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.

I've had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what kind of restaurant this is. How do you describe Clark Food & Wine? It seems like there are pieces of lots of different styles and aesthetics.

We're still kind of working on our seven-second sound byte. In a nutshell, though, it's really Texas comfort food, and that can be anything. It can be coastal food, smoked meats, whatever. We were trying to make a restaurant that expressed the personality of Texas without being overt. I didn't want to copy something that someone else was doing, or to be a tourist-driven restaurant with Texas iconography all over the restaurant.

We're not really trying to do barbecue, either. We use smoke as an ingredient, and it's a really important ingredient, but it's not our whole identity. I would say it basically all comes back to Texas comfort food with a modern style. Some of our food is very manicured, and other plates are very rustic. It's a blend of today's Texas and yesterday's Texas.

What about in terms of flavor? There is certainly Texas influence, but it seems like the menu encompasses more than that. There's definitely a lot of Americana in what we're doing here. You can stretch these flavors country-wide, but there's also some sensibility of Europe on the menu. I love Spain and Italy, and you can see those influences eking out across the menu, even if more in style than flavor. You can clearly see that Spanish and Italian chefs focus on high-quality ingredients and using them simply. That's definitely true there. If you look at our recipes, there's not a lot of them that have a long list of ingredients. It's all kept pretty small. My philosophy on that is to just buy the best ingredients you can and then try to not screw them up.

How have you avoided being pigeon-holed as a barbecue restaurant when that's really not your thing?

We haven't had to deal with that much. We've had maybe three or four people ask for traditional barbecue sauce. The service team has really done a good job in explaining to people what we're doing here, and we're still evolving the concept. Originally, we were going to smoke things like brisket for dishes like meatballs and sandwiches, and pork for rilette and other plates. From there, I thought that the meats were so good that we should put them on the menu, and we originally weren't going to do that.

I thought we could create a little steakhouse scenario with these a la carte meat offerings, and we expanded from beyond pork and brisket to char, shrimp, and turkey. Smoke as an ingredient definitely pulls through the menu. You can see it in our rillete, on the flatbreads, in the catfish dip. It's not everywhere, because it would be too much if it was.

What is your smoking set-up? How did you decide on what you would use? We have a dual-stacker AltoShaam smoker. It's a chip-fed smoking system, and we smoke our briskets in there for twenty-four hours, the pork in there for fourteen. If we had a pit, there would be some advantages and disadvantages in that. The system we have is nice in that you can just sort of load it up with meat, set it and forget it. It produces the exact same product every time with a lot less mess. It doesn't produce as much smoke so it's more environmentally friendly, too. But you still get a great product.

I've always loved smoking. I have a smoker at home that I use a fair amount, and I was always fascinated with the idea of using smoke as an ingredient. I wasn't necessarily sure how that would translate onto the menu until we really started picking it apart. Back in the day at The Mansion, we would smoke lamb legs every Easter, and I would do those myself. I wouldn't let anyone touch them. We bought this funky smoker, and the butcher and I started doing our own bacon, Canadian bacon, and sausages. For twenty years, it's always been something that I wanted to explore further and I saw that opportunity here.

What makes your smoking process special? Do you have secrets like the pitmasters who smoke barbecue? I do. Most of the people that are smoking meats are using rubs that have paprika or chili powder to sort of help the process along and make it taste more like barbecue. Our goal was to do something completely the opposite. Our brisket rub is black pepper, fresh herbs, and dried herbs. There's nothing red or smoky in there. Our seasonings are meant to bring out the best flavor in the various meats. Our chickens and turkeys are brined in this really delicious spicy brine that we make, and they're all done differently as opposed to having this one rub that is universal on every meat.

Every single chef that has worked with Dean Fearing has a very specific kind of respect for the work that they did at The Mansion. It seems like that experience is sort of a set-up for success. Do you think that's true? Definitely. When I was there, it was one of the most unique and special experiences of my entire career. For one, we were all young. There was this level of competition that I can't even explain to you, but we were all very close-knit and friendly. If you made a sauce, the guy next to you would come around and make the same thing, and you would see whose was better. Everyone was trying to be just a little bit better than the guy next to them. In that spirit, I think we produced some of the best food ever. Everyone that was there was so excited about that, and it was just amazing.

Many of the people you worked with at The Mansion have moved on to cushy consulting gigs and don't work in restaurants anymore. Are restaurants really more of a young man's game? Clearly. In the past couple of years before I had this restaurant, I was working at Macaroni Grill as Chief Concept Officer. I hadn't really worked in a restaurant of this caliber in probably ten or fifteen years. It's been a long time, and it was an interesting transition back into this world.

It sounds really difficult to go from a very streamlined corporate environment into an industry where you have to constantly be creative. We had a very different kind of environment at Macaroni Grill. Our CEO was really cool, and we were all about innovation and being dynamic. The problem with those environments isn't being creative, because you can do a lot of things behind the scenes that are really creative and interesting. The problem is getting those things executed in 186 restaurants with some level of consistency. There was a fun part of that job, but it wasn't fun to see what you did in the development world be executed poorly in the field.

Here, it's nice because we can be highly creative and see the results of that directly. We see the guest's reaction, and we can know if we have a hit or if we need to keep working on it.

