CULINARY INTERVIEW: DEL FRISCO

a candid conversation with the steak house entrepreneur about his food, his methods, his peers, and his reputation as the "beef master"

It was August of 1983. My wife, Jeani, and myself had been invited to a dinner party given by the Houston Performing Arts Center executive committee at Del Frisco’s Steak House. The steak house, new to Houston, had already begun to receive numerous word of mouth commendations. I was aware of their New Orleans operation from an article written by Tom Fitzmorris, one of New Orleans’ leading food critics, where he had rated Del Frisco’s the best steak house in New Orleans. With all the great restaurants in New Orleans, being judged the best means you are really doing something right. There is no greater affecionado of fine beef than myself. I have, in the search of the perfect steak, eaten in many of the country’s finest beef palaces and I will categorically state, the finest beef I have ever tasted was at Del Frisco’s. Huge cuts of prime beef, homemade loaves of freshly baked bread, fresh vegetables and the person that brought it all together, Del Frisco.

You can well imagine my delight, three years later, August, 1986. to read in “D” Magazine, the Dallas msgazine, that Del Frisco’s Steak House was named the top steak house in Dallas and that the proprietor Del Frisco was there putting his own inimitable mark on his new- Dallas steak house.

HORAN: What is your background in the beef business?

DEL FRISCO: My dad was raised on a farm in Iowa and worked in the packing houses in the Northwest. My mother’s father was a lead cook working the logging camps in Idaho, Montana and Washington during the 20’s and early 30’s. He was born and raised in Chicago and settled and reared a big family in Spokane, Washington.

HORAN: Forever is a long time. You’ve talked about your heritage. Now tell me about yourself.

DEL FRISCO: Well, I don’t like to talk about myself.

HORAN: Let me remind you I am interviewing you.

DEL FRISCO: I thought you wanted to do a story on the steak house.

HORAN: The name of the steak house is Del Frisco’s. Now tell me about Del Frisco, the person.

DEL FRISCO: O.K. I’ve been working with beef since I was a teenager. I was a meat cutter in supermarkets when I was seventeen years old.

HORAN: Gee thanks…I’ve talked with people that have worked for you that now have their own steak houses or are still working with you. and they alt agree that you are the master when it comes to the handling of beef. They’re all unanimous in stating that nobody does it better than Del Frisco. Now tell me, how do you do it?

DEL FRISCO: I think those people you talked with tend to exaggerate. Besides, some nights in the kitchen I just can’t seem to do anything right. Let’s just say I try awfully hard.

HORAN: Let’s talk about the public!

DEL FRISCO: Without the public, we’re nothing. In this business you’ve got to be consumer oriented.

HORAN: Del, how do you keep your customers happy and coming back?

DEL FRISCO: Consistency.

HORAN: Spell it out.

DEL FRISCO: Impeccable surroundings, quality food, professional and friendly service and a realistic approach to pricing the product.

HORAN: Impeccable surroundings! Your steak house is all dark wood paneling, brass and onyx railings and very, shall we say, “Men’s club feeling”? How do women react to your steak house atmosphere?

DEL FRISCO: I prefer referring to the ambiance as being “classic ageless.” Women love this place. They feel comfortable and at ease.

HORAN: Let’s talk about service. Do you feel that your service is up to par?

DEL FRISCO: I’m right now beginning to feel at ease with our service. I feel that we’ve come a long way and I still feel there is much room for improvement, but the progress over the last couple of months has been very satisfying to me.

HORAN: It’s difficult putting the service together in a quality restaurant?

DEL FRISCO: You bet. The hardest thing I have getting over to the staff is that “atten-tiveness” is the name of the game. That’s what service is all about.

HORAN: Gratuities: How do you feel about tipping? In other words, if service is not what you expect, what should the customer do?

DEL FRISCO: If I get lousy service in a restaurant, I’ll tip accordingly. A gratuity is something that is earned.

HORAN: I dare say you probably get upset if a customer leaves unhappy.

DEL FRISCO: Upset isn’t the word for it. I can do 250 dinners on a busy night, have everybody tell me that everything was great and let one table leave unhappy and it ruins my night. I just don’t understand that when something goes amiss why the customer doesn’t immediately let me or the management know so we can rectify it the moment it happens. It doesn’t please me at all when anyone leaves my steak house not completely satisfied.

