photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Tim Love: The Rootinest, Tootinest, Doggone Shootinest Chef in the West

Beneath all that folksy cowboy bluster, he harbors a secret.

On a windy April morning, Tim Love bounds onstage to Kiss’ “Calling Dr. Love,” blond hair spiked, eyes alight with mischief, to kick off the first Austin Food & Wine Festival.

Two hundred fifty people are fanned out in front of him in a park, 100 charcoal grills making the air between them shimmer. Love’s demo, titled “Grills Gone Wild,” will require class participation. Attendees have paid for the privilege—$250 for a basic weekend pass, $850 for VIP—of donning white aprons and cooking their own food. Accompanying those 100 grills are 100 red plastic coolers containing bottles of white wine, two gorgeous cuts of meat (skirt steak, New York strip), and a head of broccolini. “What is it, 9:30?” Love bellows as he calls for everyone to take a shot of tequila. The audience will be sunburned, sand-whipped, and smelling of smoke tinged with rendered fat by the end of the two-hour event. “Y’all don’t understand,” Love says. “This is the greatest day of my life. People grilling, smoke everywhere, cold tequila, white wine, my friends all here. This is some of the craziest shit you’ve ever done in your life.”

For me, it’s a lot to process. Before moving to Texas, I spent most of my life as a yoga practicing, California-dwelling vegetarian. For my adopted state, I hold the fascination and fierce loyalty of the convert. But friends say I still use meat like a condiment. It also does not bode well that I have dual French-American citizenship. A recipe note in a cookbook I picked up before the demo has Love making jabs at French classical tradition and its fancy sauces; who needs them? So I can’t help but feel equal parts bewildered and intrigued by this man who makes jokes about “uncovering your meat” and starts every third sentence with the word “shoot.”

It seems to be working, though. Love has created an empire. The Woodshed Smokehouse, his latest success, snagged a prime spot on the Trinity River and a best new restaurant nomination from Bon Appetit. D Magazine named it one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2012. Love bounces between festivals in New York and Aspen and gives grilling tips to men’s magazines. At the Austin demo, attendees wore Tim Love aprons and cut skirt steak on Tim Love cutting boards, part of a new Tim Love line sold at Sur la Table. “People love him,” says Food & Wine publisher Christina Grdovic. “Everyone want him everywhere.”

Certain realities—for instance, Love’s smiling mug appearing on Sur la Table’s catalog the day after his demo—make it tempting to conclude that the man is nothing but the product of clever marketing. Witnessing a crowd high on his energy, you might take him for an opportunist who capitalized on an image and is grilling it for all it’s worth. You would be wrong. To understand Love is to grasp something fundamental about Texas—its mix of authenticity and myth, showmanship and sincerity. They are not mutually exclusive.

As Love signs autographs after his cooking demo, Margaret “Queenie” Love, having found a seat in the shade, tells me that her son’s folksy demeanor betrays him. “People always say the same things,” she says. “They don’t get how hardworking he is. He’s the most hardworking kid.”

Growing up in a family with a single mother and six older siblings, Love couldn’t afford nonchalance. When his mom came home with a $50 bag of groceries, it was everyone for himself. Love ate a lot of cheese and mustard sandwiches. When you grow up as he did, says Queenie, who still works as a surgical assistant, you learn you have to fight to get what you want.

As a 12-year-old with a paper route, Love changed the way the Denton Record-Chronicle did business. It made more sense to bill first, then deliver, he reasoned. So they let him. On Sundays, when the paper was thick and heavy, his mother drove him. If friends slept over on Saturday, they knew they’d be up with him at 6 am and return to the house with ink on their hands.

From the age of 11, when his parents divorced and his father bought a 26-acre farm in Tennessee, he also learned the discipline of farm chores and the pleasure of making things grow. His father, an anesthesiologist, had bought the farm “more or less for tax reasons,” Love says, but father and son grew to relish country life. “I was always a big outdoors person,” he says. On the farm, he fed rabbits, cleaned chicken coops, and cared for a couple dozen head of cattle and goats, pigs, and lambs. He cut grass, tended the 1-acre garden, and turned clippings into compost.

