Oak Chef Chef Richard Gras on Dodging Pans in the '90s and Dallas' Dining Scene

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In the last few years, the Dallas Design District has become a true food destination. Matt McCallister's FT33 is responsible for much of that, but Chef Richard Gras is making his own kinds of waves down the street at Oak. After the departure of Jason Maddy in late 2012, Gras has brought a new kind of inspired cuisine to the restaurant.

One year later, Oak is thriving with Gras at the helm. I sat down to talk with him about how he's changed the food and culture at Oak, struggles with Dallas' small pool of talented cooks and chefs, and working with the unique backyard-to-table produce supplier who showed up at his back door.

In your 20 years in the restaurant industry, you've worked with a lot of globally renowned chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. That's kind of a stark contrast to other up-and-comers, several of whom are just guys who love food and decided to open restaurants. How do you think working with some of the best chefs in the world has colored your career?

Nowadays, you see a lot of chefs who go and stage for people to see how their restaurants run for a few weeks, and then try to open their own. I think it's important to work in good restaurants for a long time. I've luckily been able to work with a wide variety of people and cuisine styles from modern to classic, and I think it helps you find your way a little bit better. I used to think that I was going to do Spanish food for a long time because I worked for a gentleman from Spain, but then I went to Thailand and was introduced to Asian food and completely changed my mind.

All of those influences have made me who I am today. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for working with great people for long periods of time, and not just stage-ing. I think that's kind of a bastardized word. I used to work with someone who spent time at El Bulli in Spain, and he would tell me about stages who would just pick flowers all day. I understand the value of that because you get to see a lot of different restaurant styles, but there's a difference between picking flowers and making sauces, butchering, and being hands-on with food.

What are the benefits of those short stage stints? Is that something you do when you've been cooking for a few years and things get stale, or is that something that comes right after culinary school?

When I staged, I did it right out of culinary school. I was probably 6 or 7 years into the industry, had a really great job, but I didn't want to get stagnant. I would go to South Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and other places to see what was going on. For one, it always opens your eyes to new things. Not just how you work, but how other people work.

If I'm going to stage, I always want it to be something that's a building block, something that's going to benefit my career. Like going to learn Southern food and making sure that there's an authenticity behind it. I definitely did it earlier in my career, but I would do it now to see more trendy food at places like Alinea in Chicago or Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. That's what's happening now. As a chef, if you don't keep up with what's happening now, the industry kind of passes you buy. It's amazing, really.

Were you already interested in Southern food before you came to Dallas?

Definitely. I worked at the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island, which is sort of on the border of Florida and Georgia. There was a huge southern influence there, and I wanted to learn how to do everything. I wanted to learn how to make my own hominy from scratch. Using the charcoals from the woodfire grill to make lye and that whole process. Yeah, you can read a book, but when you can go into a restaurant and see how it's actually done, you get an authenticity in the food. Plus, you get to learn the history behind it. When a guest comes in, I can tell them "hey, I made this hominy." It makes the experience that much more authentic.

Was it difficult to learn Southern food? It all seems easy to me because that's what I grew up on, but as someone who didn't come up eating soul food, was it difficult to learn?

I don't think so. Southern is a huge trend now, but it's always a part of me. I worked with this guy, a line cook named Rory, and he was born-and-raised Southern to the bone. He was a really good teacher, and he made sure the heart and soul was in the food. He was so enthusiastic in telling me about the cuts of meat they use and the beans, greens, and whatever else. Southern food really is soul food, some of these dishes date back to the time of slavery. When people had nothing, but they still made these fabulous meals with just scraps. It was something I was very interested in, and I use some of those techniques today even though Oak isn't southern.

Do you think there is pressure for restaurants to incorporate Southern elements because it is so trendy right now?

I'm kind of still scratching the surface of that. With the upcoming menu, I'm really going to touch back to some of my roots. Add some frog, some fried green tomatoes, and see how people react to it. Only having been here a year, I'm not sure how people are going to react to it. As long as the flavor is right, the roots are where they are, I think people are going to like it.

I imagine this first year at Oak has been pretty crazy, especially in taking over a restaurant that was in a pretty tough spot.

This year has probably been one of the hardest years of my whole career. Before I came to Oak, I read about the restaurant and I was immediately in love with it. Knowing some of the history behind it and what they went through, I knew it was going to be a huge undertaking. It's not all about taking over a restaurant, it's about changing the culture and the mindset. Coming from a luxury hotel background, it's all about culture. At Ritz Carlton they say that they're "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." And that's cheesy, but it makes sense in a lot of ways.