HORAN: Quality of foods. You claim to serve nothing but U.S.D.A. Prime beef. Is that true?

DEL FRISCO: Positively. I certainly realize that to the utmost when I write that check once a week for the beef bill.

HORAN: Del, what is the difference between Prime and Choice?

DEL FRISCO: Twice the price for one thing. The marbling, the flavor, the texture, the tenderness. Once you get used to eating prime beef, you can never go back.

HORAN: Twice the price. You’re kidding?

DEL FRISCO: Nope. Right now U.S.D.A. Choice strip wholesales at $3.35 per pound. U.S.D.A. Prime strip wholesales at $7.25 per pound and that’s untrimmed.

HORAN: What do you mean untrimmed?

DEL FRISCO: A customer orders a 16 oz. strip. I have to cut 28 oz. off the loin because by the time I trim the gristle and fat off, I lose 12 oz. I pay for the full 28 oz.

HORAN: Trim the gristle and fat off! I’ve been to other steak houses and I don’t believe they do that.

DEL FRISCO: I run my own business and sometimes I don’t do a good job at that so I sure can’t worry about what other steak houses do or don’t do.

HORAN: What is your preoccupation with homemade bread?

DEL FRISCO: I am convinced that it is important to a full dining out experience, and if I can borrow a famous phrase, “there is nothing that says loving like something from the oven.’”

HORAN: You bake it everyday?

DEL FRISCO: Everyday. We start at 3:00 p.m. and our first loaves come out of the oven at 5:00 p.m.

HORAN: How has the depressed oil economy affected your business?

DEL FRISCO: I can’t feel it, but then we are in a building stage and we’ve been dam lucky. HORAN: Lucky!!

DEL FRISCO: You better believe it, I’ve got to be the luckiest guy in the world to be accepted this well by the people of Dallas.

HORAN: Let’s get on the subject of food critics. Broadway plays live or die by the reviews of theatre critics. Does that apply to restaurants with food critics?

DEL FRISCO: I don’t think so. A good review helps you, a bad review hurts you, but by and large the ones that ultimately decide are the customers.

HORAN: Do you think food critics are fair?

DEL FRISCO: It depends on what they write about me.

HORAN: Get serious…

DEL FRISCO: I don’t understand some critics. I know they haw a job to do. They should judge a restaurant for what it is, as to what they think it should be.

HORAN: As in!

DEL FRISCO: We’re a steak house, we don’t try to be anything but. Judge us by what we are. Judge us against other steak houses. We don’t do French dining or souffles or quiche.

HORAN: Don’t stop now!

DEL FRISCO: The kiss of death in the food business is to try to be all things to all people. Either be a good steak house, mexican restaurant, French, whatever, but do it right and the food critic will recognize you for it.

HORAN: O.K. O.K. That’s enough. Time out. Answer these questions short and sweet.

HORAN: Besides food, service, and ambiance, what is the most important ingredient on being a successul restaurant?

DEL FRISCO: Attitude.

HORAN: Where do you eat when you go out?

DEL FRISCO: Mia’s for mexican food. I’ll drive out of my way to get Cowboy’s chicken. I like to go to Dakota’s, the Atlantic Cafe, and Garcia’s Caribbean Grill is nice.

HORAN: You get a lot of clientele from New York, Chicago and points west. How do you attract such attention?

DEL FRISCO: Word of mouth and luck.

HORAN: I hear Morton’s is coming from Chicago. You already have Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Palm. How do you feel about competition?

DEL FRISCO: I don’t mind competition. In fact, I relish it. Imagine if there was only one steak house in your city, you went there often and what you got was what you perceived to be the finest. Then you go to another city, your friends take you to another steak house where the steaks are of better quality, they are trimmed cleaner, and broiled better. The breads are homemade, the onion rings are done fresh and the side items are superior. And to top it off, the prices are more reasonable. Believe me when I tell you that if the steak house in your city had that type of competition, they would sure clean up their act. Competition gives you comparables and when you have that the customer always wins. It makes that food operator keep his place clean, the service and standards up, and give better values. In short, competition makes you do right.

HORAN: Long hours, a tough business, do you really enjoy what you’re doing?

DEL FRISCO: I love, simply love it.

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