CBD Provisions' Chef Richard Blankenship Stays True to Texas' Soul

At a place like CBD Provisions, it’s easy for the myth to overtake the reality. As soon as this swanky-casual spot in the Joule Hotel served up the first pig’s head (complete with eye) with tortillas and salsa, it quickly became the most talked-about dish of the last year. What was less frequently discussed, though, were all the other equally incredible dishes that came out of the restaurant's kitchen.

Chef Richard Blankenship's move into the role of executive chef at CBD Provisions earlier this year was sort of a foregone conclusion. Blankenship had been in the kitchen since the restaurant opened and even worked at its predecessor, Charlie Palmer. Now, he’s one of the most talented (and young!) executive chefs in the city, even if you aren’t catching him on Food Network every other night. We sat down to talk with Blankenship about taking over CBD Provisions from chef Michael Sindoni, exactly what the hell “modern Texas brasserie” means, and whether or not he’s tired of that ever-popular pig’s head.

When you took over at CBD Provisions, you’d already been working there since the restaurant opened. Did you feel like you were getting a new position when you became the executive chef, or was it just like doing what you were already doing?

A little bit of both, really. I did do a lot of the same stuff that I had been doing before, but I had to have more of a birds-eye look on things. Instead of watching someone steer the ship, you have to steer the ship now. I’m also dealing more with the direction of the food, and before I would just hear about it and execute those things. Now I have to decide where we’re going.

Were you ready for the challenge?

I feel like I was, yeah. There are definitely challenges along the way, but it’s just learning. We try to create a really developmental vibe in the kitchen. We’re all sort of like students. If we’re all constantly learning in our respective roles, it just makes for a better work environment.

The kitchen seems really mellow here. It’s really quiet, and that seems a little out of the ordinary. Do you work to cultivate that culture?

It’s important to me, and I feel like I learned a lot of that from chef Mike [Sindoni]. That’s kind of how he ran things, and I really like the way that works. I adopted that, I guess.

What about Sindoni's management style? Did you learn from that, or go in a different direction? 

When you’re the executive chef, you have to have enough distance to be able to step back and see what’s going on, but you also have to be able to get in there and cook on the line sometimes. I learned a lot from the way that Mike ran things. Nothing major really changed, but we’re different people, and we do things differently. But we both have a deep respect for food, and I think we have a lot of the same ideas about approach, and in wanting food to be a little different while also being familiar.

When someone describes CBD as a “modern Texas brasserie,” what does that mean?

I’m not sure what that means literally, but we take those words and use them in how we approach the food. The “Texas” aspect can mean a couple of different things — using the cultural, heritage foods that are in Texas and focusing on where the ingredients come from. We like to mix those definitions all together. The core team has been here for enough menu changes, and we all kind of get the vibe of the concept. We’re sticking with what we’ve historically done, and also looking at what fits with the restaurant. We like to put dishes on the table to see what they look like.

Is that something that matters to you, that the aesthetic of the food very closely matches the aesthetic of the restaurant?

If it’s a natural evolution, then definitely. If we’re doing our job and doing justice to the dining room, everything will look like it fits. Service will feel natural, and the food will feel fun, but that you’ve also had it your whole life. All of that adds up to create the experience that we’re trying to create.

There are plenty of people who only come to CBD Provisions because they want to try that famous pig's head carnitas dish. Do you wish people would try something different?

Maybe a little bit. It’s a great dish, and it is popular, and it’s cool to see people so excited about it two years later. When it hits the table, everyone pulls out their phones and has to take a picture. It’s a ritual before they even sit down, really.

Are you still selling out of it every night?

Most nights. Some nights, we’ll only sell a handful, and other nights, they’ll be gone by 6 p.m. Now, what’s cool is that we get a good amount of people who have been here because of the opening hype and tried the carnitas, and now they’re coming back and trying different things. That’s exciting.

Is it hard to convince people to try something different, or do they want to order the carnitas every single time?

It depends on the person.

Does CBD attract a pretty adventurous clientele?

I think so. You’ve got to drive downtown and deal with the whole parking situation, so yeah, I’d say they’re a little more adventurous than most. I don’t know, though. Maybe that’s a huge generalization that will bite me in the ass later.

Are there dishes on the menu that you wish people paid a little more attention to?

We have a pretty good mix, honestly. We’re getting good at seeing what people will like, and from time to time, there are things that surprise us. We try to not have anything that is too out there, and if something isn’t hitting, it’s just not hitting. Even if we love it, we try to change the menu and keep those permanent slots for dishes that people are really excited about. We change the menu all the time, even if it’s only one or two things. It’s kind of like that old car that you’re never going to stop working on.

What are the kinds of dishes that get people here really excited?

The dishes that people know, that they have personal experiences with, they capture a lot of emotion and are really exciting. We also try to use ingredients that people maybe haven’t heard of, but also aren’t too outlandish. Those kinds of ingredients are typically sourced pretty close to home. If we’re going to take a risk on something, we try to source it close by. Or maybe it’s like a new and interesting technique, I would say that’s what encompasses most of the cooking that we do here.

You were also here when Charlie Palmer was here, which was such a fundamentally different restaurant than what you’re doing at CBD today. Do people still come here and expect a steakhouse? 

People still show up and ask if this place is Charlie Palmer. Most of those people come in and have a different experience than they expected, but they still enjoy it. We definitely serve a different demographic than Charlie Palmer, but I think it’s better. We can appeal to a much wider base — young people, old people, everyone in between. The price point, the ambience, everything can appeal to everyone.

When CBD opened in 2013, that was at sort of the height of Dallas finally arriving to the farm-to-table food trend. Two years later, people still seem pretty interested in local food. Do you think it will ever go away?

I hope not. That would be really cool. Just the fact that people want to know where their food comes from, and what they’re eating, and why is a good thing. It helps our industry, but it also helps humanity, I think. Not to get too big and philosophical and shit, but that’s just good for everybody. It’s a no-brainer.

When you’re happy at a place like CBD, how do you keep pushing your food forward?

Learning. I see stuff all the time and look at the things that chefs are doing all over the world, and that’s really inspiring. Learning about different aspects of food, not just what we do in restaurants, but what people do in their real lives is really important. We always fight with the Asian flair, because it just doesn’t always work. We’ve been able to do a couple of dishes that have had some Asian flavor or inspiration, but it’s tough in this concept to do it without it seeming over the top or kitschy. It’s still always fun. When you can pull it off, it’s really elegant and nice. It doesn’t hurt that we have a lot of that in Dallas.

The Joule is planning to open another concept in a couple of months, Americano. Are you involved in that process at all?

I’ve been able to sit on some tastings. Get a free meal, that was pretty cool. Matt Ford helped us open CBD, and he was a huge part of the opening chef time. I try to lend a helping hand wherever I can. We all work under the same roof, so if we’re able to help, we do.

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