It’s 5:45 pm, and the front-of-house staff has fanned around the main dining-room fireplace for its pre-shift meeting at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. Ten or so servers in brocade vests chat and make jokes at the tables they’ve impeccably set. Behind them, in what used to be the library, stained-glass crests bear names such as Robert de Ros and Richard de Clare, accompanied by lions rampant, crosses, and crenellations. The general manager, dapper in his bow tie, takes a breath and plunges in with marching orders for the night.
So-and-so will be here: remember, he can’t abide square plates. A certain $300 half-bottle of wine is temporarily unavailable. We have one engagement, one anniversary, and an 80th birthday—rose petals already deck a table. Mrs. X has been waving away her martini, so let’s try the wine list.
The servers duly take note, nodding at the requests of regulars whose whims they know well. Regulars make up about half the clientele.
The most important person, though, is nowhere in sight. To find him, you must enter the kitchen through the double doors at the end of the room. First the stainless-steel counters of the expediting line, where servers lift finished dishes onto silver trays. Then the narrow, galley-like space where line cooks sweat over stoves worn from use. Behind them, a prep space with more stoves, ovens, and long tables where vegetables are chopped, fish scaled. The room is quiet now, the rush of prep finished. Remnants remain—littleneck clam shells, an upended sieve, juice pools from the pitting of cherries—and the air smells of fennel and garlicky ramps. In the farthest, dimly lit corner, next to a bubbling stock cauldron, executive chef Bruno Davaillon stoops over a waist-high mixer, scrutinizing as a paddle whips pork shreds and pork fat. He stops it periodically to add braising liquid. The rillettes he’s making—traditional French charcuterie from his region of Touraine—are creamy and fine, seasoned with bay, thyme, onion, and white wine. While people worry over square plates in the other room, I stand with him and watch the mixer paddle whirl. “Where did you learn to do this?” I ask in French. “Mon pere,” he says—his father.
His story sounds like the classic French chef’s tale. He comes from a family that, every January, killed a pig from his great aunt’s farm and, in a communal affair that lasted four or five days, put up blood sausage and bacon and the rillons and rillettes of Touraine. The first restaurant where he worked, at 16, was Michelin-starred. At 18, in Paris, while living in a tiny garret, he worked at Restaurant Lasserre, a temple of classic French gastronomy near the Champs-Élysées. Back home, he’d tell people about his view of the rooftops and the Christian Dior boutique, leaving them to fantasize about his Parisian life. The real working conditions were harsh. “Ça forme,” he says—it forms you.
Like a wine, he has terroir. That is, he is shaped by the place he is from. Among his most vivid taste impressions are the tarts and raw milk at his great aunt’s farm. He has childhood memories of three-hour-long Sunday lunches there: a midday meal in the garden, several large tarts, a lake nearby where people fished afterward. That is partly where he learned the ethos of taking one’s time. In his great aunt’s cellar, they churned butter and spun cream. What he misses most in the States is the quality of ingredients. “I didn’t see the luck I had,” he says.
The cooks at the Mansion don’t know any of this—except maybe a few who are closest to him. If he tells you about his family, pay attention, one tells me. It’s precious and rare. Most have only the vaguest sense of his personal story. One cook who has worked with him six months thinks, maybe, that he has a wife (he does), knows nothing about his 12-year-old son. Few hazard pronouncing his name. For them, he is Chef. They know he takes Sundays off to be with his family. And they all know where he was before the Mansion: in Vegas, working for France’s biggest chef, Alain Ducasse.
When Davaillon became executive chef at the Mansion in 2009, he came straight from Mix, which he had been hand-picked by Ducasse to open and run. With 20,000 square feet and 240 seats, the restaurant did 100,000 covers a year, 400 to 500 a night on weekends, Davaillon says. Mix earned a Michelin star under Davaillon in 2008 and again in 2009. Then he came to Dallas and to the Mansion. There, he was preceded by Dean Fearing, famous for his cowboy boots and Texas-size welcome and, briefly, by John Tesar, a man known for his temper. From the start, Davaillon was known, in contrast, for his reserve and his absence from the dining room. When I moved to Dallas one year after him, I had more than one reason to be curious.
When it came to the crop of new talent in Dallas, paths seemed to converge at the Mansion and this chef of top culinary distinction. Chefs like Jason Maddy and Brian Zenner, line-mates in Davaillon’s kitchen, opened Oak, which quickly became the hottest new restaurant in town. “If Bruno called me tomorrow, I might go flying back,” Zenner told me last year as he was poised to open Belly & Trumpet. “Those 15 months were as important as the last seven years together. He’s the real deal.” Zenner and others tell their ambitious young cooks to learn from the laconic Frenchman if they can.
