For Rapscallion's Nathan Tate, Making Great Southern Comfort Food Is All About Technique

Right now in Dallas, probably no style of cooking is hotter than “new Southern,” perhaps replacing swanky bar food as the newest food trend. Plenty of Dallas menus are introducing fried green tomatoes, fried chicken and other Southern staples to their menus. And who could blame them? For many people in Dallas, this is the food of their childhoods. For people on the outside, it’s a calorie-heavy dreamland of delicious comfort foods.

And for chef Nathan Tate, that comfort food is the backbone of his entire interest in the culinary world. Tate’s grandmother, a native Texan, was a traditional Southern cook, and her dishes inspire those on his menu today at Rapscallion. We sat down with Tate to talk about his connection to Southern food, how he keeps it interesting and fresh, and what the future looks like for this most ambitious (and simultaneously humble) of chefs.

Southern food seems very personal to you. Can you talk about where that connection comes from?

It comes mainly from my grandma, my dad’s mom. She was born and raised in Texas, and I remember going over there for lunch or Sunday supper after church. Her mac 'n’ cheese is sort of what I’ve based my mac 'n’ cheese on here. I’ve got some direct spins on her food that I’ve brought to Rapscallion.

She was always very humble about her cooking, and she was just a traditional Southern cook, but when you make great chicken-fried steak and fried chicken, it’s hard to beat. It creates that connection to keep her cooking alive for me, and that’s important because it meant so much to me. I want to keep those recipes alive — they’re good and people love them for a reason.

It’s crazy to me that people think that Southern food is so simple. Making good gravy or a perfectly fried chicken-fried steak is really hard. Where do you think that perception comes from?

I think it’s probably because it’s been bastardized so badly. If you want to talk about the difference between a good chicken-fried steak and a bad chicken-fried steak, it’s pretty huge. Do you remember the chicken-fried steak that they used to serve in the school cafeteria? There’s definitely two ends to the spectrum there. It is heavy, but we try to have some lighter dishes and lighten some of the classics up a little bit. But it’s called comfort food for a reason, you know?

Why does everyone feel compelled to lighten these dishes up? Why are they too heavy now, but they weren’t too heavy for people 50 years ago? Should we blame the health nuts? 

For one, people aren’t nearly as active as they were when my grandma was feeding my grandpa fried chicken and bacon and eggs every day. He was going out and working on the farm, putting in a full physical day. That’s part of it, but people are really health-conscious these days. There are some things you just can’t lighten up. Fried chicken is fried chicken, you know? And that’s why it’s delicious. It’s the change of time, I guess.

The juxtaposition between Southern, really homey food and what you were doing at Ava is really interesting. Where do those styles — technique-focused cuisine and Southern comfort food — come together for you?

Everything in cooking is technique based, or it should be. That’s what I geek out about in cooking, having perfect technique. Even when I’m making fried chicken. That’s not a simple dish, it’s difficult to pull off correctly, and there’s a lot of technique involved in that. That’s how I’ve always been in everything I do, honestly. At Ava, I did kind of throw in some of the stuff back then. We went off on a bit of a tangent with the French bistro style, but I feel like Ava and Rapscallion are almost brother and sister. Similar in layout and concept as Boulevardier, but I feel like Ava and Rapscallion are a little more closely linked.

Ava was a little more strictly fine dining, where Rapscallion is more casual? What about a more laid-back approach appeals to you?

I think it’s because that’s just how I like to eat now. When we opened, fine dining was kind of the thing. We opened at a very unfortunate time, right before the Great Recession, and that’s what people were doing back then. I go to restaurants like that now, and I honestly feel like I don’t enjoy them as much. I don’t want stuffy service, I very rarely even like to go to places where I’m getting multiple courses of over-stylized food.
It just appeals to me more. Feels like it’s a little more soulful and down-to-earth. Approachable, too.

Fine dining can be really alienating for people, especially those who don’t know about wine and Alinea. This seems like a place that’s welcoming of that curiosity that is growing in people.

I want this restaurant to be a place for people who aren’t necessarily foodies or into fine dining. They can get our fried chicken, but it still has a fun twist and is elevated with interesting flavors.

In Southern cooking, it seems many staples my grandmother used don’t exist anymore. Do you have trouble sourcing more old-school ingredients?

If you’d have asked me that five years ago, I would have said yes. The Southern food movement has changed that. Benton’s bacon is known worldwide, sorghum syrup and other ingredients are available now. There probably are a lot of things that you would have seen on your great-grandmother’s table that you can’t get now, but I don’t even know what those would be. They were probably growing things out there in their front yards that are now totally lost.

It probably also has a lot to do with the popularity of convenience food. You can go to Trader Joe’s and get peaches in December, and everything is everywhere.

How do you think Southern food has changed, especially as it has moved more onto the culinary world’s radar? Do you think that has changed the way people in the South eat?

People in the South have more of a connection to comfort food dishes, the mac ‘n' cheese and their family recipes. People remember that. I think that’s always been there. The Southern food movement, though, has pushed it forward. It takes nationally known people like Sean Brock to really get it out there. Once he won the James Beard Award and people started paying attention to the food, it became more accessible. I don’t want to sound like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, because this is kind of what I’ve always done, but people now realize that you can go to a restaurant and be served an elevated fried chicken.