How has the overall reception of the food gone? Have you had to adjust any of your recipes because they just didn't work? There is one thing that comes to mind in particular. We serve a lot of different things on these cutting boards, like flatbreads and smaller boards for sandwiches. We were originally serving our burger on that same board, and we had a gentleman who asked for a different plate because the juices were going everywhere. I didn't really think about that, so we were going to keep it in mind. I got a second comment, and we decided to put the burger on a plate. That was definitely a learning experience, and came directly from our guest feedback. We just decided to fix it so that it wouldn't happen again. That's the good thing about asking for feedback and acting on it. Outside of that, I can't think of anything that has really been common. Anything bad that's happened more than once.

Wine is obviously a focus for this restaurant, and it can be tricky. Even really great restaurants can fall prey to boring, pricey wine lists. This seems like one of those places that has avoided that. What was important for you to incorporate into your list? That's a loaded question. Everything on our wine list has to be very food-friendly. If you look at our list, most of what you'll find comes from Europe, or European-style houses in South America or the United States. We're looking for wines that can be consumed with every day food, not the big Napa Cabernet that is more appropriate in a steakhouse. Those could probably stand up to our brisket or whatever, but it's atypical for what you'd find for this kind of food. It was difficult for me to balance that idea with what our guests would like, and I think we've accomplished that.

There are a lot of interesting wines, bottles you wouldn't find on anyone else's wine list, and they're all very good. There are probably a couple of things that we need to do from an evolutionary standpoint. We're having to figure out what to offer people that want something like a big, buttery Chardonnay. Typically, those wines aren't good with food. They overpower the flavors, so I have to figure out what we have on our menu that will satisfy that person without bringing some big-name Chardonnay.

That sounds tough. People in Dallas love their big Cabernets, but it seems like there are two camps in this city. There are people who know everything about wine, and those who feel less educated. Who do you think you have more of in your restaurant? Probably Camp #2. We have a few people who come in and are very wine-savvy, and most of them look at the list and like what we're doing. They get it. I get all kinds of feedback about what needs to be on the wine list, and everyone has an opinion. We have the big Cabernets on the list, but everything else we have on the menu is outselling it. When people see our menu, we want them to talk to their server about the wine that goes best with what they want to order. Then, they wind up with some of the home-runs we have on the list. But you still have to have those Cabernets and Chardonnays for the people who want them.

Beer is very trendy right now in restaurants. Why did you decide to place the focus so specifically on wine when beer is so hot? I'm sure beer will stay hot for a while, but wine will never go away. If you look over the last ten years, the trend sales of wine have consistently increased year over year. Beer remained relatively flat until the craft beer craze kicked in, and that's going to level off into a steady pace.

That said, we have eight beers on draft that are all local, craft beers. We sell them, and I don't know if it's circumstantial because "wine" is in our name, but wine makes up about 35 percent of our total sales. Beer makes up maybe 5 or 10 percent. We don't sell a lot of beer here. When we opened, we had bottled beer, and I couldn't give those away. Everyone wanted the draft beer.

As a restaurateur, you've sort of jumped out of the chute running. You've opened Clark Food & Wine, and you're planning to open C'viche next door very soon. Why so fast? I really don't have a good answer for that. It never makes sense to hustle up your openings, but I'll tell you why we did it. After we opened and I was looking at the restaurant and the opportunities that we had for the patio in terms of revenue and guest flow, and this space shares a wall with me. I felt like I needed to control what was going on next door and make sure that it wasn't something that competed with what we were doing here, and complemented our restaurants.

Now, we'll have the opportunity to do patio parties and events with both restaurants. Given that we're a fast-casual concept at C'viche as opposed to the full-service restaurant that we've got here, it will be a little more low-maintenance, I think. I felt like I should just rip off the BandAid and do it all at once. I look at it like I leased 3,800 square feet, and I just put two concepts into it instead of one.

So 2015 will be just as insane as 2014 then, right? When is C'viche opening? Very soon, maybe by the end of the month. That's the goal. It will be crazy getting both of them stabilized and really starting to understand what the individual traffic and business flow will be, but once we get over the hump with that, we'll be in focused operational mode for the rest of the year. And we'll just see what happens after that.

It seems like you've got a pretty cool head, which probably makes this process easier. Everything's coming at me, and I'm just going with the flow. When you've done things like literally launching a brand-new cruise ship line with four restaurants and six bars, it helps. The good thing is that we'll have 90 days at Clark Food & Wine before C'viche opens, so I feel pretty good about what we're doing here. There's still tweaking that needs to be done, but I'm comfortable. If I had tried to open them both at the same time, I probably wouldn't be this calm.

You feel good about where things are going in Dallas in terms of the restaurant scene. Good enough to open two restaurants on the same street?

I spent twelve years in Dallas in the 80s and 90s, and then I left for 15 years before coming back in 2010. I've seen this city try very hard to get on the culinary map and fall just short many times. I think what's happening in Dallas right now is the most special time that has ever presented itself. It's sticking, from a culinary and a beverage perspective. The rest of the country is starting to realize that we're getting our collective shit together. That's what made these two businesses make so much sense to me. I'm excited about more of this success for the entire city because it helps all of us independent business owners.

The more we all stay focused on keeping the food simple and real, the more national attention we'll get. The more serious people will take us. There's been times in the past where we tried to get too esoteric, and it just didn't work. If you look at why a place like New York is so great, it's because you have great Italian restaurants that do great Italian food. You have great Japanese restaurants that do great Japanese food. You have all these pockets of amazing food, and that's what they do. They keep it real and simple.

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