The Sous Files is a new Eater feature in which we highlight the unsung heroes of the city's kitchens: the sous chefs.
The Grape's sous chef Ian Starr is brimming with one-liners. (To give you a sense of his personality, he requested that this feature be titled "A Boy Named Sous".)
An Austin native, Starr's easygoing and unpretentious attitude is offset by his impressive resume and fine dining experience, having worked under the legendary Stephan Pyles and now toiling in The Grape's kitchen under highly respected Dallas chef Brian Luscher and recent ginger-haired Top Chef contestant, Danyele McPherson. Eater recently sat down with Starr to chat about what it's like to work at The Grape, how Yan Can Cook and making French toast for drunk people got him into cooking, and what the future holds for a sous chef at one of Dallas' longest-standing restaurants.
So what got you into cooking?
Eating. I love eating. Ever since I was a kid, I was into food. I didn't want just chicken tenders and French fries, I don't understand when kids do that and parents let their kids do that. My mom is Hispanic and would make a lot of chilaquiles, enchiladas, and flautas. But cooking and being in the kitchen – the smells, the tastes, the fresh ingredients – for some reason, that's what spoke to me. When I was younger I used to go to parties and I'd be cooking because I wanted French toast. And that turned into making French toast for everybody at the party. But also, being in Texas, everybody's big on barbecuing, at tailgates or parties or whatever, so that also made me want to get into it.
Plus, you know, my mother and my grandmother both cooked incredibly well and I'd always wonder how they made that, and they'd tell me, but I really didn't get into it. But I'd make stuff that was easy for me to make and I'd buy the ingredients because I didn't want to spend a lot of money, and fresh ingredients are usually pretty cheap. But I wanted to get into cooking because I wanted to be able make all this food that I saw on TV. I didn't have cable as a kid so I watched PBS, and I loved 'Yan Can Cook' and Stephan Pyles, who I was lucky enough to work with when I came to Dallas. So I got into it. Plus, I really didn't see myself in an office. I didn't want to sit in front of a computer screen. I loved cooking in home-ec in middle and high school, so I wanted to do that. You know, why not?
Take us through a typical day at The Grape.
A typical day at The Grape for me – first thing I do when I start out is I come in and get suited and booted, put on the apron, make sure I have my pens and pencils, all utensils ready, cutting board ready in my station. Go in the walk-in, check the prep for what we have for the day and see what we might need to make or order. I try to do this a little earlier in the day so I don't have to do it after service. Then I'll just prep through the day, make sure I have my list, make sure I cross everything off and make sure everything is checked and double checked. Then we have service from about 4:30 till, say 10 during the week or 11 on weekends. So basically what I do is wait to get the orders in and put 'em out. Then when that's all done and everybody's happy and fed, I do orders for the next day and get the prep lists and ask my cooks what they need for the next day. Then call in my orders and go home and try to go to sleep.
What's the worst night you've ever had at The Grape?
Ah, yes. My worst night was in the very beginning when I tried to do sauté on a busy night. I thought I knew what I was doing [laughs]. I guess I hadn't done it enough to have any kind of rhythm though, so I kind of was a little slower to get food out than I should have been so I switched with Danyele [McPherson] because she was expoing, telling me what I needed to do and she asked me, "Do you wanna switch?" And I told her, "yeah, I do!" Like, regretfully I said it. And I switched, but the whole night I wanted to get back on that horse that I fell off of. So the next night we did it again and I did sauté. What Chef Brian [Luscher] told me was, "Stage yourself, get yourself ready. Whatever she calls out, put it out there." I guess you get a little rusty not cooking on a line for a while. So getting taken off sauté was probably the worst night here at The Grape for me. Other than leaving a bag of shrimp out overnight [laughs].
What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?
5 years? I see myself in a kitchen. I can't really say what exactly I'll be doing, but I hope to be a little bit more learned on food. I want to know more, I want to cook more, I want to see more food, I want to see different techniques, I want to keep on learning. That's why I came here. Working at The Grape is a really good experience, what with 40 years of tradition. Plus, I'm so lucky to have worked for a lot of great cooks in Dallas, but I came here and working for Danyele is pretty awesome, working with a friend and learning from someone who's learned from somebody else that's been in this business for so long, like Brian. So it's that trickle down effect, all that knowledge is a mix of old school and new school techniques that are all applicable, because you never know when you'll need them to save your hide. All the new stuff is great but sometimes I might need to pull out an old trick that I learned from Brian or Danyele or whoever I might learn from in the future.
How is it working for Top Chef Danyele?
Top Chef Danyele McPherson! I call her, Fear the McPherson.
I like that. She's fierce. McFierce-son.
[laughs] It's great. I worked with her at Stephan Pyles, before the whole Top Chef thing. She's great to work with. It's like working with one of your friends. You have fun, you get your work done, but you always have fun. It's great working for her. She did [Top Chef] to have an experience. She did it because she didn't want to wonder "what if?"
So she's not your typical "reality celeb".
She just likes to make her food, and make people happy when they're eating her food. Her main concern was always what is going on at The Grape. And when the show was on, she was more concerned about if the menu is right, if the flavors are right, if all the food we're prepping is right. And it's a really good experience for me to work with her, because it is about getting yourself out there. She got some exposure and I've gotten a little exposure due to her being a Top Chef. You know, she's a Bravo-lebrity. [laughs] But it's great working for Brian, and Danyele, you know, it's a fun career move. I mean, why wouldn't I come here? I didn't even know she was on Top Chef before I came here. When I found out, I was like, "You're on Top Chef?" and she just said, "Yeah, you know, whatever." But I was lucky enough to be able to work with a friend who just so happened to be on a TV show.
As a sous-chef, you're kind of the unsung hero of the kitchen. How does this kitchen hierarchy drive you or influence you?
I could say it like this – I'm a soldier [laughs]. I take orders, but I also try to make [Danyele's] job as easy for her as possible, from doing as much prep as I can to take some of the load off her back so she's able to write the menus and think of new food ideas. So I'm busting out the prep, working on the line on the sauté or grill, whatever we need to make sure we have what we need to make her job a little easier. That's what I'm here for. I'm here for the patrons, I'm here for [Danyele], I'm here for the owners, I'm here for myself. Making this the best possible experience for me is making it the best for everybody else. Whatever needs to happen, coming in on an off day or whatever, that's just the job! Work, work, work. But if I didn't love this job, crazy hours or whatever, I wouldn't be here.
As for the unsung hero, I don't know – it's kind of true but it kind of isn't. Danyele gives me as much credit as she would give herself. She's really one of the nicest people to work with. When we do wine dinners or beer dinners, she always thanks me and says, you know, this is my sous chef and it wouldn't be possible without him. And for me, it's just like, wow. That's really great. It's not that I need it [that validation], but it's nice to hear it.
Last question. Would you ever become a rock star with that name of yours? It seems it would be so easy and natural.
[laughs] That's what I've heard. That with a name like Ian Starr, you're asking for it. I've always thought about it, why not? I could be a front man for a band, maybe. I've got some pipes. Honey in this voicebox, right here. I'm a karaoke person, actually. I like to get out there and give a little number, maybe a power ballad of some sort.
[Photo credit: Margo Sivin/EDFW]