Open barely a month now, newcomer Gemma seems as though it may be exactly what the particular stretch of Henderson Avenue it calls home needed.
After working together — he as chef, she as general manager — for seven years at Press in Napa Valley, husband and wife team Stephen Rogers and Allison Yoder relocated to Dallas to strike out on their own. The shopping center anchored on one end by clubby Sushi Axiom has seen no shortage of closures over the past few years, playing host to many short-lived restaurants like Urbino, Horne & Dekker and Snack, but despite being relative strangers to the local dining scene the couple seems to be having no trouble filling the 55 seats in their cozy dining room.
Eater recently caught up with the couple to talk about the restaurant's first month, the journey that brought them here and more.
So how'd you end up picking this location? This particular stretch of Henderson has been pretty quiet for a while, but Gemma seems to be doing just fine.
Allison Yoder: It was a gut feeling. We kind of went back and looked at who was here before, read past reviews, Yelp and everything to see what happened here, and it seemed like it was on the tenants — bad judgment, or maybe this just wasn't the right place for them. For what we're doing, it's perfect… We didn't want to be in the mainstream.
You didn't want to be in Uptown.
AY: That's not us, not our personality. We wouldn't really fit in in Highland Park, that's not our crowd. But here, we're convenient to a lot of different areas... Lakewood's here, the M Streets, Highland Park isn't far off.
So how's the first month of business been?
AY: Great. We're always super critical but considering we really didn't know anyone here, as far as staffing goes… I mean, we couldn't bring anyone with us [from Napa]. [Stephen's] kitchen is all new, the front of house is all new. We really focused on hiring people who were nice that we could get along with and work together. Our pastry chef [Stephanie Childress] is great. Of course Rick [Graff, chef de cuisine] is amazing, he came from Craft, and Mike [Lawson], our great sous chef came from B&B Ristorante of Mario Batali in Vegas. So we were really lucky to find great sstrength with our prominent kitchen people. For the front of house, we just trained pretty quickly, and hired nice people with good attitudes. Jeff [Yerger] is a great manager, he was at Abacus for a few years and knows everyone. He's so nice and gentle so that was a key hire because he knew everything around here, we didn't. We're very happy now with the staff.
So the bread service is great here, and that's fairly unusual around here. A lot of higher-end places still bring their bread in from outside.
AY: That was a tough thing, trying to do that from the very beginning, We didn't even have the right ovens so we had to figure out what we could do with what we had in that little kitchen. We knew from Press, we made everything there, so when you've done that already, there's no going back. We knew what we had to do. We couldn't source bread.
It's also somewhat unusual to have a dedicated pastry chef and a sommelier for a restaurant this size.
AY: It was a big deal for us to have a dedicated sommelier. Stephen and I pretty much put together the [wine] list and then we found Sabrina [Snodderly]. She's really, really young and smart and passionate about what she does which was key for me. The wine list we had, I wouldn't say it was farfetched or especially unique but we have a lot of Italian wines, German rieslings and stuff people may not be familiar with, so for me I didn't want anyone to be intimidated. We wanted a somm that is approachable and can actually talk about wine with the guests. And amazingly, people are really asking — last night we probably had 4 tables that just said, we want to learn about wine. Can you teach us? What should we get? And that was exciting for me, coming from Napa.
How long have you guys been planning Gemma?
Stephen Rogers: We've talked about it forever, literally like a decade, but the decision to actually do it came a year ago.
AY: We decided this was what we wanted to do, and we decided it was going to be in Dallas. But as far as actually working on it? Really just since August. Because we'd had full-time jobs in Napa, I mean, full time. We stayed there an extra 3 months in order to help the owner find people who'd be a good fit. So there was just no time — and we have 3 year old twins. So we were pretty much like, we just have to go do it. We've done this for 25 years, we know restaurants, we just have to trust that we know what we're doing. We always had an idea of the food and atmosphere we wanted. What we're doing here is the way that we like to dine. Comfortable, warm, the food is simple but the number one thing for us is being seasonal.
SR: And we knew we had to make everything in house... our own breads, our own ice cream.
Coming from Napa, have you found there to be major differences between diners there and diners here?
SR: That was one thing that we were curious about. Because you don't know for sure, unless you live in a market you don't know those people. When we designed the menu we tried to have a little something for everybody — but we would change. We're not glued to one thing, like we have to have this or we have to have that.
AY: And that's what we said from the beginning — if they dont like it, we'll change it.
SR: And we've been surprised, I can't tell you across the board how many things are surprising me… How many sweetbreads we sell, how many oysters and veal cheeks we sell. That surprised me.
AY: A good surprise.
SR: But we'll be changing the menu and throwing out things and seeing where people gravitate.
For all the reputation Dallas has for being relatively unsophisticated, it's really not true.
