After recently opening the new bar The Foundry, Chef Tim Byres is trying to finish out a family-style casual fried-chicken joint called Chicken Scratch, both of which are just around the bend from Smoke in north Oak Cliff. In the interview that follows, we discuss it all, including the best fried chicken he's ever had.
When did you first get interested in cooking? I had an interesting upbringing in the sense that my dad was an Irish-American from the Bronx and my mom was from a farm in Idaho. My mom worked, but she was also always cooking. There was like the "tin-foil surprise" -- dinner from the last three nights into one night. She always wanted to have these big family dinners, which reminded her of her big family meals back in Idaho. So, we'd have these big Sunday dinners, she was just always cooking and I loved it.
What was your first job at a restaurant? When I was 16 I realized I could have kept mowing lawns or go work in a restaurant. So, I started working in restaurants and loved it. Right after high school I went to culinary school.
What drew you in so quickly? I was really infatuated with the entertaining and hospitality aspect. The idea that you can get 30 or 40 people together at a time and they're all having a good time together and you're the orchestrator of it all.
You're busy these days with running Smoke and getting Chicken Scratch ready. Are you burning the midnight oil? I'm focusing on the project at hand. We've developed a team of managers that are really good at what they do. I just keeping making the circle and checking on everything.
With so many irons on the fire, what's key to managing it successfully? I don't think it's possible at all unless you have people on board that believe in what you're doing. If I can win, they can win. If we put another iron on the fire and it's an opportunity for growth, they grow too. We have this group of people that are bought into the cause. We have fun here too. We try not to be too serious about any of it. We're not saving any babies here.
How do you manage your crew? "Honest, genuine and real" is a core concept. That carries through to all employees. I still want to see my family and have time off and if everyone else involved isn't happy, there's no way to do all this and have a separate life.
This is a unique spot. Sort of wide open with a bar in one spot, a fried-chicken shack next door, a stage and a courtyard with picnic tables. What are you trying to create here? I really want to focus on family-style entertaining. Just like how it's awesome to have a big 20-person spread at your house. I want to have that same feel here -- "C'mon in, hang your jacket it up. Can I get you a beer?"
We'll have fried chicken, tamales, farm-fresh sides, and biscuits right out of the oven, some cool whiskeys, beer and live music. I want it to be a big spread with a lot of people. It might not be a fine dining experience, but it's valuable. We want to have a fun down here.
We might even bring Smoke down here sometime (pointing to courtyard) with a big long fire pit cooking goat, lamb and beef. It's a huge place for large-format entertaining. We can have big cookouts and big tables with watermelon all over them. It won't just be chicken, even though Chicken Scratch will always be there. The compound is so big, we can bring the cavalry from Smoke. What values are important to you in running your businesses? Being authentic. Doing what you say you're going to do. Having realistic expectations. We often talk about aspiring to things, like composting, being green and buying local, but there's a reality. It's about doing it as right as you can.
What's the big garden in front? I've been working on it for several years. We moved the boxes down from Smoke. I haven't gotten it right yet, but I'm getting closer every year.
That's getting pretty local ... We try to stay local as much as we can, just because we want to. The cooks get excited about it. They'll come down to pick weeds and work on it. We aspire to use all-natural, hormone-free meat, but that's not always a reality. We try to use local cheeses and everything, but our resources here are somewhat limited. For us, it's just a try.
Is that what the garden is for? I really just like the garden. It's fun for me. If we grow some vegetables and we have fun with it, then great. It's awesome to see how spicy a radish is right out of the ground, or how awesome a cantaloupe is. It's cool.
It's not really about the restaurant because we'd wipe out an entire harvest of collard greens in one day. We might have a carrot festival one day and then it's gone.
In prepping for your Chicken Scratch, you took a road trip for a little fried-chicken research. How did that come about? We decided that we wanted to create a fun chicken shack and needed to go out on the road. After all types of investigation and research we decided there were two types of things to see, one was a Midwestern chicken dinner house and then the other was Southern fried chicken. So, the chef de cuisine, our intern from Le Cordon Bleu and I rented the most fuel-efficient car we could find and headed out.
How far did you drive? 2,100 miles in five days.
This sounds like the worst research assignment ever. Go on and tell us where you went. The first day we drove to Arkansas and ate chicken there, then Memphis to a place called Gus's. That night we pulled into Nashville, got a room, then went out to some honky-tonk and hung out. In the morning got up and ate more chicken. We stayed two nights in Nashville. Eventually we cut through Kentucky, St. Louis, Kansas City, back to Arkansas, then Oklahoma and home. Did you get tired of fried chicken? We ate a lot of fried chicken (he says with a long sigh). The last days were tough. We were fried chickened out. We were like "I can't do this anymore. I can't eat another biscuit."
What did you learn from our nation's great fried-chicken establishments? Every place has a different type of fried chicken. Each place was unique. For example, in the Midwest during Prohibition, there were dance halls out in the middle of nowhere where they'd serve booze and dance, and the women would make fried chicken. These places became roadside mainstays and each town has their own.
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The funny thing was that at barbecue places (he took a similar road trip for barbecue prior to Smoke) everyone does their own thing to stand out. They'll do something unique with the place. But, chicken restaurants are just chicken restaurants. You come in, eat and then leave.
What was your favorite? Prince's in Nashville was pretty awesome. It was really hot -- like your forehead starts to sweat when you're eating it.
What did you find that you're going to re-create here at Chicken Scratch? What's cool about all these places is the nostalgia. If you're from Kansas City and you ate chicken at a place when you were 10 and you're 35 now, of course that's going to be the best chicken ever. I think that's a really important.
So, is nostalgia something you aim to create here? Yes, nostalgia plays an important part in everything, both at Smoke and even in my own life. I'm a crazy foodie history buff; I'm into dialing it back as far as I can. So, yes, nostalgia is a very important aspect.