In contrast to the grandeur and glitz that Dallas cuisine is typically famed for, Chef Gorji is simple, humble, and minimalist – and wildly successful. His restaurant, Canary by Gorji, has been proclaimed the "most underrated restaurant in Dallas" by D Magazine critic Nancy Nichols, and his product line of sauces and dressings, Gourmet by Gorji, are sold at Whole Foods and local retailers. This Mediterranean native and former engineer sat down with Eater contributor Romy-Michelle Unger to share his scientific secrets to a European yet distinctively unique flavor, his thoughts on the evolution of cultural cuisine, and why he keeps removing tables from his restaurant the more successful he becomes.
Modern science is catching up with traditional Mediterranean cuisine and there are tons of recent studies that demonstrate the benefits it has on our health. Can you talk about the truth behind all the hype?
[That cuisine] has always been going on in that part of the world, and it is really about balance, about moderation. What I do, in my cookbook and everything that I do to pass this on, is balancing fish, vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein. So, it is neither this nor that. It's just a school of thought. Say I've had a lot of acidic things today – your body reacts, and your blood pressure drops, from what I understand. So you need to have something to counter the acidity, maybe a little bit of sugar to balance. Not too much, just a little, but it balances. So, what I write in the book is this – this is how I cook, this is how I develop my food, how I create, but it is only my way of looking at it. I'm not trying to tell you I'm an expert in any way or form. I just do it, and it's not bad! [laughs]
You have an engineering degree and a professional knowledge of the sciences. How does that knowledge apply to your cooking?
First of all, knowing the subject of chemistry [is the most important thing]. If you have a good grasp on that, then you know what you're saying when you talk about acid and alkaline and you can actually apply it.
Everybody cooks chicken, right? None of them taste the same. It has everything to do with how you cook it – do you cook the chicken first? Do you cook it last? When do you add this, when do you add that? How much time are you giving it to absorb that flavor? To me, the main ingredients are everything. If I'm cooking the fish, it is the fish. Its flavor should not be stolen by the sauce. The sauce should be accompanying the fish, it should be in harmony with the fish – just like when I do my wine pairings. They can't fight each other. It's like music – if they don't play the right notes, it's not going to be pretty to hear and you won't enjoy it.
The ingredients are everything to me. I go everyday to buy [them]. I'm back to back Texas Steak Cookoff champion, but that's based on rib-eye. I'm maybe about to drop rib-eye [from the menu]. I have the best purveyor in town, but they cannot be consistent in what they are giving me. There are many nights where if I don't like [the food], I don't serve it and I send it back to them. If I don't have the ingredients, I don't have [the meal]. In the Mediterranean basin and in European cooking, it is 50% ingredients, 50% chef. Here, it is 10% ingredients and 90% chef! It becomes about stardom. But for me, I [like to] play in harmony with the ingredients. They are my stars. That's why I go shopping every single day.
Where do you go?
I go everywhere. I go from the farmer's market to specialty stores, Whole Foods, anywhere that I can get better ingredients. There are some things that are out of my control, like fresh fish. I get fish from my purveyor who can fly it to me, but I have to have someone I can trust, in order to back it up. Especially with this thing going on in Dallas, the fish are mislabeled and all. You have to have a reputable purveyor in order to have the correct fish because we are not scientists who can take DNA [samples] and determine which fish it actually is. We [just] want to sell the sucker! Cook it, sell it, hopefully it tastes good! And the meat is the same. I go, I buy, I bring. Every single day. This is basically what I think about cooking – it's the love of doing it, the passion. If you don't have passion, why are you doing it? It's good to make a living, but there are many ways to make a living so why waste your life if you're doing it just to do it?
That's why we're open 5 nights a week here, 10 tables. When we started 10 years ago, in order to get [business] going, we had a patio and 15 or 16 tables inside. We did it to stay alive. But gradually, I cut back. First went the lunch, then it was only open 6 days, then I took away the patio and cut down the tables to 10, and now I'm only open 5 nights a week. And that's it.
Why did you make the decision to cut down the number of tables and your hours?
Because — if you come in here, I will have you for the rest of your life. My life, or your life, whichever comes first. [laughs] Hopefully mine goes first! You see, I don't have a waiting list. When I'm full, that's it. One seating — I don't double seat because, hey, I've got 4 people working for me and that's it. I like doing it, I enjoy it, and I don't want to lose it by over-expanding myself. I'm fine, I've been here over 10 years, so it's time to put it into play. Like for Valentine's, I tuned away about 200 people and I only took 36 – no double seating. It didn't matter what time — you want that table, the table is yours. Nobody was going to sit there but you, but you prepaid me. And if you didn't show, there was no cancellation, no refund. Very simple. We are small, we don't have a TV, I don't seat children. It's on my website — I don't want kids running around here. They're wonderful! But... the playground is really good. Chuck E. Cheese's is even better! There, everyone is running around and there's no one to complain to. You're all in it together. But here, it is people who have made an effort to make a reservation, have a nice dinner. Why would I want to take that away from them?
Last year D critic Nancy Nichols called your restaurant the most underrated restaurant in Dallas. Any reactions to that?
Well yes! I thought, yes, finally! However, I think there are many factors which are at play there. I believe that there is a [resistance] to places north of 635, and even worse than that, some people don't even go past Walnut Hill. But we are still in Dallas, and people often don't know that, they think we are in Addison. When I go do tastings in downtown or Highland Park people ask, where are you? And they've never heard of it. What, is Addison like Oklahoma to you?
You've been here for 10 years, which is a long time considering the high turnover rate Dallas has with restaurants. To what do you attribute to your endurance and staying power over this past decade?
Being focused on all the things I talked about, from ingredients onward. Sticking with my plan and what I want to do. Just because something changes, doesn't mean you can transform the base and structure of your plan. July of 2010, we pulled the tables from outside and we changed everything again and it finally become what I wanted, but this was all planned. We were just lucky to be able to weather that 7-8 years before we could do it. I think people understand when you are trying to put something in front of them that has got value. It's a big bonus if it tastes good! You know, my sauces are the most expensive sauces at Whole Foods. But I spend a lot of money making them on all the ingredients, and people understand that.
You've lived in a lot of places all over the world. What are the places that have influenced you the most?
The Mediterranean basin. It is the simplicity and the respect for the food. They really respect food. Sure, they take two hours to eat lunch. But if you put fast food in front of them they would say, what is this? When did you even have time to cook it? I have also been taught from childhood to respect food. You see, they would tell us, if you don't finish your piece of bread, don't throw it away. Dry it out in the oven, have it with yogurt or eat it like chips. Reuse, have respect for it. It's not this whole, okay let me get a 64 oz drink that only costs 50 cents to fill up again. And we all know the results that come from that!
What are some of the lessons you've learned from running this restaurant for the past 10 years?
Don't cut corners. People don't mind paying your prices if you don't cut corners. Be true to what you do, what you think. Don't water it down, which is the same as cutting corners. Get the best food you can get. Think that you're cooking for yourself. If you respect yourself, if you want something good, why not provide that for others? I get scores from 96 to 99 from the health department. I tell you, I'm clean. There was one health inspector who came here and he went in my walk-in cooler that doesn't have an automatic door. I told him, hey, close that door! I don't care who you are, I have meat and fresh food in there, you must close the door. He came to me after and told me I was the only person who had ever said that to him before. Now, he sends his family here. He knows what I do here. So, stay true to what you think. If you've got something good going, continue.