Victor Tango chef Greg Bussey is a chef's chef. By that, I mean so many other cooks in Dallas mention Bussey's tables as one of their favorites to dine at. After meeting the soft-spoken, quick-to-smile chef, it's easy to understand why.
After attending the California Culinary Academy, Bussey spent some time in New York City where he worked at Aureole under Charlie Palmer and Dante Boccuzzi, then with Brad Steelman at The River Café in Brooklyn. Eventually he moved to Dallas, his wife's hometown, and worked as sous chef at Stephan Pyles, Hibiscus and now finds his culinary home at Victor Tango's.
What was your childhood like in a food sense? I'm from Los Altos, California, and grew up in a rather large family. I have one brother and sister, but also 20 cousins and my grandparents lived next door to us, which was a central point for the entire family. Food was obviously a big focal point at family gatherings. The area around my house was originally an apricot orchard and behind us there were still a lot of trees and my friends and I would always run back there and eat apricots right off the tree.
Did your upbringing influence your decision to be a chef? It definitely influenced me a lot. My grandfather always gardened and we raised chickens. Understanding that circle of life and where your food comes from is so important. And my grandmother grew up during the Depression so she canned everything -- there were never any leftovers. She grew up in Minnesota and knew how to ration things for a family of six.
It was a really great childhood. I feel very special.
What was your first job in a restaurant? My first job in a restaurant was when I was 14 at a local pizza joint as the doughboy. I did all their dough production. I only worked about one day a week.
Did you show early signs of being a culinary enthusiast? My dad always pushed me to be a chef because he noticed that I was always drawn to the kitchen. He wanted to set me up with a trip to Europe, but when it came down to it, I wanted to do the normal college thing. He let me make my own decision and after high school I did some time at junior college, then got into University of California at Davis and studied biology. While I was there my roommates were viticulture and enology majors and every summer we'd go up wine country help with crushing or bottling.
When did you decide to make it a career? One summer I worked for Korbel, then went back to school and had a bunch of lab jobs, which is when I realized I couldn't do that the rest of my life. I enjoyed that one one job at Korbel too much.
So, after that I decided to go ahead and follow what my dad knew so long ago. I enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in 2002.
Do you think your biology background helps much with cooking? Not really, I don't use a ton of molecular gastronomy in my kitchen.
You probably just don't realize it... That's probably true. ... It's a lot about how proteins work and how you cook things either this method or that method to make it more tender. In culinary school things of that nature came to me easier than a lot of my classmates. So, I probably did get a head start in that sense.
Because so much of cooking is really about science, right? Science and love. [big sheepish smile] What's the chemistry like in your kitchen? At Victor Tango's there has been a huge evolution in the kitchen. Most of my cooks started as dishwashers. I think it has to do with an eagerness to learn -- they want to excel. A lot of these guys aren't aspiring to be executive chefs, but they do aspire to cook great food.
How do you manage your kitchen? When new cooks start out on the line they learn how to prep and how to handle things. Then, when they start moving pans and actually cooking, we try to get people to evolve from that.
Collaboration is something I really try to emphasize. Every place I go and every chef or cook I work with, I learn from. So, when I sit down to redo a menu, I like to collaborate. I'll bring in my general manager because he comes from a cooking background and he loves to talk about food inside and outside of work. The more ideas we can get down on paper, the better the menu will be. It also just makes it fun instead of delegating to everyone.
What's it like for you in the kitchen on a Saturday night? I drive things from the window just outside the kitchen (where plates are passed through). The cooks get swamped -- we typically do 550 covers, all through that little pass.
The way we set up our menu is there are plates for sharing and food comes as it is, which some new customers don't quite understand at first. We just don't have the logistics of coursing out a meal and having four entrees coming down at the same time.
But, when ticket times get up to 12 or 15 minutes it's, "I need it. I need it." For me it's just being repetitive. I guess orchestrating a little bit. I can view most of the hot line and I can see what people have on the grill and by looking at tickets I know what the cook needs to have on his grill.
Does time fly? Yes, it does. On a busy night, it's 7, then 11 just like that.
Do you like that rush? Yes, I do. As much as the guys get buried with all these tickets, there are some high fives and camaraderie when they get through it all. I was the same way when I was cook. I would get nervous and stressed and, but it feels great when it's done.
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What's key to maintaining quality during those rushes? Don't ever compromise. Whatever you put on a plate, treat it like it's for you. If something is wrong and the cook communicates about it to me, then I'll have total respect for him. We can send someone out to the table to say, "It wasn't perfect, give us another five or 10 minutes and we'll make sure it is." I think guests appreciate that too, knowing that we're checking those things instead of trying to slide them through. If you let that happen then you just don't stand out from other restaurants. What are some of your favorite local restaurants? I live in Oak Cliff, so whenever I can I go to Lucia. I respect David so much as well as his sous chef Kevin Dean. I think the food is phenomenal. I can walk down there and sit on the patio right at 5 p.m. and have a few bites. I also like Campo. Anastacia Quinones is a wonderful chef too.
Have any hole-in-the-wall places? My wife is Korean, so we go up North Dallas to Szechuan Garden, or Jeng Chi for their juicy soup dumplings. For Korean, if my in-laws aren't cooking, then we'll go to Chosun on Royal (now Koryo Kalbi). Genroku is good too. These aren't really hole-in-the-wall places, but where we go a lot.
Any plans for a culinary excursion to your wife's home country? That's big on our list. We're not sure how to do it with young kids, but most of her family is still in Seoul. What's interesting is that each part of the city has its own specialty, like the dumpling neighborhood where there will be all these dumpling shops, but my wife's aunt knows the best one. And then there's the Korean barbecue area and there's 50 restaurants, but then they have their favorite. (Can I go? Sure.)
You also own B.B. Bop. Is that something you and your wife started together? Yes, we collaborated on the menu and recipes. She might start something, then we'll work it out together. For instance, all of the sauces are pretty much made from scratch. The Soul on Fire is a twist on the traditional Korean sauce gochujang. There are little variations to make them fit a little better with the masses.