My second motive was more personal. I know the Loire Valley, where Davaillon grew up and where my French grandmother had a home I still visit. I wondered how he would translate France into Texas, the France of my youth. To satisfy that curiosity, I arranged to spend 10 days in the Mansion kitchen last summer, watching Davaillon at work. I had two main questions: how does this quiet man speak through his food? And why does every chef in Dallas want to work in his kitchen?
The first thing to understand is how he thinks about flavors. When I ask the cooks to tell me what is “Davaillon” in a dish, they point to specific things. They know exactly, without hesitation: clean lines and flavors, a crunch, a surprise. Yet to fully understand what they mean is not so simple.
His distance from classical French cooking can be measured in his sauces. No heavy cream sauces, which he says mask flavors and needlessly gussy things up. Instead, he’ll have a carrot purée accompany lamb, the flavor deepened with Vadouvan, an obscure French-Indian spice blend. Only one of the tiny saucepans at the meat station contains a nut-brown jus. The other sauces are crimson, yellow, ruby: purées of tomato, corn, cherry. Davaillon loves lightness and what he calls “direct” flavors. When I marvel at a risotto that’s brilliant green from asparagus purée (with asparagus tips and slivers of roasted asparagus on top), he shrugs, amused at my reaction. Things should taste of themselves. An avocado foam to accompany bass is made of just avocado and lime. He cherishes vegetables and uses their “water” as a magical exponent of flavor—as with a tomato-fennel-basil poaching liquid for eggplant, or rhubarb poached in pomegranate and beet juice. He once thought of opening a restaurant with just vegetables and finds their possibilities endless.
He also has an “esprit voyageur”—a palate for flavors from elsewhere. The spice rack contains plastic vats labeled with masking tape and Sharpie: shichimi togarashi, harissa, hickory, saffron, serrano, aji amarillo, juniper. “I’ve always had this spirit of travel,” Davaillon says. “To travel in the plate.” Part of the impulse that made him leave France is also what makes his cooking creative—more so, he thinks, than those who stay where they are. The best thing for Dallas or for any city, he says, is to have the chefs go elsewhere. “When you come back, you have a much more interesting luggage,” he says, the French metaphor conjuring an image of real suitcases. “It’s not the same products, not the same recipes. You take the best.”
Like a wine, Davaillon has terroir. That is, he is shaped by the place he is from.
Like a wine, Davaillon has terroir. That is, he is shaped by the place he is from.
Then-sous chef Jared Harms, who has since been promoted to chef de cuisine, describes flavor pairing as a muscle chefs must develop with experience, particularly when it comes to blending the bold in harmonious marriage, a Davaillon forte. “It’s going to take me a long time before I’m comfortable doing it on my own,” says Harms, who has been watching the chef do it for three years. Harms comes from a family of teachers; he understands patience and thoroughness.
If it’s a muscle, Davaillon doesn’t flaunt it like an egocentric bodybuilder. He’s modest about his goal: “to highlight the food, keep the beauty of the food. A lot of people say that,” he says, “but then they get in the way.” On the other hand, how do you account for the fact that each dish is unmistakably his?
Late mornings, Davaillon arrives, makes his rounds, greets Harms and then-chef de cuisine J. Chastain (now executive sous chef), then gets to work at the prep tables, his back to a sink and the tall shelf of spices. With his high forehead and black hair and eyebrows, his look is severe, all sharp, clear lines—very French. His long black apron skims his shoes, and the black piping on his chef’s coat is about the only distinction from the other cooks. To his left, Pedro Medel guts and cleans fish. To his right, Neil Liston is at the butcher’s block. In front of him, several cooks work at the prep table, readying the ingredients they’ll need at their stations. It means a lot to the cooks that a chef of his stature would work alongside them.
The first thing the cooks say is that he cooks. “He’s right here, not hiding out,” Liston says. As one cook who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and interned at high-end restaurants in New York, puts it: “The chef’s in the kitchen, actually cooking.” For his team, the difference is profound. To Davaillon, being a chef is not about celebrity, but craft. One afternoon, I watch him peel a vat of pearl onions, methodically, one by one, for a dish he is developing. I clock a full 10 minutes. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says.
Another day, he pauses between the tasks to show me photos on his iPhone of a recent trip to Japan with his friend and fellow Dallas chef Teiichi Sakurai. He describes restaurants, narrow as closets, where chefs master a single ingredient over a lifetime. There’s the man who has perfected eel over 37 years, and the one who has worked the poisonous pufferfish, fugu, for 40. For Davaillon, it seems to verge on the spiritual. Silent, we watch his footage of soba-noodle dough being expertly rolled and flipped and cut, in the half-light of somebody’s kitchen. Davaillon exhales with a shake of his head.
