Back in May, surprising news broke about Oak's original executive chef, Jason Maddy, leaving the upscale Design District spot for personal reasons. Shortly thereafter it was announced that 34-year-old New York native Richard Gras would replace Maddy as Oak's executive chef.
Since then, Gras has been busy at Oak, revamping everything from the staff to the menu. Though he's a newcomer to the Dallas food scene, he seems confident he'll impress Dallasites with his cooking chops honed under big names like Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
"From what I was reading, it was a huge shock that Jason Maddy had left," Gras says. "Y'know, they're saying, 'Who is this guy?' You know something, come to the restaurant. I'll let you know who I am. I don't need acceptance to be happy. If I'm cooking food that makes people happy, that's all the acceptance that I need."
For someone who's been in the restaurant business for 19 years, Gras still has a way of discussing food and his work like a wide-eyed, excited young chef straight out of culinary school. Read on as Gras reveals a bit of his past, dishes on how he hopes to transform the trendy restaurant, and spills the details on the new fall menu he currently has in the works:
You most recently worked at the St. Regis in Bal Harbour, Florida before coming to Dallas. What brought you to Oak?
Basically, about 16 months into my time at J&G [Grill at the St. Regis], I wanted to just step out of that comfort zone of being in a hotel and kind of being behind somebody else and really be able to shine myself. So, I started looking and I was looking in two markets [Dallas and North Carolina]. I wanted to join in a merging market that had a food scene that was up-and-coming, that was really hip, that was really happening and really starting to develop.
Was what you inherited what you expected?
Yeah, it was what I expected. As a chef, you always expect the worse, I guess. There were a lot of things that had to be done. I ran through some staff, that's kind of part of the adjustment of taking things over. Surrounding yourself with people that are really going to support you and be in the same mindset and really be willing to absorb the change. Especially here, there was a big change, from cleanliness to organization, to technique to all those things. I mean that's asking a lot.
When I first stepped through the door, I took things off the menu that I just didn't feel like represented myself or anybody, for that matter. They just didn't taste good, the texture was whatever. I reworked the whole ice cream program. We threw everything out. We reworked the whole dessert program because the desserts I didn't feel were sufficient for the guests.
You have to embrace change because that's the one thing that's constant in this business. There were big changes and I knew I needed a number two. So, Chase [Williams] came in, he staged for me for two weeks and then I promoted him [to sous chef]. To add a pastry chef I knew was a key thing for me, so I looked into my past to see what I could do. Lucia [Merino] will be here on the 15th. She's very young but she is absolutely, probably one of the more talented people I've ever met. She worked for me at JG, she did the hotel desserts, also, and she spent some time in Spain.
What do you hope to bring to Oak?
What was here before, and just speaking frankly with you, I'm a pretty straight shooter, so I'm gonna just tell you how it is. I thought the food was very boring when I first came here. There hadn't been a chef here for a little while, so maybe it was because of the little gap. But I wanted to bring the bold flavors. I wanted to bring something that Texas was not used to. Y'know, I don't wanna get caught up in the meat and potatoes. I want to go by the beat of my own drum. I don't want to stay mainstream. I want people to follow me because of the things that I'm doing in the restaurant. I don't care about anybody else, I just care about what happens here, but I want to be the trendsetter. I want to be the person that's doing something different.
I think working with Jean-Georges, having the ability of working with Thomas Keller and people that had worked for him, and also El Bulli. I worked with Jordi Valles who was the chef de partie at El Bulli when Jose Andres was the sous chef. He showed me what food could be, and the thoughtfulness behind food. [He taught me how] to really be able to step out of the box and [...] look at things a lot differently than I would.
Tell me about the fall menu.
We took things that people know, it's something that's approachable, and we deliver a product that's just so uncommon they're gonna want to come back for more.
For instance, that Yukon Gold potato gnocchi, is just a really simple good gnocchi with smoked salmon, dill, red onion [and] some pickled onions that will be on there, but in a way that you've never, ever had it or could even imagine it. We're in-house curing the salmon. The red onion is actually gonna come in the form of a crisp. So, we're actually going to take the red onion, we're gonna cook them very slightly, mix it with cornstarch and dehydrate it. So what you're going to have is like this beautiful, almost like a stained-glass window, but it's with red onion. The dill is actually gonna be in a puree of crème fraiche and cream cheese. So it's almost like a bagel with lox, but in a completely [different form].
How has your time at Oak been so far?
It's been intense. It's been crazy at times. It's been tiring, been extremely rewarding. Probably the happiest I've been in a really long time in a kitchen. It's been a lot of long hours, a lot of long days. But to see where we were three months ago to where we are now, it's a complete change. Not just in food, but in attitude, in etiquette, in execution, in technique. I think that we're moving forward at a pace that is more aggressive than I thought we were gonna move at, and it's been super great.
Do I think we're at the top of our game yet? No. Do I think we're performing at a very high level? Yes, but I'm the kind of guy that never settles for less than, always getting better every day. You always want to push yourself further. Thomas Keller always says, "You never achieve perfection. You're always in search of it." I'm really that kind of person. That's the mentality that we have now.
The future is only going to get brighter for us. As we add the pastry chef, as [sous chef] Chase gets more acclimated, we're just going to get stronger. We're going to get better. We're just gonna keep pushing our food even farther [with] the execution of it, the finesse behind it, the textures and tastes. The fun behind the food, that's what it's all about.
Shortly after this interview was conducted, the Dallas Morning News published a somewhat-less-than-glowing new review of Oak. We reached out to Chef Gras for comment and he had this to say:
I welcome all feedback - both positive and negative - and I am consistently seeking to provide a fantastic experience for all our guests. Of course, I was disappointed with Mrs. Brenner's review. That said, while we take seriously all criticism and assess every guest's comments, we remain confident in our product and the experience that we deliver to our patrons. Since my arrival, our customers have been tremendously receptive to what we are doing and I have been overwhelmed by their gracious Texas hospitality. We are currently launching our fall menu and, in addition, our new pastry chef arrives from Florida this week and so I would love for Mrs. Brenner to come back for a visit in the near future and see what we're up to.