It’s the biggest food and wine event in the world. A thousand wines and more than 40 superstars of international kitchens crammed into one tiny, expensive mountain town for a three-day epicurean extravaganza. I was there, basking at the base of Aspen Mountain with the rich and hungry because my lunch companion, Dallas chef Danielle Custer, was “it” girl for the weekend.
Named one of the 10 best new chefs in America (an award that reaps the recipient lifetime benefits), Danielle is executive chef/manager of Laurels, a Dallas restaurant the rest of the world knows more about than the natives do. From the top of the Sheraton Park Central. Danielle has attained the peak of her profession, though at lunch she seemed more like a deer dazed by headlights than a star in the spotlight, more anxious than honored. The 500 quail she had shipped from Dallas to the Hotel Jerome for the gala dinner hadn’t arrived yet. So as we ate (a $ 13 Caesar salad-did I say we were in Aspen?). Danielle constantly, nervously ran her hand through her hair.
Her mind is always in the kitchen. The quail were marinated, Cryovac-ed, and Fed-Exed in insulated fresh Fish boxes; Danielle and David Levy, executive chef of the Sheraton, planned to cook them in batches for 700 people. It’s more than I can imagine, but Danielle couldn’t think about anything else.
She’s so focused on the food that little distracts her. She was in the kitchen at Laurels when she got the phone call that changed her life. For Danielle, it seemed more like an interruption than an opportunity.
“Is this Danielle? How are you doing?”
“You’re going to be even better. You’ve just been honored by Food & Wine as one the top 10 new chefs in the country.”
“Excuse me?” was the only response Danielle could come up with when told she was a winner.
“It took a long time to realize how important this is,” she says now. “I’m concentrating on cooking most of the time. I’ve concentrated on doing the work, I’ve devoted my life to it. My goal was never to win awards.”
Her executive position at Laurels was a first for Danielle. She’d only been there a year when she was given half a million dollars to redecorate, reorganize, and put into place a menu so aggressively creative, it’s almost psychedelic.
Danielle has the most vivid food imag- , ination in Dallas. She doesn’t hesitate to partner smoked mushroom-stuffed range chicken breast with coconut-orange collard greens and spicy currant I com cakes, then sauce it with lemon-grass and red mole-wild combinations from a brain that thinks in flavors. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“Recently, I came up with a dish I knew would work-all the references were there, the flavors were from the same part of the world, it couldn’t fail,” Danielle says. “I cooked duck tenders till they were almost a confit with preserved lemon and made samosas. Then I put that on arugula and purslane tossed in Meyer lemon oil. and put that on a chickpea slew with tomatoes and coriander and put that on mixed-nut hummus. Then I drizzled it with pomegranate molasses.
“It was terrible:’
Danielle’s a winner because she has more than imagination. She has good judgment. She works hard. And she’s fueled by passion. Danielle put in a steak menu for the die-hard conservatives, and on the current menu, pared back from, say, 27 ingredients in a dish to a mere 15. (She broke her new minimalist rule for the hundred-spice-quail with black-eyed pea salad she would be serving at the Classic’s gala dinner, If the quail arrived.)
Laurels has never been a trendy destination, and Danielle has had to convince customers of her cuisine. She expected a certain lack of imagination in Dallas, so she’s not disappointed. Although she’s disenchanted with Dallas diners, she’s not disillusioned.
“I’m looking for those few who can appreciate what I’m doing, and I can share something with those people. For me, it’s not an ego thing; it’s an exchange thing.”
Saturday night. Hotel Jerome was packed, a melee, and Danielle’s quail was the definite hit of the party. The line moved fast because Danielle’s regiment was perfectly in step: Plate, quail, salad, sauce. smile-next!
By the end of the evening, after eight hours of hard prep and three hours of fast plating and hot cooking. Danielle seemed more radiant than exhausted. ’”My goal is for two people a night to say, “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.’ Tonight, everyone was saying that.”
The Dish That Made Her Famous
Layered flavors are Danielle’s culinary signature. For example, a plate is spread with veal and lamb reduction infused with licorice root (anew ingredient for Danielle, found on a foray to New York). A mashed-potato/goat cheese tart wrapped in potato slices is topped with cold fennel salad (to accent the licorice) in a lemon-pepper mignonette (to accent the jelly) and on top of that is rack of lamb, dusted with ground sumac before grilling. Finally, tableside, lemon-mint jelly is stirred into the sauce (lemon cuts the sharpness). And, besides. Chef Danielle explains. Texans like mint with lamb.