It used to be that you could only find "good food," the fancy kind made with quality ingredients, in restaurants that required both a jacket and half the average person's weekly salary for dinner. Now, though, times are different. Fine dining restaurants are struggling to adapt to diners who are demanding a more casual dining experience. As a result, gastropubs have exploded across the city.
Long before the gastropub explosion, though, Roe DiLeo was one of the few chefs in Dallas that was dedicated to cranking out top-quality food in a casual bar atmosphere. After years of winning awards and the hearts of Lower Greenville's dinersat The Libertine, DiLeo is still doing what she's always done at her new spot in Uptown, Henry's Majestic. I sat down to talk with DiLeo about her experience on Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, fake-ass celebrity chefs, and what it takes to make excellent "bar food."
You're on the currently-airing season of Hell's Kitchen. Can you talk about what that experience has done for you creatively, and for your career? There's always the exposure of it. People who had no clue of who I was now know who I am, but there was also a huge cooking aspect of being on Hell's Kitchen, too. I've been a chef for so long, and you kind of lose your line edge. Being back on the line brings you back to your roots and reminds you of what it's like to work a fourteen hour day and live to someone else's standards. Chef Ramsay's are impossible, but I think that's more for drama than actually being realistic.
I didn't really go on Hell's Kitchen for my career. I just wanted to see how I measured up, maybe win some money. At the time I was head chef at Libertine, and we were winning all kinds of awards, I knew Henry's Majestic was coming down the pipeline, so it wasn't about going on the show to get some new job, I just thought of it as something cool I could do. It influenced my career for sure, but it didn't make or break me. I was doing my own thing before, and I'm doing my own thing after. Being a year removed from it, it's just a cool thing that I did, and now it's back to business as usual.
Is it weird cooking on TV? Have you ever heard yourself leave a voicemail? It's that times a thousand. You think a million things. Why do I keep rolling my eyes? Why do I keep making that face? Oh, that's the episode where I didn't care about my hair. It's funny to see those little quirks, especially as the show progresses. I can see myself getting more tired and making mistakes that I probably wouldn't have made on appropriate sleep and not under pressure. But editing is amazing. They take something that took seven hours and boil it down to ten minutes. It's only an hour show, they can only show so much.
It seems like you're really comfortable in an environment that is just as focused on good booze as good food. I look back at my career and I always keep being defined as this "bar chef." There's good things and bad things about that. I don't work in a stuffy culture. I'm never going to work somewhere with white table cloths and charges $50 or $60 a plate. That's just not my kind of food. It gives you more freedom, and both bars that I've been head chef of, we've sold 60% food and 40% booze, so it's always been very restaurant-driven. The bad thing is that I never get reviewed as a restaurant. I never get those awards, we're always the bar with good food. I can get away with things that fine dining restaurants can't, but when it comes to being in that class with them, it always just comes down to Roe is a "bar chef."
Well, this bar chef has won a lot of awards and my restaurant is packed every night and I'm doing cool specials just like everyone else. I don't mind it, but sometimes I see reviews and think that my food is just as good as that restaurant. Just because my place has a focus on strong cocktails and turns into a bar at 11 at night doesn't mean that what we're doing isn't on par with other great restaurants in Dallas.
It seems like that perception might be changing, though. Gastropubs are getting a lot of attention, like Blind Butcher. Definitely. Seeing Oliver [Sitrin] on the Dallas Morning News' list of best chefs, I see that he's paving the way. We're coming in at eight in the morning and making everything from scratch just like the big boys in Dallas. Oliver is a really good friend of mine, and I was really happy to see a "bar chef" on that list. It's just as legitimate, if not harder. We have to feed drunk people! I really like seeing that change, and I think Oliver's on the forefront of that. All of us have been quietly slugging it out in the bars without much recognition, and I'm glad to see that changing.
Do you think that there are things that you just can't do in a bar environment? The price point is my biggest hurdle. If you go to a place like Knife or Spoon, you're going to pay $60 for an entree without even blinking an eye. That gives them a little more freedom with product and cost. If you come in to Henry's Majestic with your buddies and you want a couple of beers and a steak, that's the highest-ticket item on my menu and it's only $28.
I don't have that freedom to put out the higher-dollar plates, so you have to be really creative. You have to find a way to mathmatically make it work. If a couple of 20-somethings come in for beers and dinner, they're not looking to pay $50 or $60 a plate. They want good food and good drinks, so we have to come up with ways to make that happen. You can come here and eat and drink without feeling like you gave up your savings account.