Maybe you’re paying a little more for it, but it’s worth it. It’s not something that you pick up at KFC from a bucket. It goes back to the accessibility — it brings the whole culture to the forefront, and that slowly creeps into people’s minds. These are all really good, fun foods that people have always enjoyed. It’s always been there, but now people are paying more attention.

It’s interesting that you mention Sean Brock, because it seems harder to get credibility in the most elite circles when you’re doing Southern food. Now Southern food restaurants are in New York City. Why do you think that is?

There are definitely bad interpretations of Southern food out there, but this is tasty food. It means more to me, personally, when I have that connection to it. It would feel weird to be serving a cuisine that doesn’t fit, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed into just straight-up, traditional Southern food. I’ve never seen Rapscallion as that, even as we have some really traditional items on the menu. I love global flavors and I want to incorporate them on the menu. Just have a little fun with it.

“Fun” is a term that is frequently connected to Southern food, and it seems like that makes it more difficult for food snobs to take it seriously. No matter how much effort goes into a plate of fried chicken, it’s still not going to looks as impressive as this composed plate with 14 elements.

Fried chicken is just food on a plate, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s kind of how I like to cook these days. Tasty food that is not over-stylized is what fits more with my roots and my philosophy these days.

It seems like people want that. Is that something that makes Rapscallion approachable?

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for the kind of food that is the exact opposite of what we’re doing. It’s not something that I would personally eat every week, but it does have its place. I have enjoyed plenty of meals like that, but it isn’t something I’d go do weekly.

People can come in here weekly, have some oysters one night, maybe get the fried chicken the next night and catfish next week. They can taste through our menu, and we can create a neighborhood clientele.The Mansion is wonderful, FT33 is wonderful, but I’m not going there every week and getting the tasting menu. For one, I couldn’t afford it, but it’s just not my style.

The challenge to me seems like it would be keeping the menu fresh. You can have the fried chicken dish that everyone loves and is going to come back for, but how do you build a menu around that and keep it fresh?

This place isn’t locked into being a strictly Southern restaurant. We have some Middle Eastern-inspired dishes that I feel still fit our Southern framework. We’re bringing in Asian ingredients — miso and dashi and other things. We keep it fresh that way. Our Mala sauce, for example. We went to a place called Mala in Houston, and it’s this little hole in the wall place, but it’s in the top 10 online of all the reviews.

We checked it out, and I’d never had Chinese food that good, especially Sichuan. That’s the first time I’d had that numbing sort of heat from the Sichuan, and I realized we could incorporate it here. I need to change things up. I could have my grandma’s mac and cheese once a month, but I’m not doing my grandma’s mac and cheese. I’ve spiced it up. There’s no Velveeta, we’re making our own creole cream cheese, just trying to elevate it. 
Do you feel like there’s ever any push-back against that? Like people wanting the dishes they’re familiar with instead of new takes?

I guess sometimes, but when I look at the end of the night and we’ve sold 50 orders of fried chicken and the mac 'n’ cheese is our top seller, I think that we’ve got to be doing something right. Some people have said that [about] our hot chicken, which we call a “long walk to Nashville,” and it’s a take on Nashville’s hot chicken. I went to Houston and had that sauce at Mala, and thought that the sauce would work really well in an interpretation of Nashville-style hot chicken. Some people took that really literally, and it wasn’t what they were expecting. But it’s called “the long walk to Nashville” for a reason — we’re taking the long way there.

This place has just opened up, but you guys seem to be constantly moving here. What does the future look like? Does the fall mean a menu change?

We’re definitely looking at that, and you can probably expect it in about three weeks or so. Before then, we hope to roll in brunch, so we’re working on that. We’re going to open for Saturday and Sunday brunch, so we’re going to do some fun takes on brunch dishes. We’ve got a rotisserie to make a rotisserie prime rib, and [we will] still [be] offering the fried chicken. We do a great brunch at Boulevardier, so I’m hoping we can mimic that here with our Southern ingredients.

What about in the long term?

We’ve been so busy, I haven’t been able to think too far ahead. But in the long term, we want to open another restaurant. I want to set my chef de cuisine up to be the guy in charge here in a couple months, where he’s really putting his soul and his take into the menu in the way that I did for the opening menu. That’s our building block for the next 10 years — we have a great chef de cuisine at Boulevardier, and I feel like me, Brooks and Bradley [Anderson] can concept restaurants and work from the solid footing that we’ve got here. That’s the most fun I ever have in this whole process is opening restaurants.

That’s weird.

Yep. Coming up with the concepts, doing all the research — I love it. It’s hard as hell, it takes a lot of work, but you get there. Hopefully you have a lot of quality people to work with and allow them the opportunity to grow. We had some setbacks at Boulevardier and Ava with [chef Randall Copeland] passing and all that, and that took us off our track for a couple of years. I feel like we’re in a really solid place now with good employees, and I want to give them an opportunity to grow and make their mark. 

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