I have to make sure that people are not only as passionate about the food as I am, but also passionate about working with each other and doing justice to the food, that was probably the hardest thing. Changing the culture in the restaurant was difficult. Freestanding restaurants have their own aura, and I like that because it allows more freedom, but having an overall culture is also good because it helps get the staff involved in the work. Building a great team, not only technique and skill but also personalities, was probably the hardest thing about building this restaurant. The food is always easy.

Do you think you're where you want to be right now, for the most part? We always want to be a better place, but at this point in time, I feel really good about the core team. I still have goals that I set for myself and the team, and you never stop pushing to get better, but on the whole I'm really happy. Do we still have a long way to go? Of course we do. But I think we're going in the right direction.

You do a lot of work in the kitchen, and not all executive chefs do. Some write recipes and step into more of a management role instead of cooking during every service. Do you think it's good for a restaurant to have a heavily involved chef like yourself, or is that just a difference in styles?

I would for sure say it's just a difference in styles. I have a huge passion for food, so I feel like I need to have my hands in it all the time. I do recipe development and food cost and all that stuff too, but I want to work with the kitchen staff quite a bit. I have a very young staff here, so it's important for me to be consistently on the line and making sure that they get better.

Eventually, I'm sure there will be times where I can probably start to break away more and focus on research and development and having my own time, but until then, it's important for me to be here 100% day and night in the kitchen so that everyone understands your vision. Chefs like Matt [McCallister] and John Tesar have people that they've worked with for a really long time, who understand their vision. I don't have that yet. I have a team that's getting there quickly, but not yet.

Was that a conscious choice, choosing a younger staff that you could mold and make them work better with you?

I think its more choosing quality people. I've had more luck with people who were really inexperienced. I haven't had a lot of people walk through the door who have, say, eight years of experience. I've had a lot of luck with some of the younger cooks and chefs. It is easier to train someone when they don't have preconceived notions about what cooking is, but believe me, if someone walked in with eight years of experience and wanted to cook, we'd see how they fit in. I haven't had that fortune, which is fine with me, the people who I do have are extremely passionate about this place. You can always train.

So you think talent is more important for you right now when you're looking for cooks and chefs?

As an executive chef, you need to see talent in other people. I have seen a whole lot of talent in the people I have, just not much experience. It's my job to nurture that talent and make them the best that they can be. I think the restaurant workforce in Dallas is very young, and there are a lot of restaurants opening with not a lot of talent. So then, it's even more critical to find those people who are enthusiastic and you can see in their eyes that they love what they do.

I think you're right in that it does seem like there are a lot of restaurants opening. Do you think that's sustainable, or are we going to reach peak restaurant in short order?

I don't think so. What really needs to happen is that there needs to be more development in Dallas so that they can keep up with the restaurants that do open. Reaching out to not just college students but starting at high school. When I started cooking at 15 years old, I was in a restaurant because one of my home economics teachers told me that I should try.

We need to nurture all people who have that interest, because right now, there are a lot of restaurants fighting over just a little bit of cooks. It also seems like there's a lot of cooks that get passed around restaurants in the city. But Dallas as a food city is definitely coming up. People are starting to come here not just for business and travel, but also to eat. John Tesar, Matt McCallister, Eric Shelton, Tre Wilcox -- those guys are shining light on the Dallas food scene, so maybe that's going to attract more people to the industry.

Do you think restaurants are actually suffering because there aren't enough cooks?

I think so. I've interviewed quite a few cooks that have been in quite a few different areas of the Dallas food scene, and it blows my mind. I've been in the industry for about 20 years, and I think I have like seven jobs. That kind of throws a red flag up for me -- maybe you don't get along, you're not finding your niche, whatever. That's a problem for sure. I think it might be generational, with the Millennials. When I started in the industry, it was the early '90s. Pans were thrown at you, you were cussed at, it was a much more rigid environment. But the discipline was there.

The more I work in the industry, the less you see that discipline. People think they deserve more. I'm sorry, if you come out of school with a two or four year degree, you're not a sous chef. You've still got eight more years in the industry before you can call yourself that. Maybe it's four for really incredible guys, but you put your time in to learn and experience. Then you get the opportunities to become a sous chef, but that comes in time. It doesn't come right after you leave school.

Do you think that chefs fast-track their career paths because the income is so low? You can't make any money as a line cook.