Food is just kind of changing in that way, right? People don't want to go sit for four hours at a fancy restaurant. If you look at a lot of the higher-end Dallas restaurants, they're taking cues from us. They're doing beer dinners and things a little more centered around things other than wine. The push for a while was that your good table was a four-top coming in and ordering an $80 entree each and a $400 bottle of wine. That's just not the truth anymore. Now you have seven or eight people coming in together and they're ordering lots of things to try, and at the end of the night they're all full.
I've seen menus around town that are more geared toward sharing. Stuffy sit-down dinners are a special occasion thing, but on a normal Friday or Saturday night, no one wants to sit for four hours and go through the whole rigamarole. You can still get good food at a place where you can show up in your jeans as you can at a place that has the $70 plates. That's really how I prefer to eat, so I'm glad to see things moving in that direction. Move faster!
Who do you think is driving that change? Do you think it's chefs who want to lighten up or diners who want something different? It's diners. If you look at places that fail in Dallas, it's the one that are trying to do the upscale white tablecloth experience. Nothing against white tablecloths, but to me it says specific things about restaurants. Bar chefs have already been doing it for years on the sidelines, so we get it. I remember a time when Libertine and Cock & Bull were the only places to go to get a strong cocktail and good food. Now there's Proof + Pantry, Parliament, and Blind Butcher. Diners were heading that direction and restaurants finally realized that they didn't have to make things so hard on themselves. If the atmosphere is good, the cocktails are good, the food is good, you can go there for anything.
Speaking of failure, this space has been designated as "cursed" by a number of people in the Dallas media? Was that intimidating for you? I love this question because everyone feels the need to tell me how cursed this space is. At this point, unless you're building a brand new building in Dallas, every space is cursed. Every building has had something that has failed before. This spot had it happen a little quickly, but I was here when it was Acme Social Club and I loved their food, but it was a little bit on the higher-end. That was three years ago, and that was on the tail end of the culture changing. I've always loved this space, and I just don't let that worry. You just have to do it right. I don't know what the difference is between us and them, maybe we're just better.
That's probably concieted to say, but we're aware of didn't work here and what the problems were. I think we countered that. We tuned up the space, took away the mismatched feel. I think the changes we've made will remove the curse. If you're a good restaurant, you're going to make it. If you're not, you're not. That's harsh, but it's reality.
What about your role as general manager in addition to being chef? What about that appealed to you? I think chefs really need to think long and hard about how their food is being presented. You can get in the kitchen and be creative all day, but if it isn't being presented by your servers well or priced appropriately, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. If your servers aren't happy to be there, it's not going to matter. This has been the first time where I decided to do both because I have a whole vision, and if one part of it isn't working, the whole thing isn't going to work.
What do you think are the most important components of a good restaurant, outside of the food? Let's just take the food off the table. The most important thing in a restaurant is your staff. That's your representatives. The chef isn't at every table explaining the dish. The bar manager isn't explaining all the cocktails. Having a knowledgeable staff that wants to be there is crucial. I hate going to a restaurant where the bartender is complaining about how much they're working and their customers. If you're not happy to be here, why would I be happy to be here? It doesn't matter what you do behind the scenes or what food cost you're running, if it's not getting to the table in the right amount of time and in the right way, it's shit. It doesn't matter.
Number two is the correct owners. Short of being my own owner, I have found that owner participation goes both ways. Sometimes there's too much, sometimes there's too little. I think I've finally landed in the right situation. We have a great Breadwinners team behind us. They know what they're doing, they've got awesome systems in place, and that's really key. To give you enough freedom to do what you want to do, but also have enough knowledge to know what doesn't work. Cindy and Jim Hughes are awesome, and Bread Winners has been a staple in this town. Being able to work under that reputation has been awesome.
The third thing is just to not be an asshole. All around, everyone in the building. Just don't be an asshole. People get caught up in how great they are and what they're serving, and I just want to come get something to eat. I don't care that this chef is on TV or that one was in this article, but when it comes down to it, I'm putting your food in my mouth. People have this perception of "celebrity chefs," but we're not special. We're just like every other chef.
