If you’ve loved chef Andrew Bell’s cuisine at a restaurant, he’s probably not there anymore. In the past few years, Bell has jumped from Bishop Arts' farm-to-table mecca Bolsa to Highland Park’s haven for ladies who lunch, Bistro 31, leaving many to wonder what this talented, under-the-radar chef would do next.
Bell’s tenure at Bistro 31 was short, but only because he was given an offer he couldn't refuse: the executive chef job at DISH’s new location in Preston Hollow, which opened in February. Now that he’s settled in, we sat down to talk with Bell about his jumps around the Dallas restaurant scene, what opening the newest location of DISH was like, and how he plans to create an upscale neighborhood restaurant for one of the city’s most discerning clienteles.
You’ve done a little bit of moving around since we last spoke. You were at Bolsa then, and then moved to Bistro 31 in Highland Park. Now you’re at DISH in Preston Hollow. How have those transitions been?
In transitioning from Bistro to here, it’s been great. This restaurant group does everything they say they’re going to do, and they provide you with all the resources you need. The Bistro move was made for insurance and pay for my family, but when this opportunity came along, I couldn’t turn it down. It’s been really awesome so far.
Some might think you’ve had some trouble settling in. Is that true?
Every move that I’ve made has been to improve my position, and for my family. I haven’t burned any bridges, I don’t walk out in the middle of service. It’s a competitive job market right now, and when those opportunities come along, you can take them, or you can ignore them. I chose to make this move because it’s good for my family, myself and this restaurant.
What makes DISH a good fit?
There’s a well-organized group here, and they provide the tools that I need and want. It’s refreshing to work for a company that has the assets to make the improvements that are needed. In this business, a lot of restaurants struggle because it’s hard to make it. It just is. DISH is organized and well-financed. That makes it a lot easier.
Did you go to the DISH on Cedar Springs to feel it out before making your decision?
Sort of. I worked over at the Cedar Springs location for about a month with the chef there to learn the recipes and see how this company operates. Toward the end of January, I moved over here to set up everything before we opened in early February. It’s been so quick, and so much has been going on.
I’m sure after opening so many restaurants it all sort of blurs together.
There’s just so much time involved in getting everything started. We’re still very new, and we’re here almost every day. Monday feels like Tuesday, Tuesday feels like Friday. Every week we’re a little more busy, our sales are trending upward. But we’re still on a little bit of a learning curve as people in the neighborhood figure out that we’re here and what we’re all about.
It seems like coming Bistro 31 in Highland Park to Preston Hollow is a pretty natural transition. Do you find a lot of overlap in the two clienteles?
Very much. Bistro, Hillstone, DISH — we’re sharing a lot of the same clients. It’s the same neighborhoods, same demographic for the most part.
When you were at Bolsa, you were doing a lot of creative stuff. Do you have that freedom here?
I have freedom within a certain set of parameters. This is just a different place than Bolsa. The audience there is a little bit younger, and you’ve got a little bit more mature, more well-traveled clientele at a place like DISH. They’re looking for a neighborhood spot. People go to Bolsa for the experimental, to see something a little more esoteric. Next week at DISH, we’re changing 12 or 13 items on the menu to make it a little more spring and summer friendly, and we’ll change again in the fall. They’ll still be parallel to the other location, but just reflect the season a little better.
Is that the best way to handle that? Focusing on the ingredients of the dish as opposed to its composition?
I think either way, you should never lose focus on the quality of the ingredients. As far as creativity goes, we’ve got daily specials that myself and the sous chefs can play around with. It’s about getting the best ingredients we can get a hold of, and providing a consistent and enjoyable experience for our diners.
Are you holding over any of those relationships with farmers that you were building at Bolsa? Is that even possible?
I don’t use a lot of the small farms anymore. Most of those farms couldn’t keep up with this volume. On Friday or Saturday night, I’m doing 350 covers. I would need one of those farms to just supply me only if I was going to do that. We’re still getting really good stuff from our purveyors, some of which is local, but for the most part, I’m using the purveyors at my disposal to get the best product that I can.
The original DISH on Cedar Springs is such a unique place. They’ve got the drag brunch, and the character of the neighborhood really comes through. How do you translate that to a more conservative neighborhood?
The design of the restaurant, the flow, the service, it’s all a little bit different. There are plans in the works for more DISH locations in the future, but I’m not sure where next one will be. This restaurant has a greater mass appeal. DISH Cedar Springs has its own identity, its own personality.
What would you say your biggest focus is here?
Helping these cooks and sous chefs become better at what they do. I want to help everyone become a better cook and do as much as I can to further the education in the kitchen. I have about four guys that have followed me around from different restaurants, and I trust them and know that they’ll do a good job.
That seems like a pretty nice thing to have. So many chefs complain about how difficult it is to staff a kitchen in Dallas.
It is definitely hard. Dallas is a saturated restaurant market, so the cliché that good work is hard to find is certainly true in this market. I’ve been fortunate in that the people who work for me do a great job. I have no complaints there.
We really are in a saturated market, it seems. What is the point where that becomes a little overwhelming?
I don’t know. [Commercial real estate broker] Henry S. Miller always said that you couldn’t have too many restaurants in one location. I’m not sure what our oversaturation point is, but we’ve got a lot of restaurants.
With that comes a ton of expectations, right? You have to hit the ground running. Does that mean more pressure?
Any time you open a business, if success isn’t at the forefront of your mission and you don’t plan well, you’re going to struggle. Dallas is a fickle diner. People here like the new restaurant, but it’s also true that chefs and restaurants lose focus. I can’t speak for other people, but for myself, whatever restaurant I’m at, I want to make it the best possible. I do that every day. I go home, I wake up, and then I do it again.
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What is the “best possible” that DISH can be?
I want to see two or three more locations. I want to have clients that appreciate the continuity and the differences between the two locations. We want to be consistent. We have to find the right talent for each restaurant, that understands the core philosophy of the restaurant, but has their own identity and their own palate.
Is DISH a place you could see yourself for a long time?
For the foreseeable future, yeah. It’s a good fit for me. The work-life balance is coming along as we get people trained and get our systems in place. That’s definitely getting better for me. My sous chefs are doing a great job and stepping up to the plate, that makes my life easier. If the cooks are doing a good job, the sous chefs jobs are easier. We’re in a good rhythm. The first month was bumpy, but by early March, we hit our stride and found a home for everything and found the best way to set everything up. Every day has been an improvement. It’s a good fit for me in this city, and this market.