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Oak's Owners on Finding Success in the Design District

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

Oak owners Richard Ellman, Tiffanee Ellman, and Tommy DeAlano. [Photo: Andy Keye + Whitney Photography]

Last December, Richard and Tiffanee Ellman, who also co-own The Bowery, and Tommy DeAlano, the brains behind Dallas instutition Candleroom and newer addition The Dram, partnered up to debut Oak in the Design District, a move that would help the up-and-coming neighborhood to become known city-wide as a destination for great food. Along with chef Jason Maddy, whom they plucked from the hallowed Mansion on Turtle Creek, and his talented kitchen staff, the team has carefully orchestrated a smash hit for both diners and critics alike from the very beginning—and in a time when many new restaurant openings are marred by chef shuffles or re-concepting, Oak's first year has been a remarkably smooth ride.

So overall, how's the first year in business been?

Tiffanee: I think we've just been extremely blessed to have received so many accolades. It's been a tremendous—that's Tommy's favorite word [laughs]—a tremendous year and it' s way beyond what we could've ever imagined, I know that sounds cheesy but it really has been. But of course we have an amazing team, so it's not all luck.

Tommy: We took a really big gamble last year at this time. We were just trying to figure out the final steps to put our vision together. and when it comes together and you see it really start happening like your wildest expectations, it's overwhelming. But Tiffanee is absolutely right, it's been a blessing because things have just absolutely fallen our way. The team that we brought together has really shined in every aspect. Luck, blessed, all those things—they sound a little cliche but sometimes it really happens that way.
Obviously you guys have gotten a lot of love from the public and from critics. Did you know, or have a feeling at least, that Oak would be this big of a hit?

Tiffanee: I think it came as a pretty big surprise, just because conceptually we all knew that we had something really unique and special but that was within our own hearts and our own minds, and so we were just kind of tiptoeing across to see if the public kind of had the same idea—when we started the concept we were like, what can we bring to Dallas that Dallas doesn't have yet? What kind of fresh perspective and fresh concept could we bring? So just to see it be so accepted in such a great way has been really really surprising and flattering.

Richard: When we opened, the first people that were coming in the first month or so were our friends and family. We took a ton of criticism obviously from everybody. 'Hey people aren't going to like this', 'Morroccan octopus and pork jowls?! Dallas isn't ready for this', 'why'd you do this like this', 'this is way too salty'—we were receiving two page emails from friends who were just trying to give their two cents. And we'd come back together and really I think the key for our success was, we laid out a game plan in terms of what our thesis for our restaurant was going to be, and whether it was people in the kitchen or people in the dining room, if they said things that didn't match with that, then we were going to stay disciplined to that. So we didn't get pulled this way and that way, and I think that's been the key in that first year. Now our challenge will be how to we stay disciplined and grow our restaurant in the confines of making sure that we stay true to who we are. Having a three-part ownership forced us to consistently take multiple perspectives. All of us decided we were going to make decisions that came from a consensus, because we knew that if we accounted for three very different opinions we were probably going to end up in a pretty decent place. So that kind of gave us comfort at the end of the day that if I'm saying something and both of them are like 'dude, that is way off' that I need to reevaluate how I'm thinking. And now we've formed such a good team that we can go bounce it off the chefs or the GM and we trust everyone's opinion.

[Photo: Andy Keye + Whitney Photography]

Your first year of business has been remarkably smooth, quiet even, in contrast to so many new restaurants that are marred by chef shuffles and re-concepting in the first months or year.

Richard: It's a testament to our team, they've been rock solid. We've had no turnover in our kitchen. We treat everyone, we think, respectfully and as a family so we have a lot of loyalty.

Tommy: Our diversity is our strength. A lot of times people get very unfocused, one of the things we learned right out of the gate was we were approached by a lot of people with suggestions, but we didn't change paths from what we truly envisioned. Our diversity in our ownership and with our chefs and management really made us a lot stronger because instead of bickering or fighting over our path, we actually listened to each other. Sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes they're wrong, sometimes we compromise, and often we get a better result out of all of us coming together than what we each individually planned on. The synergy has been what's helped us be very successful.

Richard: You have to have a lot of things go right to be as fortunate as we've been this year. You can open a great restaurant with great food and a great concept and fail.

Do you consider Oak fine dining, or is it something else entirely?

Tommy: I don't know about fine dining—I think we try not to classify ourselves as that. I don't know if fine dining or whatever can really expound exactly on what we do here, but as far as running a great restaurant and having something challenging and unique, I think that's more of what we do here.

