Friday, January 28, 2022 Jan 28, 2022
48° F Dallas, TX

PEOPLE The Chef’s Club

For the city’s best chefs, the late-night scene at Primo’s is more than a stop on the way home-it is home.
By  |

PRIMO’S COULD BEANY NEIGHBOR hood tavern, anywhere. It has a high, old-fashioned, pressed-tin ceiling and a long, L-shaped wooden bar, rubbed to a patina by a thousand elbows and lit by the chemical glow of beer siens. Behind it all, (here’s the white noise of clinking bottles and glasses that makes conversation in a crowded bar confidential. There’s usually a group of (young) good old boys bellied up to the bar, loo, back-slapping and shooting Patron like the regulars do in every bar. everywhere. Your first clue that these particular regulars aren’t your typical barflies is their clothes-what kind of good old boy wears black and white striped bloomers? Or clogs?

Primo ’s. the comer bar in question, is the after-hours turf on McKinney Avenue of many of Dallas’ best chefs, who drop in when their own kitchens are closed to unwind and to talk business. Which means the conversation at Primo’s bar sounds more like a recipe-swap than bar talk-it tends to turn more often to the range than the Rangers. Chefs at the top-ranked kitchens of Dallas-Dean Fearing of The Mansion, Nick Barclay of Barclays. Jim Anile of The Melrose. James Rowland of Beau Nash, just to name a few-routinely stop by Primo’s on their way home to scarf down stuffed jalapenos and beer. In effect, Primo’s has become an informal chef’s club, unique in Dallas, unusual in the business.

It’s a scene that started nearly 12 years ago when Primo’s first opened on McKinney Avenue, at the peak of (he ’80s extravagant, enthusiastic support of expensive food and wine. A group of young chef zealots was rewriting the rules of fine dining in Dallas, reinventing regional food, reeducating the city’s palates, and, in the process, transforming America’s tastes. Their audacious new Southwest cuisine-based on familiar ingredients like peppers and masa but approached with French finesse-was engaging national attention, and local chefs were receiving lots of media coverage for the first time. The explosive creative energy in Dal las’ kitchens was like the artistic burst in New York in the ’40s- infectious and heady.

Russell Hodges, then working in the kitchen at Routh Street Cafe, now chef-instructor at Ames Academy, recalls, “We were all creating this new thing together-there was a lot of energy.” Dean Fearing, executive chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, looks back nostalgically on the camaraderie inspired by the shared enthusiasm for (he new cuisine. “We were all like a unit then. Everyone was working on the same kind of thing, and all the chefs were into it,” he says. “That was a period when we could all be more creative-you could just do it.”

Cooking is high-adrenaline work, like firefighting, and a night of heavy hustling in the kitchen gives you a buzz you need to smooth out before you turn in. Chefs everywhere want to go somewhere when they get off work, instead of heading straight home. But kitchen hours are odd. On a busy night, the typical chef isn’t out and about until 11:30 p.m.-too late for most movies, too late for most music, way too late for a date.

There were other hangouts before Eddie Cervantes-then owner of Moctezu-ma’s-opened Prime’s. Tim Anderson (then at Routh Street Cafe), Dean Fearing, and Dan O’Leary (then Fearing’s sous chef, now executive chef at Bon Vivant Market) used to spend many late nights at the Stoneleigh P. The Mucky Duck was popular for a while. But for some reason, no place became regular until Prime’s opened. “I think it’s location, location, location,” says Hodges. “Primo’s is on the corridor home, and not a lot was happening in North Dallas then. Even now, I wonder, could Addison support this?” Fearing attributes Primo ’s popularity to simple good business: “They serve good drinks at reasonable prices. And the bartenders and waitstaff have been around 15 or 20 years.”

There were some other, less practical attractions. “The best-looking girls were working there. That’s one of die reasons ail of us single guys started hanging out there,” says Fearing, whose wife. Lynae. was a waitress at Primo’s when they met. (The couple’s rehearsal dinner was held at Primo’s.) But Cervantes has no illusions about his place’s more hidden charms: “Chefs are always looking for I place to eat. And 11 years ago, we were one of the few places that stayed open until 2 in (he morning.”