It seems like this celebrity chef boom is kind of slowing down. There for a while there was a new one every day. Yes. Everyone who has done a commercial or been on TV for five seconds is all of a sudden a celebrity chef. I don't know where that term started, I guess I can blame Bobby Flay, but I've never gotten it. You're a celebrity, how can you be a chef? I don't understand how the two words got combined. Some of these celebrity chefs, I want to ask them their labor cost or how many covers they did on Friday night. They don't have those things. They just show up and cook at places. How are you a chef? Some of these guys don't even have restaurants, they don't run concepts, and they don't cook at all. You can't show me your revenue or your specials for tonight. You just run around to these events and that's cool, but 9 to 5, what are you doing? I hate that term.
Are there any celebrity chefs that you think are particularly egregious? Maybe the more famous ones. I know some people who have worked with Emeril Lagasse, and they don't know the last time he worked a line. When's the last time Chef Ramsay worked a line? I think they bother me on a more global scale than the local guys like Tre Wilcox. They cook, they're legitimate. It's the ones, like some of these Hell's Kitchen alumni. You were on a show for six weeks, you're not a celebrity. I'm not a celebrity. I'm just Roe who works at Henry's Majestic. It kind of irritates me when the level of celebrity is based on exposure and not based on production. What are these people doing for the food community? Doing a demo on Fox & Friends doesn't make you a celebrity, we've all done that. Having a restaurant packed on Saturday night makes you a celebrity. That's pretty cool.
If you were to be famous for something, what would it be? I love doing beer dinners. When I left The Libertine, I had done 52. Our first one was six or seven people, and the last one we did had over 90. We're going to start doing them here after the holidays. I love pairing food with beer, but we're talking about doing cocktail dinners and other events. I really love beer dinner days. It's almost like catering. It's planned, you have your numbers, all you can do is set yourself up for success. You can concentrate on those dinners, and you can make crazy combinations that won't sell on a menu seven days a week, but will really blow people's minds that night.
Why do you think that beer has become such a popular pairing item for chefs, especially when everything was so wine-driven for so long? Wine just got a little too complicated for people. If you're looking at wine, you're talking about the soil, the region it was grown in, the kind of grapes that are used to make it. It was getting so intense, and people just want to come have a good dinner. They're not looking for a whole wine education. Beer is a little more approachable, even though it's still extremely complex. I don't think it's as intimidating as wine it. Chefs started doing it to bring those people in, and beer just became more mainstream. Not everyone likes wine, either. Not everyone likes beer, but I feel like they might be more common.
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Another issue is cost. Some of these beers are expensive, but there's wines that are $3,000 a bottle. Wine gets a little repetitive when you stay in the same price point, but beer? You can pair something with a Miller High Life and it can be delicious. The same really can't be said for boxed wine. I'm all across the board, though. I like doing dinners paired with wine, beer, and cocktails. It can work sometimes.
You've cooked in Dallas for a while, and you're certainly a fan favorite. Do you think people followed you from The Libertine to Henry's Majestic? Yes, absolutely. I see a lot of the same faces, and get a lot of the same requests for jalapeno soup or steak sandwiches from The Libertine. All of that stuff worked there, but there's a chef code. You leave stuff where you found it. My food's a little more elevated since then. There's techniques that I use now that I would have scoffed at when I was there. It's nice to see the same faces, though. I still eat at The Libertine all the time, but this is just a little different.
What does it take to cultivate that following? Consistency. That's my number one pet peeve about Dallas restaurants. I'll go in somewhere, have something to eat, and come back next week and it's extremely different. That destroys regulars because they can't count on your food. They can't count on the fact that when they come here tomorrow, the rotisserie chicken is going to taste the same as it did yesterday. I think that's something I am able to do well. I'm so OCD in the kitchen that the pans go in the same place every day. I need to have my setup consistent, my cooks consistent, and my food consistent, because people can tell.
When I was at The Libertine, I took a day off and one of my cooks added garlic to the macaroni and cheese. I got a phone call from a regular saying "Just wanted to let you know, but there was garlic in the macaroni and cheese today. We don't like that." They're right. Consistency is the only way to build regulars, and that goes beyond the food. We have our staff on a staggered schedule so they can develop regulars. Dallas restaurants sometimes look at people like dollar signs, and I want to know things about my customers. Some of my regulars, I know their kids names, where they went to college, and that makes people want to come see you. I give a shit when I talk to them. Sometimes chefs get removed from that. Consistency, man. Talk to your people and give them what they want. It's not rocket science.