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Clark Food & Wine Chef Randall Warder Is Building a Smoky Empire on Greenville (Interview)

The explosion of growth that Greenville Avenue is having when it comes to quality restaurants is really unprecedented. The once neglected street has transformed into a culinary hub, thanks in large part to enterprising and independent chefs with a good eye for the next big thing. One of those chefs is Randall Warder, of Clark Food & Wine.

Warder is as much a businessman as he is a chef, able to spout off food cost statistics and business plans with the same ease as the restaurant's intensive pork rillete recipe. In this new world of restaurants, that's exactly the kind of savvy that is necessary to survive. I sat down to talk with Warder about the opening of Clark Food & Wine, his diverse experience in all facets of the restaurant industry, and his big plans for opening a new restaurant just three short months after launching his first.

Now that the opening of Clark Food & Wine is behind you, can you talk about how that process was? Was it a pretty smooth opening or were there serious bumps? The opening really went pretty well. The strategy for us was to kind of downplay the opening so that we could work through the kinks before we got too much business, and that worked out pretty well. I did learn for the future, though, that it's probably a good idea to start talking about a restaurant a little bit before it opens, just so that you have a little more business in the beginning than what we experienced.

This isn't my first rodeo, I've opened many restaurants in the past, and the big thing is having your people ready and the product ironed out. Once you've done that, you're pretty good. But there will always be some confusion or some glitch. I wish I could foresee all of them, but that hasn't happened.

For someone with such excellent experience in the restaurant industry, you're a bit of an unknown quantity to diners in Dallas. Can you talk about your culinary background? I started in this business as a kid, I was working part-time in high school to earn money to have fun. I fell in love passionately with the business at sixteen years old, and by the time I got to college, I couldn't think of anything else that I wanted to do but work in a restaurant. Fast forward, and I've moved from Michigan to Dallas to run a Bennigan's and operate a bakery for a friend of mine.

From there, I got a job at The Mansion with Dean [Fearing]. Interestingly enough, one of my mentors was an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and I brought him down to Dallas because I was considering leaving and going to school. He talked me out of it, told me to stay at The Mansion because the experience would be far more valuable to me than going to school at that time. So I did. I stayed around for nine years, and then worked in Washington, D.C. before going to Cabo San Lucas to open up a restaurant in a Rosewood hotel. That was one of the most monumental experiences for me, because we were putting a five-star product into a place that didn't really have much of that.

Since then, I've done so many different things. I ran food and beverage at New York, New York casino in Las Vegas, opened a resort from scratch, catering for private aviation, launching a whole cruise ship brand. I've been blessed to be able to do just about everything in the business, with the exception of institutions like hospitals. I've done fine dining to fast food, and everything in between. When you blend those experience, it sets me up to be able to do a variety of things on my own.

At a place like Clark Food & Wine, you're doing something on a much smaller scale. What about this kind of restaurant appealed to you? It's more personal. In all those other things, there's no personality. They're just entities that feed people. This to me is more like a living, breathing organism. It's something that truly has a personality. For me, to make the next mark on this business, I wanted something that people could relate to, something that they could feel and understand. It's not this cold and uninviting thing. This restaurant to me is a great expression of not only my personality, but also my wife and parents and the people who influenced me.

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Amy McCarthy

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