Food News

Kent Rathbun: So Many Restaurants, So Little Reality TV That Doesn't "Suck"

Kent Rathbun's résumé is too extensive to quickly gloss over. Like most chefs, Rathbun started his career as an apprentice working at La Bonne Auberge, a five-star French restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. Rathbun then moved on to work in the kitchens of Mr. B's in New Orleans, American Restaurant and Milano in Kansas City, The Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Landmark Restaurant in the Melrose Hotel, among others.

In 1997, he opened Abacus, drawing on Southwestern, Mediterranean, American, Cajun/Creole, and Pacific Rim influences. Abacus received a mass of accolades, including Mobil Four-Stars; AAA Four Diamonds; Bon Appetit's Best of the Year 2001 issue, which named Abacus' Chef's tasting menu a "Top Pick;" ; and "One of the Top Meals Around the World" by USA Today. It was even inducted into the Nation's Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

All this led to his opening Jasper's "Gourmet Backyard Cuisine," first in Plano in June 2003 and then expanding to additional locations in The Woodlands and Austin. It's been named one of Esquire magazine's Top 20 Best New Restaurants in America.

It's been non-stop for Rathbun ever since, opening Zea Woodfire grill in January 2006 and Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen in February 2009. Rathbun's wife, Tracy, along with Dean Fearing's wife, Lynae also opened Shinsei in April of 2006. The two couples are long-time friends.

Always looking to the next step. Rathbun most recently teamed up with Central Market and launched an exclusive line of products called The Kent Rathbun Elements collection, offering a range of "home cook" products from sauces to dressings to spices to Marinades.

Rathburn has cooked at the James Beard House a number of times and was nominated as the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Southwest in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004. He has appeared on TV many times, including an appearance on Iron Chef America in 2008 where he defeated grill master Bobby Flay. (The secret ingredient was elk.)

Jasper's in Plano at The Shops at Legacy has modern, oversized décor and is cleverly divided up with banquettes and fence like dividers to keep it from feeling vast and cold despite its massive size. Eclectic music from spa tinklings to contemporary tunes played when I went for lunch on a Thursday afternoon.

Well dressed clientele, including business people, families, and ladies who lunch gathered throughout the large space. I had an entirely too large lunch of salt crusted rock shrimp, slow smoked baby back ribs with Rathbun's own Ancho barbeque sauce, and aged Gouda and ham mac 'n' cheese, watered down with freshly brewed nectarine lavender iced tea. And - despite being beyond full at that point - I indulged in the dark chocolate lava cake served with vanilla ice cream, which, thankfully, is a "mini" dessert.

The food is straightforward, perfectly cooked and delicious. Just like I make at my own back yard soirees (in my wildest dreams). It's what home-cooking should be. In these parts, anyway.

Rathbun talks about food and restaurants the way others talk about their families. Not that he doesn't talk about his own family with equal pride. He does. But he also loves and respects food and expects the same from others. He says he is saddened when he sees a lack of respect as reflected in the customer service he finds in many restaurants today.

"Too many young people today misunderstand the crazy times we're having in the service industry," Rathbun explains. "They don't understand how important customer service is when it comes to keeping customers in the building during this crummy economy."

It's the economy that, right now anyway, is what inspired Rathbun's plans for the near future.

"Right now I just want to stabilize our business from the economy. I think that 2011 will be better. I hope. But right now I want to tweak and modify my company till its performing at its peak."

Rathbun considers Dallas an excellent food city and sees little need for change. He is aware though that some diners do suffer from a sort of menu phobia, afraid to order something they aren't sure they'll love. Rathbun says that there certainly are some places where that fear is real.

"But when you eat in high-end restaurants with real chefs you should try those things [you're afraid to order]. It's your biggest chance to try something. If you don't like a food, chances are you haven't had it cooked properly. Besides, your tastes can change."

One thing unlikely to change, however, is Rathbun's feelings about reality TV. "It sucks. Ridiculous. Reality. I won on Iron Chef. I beat Bobby Flay. There was no BS. Two equal pantries. Two equal kitchens. Two equal staffs. That's reality. I was happy I won but even if I hadn't, I would have been happy because it was fair and because it was real. The rest of the shows are just drama, drama, drama. They're a way for people to watch other people struggle."

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Jenny Block