The admiration he has for these masters is the feeling his cooks have for him. To them, he is that master, a source of savoir faire and tradition.
One of the first things he did when he arrived was appoint a full-time butcher. That’s Liston, the man in red clogs who works to Davaillon’s right. The two have a special mentoring relationship and share a sardonic humor. From his vantage point at the butcher’s block, Liston works with a bemused smile, punctuating conversations with the occasional deadpan remark. He and Davaillon have a penchant for understatement and subtle sarcasm. As he pulls brisket from the smoker, Liston tells me about an earlier specimen, when he didn’t have the brining and smoking times down. “Nice try,” Davaillon told him. “Do it again.” Another exchange overheard on the line captures, for him, Davaillon’s style of ribbing: “Is this medium rare?” “Yes, chef.” “If this is medium rare, I’m the Pope.” Together, Liston and Davaillon have made blood sausage, rabbit terrine, chicken-liver mousse, foie-gras torchon, duck prosciutto. All charcuterie is made in-house. This is cuisine regionale, the recipes of deep France.
“The way I see it, there are not many chefs in Dallas who can make patés, terrines,” Liston says. “It’s a lost art for the most part, especially here in America.”
It matters to Davaillon that he’s imparting to Liston what many chefs won’t ever learn. He uses the image of luggage again. This is what Liston will take with him.
Of course, he has his own teaching style.
“Neil!” Davaillon calls out one afternoon, calm but authoritative. He is deep into recipe development. Things simmer on what I’ve come to dub the “experiment” stove. At his usual counter, he is stuffing rabbit thighs with a mixture of spinach, onion, liver, and tomato, wrapping them in caul fat, and delicately tying them into neat bundles that will be cooked and cut into roulades for tonight’s new rabbit dish. Liston, butchering aged ribeye on the block beside him, has been watching out of the corner of his eye. The summons comes, then, “I do another one.” This is all the preparation Liston gets before he is expected to take over. “He likes the element of surprise,” Liston tells me later. Davaillon ends the demonstration, like many others, with the word “simple,” like a period at the end of a sentence.
It means a lot to the cooks that a chef of his stature would work alongside them. “He’s right here, not hiding out.”
It means a lot to the cooks that a chef of his stature would work alongside them. “He’s right here, not hiding out.”
“People have to want to learn,” Liston says. “He only gets mad at people who don’t care.”
The care and respect are pervasive. Harms and Chastain model it at the top, each in his own way. Chastain, brusque and bear-like, will send ice crashing into metal pans or squeeze a mountain of lemons, blinking away juice spurts. But when Davaillon develops a dish, Chastain sets up ingredients, anticipating his chef’s needs and gestures. There’s an intimacy in the way he bends close to catch a word or notice a raised eyebrow. Especially because Davaillon is soft-spoken, Chastain says, “he’s not going to be the one out there controlling everything, directing everyone.” You have to pay attention.
When Davaillon shows a new dish, the cooks gather in silence. When the duck dish debuts, he cooks it and plates it in the exact order he wants it done: pool of red sauce, tangle of mushrooms, one pearl onion, three slices of meat, seared foie-gras, pickled cherries, turnips in butter. “Pickled, around,” he says, of the cherries, the only comment he makes as he works. “The sauce?” someone asks. “Cherry,” he says. He slides the plate across the window to a server: “You call your brothers and sisters?” They must see and taste to sell the dish through their descriptions, satisfy the curious. The cooks lean in, comment to each other, take pictures.
“If you don’t have a team behind you that understands what you’re doing,” Davaillon says, “you go nowhere.”
When service starts, it’s time to expedite. Davaillon stands with one hand on the counter and one hand on his hip, eyeing each dish as it’s slid across from a station. The cooks watch Davaillon intently, mostly his hands. He spies a problem with the white asparagus from across the room: “Put three. They are too small.” The corn pudding for the pork isn’t right: “Way too liquid.” For another dish: “Not enough foie.” As Harms walks by with a plate, Davaillon notices there’s a single cherry tomato missing. Harms shakes his head, frustrated with himself.