The rule is, the busier the restaurant season, the greater the need to unwind, the larger the late-night kitchen crowd at Primo’s. On a Saturday night, there’s Fearing, one of the two most famous chefs in Dallas. lounging on a stool at the end of the bar, sipping Chivas and soda, dressed in neat denim shorts-no chef whiles for him. He’s still the wide-eyed enthusiast who started putting blueberries on fish at Agnew’s all those years ago. but he’s wiser, older, richer now. Fearing is king of the scene at Primo’s, and where he goes, Rosewood goes. The kitchen staff at Crescent Court, The Mansion, and Crescent Club have always formed the core group. The chefs are the first to arrive because they leave their line cooks to clean up the kitchen: the worker bees get there at 10 or 10:30; and occasionally, a pot-washer shows up at midnight. After all, the chefs write the schedules.

So Fearing is just a little sheepish, sitting there alone at the bar. “I ducked out and my crew was supposed to follow, but since they’re not here yet. I’m afraid we got busy after I left.”

Finally, a pair of tell-tale striped pants walks through the door, and Fearing’s hunch is verified. It’s David Bull, a cook who has worked a! The Mansion three-and-a-half years.

“Did we do much after I left?” Fearing asks.

“Yeah-eight more tables,” Bull groans. “We did 277 in the dining room tonight and 44 room service.”

“Wow, that’s pretty good,” Fearing says, shaking his head.

More men in baseball caps and striped baggies show up; Nick Badovinus, Mansion first tournant, orders a Myers and tonic with two limes and cuddles with his girlfriend, Yolanda Pitre, who also works at The Mansion. Chris Peters, Mansion fish cook, comes in, along with Dan Riley and David Olson, whom they call “Thor.” an extern from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. It’s obvious that all these guys are on the same team.

It’s been popular with the food press to bash celebrity -happy American chefs for spending more lime on PR tours than in their own kitchens, as if a chef’s own hands are what guarantees quality cuisine. The truth is, in any big kitchen, chefs seldom work the line. Theirs is a conceptual and administrative job. They’re the kings. The Mansion kitchen employs 48 cooks in a semi-European-style brigade kitchen, each working a different station. The organization of Fearing’s kitchen is precise: Everyone has their specific assignment and the expediters pull in extra help for a position that’s getting “beat up”-if all the 8 p.m. reservations order the sea bass or something. The whole team unwinds together at Prime’s; they talk about what went wrong, vent a little, then they all get along better at work the next day. The scene at Prime’s builds business relationships, which evolve into friendships, which facilitate the ensemble nature of kitchen work.

“I like to hire people who have a great sense of humor,” says Fearing. “That’s important because we’re all a team. At Primo’s, a lot of the conversation is work related-everyone loosens up, the creative juices start flowing, and we talk about new ideas and cooking.”

Mike Palesh has worked in kitchens all over Dallas, from Piano to the West End. Now he’s sous chef at the Crescent Club, and he’s become a Primo’s regular. “I can get new ideas there-recharge the imagination,” he says, ’it’s good to compare notes on business and hear about new places. And you meet people in all aspects of food service, not just chefs. But I never knew about it until 1 started working at the Crescent.” Adds Palesh, “I wish I would’ve known this before-maybe I would’ve moved up quicker.”

Not just recipes are exchanged in the bar talk at Primo’s. Primo’s is the primary place to network, to find out who’s left where, to hear what’s cooking, to gossip. “Men do gossip,” says Hodges. “Are we dignifying gossip with the word network? ’Didja hear the news?” is always the first question at Primo’s. ’Who got fired?’And, ’Can 1 get that job?’”

It’s also the place to meet famous people. Years ago, after an interminable dinner Fearing and O’Leary cooked for an annual conference on gastronomy, the incorrigible duo carried off the guest of honor to Primo’s. O’Leary recalls “sitting on the patio drinking Negro Modelo with Julia Child at 1 in the morning.”

