Sharon Hage's restaurant York Street closed more than two years ago, but when I ask other chefs around the city what their favorite restaurant is, many still say, "York Street."
It was "small, local and chef-driven" before those words and ideas became marketing tools. When she closed her East Dallas gem, it was a sad day for the Dallas culinary scene. We caught up with the Detroit native recently to see what keeps her busy these days.
When did you initially get into cooking? My junior year of high school I started going to vocational school half a day and that's how I really got started. I got my first prep cook job shortly after that. I've always just enjoyed cooking. It sort of found me. I've never thought about doing anything else.
What are you doing now? I started my own consulting company. That's what I do now full time. I do the occasional guest chef if a colleague or restaurateur invites me into their kitchen to share space for a night or an event. I'm happy to do that. I also do private cooking in people's homes on special occasions and parties, but the consulting company keeps me busy.
Owning and running a restaurant can be utterly exhausting. Do you miss those days? I don't think it's utterly exhausting. If you're doing what you love then you just really don't have that frustration. I think doing something you don't enjoy in a situation you don't enjoy is much more exhausting then putting in long days, standing on your feet. Obviously I've been doing it my whole life so it's what I'm used to.
More people that have never worked in a kitchen full time are the ones who talk about how exhausting it is. For those of us who do it, it's what we do. Doing something you don't love takes a much greater toll.
I still cook all the time.
Do you have any advice for chefs who are thinking about opening their own restaurants? Definitely make sure you've spent enough time working in other people's restaurants or kitchen before you go out on your own. Also, your motivation to run your own business has to be equal to, or greater than, your motivation to craft your own menu. It's about a lot more than just the cooking and the food part of it. Certainly business and management experience is mandatory.
I get asked a lot what the best preparation was for owning my own restaurant, and it was absolutely being a chef in a large kitchen and having big management jobs. If you don't have the business part of it down, if you're not making good business decisions, you're not going to be around long enough to realize your culinary ambitions.
And really, don't be afraid to ask for help or advice. Nobody does it alone.
From whom or where did you learn the most? That's almost impossible to answer. I learned so much from so many people. It's really about people who have high integrity and straight priorities. Every day you learn a little more from someone that has a different technique or introduces you to a new product, whether it's a vendor or someone cooking next to you. Or something that you read.
Reading and staying informed is also very important. It's really about surrounding yourself with people who work to bring attention to detail or have a concern for quality. What are some of your favorite culinary books or magazines? That changes all the time. I can't really answer that. It depends on what's going on at the moment. There are people I like to turn to -- I like Shirley Corriher, and her books on food science -- I keep those around for a reference. I read everything. Ethnic cook books, newspapers, trade magazines, it's all really important. Reading about what's happening in other cities can also be really inspiring.
Is it hard to find the time? It's definitely a part of what we need to do every day to research what's going out there and what's happening. That's sort of how you stay motivated to continue to write your menus and educate yourself. ... It's not extra work to keep yourself informed and educated, it's part of the same job.
It goes along with asking and seeking advice. Your best source of information on a regular basis are your vendors. It's really important to surround yourself with quality growers, fishmongers and meat people. They are the primary sources of information. Quality vendors are a huge source for that. People who really understand product ... who have a strong knowledge base about what they're selling. That's how you learn by being exposed to new things.
Do you think the Dallas food palate has changed much in the past 10 years? I think food palates in general, in Dallas and everywhere else, have changed in the past 10 years. I don't think it's unique to Dallas. People are much more exposed to different types of food now then they were. We've had a whole media explosion with TV and the Internet. Just look at the grocery stores that we have in this city. People are much more exposed to different foods than they were.
Do you think the Food Network and reality cooking shows have been good for chef driven restaurants? Absolutely it's good for business, but I worry about young chefs starting out. While I hold that the popularity of chef reality shows has definitely been very good for business, they give those interested in pursuing a culinary career a very false impression of what it takes to work in a "real" kitchen every day. Are there any new restaurants in Dallas you're particularly excited about? I'm just excited that we have so many new restaurants that have come up in the past year, or year and a half. There are so many. Now, to be honest, I haven't been to all of them or many of them more than once, but I look forward to visiting many of them. There's an explosion of new energy and new restaurants in town.
Any favorites? Tei An is absolutely my favorite. If I want to grab a bowl of soba in the middle of the workday, it's my go-to. I've been traveling a lot, so there aren't a lot of other places I go to more than once.
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Any off-the-beaten-path places? I don't know how off-the-beaten-path they are, but I'm a pretty big fan of North Dallas and Richardson Asian places.
You mentioned you travel a lot. Are there any cities that are your favorite in terms of their food scene? I mostly travel for work and a little bit for pleasure, and that's how I can say that change in the palate is not uniquely Dallas thing. Restaurants are evolving in a good way. The level of food and menus is elevated everywhere. There isn't that much difference -- the regional differences in restaurants has gotten smaller and smaller.
With that said, I've always loved New Orleans. That to me is a place where the food has it's own character. I love New Orleans as a restaurant city. Obviously New York, Chicago are the big ones. For a unique experience, New Orleans is at the top of my list. It's an hour flight and a whole different world. It's own music, food, style, smell. The whole package.
You were sourcing local ingredients at York Street more than a decade ago, before it was cool. How has the process and procurement for sourcing locally changed since then? It's much more available now. There's a lot more variety. There are far more sources for quality local ingredients than before. We've always had good things locally and quality producers. Now there are just more of them. You don't need to look that hard now. It's an exciting time, there are smaller farmers markets popping up and there's good stuff everywhere.