“He’s always watching,” one cook says. Sometimes, when a ticket comes in for a new dish, Davaillon shows up at the station and executes it wordlessly for the cook as an unsought reminder. “He’s like Houdini,”
Chastain says. “He just vanishes and
When the pace picks up, orders come fast. The cooks repeat the orders. Those who have been there longer sometimes translate for the newer ones, who have trouble with Davaillon’s accent. “One small?” one cook asks. “He just called a ‘bowl,’ ” says another, two stations over. “That was ‘lobster,’ not ‘oyster,’ ” Davaillon commands when the wrong appetizer comes out. “Sorry, Chef.” If it doesn’t go out right, the mistranslation matters. He’s speaking through his food.
Davaillon finishes each dish. A dot of infused oil, a sprig of green, a paper-thin crisp—every dish has its accoutrement, calculated for taste, color, and texture. When the dish is finished, he gives it a final, hard stare, as though registering the picture it makes. It’s a contemplation, a confirmation, like a “yes” you can almost hear.
“I trust him,” says Susan Johnson, a server. This means a lot for her front-of-house position as liaison between the chef’s vision and the diner. “I know he’s thought a lot about each dish,” she says. “I know if there is one dollop of sauce, he wants the guest to have that flavor.”
Davaillon says he enjoys the possibility he has, in Dallas, to introduce people to new things. He does so gently, always careful not to alienate. The dynamic is sometimes poignant and funny. Some of the things that are second nature to him are the most foreign to others.
“Y’all saying ‘head-cheese’ or y’all saying ‘pork paté?’ ” one server asks Chastain as they discuss that night’s amuse-bouche. “Best to say ‘pork paté,’ ” comes the answer. The sweetbreads? “Just say they’ll really like it,” Chastain says, only half joking. They all know that the crowd can be squeamish, though once things are past their lips, the flavors usually win them over. Sometimes it’s best if they don’t think about it too much.
Some of the regulars give the impression that they see the Mansion as an extension of their living room. One evening, a ticket comes in for blackened chicken, carrots, and white rice with a supplement of black truffle shavings. Harms shakes his head and chuckles about the absurd order, which resembles the menu line only in that it includes chicken. He anticipates that Davaillon will roll his eyes. “He basically walked in here and created his own dish,” Harms says of the patron. At $38 for the dish and $25 for the supplement, it’s a pricey folly. Davaillon still hasn’t gotten over the behavior, he says. It wouldn’t occur to him to change a chef’s idea for a dish. But he will always oblige, if he can. Ultimately, it’s about the diners, not him. “He thinks about the people,” a cook says. This does not, however, mean meeting and greeting. When Caroline Rose Hunt, the Mansion’s former owner, dines one evening, they nudge Davaillon once, twice, to leave the line and go visit. Then it’s all so brief that I miss it. Lingering table-side is not his thing. Lingering at the table is a different matter.
At the end of my 10 days, i dine with Davaillon in this room of brocade and linen where he spends so little time. I’m nervous, but it’s the only fitting way to end, to circle back to my question and see where we’ve arrived. He is not in his chef’s whites, but a crisp white shirt and dark jeans.
We talk about his wife; his son, whom they are trying to raise in the French way, without ridiculous over-scheduling; his cat, which he got from Sakurai; his brother-in-law, a professional watch photographer who made Davaillon fall in love with the beauty and precision of high-end watches, like the Swiss Certina he is wearing. Days ago, I noticed it was the same color as the carrots he was chopping.
We talk for almost three hours. Since he was young, Davaillon says he knew he wanted to create, and he knew it would be food. “I feel lucky that I’ve been doing what I love since I was 16 years old,” he says. He promises to send photos of his father’s four-acre garden.
None of the other diners pay us any mind. I wonder if they recognize him, suspect they don’t. Davaillon dines here approximately once a year. Johnson, our server for the evening, has a twinkle in her eye as she makes a show of treating us like anyone else. She explains the dishes, as though we haven’t seen them from their inception. I order two I haven’t tried: an egg over corn pudding with chanterelles and black truffle; halibut with mussels and lemongrass-curry foam. And Bruno’s there—in the forthrightness of flavors, the way the dish sounds a chord.
In some ways, I’ve answered my question: Davaillon speaks, unmistakably—in a way that feels like both recognition and revelation. The other answer is in the plate, too: why everyone would want to be in his kitchen. If he’s here with me at the table, then his cooks are the ones who have made this food, translated a vision that’s delicate and exacting. Over a glass of Loire-Valley wine, Davaillon explains why he so rarely visits the dining room. The front-of-house told me he’s painfully shy. The back-of-house told me he’d rather be with the food. Davaillon gives me another reason: not shyness, he says, but what the French call pudeur, a modesty and restraint exercised out of respect. It’s the diners’ occasion, he says. He doesn’t want to intrude. In the best French tradition, Davaillon, at his most quiet and subtle, is a radical.