Chef Kyle McClelland Ditched Brooklyn for Dallas and Isn't Looking Back (Interview)

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The ascension of Dallas' culinary scene has been a curious thing to watch from the sidelines. As a diner, Dallasites have more restaurants to choose from than ever, helmed by some of the country's brightest up-and-coming chefs. At the same time, this progress has been slow-going, and Dallas has been somewhat resistant to change its stodgy culinary scene -- a fact that Driftwood and Proof + Pantry Chef Kyle McClelland is working his ass off to change.

McClelland was a big score for the Dallas culinary scene. After opening Cedars Social here, he jetted off to Brooklyn and opened a much-hyped restaurant called Prospect, which still operates today. After shucking off the pressures of New York City life and making Dallas his home again, McClelland is bringing his New England-influenced food here. I sat down with McClelland to talk about what it's been like to come back, his thoughts on the burgeoning Dallas restaurant scene, and why Brooklyn just can't compete with Dallas when it comes to tacos. Note: This interview happened before he and Michael Martensen tried to box Leslie Brenner out of reviewing their restaurant.

You worked in Dallas to launch Cedars Social, then went off to New York to open a restaurant, and now you're back. How have these past few months back in Big D been?

Good, it's been a work in process. The transition between ownership, staff, and chef at Driftwood hasn't been easy. The management left, a lot of the kitchen staff left, so for me it was a big transition. I had to do a lot of training, we made a lot of changes in the restaurant just in the way that they were doing things. It took some time to get to where we are now, and I still don't think we're there yet.

Was it difficult to walk into someone else's restaurant with a really established concept and do their thing instead of your own?

They were pretty open with letting me do what I wanted to do. I think it more had to do with training people. None of the people in our kitchen had ever cooked my food, and from my eyes, as an outsider looking in, the person that used to be in charge of that kitchen didn't spend too much time there. The direction of the restaurant was kind of in trouble. That was a four star restaurant before? I don't see it. Maybe in the beginning, but not toward the end. It wasn't there.

For me, doing what I was doing in New York, getting four stars, getting Michelin to come out, it was really hard for me to get to that level of where I wanted to be. Leslie was trying to come in and review us in our first two months. That's just ridiculous. She came in five weeks in, and we told her no. She came back again and gave us three stars. None of us even recognized it because we don't think that it's true. We've changed up the bar program, improved the wine list. Everything that we did made that a better restaurant. We shouldn't have gone down in stars, not up.

Do you think Dallas' restaurant scene is lacking in terms of professionalism?

I'll say this. When I was here four years ago at Cedars Social, I was bringing New York flair and people weren't getting it. Dallas was behind, plain and simple. There were things that I was doing in the city that people were loving, and they just didn't get it here.

Do you think that's still true? No. Coming back now, there's a lot of great restaurants. There's a lot of good food here, and people are doing some good things. With this place, we're trying to do something different and not be like anyone else. We're doing this different style menu, and people don't get it. People perceive us as expensive. Yeah, the chicken is $44, but it's a three pound chicken. It's meant to serve two or three people. When you break it down, that's $22 per person. Where can you get an entree like that for $22? Maybe we're a little ahead of the curve. I don't know.

What reputation do you want for Proof + Pantry? Obviously pricey isn't it. I don't know what you want to call this place, but I call it a more modern style bistro. We're doing fun comfort food. We're trying to get people to share and enjoy themselves at dinner. I don't want this coursed menu. When I go to eat, I like to eat a lot of different things.

I don't get the resistance to shared plates. Where do you think that comes from?

I don't know. Some of my favorite things to eat, especially in New York, would be to go to Chinatown and get a table of food. Everyone tries everything, and that's what we want people to do. Pick numerous things off the menu and dive in. We do have things on the menu that are ok for just a few people, but we're looking for people with groups. If you look at the menu, we don't really have a lot of deuces. The food is great, Mike's bar program speaks for itself.

Why did you come back to Dallas? If they don't get your food?

For me, it was my goal and my dream to have my own restaurant. When you get to that level, you don't realize how much work it is and what it takes to run a restaurant in New York City. It was hard being the owner and the chef. New York is so expensive, and it started to be more about quality of life. I love it, it's my home, and I miss it. I saw a lot of good things happening here and I was in touch with Mike and it was maybe time for me to take a break.

Was coming to Dallas a downgrade for you?