Tiffanee: I come from luxury retail, I worked for Neiman Marcus for 6 years, and hospitality and customer service are always key. We opened in the era of the 'new normal' where everyone was kind of reevaluating their dollar and how they wanted to spend it in terms of what they perceived as value. So I think that one of our keys was to offer value. To offer a great dining experience and great customer service and to not make people feel like they were penny-pinched in the end.

Richard: Maybe Tommy's hesitancy when you said fine dining, maybe that's been our biggest success of all. Being able to straddle that very fine line between being obnoxiously expensive or pretentious. It's still that laid-back sort of casual approach that we took, but at the end of the day our chefs are as well-pedigreed as any chefs, and our food is as elegant as any food. We paid a lot of attention to making sure that our portions were good so that people could feel like they were getting value for their money.

What made you guys decide to open up in the Design District, of all the neighborhoods?

Richard: We almost went into Bishop Arts but we picked the Design District for very tangible reasons. One was the location. Even though it hadn't been thought of as being in the epicenter like Knox-Henderson, it's really close to everything. I called and tried to get an apartment across the street as research, they were 100 percent full. We knew that we would get some good pop for being in an area that was a little avant garde and we tried to incorporate some of that into the design. We wanted to just melt into the Design District.

Tommy: The 'burgeoning Design District' that keeps getting written about, we really saw that and tried to capture on that. Richard and Tiffanee saw this area and it immediately was like, this makes perfect sense. It wasn't oversaturated, and by kind of stepping outside the usual areas it gave us the freedom to do our own thing. So I think it was a bold stroke, and we got really lucky with this great location right on the corridor to be able to develop exactly what we wanted.

[Photo: Andy Keye + Whitney Photography]

Jason Maddy has emerged as one of the stand-out chefs of the year. Did you guys design Oak with him in mind, or did he just end up fitting into a plan you already had?

Richard: We'd sit around looking at menus from all over the world, and came up with the concept for what we wanted the food to be like because we weren't finding a lot of what we were imagining here in Dallas. We sought after a chef that embraced that vision and that had the background—Jason's cooked in Japan, Austria, very global. He has that pedigree. We were talking about simple, clean and elegant food and he connected. He and the rest of the kitchen—Brian and Sarah, who cannot be underestimated—they took the general vision of the menu and ran with it and started creating these fantastic dishes. But for sure this was not a chef-driven concept, we just found an awesome chef that embraced our vision.

Tommy: A big part of it was we didn't go chef first and let a chef drive us. We had a vision and a concept and we found somebody that we perfectly embodied what we wanted to do. It was an exhaustive search, all over the country—we were looking for someone who would leave their ego out of it, because that wouldn't fit into what we wanted to do. We didn't want an open kitchen with bagning pates and screaming chefs because that wouldn't fit into what we wanted to do and the calm environment we wanted to have. So we started with our concept first and then found a chef that embodied those principles. Now the menu evolves perfectly. Granted everybody has different opinions on different flavors, but man, they've done a remarkable job. Same thing with our pastry chef. We made the choice to not just have desserts an afterthought, we were as exhaustive in finding a pastry chef as we were in our executive chef because we believed the finish of the meal was just as important as the rest of it. Finding Sarah Green has been a huge win for us because she also embodied what we felt the dessert segment should be—an important deal and not an afterthought, not just slapping out some ice cream or whatever.

Richard: You know, there's not another nine Oaks before this one so Jason really took a leap of faith on us as well because he embraced what we were trying to do. So I'm really grateful that Jason, as pedigreed as he was and as outstanding a chef as he was, he really wanted this. His food, when we did our tastings, was just superior to everyone else's. We put him in different scenarios, had him cook for us in different places, and he was just awesome.

Any new projects we can expect in the future? Is this your baby for now?

Tommy: I think we're always keeping our eyes open for opportunity. It took us a long time to get to this point, and I think a lot of people, when they find success the first thing they do is immediately try to replicate it and they lose their infrastructure, and the next thing they know all their concepts are failing. But to say that we aren't keeping our eyes open wouldn't be true. We are, but it has to be the right opportunity. Our focus is really on this place because it's amazing. We've had a fantastic first year but that really doesn't mean anything unless we continue year after year, to continue to outperform and evolve and become a restaurant that's established and known and trusted.

Richard: We all have our own projects we're involved in. What we really need to see is, can we withstand the cycles and the changing of the years and become even more rock solid. One thing we do know is that when the time does come, we have an awesome team to build it.


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