It's part of the journey. It's a sacrifice, there's a lot of suffering. There are things you just can't do. We work a lot of holidays. These are all part of the journey that you've chosen through cooking. It's very exciting, you get to travel and see the world, try all different kinds of cuisines. It's really important for people to understand that you can't rush that journey. Everybody has their own path, and if you skip a step, it's not good. There's no use in fast tracking. Take your time and earn it. You can talk to any of the chefs in this city, we all chose it because we love it.

Every day I come in here, it's not about work. It's about being creative and having fun. Coming out of Johnson and Wales culinary school with a four-year degree, I started at Cook III. 80% of people I graduated with were out of the business in five years because of the hard work and the hours. A lot of people want relationships and I never had that aspiration. I've always been completely surrounded by food. When I'm not working, I'm always learning - reading books, traveling to farms, seeing how ducks are raised at foie gras farms. I immerse myself completely so that I would be something more than just a line cook one day. That was always my goal, and you have to keep stoking that fire to reach that goal.

How do you stoke the fire now?

Now that I've been here for almost a year, I have a better understanding of what people are looking for. I want to use that knowledge to do bigger and better things. I've really gotten into the local farms here and using different suppliers that can get me unique cheeses, or honey, and greens. Last year, we changed the menu four times. This year, we're going to change it six times.

We started a charcuterie program and I'm going to push that to the next level. I think our cheese program is one of the best in the city, and I want to continue to evolve that. I'd like to get some chef dinners together and bring in some of my friends from all over the country and the world to showcase what they're doing and pair up with local breweries to do beer dinners.

What about travel? Are there any cuisines you want to work on?

I've never gone to Spain and I've always wanted to go. If I don't make it this year, it will be next year. I've read books about Spain, worked with chefs from Spain, and I want to experience it. It's a big influence in what I do now, but when you go to a place and taste the cuisine and how people react, it brings something more to life. I haven't been fortunate enough to see Europe at all, but if there's one place I need to go, it's definitely Spain. I've been to Asia and that was an amazing experience, it could never get boring. It's one of the most active culinary markets right now, but it all goes back to Spain. That would make me happy for a full year.

Why is Spain the biggest culinary attraction in Europe for you?

Spain is the birthplace of modern cuisine. France is the birthplace of traditional cuisine, and I'm more of a modern person. They're taking things that were not normally done, and doing them well. I'm not even talking about molecular gastronomy, just the ingredients they use. Like pine. A few years ago, nobody was using pine or spruce or any other trees on their menus. Now, it's a trend. But in Spain, they've been using pine for at least fifteen years. They're actually doing a naturally raised foie gras in Spain now, too. I'd go to see how that is done. It's supposed to be a totally humane process. They're very open to pushing the limits and testing scenarios there. If you don't know where your cusp of feeling comfortable is, how do you push yourself past that?

What exactly does modern cuisine mean? Everyone has their own definition, and it seems like everyone is kind of tired of hearing about "modernist" food.

Modern cuisine is deeply rooted in the traditional. You have to know where you come from to move forward, and I think chefs are just re-concepting things. Chefs are using less fat and more spices and vinegars. Modern cuisine is just a lighter cuisine, and moving back to where we were with farm-to-table food. That's a bastardized word too, though, but to me it means working with farmers to make the cuisine as local as possible. Cassoulet from France, for example. Deconstructing a classic dish, and having all the parts there, but without all the heaviness. We're getting back to our roots. A lot of these dishes are from the 1800s or older, but we just put these modern spins on them and they're brand new again.

Speaking of farm-to-table food, I hear that you have a really unique kind of backyard-to-table thing going on in the kitchen at Oak. Can you tell me a little bit about your really local supplier, Chris Taylor?

It's funny. He just walked in the back door one day and said, "Hey, I'm Chris Taylor and I like to farm." He brings me the most amazing arugula you've ever tasted, radishes with the dirt still on them. That's what food is -- utilizing something that is being taken right out of the ground. It's just fresh food. He brings me a lot of my flowers, and that all happens naturally in his garden. He only has 800 square feet, so we save all of our eggshells and scraps so that he can put them back into the garden. He's really limited in what he can do, but he's willing to customize things that we need. I think he's a computer technician by day who works out of his house, and he's just really passionate about growing great food.

I'm sure a lot of chefs would love to have some guy wander up to their door and bring them some of the best produce they've ever seen.

How lucky was I? And he doesn't do it for money, he does it for love. It's like a chef. You don't get in this for money. Yeah, you can own restaurants and whatever, but you still don't make that much money. He loves to spend time with his plants, he takes very good care of them. It's a labor of love for him. And he grows some of the best stuff I have ever tasted.

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