No, not really. But within the first year of opening my restaurant in Brooklyn, we wanted to get really highly reviewed. We were pushing to be a top restaurant, and three weeks after we opened, Hurricane Sandy hit. It really messed up the city, and it was just an uphill battle to stay open. It was bad timing, unfortunately. We thought it was going to be a great time because we opened up a couple blocks away from the Barclays Center and that part of Brooklyn was just blowing up. In that year, we got these raving reviews from every major publication except for New York Times and New York Magazine, and the second-largest paper in the city gave us four stars. But what was [New York Times food critic] Pete Wells doing? He was traveling around the country reviewing other restaurants. The biggest reviewer in the city, the guy who makes or breaks people, spent half his time that year out of the city.

So you just got the shit end of the stick all the way around with Prospect?

From the guests and following that we had there, I can say that we were a very high-caliber restaurant that just didn't get noticed in a big city where there are a million other restaurants opening. It was so much work. I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that place and I felt like it was time for me to step away. I did it, I opened a restaurant in Brooklyn and had my own spot.

What are the biggest differences in what you're able to do in New York and what you're able to do here?

It's different because Driftwood is a seafood restaurant, and I'm nowhere near the ocean. It's a lot more expensive to get all the good seafood shipped in here. 80% of the menu there is seafood and it just costs money. I'm not really a Gulf seafood person. I grew up on Cape Cod, on the East Coast, and I really like to have east coast seafood. There are two predominantely seafood restaurants in Dallas, Spoon and Driftwood, and we're in the same boat. We're slow during the week and busy on the weekends because we're a destination restaurant. It is what it is.

So what does that mean for the long term success of a restaurant like that?

I think people need to understand that if they want really good seafood in this town, Driftwood and Spoon are the places they have to go. And they're going to have to pay for it.

Do you think people in Dallas want really good seafood? I don't know why they wouldn't.

How has your focus on New England seafood fared here?

We've done a couple of lobster boils and they've gone over really well. It's a good deal because you're getting a whole lobster and the sides, and it's not crawfish. But Dallas is a changing city. People are leaving the cities on the east coast and coming here. Eighteen of the top Fortune 100 companies are here in Texas. I spent nine years in Boston, ten in New York and Nantucket, and they're expensive. You can come down here and get pretty much double what you'd get there. It's cost of living, and I see a lot of guests who just moved from New York or Chicago. These people are used to having that level of seafood.

Is it more the transplants who respect that kind of food?

We're going to get those, but I also want to get the locals. I want people here to like our food.

Is there anything that Dallas has going for it in terms of food that New York doesn't have?

Barbecue. I couldn't get good barbecue in New York. They say there's good barbecue in New York, but after being there, there's no good barbecue there. They also say that there's good tacos and traditional Mexican food in New York? No way. After being here and going back, I was craving food from here.

So Dallas has better taquerias than Brooklyn?

Fuck yes. There are a couple of good spots, but it's true. People that have been to both places will tell you. Besides going to Mexico, where else are you going to get traditional Mexican food? We're pretty damn close.

What about the Dallas clientele is so different than New York City? In terms of the people who eat at fine dining restaurants, it seems like the community would be pretty much the same.

New York is a wealthy city, and so is Dallas. We've worked at very high-end restaurants our entire careers, so I'm used to that. I'm really good at appealing to the wealthy. Working at Caviar Russe and at Relais-Chateaux hotels, that's the clientele that we're good at working with here.

Is the more casual concept at Proof more difficult for you?

No, not at all. I'm still doing higher caliber food at Driftwood, and this is a place where we're trying to do something different. We're trying to recreate a fun dining scene. We want a fun place to come and eat, not just once a month. We want a place where people can hang out and come twice a week.

Different than what?

Different than your typical Dallas restaurant. Let's just say that since I've been back here, I've eaten at a good amount of restaurants. Some of the highly rated restaurants. I just had lunch at Tei-An. I love Tei-An. It's one of the best restaurants in the city, hands down. I find that after eating at some of these top restaurants, I'm going to "non-top" restaurants where I'm having better food.

How do you encourage that kind of loyalty?

You have to come in and have a meal and give us a chance. I know you're going to enjoy yourself.

What about people who decide that they're food critics? The self-described bloggers and Yelp! critics?

Everyone has their opinion, you know?

That's a pretty diplomatic answer. No, it's not really when you think about it. I don't think one person can judge how a restaurant's food is or how they're going to do. For me to see a lot of these other restaurants that are getting the reviews and accolades they are, it doesn't always make sense to me. It seems like the homegrown people are doing a lot better than us out-of-towners.

You think? I see the homegrown guys starting to get pushed out of the spotlight by chefs at places like Gemma and Victor Tangos. Chefs who are from out of town. Is Dallas really that cliqueish?

Yeah, but who's getting all the recognition? A lot of the homegrown guys.

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