The Chef Hunter
When the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek needed an executive chef, it turned to Gert Kopera, the man with the little black books.
Around this time last year, in January 2009, John Tesar, the executive chef of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, abruptly left his post. His tenure had been brief, just over two years, but Tesar and his crew had redone the restaurant that for almost two decades had been synonymous with Dean Fearing and his Southwestern cuisine. Tesar’s departure left the Rosewood PR machine with a tough assignment. The rumor mill went into overdrive. Why was he leaving? Who would take his place? The duties of running the kitchen fell to the affable executive sous chef, Eric Brandt. Most diners never noticed a change in quality, but a month after Tesar left, the Mansion closed the exclusive Chef’s Tasting Room, which reverted back to The Library. Tesar posted on his Facebook page: “John Tesar is sad that the Chefs room closed today [Thursday] and that the Mansion is giving up!”
One imagines that if Gert Kopera read the posting, he found it amusing. As the vice president of food and beverage for Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, Kopera had the job of finding Tesar’s replacement. And the chef hunter wasn’t giving up. Far from it. He was already stalking his prey.
Kopera is in charge of conceptualizing and staffing restaurants for the 18-plus hotels under the Rosewood umbrella (the Mansion and the Crescent Court among them in Dallas), so he racks up the frequent flier miles. It suits his international upbringing. His father was Austrian, his mother German, and he was born in the Netherlands. He speaks with an Austrian accent, and on the lapel of his Lanvin suit, he wears a pin that designates him as a member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an exclusive international gastronomic society.
To develop restaurants, his expertise must extend far beyond what appears on the plate. “Gert has to go in and understand each community and the food trends where the properties are,” says Kersten Rettig, corporate director of public relations for Rosewood. “He has to be a psychologist and an anthropologist.”
Once Tesar departed, finding a new chef for the Mansion became Kopera’s top priority. He keeps on hand at all times a black Moleskine journal that he fills with the names of chefs, memorable dishes he has eaten, restaurants around the world, concepts that come to him while he’s in flight. He keeps a Moleskine on his nightstand, too, just in case.
In one of those notebooks, he found the name of chef Bruno Davaillon, the executive chef of Mix in Las Vegas, an acclaimed restaurant run by French chef Alain Ducasse. Kopera had met Davaillon a few years back and had tried to convince him to come to Dallas once before. Kopera valued Davaillon’s training under Ducasse and the Michelin star that he earned at Mix. Kopera knew that whoever took the head job would have to be strong enough to withstand pressure. The Rosewood corporate office is located in Dallas, and matriarch Caroline Rose Hunt dines at the Mansion several times a week. “It’s extreme exposure,” Kopera says. He decided to make another run at Davaillon.
“I call and ask him, ‘How’s life? Everything is good? Family happy?’ ” But Kopera didn’t bring up the job opening. This was his plan.
A few days later, Kopera called again, this time telling Davaillon that the Mansion was looking for a chef. Kopera went on to sell Davaillon on the city itself. The people are great, and they like to spend their money on good food, he told Davaillon. Dallas is a town that loves its chefs like rock stars. Unlike Las Vegas, with its constant churn of tourists, Dallas offers stability. Davaillon would have the luxury of cultivating a crowd of regulars. And Kopera offered one final enticement: knowing Davaillon and his wife are dedicated to their 8-year-old son, he told him about the excellent school options in the Dallas area.
Kopera had six chefs on his short list. Each one was put through an interview process that includes a cooking challenge that makes Top Chef look like packing a picnic basket for your mom. The candidates were flown in one at a time, each arriving the night before he would prepare a meal for a team of high-level Rosewood executives. The meals were prepared and served in the regal Crescent Club, the private dining room on the 17th floor of the Crescent Court’s center office building. It probably sees more big-money deals made than any other room in town.
Davaillon came for his interview on a humid day in July. The night before, he worked for about two hours, taking care of his vegetable prep and making panna cotta, which needs to set overnight. He double-checked the list of ingredients he’d requested. Davaillon wasn’t nervous; he’d already tested the recipes he was going to make several times. “I would never try to cook something new in this situation,” he says. “That would not be a smart idea.”
On the morning of the lunch, he assembled his assistants and assigned tasks. The kitchen itself was about the same size as the one he was accustomed to at Mix, but he had trouble at first finding the right cooking utensils. Davaillon brought his own pepper with him, called Piment d’Espelette. It comes from the Basque region of France and is so famous that it has been given a protected designation from the European Union, ensuring that only peppers grown there can go by that name.
It took Davaillon four hours to prepare the menu: Maine lobster salad, bison tenderloin, and Texas peach and vanilla panna cotta. The lucky diners were Rosewood’s president and chief executive officer, John Scott; its chief operating officer, Robert Boulogne; its vice president of operations, Michael Gibb; the Mansion’s managing director, Duncan Graham; and, of course, Gert Kopera. Davaillon left the kitchen to explain each dish as it was served, and, after dessert, he took a seat with the men to answer questions about his life, and his life’s work.
After all six chefs had completed their interviews, the Rosewood team assembled and exchanged opinions. But the final decision came down to Kopera, the man with the black books. He says he felt pressure to hire someone local (two of the finalists were local chefs; Kopera won’t divulge names), but he had more important matters to consider. “We wanted someone who takes the Mansion history and the aura, and puts it all on the plate,” Kopera says. “We are getting ourselves a little Picasso here.”
Before chef Davaillon accepted the job, he made one last trip to Dallas, this time to check out schools for his son. The Davaillons have settled about five minutes from the Mansion.
As for Kopera, he’s back to his little black books, stalking his next prey.
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