When it comes to iconic Dallas chefs, everyone thinks of the two pillars: Fearing and Pyles. But a new generation of chefs has emerged over the past several years, a sect that is giving a fresh new voice to Texas cuisine and helping to embolden Dallas' place on the map as a culinary capital of the nation.
Perhaps the most pioneering of all these young chefs is Tim Byres, the mastermind behind upscale barbecue phenom Smoke at the Belmont Hotel, and its younger sibling Chicken Scratch. Though Byres cut his teeth working in the city's high-end kitchens (including Pyles'), at this point he's more concerned with creating a sense of Southern hospitality and a feeling of community than matching silverware and fancy-pants service.
Eater caught up with Byres to chat about his new cookbook (Smoke: New Firewood Cooking was released on Monday), his food philosophies, and why he doesn't read blogs.
So let's talk about the book. It really isn't just a collection of recipes per se, it's also a how-to guide on everything from cleaning a soft-shell crab to smoking a pipe to building a fire pit... In that way it seems almost more like a lifestyle book.
Yeah, I was trying to have as much fun and put as much personality into it as I could. It was a long project, but really fun. What I really wanted to do with the book was just kind of demystify a style of cooking that a lot of people don't know how to do. I'll always get these questions from people, like hey, I can't do this at home, so what would you suggest? And it's like no, you can do it at home, and there's all these different levels you can take it to.
I think for me it's definitely been a journey, in the last few years I've really been able to find, in my book I call it my "food voice". I really stopped and paused and wanted to find my way and really be true to myself and get back to what I thought was important — and what I really thought was important was just the spirit of hospitality. I found a huge amount of integrity with this homemade cooking, that's kind of where that started in the restaurant and I just kept going after it, and now it's almost everything we do. Our cheeses and almost everything we make in-house. And I wanted to put that in the book, in a way that people could approach it.
You know, you can buy the rolls to make your sandwiches, or I can show you how to make them from scratch — it's really just however far you want to take it. For me, it's been fun to really have an understanding of everything... I mean, you kind of forget how to make bread if you don't do it. So yeah, I think the lifestyle side of it really developed because I've never been more excited about what I'm doing professionally as I am now, and the possibilities are wide open.
In the book's introduction, you mention that after many years of working for some top chefs in high-end kitchens, you eventually realized you were burned out and it was something you "no longer wanted to be part of".
It was crazy, and to be honest with you I didn't know where to go. You know, you feel like you're painted in a corner and then you realize you're the one holding the paintbrush. So I didn't know what to do. I just started looking around at different stuff and one of the main things was, I kind of unplugged. I know I talk about not reading blogs and reviews, and it's really hard, especially right now with the book coming out and everything, everyone's talking and it's so easy to Twitter search and see what people are saying about it, but it starts to drive you mad, you know what I mean? That kind of craziness. As awesome as being connected to everyone is media-wise, it can really make you second-guess yourself, so I kind of had to pull away from that.
It's hard to please everybody in the service industry. That's what my focus has been, for me it's not so much about the food, it's about the spirit of hospitality and what's the best way I can grow and nurture that. In the book the thesis for me, is that there's kind of a lost art of having 20 people in your backyard and there's something really charming about that. Sometimes the more primal the cooking style or the celebration, the more excited and involved everyone is. I really wanted to show everybody it's possible and if they want to do this, those recipes work, those diagrams work. That barbacoa, we must have dug six different holes and done it six times to get it right. It's fun to see people get excited when you do an event like that, and it's that thing that keeps everybody equal, too. I think that a heartfelt kind of community table is going to cross boundaries of economics, and race and class or what have you. You'll see some banker talking to some young kid at a party and they're just talking about what's going on, it's totally separate from their day to day lives.
You're approaching the four year mark at Smoke. Has the restaurant changed and evolved in that time, or has it stuck pretty closely to your original concept?
It's constantly evolving. I used to joke with people that Smoke's kind of like a weed that grew out of the sidewalk and it became a tree. You gotta go with it sometimes. We've changed our menu, we've changed our service style, we've changed a lot of things over the years. It's like how do we make it easier, better... We try to create this thing we call the grey area, which is like, we're not this super-detailed service restaurant or this really high-end fine dining experience, but what we really want to do is to offer something that's fun and exciting and and an enjoyable experience, and that's where the personality has to come in.
The silverware doesn't match for a reason. In the beginning, it didn't match because we didn't have any money. We just did what worked with what we could make happen. I think being completely flexible with what's going on is so much better in the long run. It's kind of like throwing a party at your house. You can have the party your way, no matter what happens, but if you're too exacting and the decorations have to be just so and stuff like that, you kind of don't have a good time with it. But if you do the party and you let the party happen, then you kind of roll with it... maybe you see that your best friend has a better idea than you and you're like, yeah, let's do that!
Smoke has been a lot of that, and Chicken Scratch has been a lot of that. And that's that world I was talking about that I tried to step into, I really try to live that way now and be open to possibilities. My way might not always be the right way. I believe in community, and I believe in hospitality — kind of like in Cheers, you know, where it's like everybody knows your name. That's a really great thing that's almost gone. Everything's so proper and has to be just so, and sometimes you lose the connection. I try to live in that connection. I want my kids to see that in their lives, I want our restaurants to have that feeling when people come in, and to me that's more important than the food. If somebody says I've had better steaks, or this brisket is whatever, you know, you're not going to please everybody. We're not saving babies, we're just having a good time, and hey, we hope to see you next time.
So between Smoke and Chicken Scratch, you've got a pretty impressive little restaurant empire going. Any future plans for new additions?
Oh, of course. There's nothing definite, but we're working on things. Like I said you know, I'm wide open to possibilities. I'm definitely not at any stopping point, I want to have more fun and we've got a team of people that are completely bought in and excited to be on our team at Smoke and Chicken Scratch. Luckily enough for me, with the book and some of these other things, my role has kind of changed in the sense that I'm also somebody who now can go out into the world, come up with something new and bring it back to the group. For us to grow as a team is I think the most powerful thing, and in order to really promote these guys we almost have to have a new place. So there's always stuff on the back burner, we're always trying to come up with new things. But I think we're all young and excited, so we've got a lot of time ahead of us.
[Photo credit: Smoke]