That inspired Fearing to institute what came to be known as “chef’s call.” Whenever a visiting chef is in town, their host brings them by Primo’s, and a kind of informal telephone chain summons chefs from every restaurant around. So over the years, many of the top culinary talents who have appeared on the Food Network have showed up at Primo’s: Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller, Jean Louis Palladin, Jasper White, Robert Del Grande, Larry For-gione, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Jacques Pepin have all been welcomed to the chef’s club by a committee of the town’s top chefs, in an amazing display of kitchen solidarity and camaraderie. “It’s an unbelievable welcoming ceremony for visiting chefs,’” says O’Leary. “They’re always impressed.” Puck says he’s never seen anything like it in the country.

Chef nights at Primo’s retain the privacy of club meetings. You never read about it in Helen Bryant. And Alan Peppard does not report it when the celebrities drop by Primo’s because Eddie Cervantes doesn’t call the papers. A few years ago. Fearing and Cervantes had the bright idea of asking visiting chefs to sign a plate when they come to Primo’s. Bui you can’t see them. It’s not the bar but the walls of Cervantes’ private office that are covered with as many (food) celebrity names as Sardi’s.

James Rowland, executive chef of the Crescent Court, comes in tonight excited about what went on in his kitchen. He mentions his new menu to Fearing, “It’s more expanded, with more information-almost back up where it was in the Conservatory days,” Rowland says. Rowland has on executive chef-wear-that is, he’s wealing khaki shorts, a golf shirt, and loafers without socks. His crew straggles in after him and the lively and loud talk is equally divided between golf and food.

At the other end of the bar, there’s a discussion of why there are no great Italian restaurants in Dallas-and no great Chinese food. Why Rick Bayless in Chicago has the best Mexican restaurant in die country. Food is more a passion than a job for these guys.

A little before 2 a.m. on this Saturday-that is, Sunday-Nick Barclay and his staff show up to celebrate the best night his new restaurant’s ever had. Bear hugs all round. Primo’s is the common ground, the level place in a business where the credibility of one chef is closely tied to the others. Barclays, for instance, is on the concierge’s recommended list at The Mansion and the restaurant reserves a Saturday night table for guests of the hotel. Fana. Rowland’s wife who works at Tarazza, comes in to meet her husband. Cole Kelley, the chef whose resume is as long as his hair, comes from Bread Winners next door and orders a beer. “1 live here,” he says simply.

Of course, the crowd gets louder and looser as the night wears on, and toward the end of the evening-which is early in the moming-everyone orders food and eats standing up in the bar. If they don’t have bar stools, they eat from plates balanced on the railing between the dining room and the bar. (No way you go into the restaurant, Fearing says, even though it’s half empty at this hour.) Fearing gets his own special plate-spinach enchiladas in corn tortillas with jalapeno, poblano. cilantro, and mushrooms. No cheese, just tomatillo sauce. No beans, just rice. Badovinus shares a plate of stuffed jalapenos with everyone, and O’Leary gets the chile relleno stuffed with fajita meat, which he calls the best in town. Chefs typically don’t eat at work. They taste all day, and like all cooks, even home cooks, they don’t want to eat what they’ve been preparing for others.

The chef’s club has changed in recent years. There’s a new, younger regime taking over. The high and heady “80s, when a lot of young chefs burning with new ideas about food rose to the top of Dallas’ kitchens, have passed. Jim Anile started hanging out at Primo’s when he was the employee cook at the Crescent Club; now that he’s executive chef at The Melrose Landmark, there’s not as much motivation to “network” at Primo’s. But he still goes.

The food scene has changed, mellowed-some say plateaued. A lot of restaurants have opened up in Addison and Piano. And the chef’s club has changed accordingly. Some chefs actually go home after work. “Now they tend to come by on weekends, after a golf game,” says Cervantes.

“It’s hard to have a home life when you’re a chef,” Barclay says. “There’ll be no chef’s knife for my baby.”