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Restaurant Business

My Five Cents: Dallas Has an Executive Chef Shortage

It's a seller's market.

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it until the bubble bursts: the number of restaurants opening in Dallas is happening too fast to staff them with talented chefs.

A year ago, I wondered why talented chefs in other cities and states did not see Dallas as a place to work. Many have in the past, but over the last few years, only a handful have relocated. The result is a seller’s market for local kitchen workers. New restaurants, especially those in the suburbs (Frisco, I’m looking at you) are throwing stupid money to attract not only chefs, but dishwashers, servers, and bussers. High volume restaurants are barely breaking even. What’s the fun in that?

Add migrating upscale chain restaurants to the mix. They are moving into the new developments going in all over the landscape and, in my opinion, importing boring food. Theoretically, they have solid financial backing and, in some cases, offer health insurance and other benefits. If you’re a chef or line cook at an indie restaurant and you have a family, you make the jump, right?

What does that leave? It creates a big hole in our locally operated restaurants. Case in point. This week it was announced that the owners of Le Bilboquet are opening a new spot in the old Chili’s location on Knox. They hired chefs Dennis Kelly and Melody Bishop, formerly of Lark on the Park. Good stuff. However, Shannon Wynne, co-owner of Lark on the Park can’t find an executive chef to replace them. The company sent out a press release yesterday. In it, Wynne said, “In this era of hopscotching chefs, it seems to be a feat for any Dallas restaurant to maintain one chef, much less a team of two head chefs for over four years.” He also says they have been interviewing replacements for weeks.

This Whac-A-Mole Chef syndrome has been going on since 2012. The problem isn’t just at Lark on the Park, it’s happening all over town. And it’s going to get worse. Over one million-square feet of restaurant space is opening in Frisco by the end of the year. I am worried about the future of the talent they will attract.

I feel like I am the only one speaking up about the mess at the end of the road. Believe me, I will keep reporting on this not just because I care, but because I love that picture of the red kangaroos hopping across the plains. Just imagine a chef coat on each one.

Comments

  • cornbreads dirty sheets

    But no shortage of douches at D magazine.

    • NancyNichols

      Excuse me? Are you calling me a douche? Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • dallasboiler

    Is there any thought that the local / farm-to-table phenomenon might be one of the causes inhibiting talent from migrating for prospects of making more money? It seems like every city (large- to mid-size) has seen a renaissance of civic pride which in the restaurant industry manifests itself through an emphasis on local dishes made with local ingredients and local craft beers.
    I hope that something like this is the case and that it’s not that chefs view Dallas and the DFW-area diners to be too unsophisticated to risk bringing their talents here.
    It should be a helpful fact for chefs to see that Bruno Davillion was able to bring his skills here and succeed, especially given the legendary shadow he had to fill at the Mansion.

    • NancyNichols

      I can’t see how that would influence a chef. I mean a tomato is a tomato. High-end chefs will move to prestigious positions. I’m talking about the mid-to-upper range restaurants that showcase individual talents. Like Lark on the Park in the post above.

      • dallasboiler

        I agree with you … just wondering though if it is a side effect of the propagation of the slow food movement (local ingredients / local cuisine) to the U.S. Overall, I’m a fan of the farm-to-table movement; but in some ways I can see it becoming cliché. It seems like every new restaurant wants to promote where their ingredients come from (e.g., Lemley Farms, etc.) but spend less time thinking about the execution on the plate. I’m not a chef, so my question could be really stupid … but are a lot of potential up and coming chefs spending more time thinking about their supply chain than they are their menu due to the perceived need to have everything be from local sources? Is this in some respects stifling creativity for them to really do new/interesting things?
        Another thing that I thought about is how many promising and talented chefs opted to go the catering/consulting route vs. running a high-profile restaurant? Hage, Wilcox, and Derry are just three that I could pull off the top of my head who could be solid executive chefs if they chose to be. A lot of these chefs seem to have made the choice to forego being executive chefs in a restaurant vs. running a catering/consulting business to get better work-life balance. Maybe this is just a symptom of a lack of diners that are willing to pay a price point that allows these executive chefs to properly staff their kitchens and have work-life balance that chefs in other major cities achieve?
        I’m not the expert … just throwing out thoughts/ideas.

        • NancyNichols

          Interesting thoughts. Sharon Hage is doing a lot of consulting. Wilcox and Derry are both former TV stars. Seems to me it’s probably more profitable to do the consulting/catering gigs. Plus I’ve heard that chefs on TV had to give a percentage of their new restaurants back to the show. I think those rules have changed, but it might have played a role. They both tried solo spots, but neither spot was a good fit as far as timing, economics, and, especially in Tre’s case, too high a price point.

  • OxbowIncedent

    So who is the best chef in Dallas? Not the most famous, but best? Who is the chef that consistently makes good food and cultivates/mentors local talent? I really don’t know, but it seems some of the regular big players aren’t really cultivating, for whatever reason, quality head chef material that can fill these gaps you’re talking about.

    • NancyNichols

      I know a lot of chefs who have worked under Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles. It would take me an hour to type them all. Together these two have mentored about half the chefs working in Dallas now. Those in the under 45 age group.

  • Steve Mitchell

    All they need to do is look to Fort Worth. If anyone needs a great high volume chef, with over 20 years experience strong BOH & FOH, let me know. PM me on Facebook. Have knives will travel.

    • NancyNichols

      I see a potential job at the top of this post!

  • David Mallon

    The chef talent shortage is only part of the issue. Great food cities have a food culture and the food culture of D is stunted. Restaurateurs here launch places without sufficient menu R&D. The area performs worst at the high end fine dining. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of restaurants entering from bases in other cities, such as LA, Austin, NY, etc. Do they see Dallas based restaurants as easy competition? BTW, I found Flora Street and Fearing’s to be huge disappointments, so if our hopes are on them to train a new generation I don’t have high expectations.