Food News

Chef Richard Chamberlain: Boys Will Be
Boys Who Cook

Luckily for steak-loving Dallas diners, chef Richard Chamberlain wasn't much interested in tilling the soil when he was a young man. Girls on the other hand -- well, them he liked.

That's not exactly surprising for a 14-year-old boy -- Chamberlain's age when he took his first step on the path that would eventually lead him to renown as a chef and owner of Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House, the popular Addison steakhouse. But in Chamberlain's case, the choice between girls and growing things was telling. He was a teen-age student in North Texas, where he was raised, when he was offered one of two elective classes. He could join the FFA -- the Future Farmers of America -- or FHA -- the Future Homemakers of America.

"I thought about it for a minute," Chamberlain recalls. "Did I want to shovel manure or hang out with a classroom full of girls?"

Tough choice. Chamberlain quickly found himself in an FHA class, sequestered solo in a kitchen in an out-building where each day he was given a recipe to produce while the girls were in the classroom discussing the finer points of femininity. It wasn't long before Chamberlain decided cooking was what he wanted to do with his life.

After high school Chamberlain enrolled in the culinary program at El Centro College in downtown Dallas while working at the Trail Dust Steakhouse, the kitschy, country and western-themed restaurant then off Walnut Hill Lane.

"I needed the money since I was going to school, and it really was a dream job at the time. It was three grill cooks and 60 waitresses," Chamberlain says with a laugh.

The day Chamberlain graduated he made an exponentially life changing career move: He boldly interviewed at The Mansion on Turtle Creek with Christian Chemin, the chef who had opened The Mansion.

"I was initially set down to make souffles. The sous chef showed me the recipe and I would make chocolate and Gran Marnier souffles. The sous chef at the time offered to show me other recipes like a framboise, but he wanted five dollars," says the 49-year-old Chamberlain. "I was happy to pay. I was making more money than I ever had and was learning a lot."

After a few short years Dean Fearing, also on kitchen staff at The Mansion, moved on to help open and be executive chef at a happening new restaurant called Agnew's in 1982, and Chamberlain was hired as his sous chef.

"This was a good time for cuisine. We were all starting to use unusual ingredients. This was when cooking magazines were buzzing about Alice Waters and to some degree Wolfgang Puck. Stephan Pyles just opened his first restaurant. We all cooked hard, enjoyed creating, and loved our work" Chamberlain remembers.

Chamberlain next moved on to the Los Angeles Hotel Bel-Air before returning to Dallas, where he led kitchens at Ratcliffes, San Simeon and eventually the original Sfuzzi's.

A few years later Chamberlain was recruited to chef in Aspen, Colorado, at The Little Nell hotel. At first he was apprehensive because of the name and the type of cuisine the restaurant wanted to create, light Mediterranean that would amount to spa food.

Chamberlain had other ideas, and soon after being hired he convinced the owners that taking a cue from the mountainous region might be a better way to go, and The Little Nell soon was creating new American alpine cuisine that set the tone for Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House, which he opened in 1993. That was followed eight years late by Chamberlain's Fish Market Grill. He employs a staff of 100, many with more than a decade's tenure.

After sitting for a bit talking with me, Chamberlain invited me back to the kitchen where he had two giant haunches of beef waiting for prep. The first he cut into was a heavily aged prime beef, an incredible looking bone-in ribeye that was both wet- and dry-aged. After cleaning the excess fat from the beef, he took a perfect slice out of the middle, where the best steak can be found, and slapped it on the scale. It weighed exactly what he had predicted. He did the same feat with a Wagyu strip steak, which incidentally had the most beautiful marbling I have ever encountered.

It was getting busy at the restaurant but the chef took time to off a tour of the steakhouse, showing us walls that have been moved and where his expansions have taken place. The cigar room is a beautifully appointed upscale man cave. Giant televisions for watching the Cowboys, the very faint perfume of cigar smoke permeating the room, and the giggling handful of beautiful women off in a corner make this a perfect spot to hang out with a few friends on the weekend -- an oasis amid Addison's sea of chain restaurants.

Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House enjoys a steady clientele and serves mostly beef, but about 20 per cent of the guests enjoy seafood. His side dishes are not too dissimilar to what you might find at other steakhouses, but he manages to make a marvelous cheesy bowl of grits that is served family style.

Chamberlain's creamed corn is an amazing original, and he shares the recipe with the City of Ate this Friday.

Most weekends you might find Chamberlain fishing or hunting hogs with his other chef friends, enjoying a life in which being a grill cook at the Trail Dust is just a distant fond memory.

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Steven Doyle