Love’s descriptions of the farm have a mythical, Tom Sawyer quality. The creek where he caught crawdads was bordered with wild watercress. Blackberries and purple Indian corn grew wild. He was 12 when he shot his first deer, and he used its hide to make the backpack he carried through the halls of Denton High School. “I sewed it with my dad,” he says. He relates the details matter-of-factly, without flair. For him, advanced calculus and a deerskin backpack are part of the same story.

Now, on his 4,500-acre ranch in Gordon, Texas, Love hunts oryx, blackbuck antelope, white-tailed and axis deer, wild pig, dove, duck, and wild turkey. Sometimes media people ask him about his hunting. Conversations go something like this:

“So you kill it. Then what?”

“Then you skin it.”

“You mean you skin it?”

“Well, yeah. Who else is gonna skin it?” Silence. And an “Are you for real?” kind of look.

“What am I supposed to say?” he asks. “You see a snake, you get a broom, you step on it and kill it. I don’t know how else to explain it. There are lots of people who like to talk about food, but they’ve never killed anything. It’s a lot of talk. And that’s okay. It’s just a different world.” Then, almost as an afterthought: “Slaughtering a cow isn’t easy to do.” This is not mere machismo on display.

Tim Love shoots tequila with his kitchen staff at the beginning of dinner service at Lonesome Dove; elk saddle with Swiss chard, hen-of-the-woods, salsify puree, and chile candied grapes photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Love thinks deeply about what he eats. “I want people to understand where food comes from,” he says. “In America, we have divorced ourselves from the way food is made. Get rid of hormones. Get rid of antibiotics. Take the risk of growing food the right way.” He stops, grins. “And then eat the shit out of it.” Love didn’t go far from his father’s farm when it came time for college. While studying at the University of Tennessee, he worked 50- to 60-hour weeks, many of them for a Knoxville restaurateur named Frank Kotsianas, whom Love calls a “short Greek dude and a tremendous butcher.” He learned he could “kick anybody’s ass on the line,” but it was hard to balance the work with his studies.

Unable to crank out problem sets for a class one time, he told his professor: I work full time and just can’t do the homework. The professor cut him a deal: maintain a B-plus average, and he could skip the problem sets. When the scores came in for the next test, his name was called: 98 percent. “Giddyup!” he says, thumping a counter.

He graduated with a double degree in finance and marketing and wrote a thesis on the wine industry of Napa. “I’m a businessman,” he says, not for the first time. But by then he’d decided he wasn’t going to be a banker.

Love was 28 when he opened Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth in 2000. With no culinary degree, he relied on what he’d learned while working in restaurants in college. The man who leased Love the space for Lonesome Dove wasn’t hopeful. “He anticipated me closing in six months,” Love says. But he also got odd and unexpected votes of confidence, including from one of the owners of the historic saloon around the corner. The White Elephant Saloon had been in business for more than 100 years and had become an institution in the Stockyards.

“We’ve all decided you’re going to buy the White Elephant,” the man said.

“That’s great,” Love shot back. “It’s kind of interesting how this is going to work out, because I’m broke.”

The story feels like a tall tale. Details fall away. Plot simplifies to its essence. Where are the logistics of budget predictions and risk-assessment plans? Why did the owners want to sell? The plausible and the mythical collide. Love’s stories are like that. And for some reason, the questions seem irrelevant. As you’re carried by the story, you know it’s fundamentally true.

As for the White Elephant, buy it he did. “Shoot, that’s where my wife, Emilie, and I would go at night, have a beer and go home. I love the bar,” he says. He found himself saddled with more debt than he’d ever carried. He jokes when he says that their balance sheet left Emilie curled up in the fetal position, but he’s serious when he calls it one of the scariest times of his life.