any dives around here in the Bishop Arts area you frequent? El Si Hay is great and I love the breakfast tacos from El Padrino.
What about other places? I like Tei Tei for sushi and for Tex-Mex, I like Mia's. We also go to Il Cane Rosso when we can.
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Do you think The Food Network and reality TV has help create a more refined food scene? I think it's helped. I remember the first day of culinary school my instructor told us, "If you're here to be the next Emeril or Bobby, you probably need to get a refund. You're going to be chopping things for a long time." There are tons of people in culinary school now and it definitely helped push that movement along. It's hard work and it's not glamorous. You work holidays, nights, you don't get paid a lot, so you have to really love it to make it work.
At the same time have diners become more evolved with their palates? I think so. When we first started at Craft we would get a lot of comments like "Pack up your knives and go." People are really trying a lot of new restaurants now but they can also pick apart a dish. It's great, but at the same time, are people going out to eat to be critics or are they going out to eat to have a good time? At the end of the day that's what a meal should be about -- bringing people together with food.
How would you describe the Dallas diner's palate? I think it's really good. Just in the time I've been here some of the new places like Lucia and Bolsa are really successful and it's great how they are really being supported by the community. Overall, I think it's great.
What would you like to see more of in Dallas? It would be cool to have some more interesting lower price-point food, like noodle shops.