There’s an intensity in chef R.J. Yoakum’s eyes the first time we meet, in August 2023. He’s invited me in for a tasting of the end-of-summer menu at Georgie. Under his tutelage, the menu has been changing at a rapid-fire pace and many of the dishes I have that day are gone by the next week. He’s intent on making a connection but not through charm or conversation; he only issues vague quips and inspirational platitudes, going in-depth when asked about how he put a dish together. He wants his food to do the talking. And it does — in fact, sometimes it speaks so loudly that I’m rendered speechless.
Yoakum came to Dallas near the beginning of 2023, after accepting a role as exectuivesous chef under Georgie’s former executive chef Christian Dortch. It was still Georgie by Curtis Stone then; Stone has since ended his partnership with Travis Street Hospitality (the company behind Knox Bistro, Le Bilboquet, and the soon-to-open Le Passage), on what the PR team says are good terms. Stone has not commented on the terms publicly. Dortch, a longtime employee of Stone, left as well, leaving a hole at the top of Georgie’s kitchen hierarchy.
Looking at Yoakum’s resume, it was a no-brainer, although not a given that he’d be promoted to executive chef — which happened in June 2023. His previous job was chef de tournant at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s legendary three Michelin star restaurant in Yountville, California, where Yoakum trained new chefs on every station, helped write daily menus, and created numerous recipes that are still in production. Before that, Yoakum helped open one-Michelin-starred Angler in San Francisco, and matriculated from the Culinary Institute of America. And yet, he speaks, nearly constantly, in sports terms. It’s a tic leftover from his time as a basketball player in high school and college.
“At the end of the day, I’m still the captain, every day,” he tells Eater Dallas during an off-hours interview in Georgie’s dining room on a cold January afternoon, invoking the structure of a basketball team following the lead of its captain. “I’m the example, I’m learning to be more patient, and teaching is the hardest part of the job. Cooking is easy, but how do you teach someone so they can do it better than you?”
Yoakum says he’s trying to build a kitchen that incorporates the different learning styles of all his employees and has been building a recipe database they can learn from. “I’m not going to give them all the answers because no one gave me all the answers,” he says. “But I’ll guide them... Being a chef is about being accountable, and realizing when you’ve messed up, even in the highest pressure situations.”
A few days prior, Eater Dallas was at Georgie during a Saturday night service to shoot photos. The room was full of people, and nearly bursting at the seams by 7 p.m. Every barstool was spoken for and every type of diner was there, from the family next to us of middle-aged parents with their daughter and her boyfriend celebrating a birthday to a father and son in hoodies sitting at the bar and on their phones to an elderly man in an elegant suit with his stunning date.
Yoakum personally delivered every dish to the table, starting with a few that were named best bites of the month in the Eater Dallas round-up for December. Yoakum jokingly says that he was ready to change out his oysters with passion fruit granita and the French onion consomme from the menu, but Travis Street founder Stephan Courseau advised him absolutely not to — a first. One might deduce that the recognition is already becoming stifling to a chef with so many ideas. What do you do when everyone wants to eat the thing you’re now tired of making?
Putting that question to Yoakum is like watching someone look up at the stars in the night sky for the first time after learning about string theory in physics. There’s so much to take in and so many ideas holding it together. He’s hell-bent on Georgie staying a guest-driven restaurant that serves the needs of the neighborhood and the city, and constantly reinforces the idea that he, as an individual isn’t bigger than what people want from the restaurant. Nor, he insists, could he do anything without a team behind him. But he is, although he won’t say it, the mind behind these adventurous plates that play with ideas of texture and pay homage to famous foods through deconstruction. That French onion consomme is simply French onion soup disassembled and put back together in a different, and frankly superior, manner.
The chef brings a plate to the table as our photo shoot concludes that is not yet on the menu; he calls it his ode to pork and beans. (When I talk for too long, he informs me that he’s standing here waiting for me to taste it because he’s got to get back into a very busy kitchen.) It’s incredible, succulent slices of pork served with beans in a whiskey reduction. It sounds simple and is packed with vibrant flavors, as are all of Yoakum’s creations, but this is more punch-you-in-the-face than linger-on-your-palate. It’s utterly unexpected. According to Yoakum, Georgie has only achieved about half as much as it can do — but it’s already excellent.