SR: Dallas people are very well-travelled.
AY: They travel so they have a palate. They've been around the block. They know food. And we didn't deny that even before opening this place, we never believed that.
SR: In a market where there's so many chain restaurants, I feel like Dallas was a good pick for a market because there still needs to be a little more in the restaurant scene that's doing something different.
AY: To be reasonably priced was important to us, so people could come once a week. We love to eat, we don't want to pay $40 for an entree and it's like this big. After that I'm like, okay, let's go get Chinese food. Where can we get pizza, I'm starving!
SR: And on the flipside of that, there are some places where you go and the plates are like this big [holds arms out]. There's a happy medium.
What's it like running a restaurant together as a married couple? Is it extra stressful?
AY: We've been together 20 plus years. We met when we were 22, 23, and we've always worked together whether it was in restaurants or not. And that's why we waited so long, we were like, can we do this? It's already stressful enough working side by side as a general manager and a chef. And when it's our own money? Scary. But you know, it's that feeling inside, you have to do it. That gut feeling that keeps bugging you, like we need to do this. We have to try. We have to do it. And then we can decide, do we love this? And so far we do, we're really happy with what we're doing. The cool thing with us is that we can be so honest with each other. If one of us sees something that's not right, I'll tell him. Other restaurants, they worry about egos. Chefs have egos normally. But I can tell him, hey, the chicken didn't look all that.
So I guess you're not worried about offending each other at this point.
AY: [laughs] We're over that. And on the flipside of that, he can tell me if there's an issue with the service. So it just works.
You guys designed the restaurant yourselves, right?
SR: We did it all. We didn't want the interior of the restaurant to feel like every other restaurant ... The super modern look has almost become cliche. Cookie cutter. It's not interesting anymore. And honestly, part of the space just developed itself. The bead board was here when we moved in.
AY: It was dark brown and we're like, what are we going to do this? So we painted it and used it.
SR: It was a very slow process. We found a guy who made these tables for us, from Dallas, and he was super nice to work with. He just wanted to get it right, he was a perfectionist. He worked on one table and did like ten different finishes and checked with us to get us just right, until he finally hit on one that we were both ecstatic over.
AY: We've travelled a lot and we've eaten in a lot of great restaurants in a lot of great cities, and visually we've collected a lot of things that we like. So it was just experience and putting it together. We always wanted something warm. It was also conveying what we wanted people to feel, it wasn't just that we wanted blue or whatever. But what's the feeling it's going to convey? We want people to feel comfortable, not uptight. Sometimes that industrial feel is just too uncomfortable, too sleek. Not for me.
Obviously you haven't been here very long, but do you guys have any places you like to eat when you're not working?
SR: We like to go to Nonna.
AY: Love Nonna, great chef, love Italian food. We had a great experience at Driftwood, and at FT33. Totally different food from us obviously. Those were the best experiences we've had so far.
SR: Lucia, too.
AY: Oh, Lucia — I love the warmth, the service there. Lucia has soul. When we have a little more time, we'll definitely go out more. That's what we do, we eat. [laughs]
So lunch service will start soon, correct?
AY: Yes, in the spring. And Saturday and Sunday brunch. Plus, we're open until 1 a.m.
What made you want to do late night service?
SR: Partially the neighborhood, it just felt like it was a late night place. We did brunch down here one day and noticed people didn't get up and get out till 12:30, 1:00, so we realized it was a late night kind of place. And the options for late night dining are kind of slim in Dallas. We wanted there to be a place where you could go if you went to a movie and didn't get out till 10:30 or whatever. And also the hospitality people, we wanted to give them a place to go.
AY: Give them a place to go and get a glass of wine or whatever after work. As restaurant employees, we know how it is — you need to unwind just like everyone else, you don't want to just go straight home.
SR: In New York we used to go to Blue Ribbon, lots of industry people there letting off steam from work.
AY: We were surprised by the lack of good late night dining options here, since it is such a big city.
So you were in New York before you lived in Napa?
AY: Miami actually, we spent two years in South Beach. We were both gaining more experience. We both worked as front of house managers. Then we were in NYC for 10 years before that. And we lived in Italy in the summers. We were definitely inspired by our time in Italy. The simplicity.
SR: The simplicity of the food but the quality of the ingredients. The passion, they're passionate in Italy about finding the best prosciutto, the best cheese, whatever.
The Gemma menu is heavily local and seasonal but the menu doesn't necessarily read that way. Lots of places have the producers' names splashed all over their menus, but you guys don't.
AY: For us, when we were in California, it was a given. Everybody did it. So we were like, why do we have to write it [on the menu]? We don't have to preach it.
SR: We feel good about what we're serving because we know we're buying quality stuff.
AY: We've been doing this. It's just what we do.