The Subtleties Of Food And Family In The Kitchen

Originally published in Richardson Living Magazine

Food and family are inextricable. We rarely talk about one without the mention of the other close behind:

This pot roast is not nearly as good as my aunt’s.

How does Dad season the hummus again?

This recipe for lasagna was passed down from my great-grandma.

After all, making and eating a meal with family and friends is what takes food from simply sustenance to an experience.

No one seemingly grapples more with that idea than the people working behind the scenes at a restaurant, where the family element can be absent. Dallas-based chef Tim Byres, for example, is fascinated by it. He calls it “taste memory.”

He describes it as the first contact with a new food—like the first time you eat a tamale—and the memory that is intimately linked to the experience.

“That first memory is the touchstone for all tamales,” he said. “You’re not out to try and have a better one than the first one, but you go back to that. To recreate or try to be in the same room as that taste memory is what I’m trying to do. I would really try to hone in on it, and try to honor it. It’s never going to be the same or better, but I’m trying to open up a window to share and connect.”

Byres is the owner of Smoke, a popular West Dallas restaurant, and with more than 25 years in the business, his priority in the kitchen has slowly shifted from one of obligation to one of community.

He started out as a prep cook in several eateries in Vero Beach, Florida, at age 16. Convinced he wanted to pursue a career as a chef, he enrolled at Johnson & Wales University to jumpstart his culinary career a year later.

Upon graduating, Byres dove headfirst into the industry, working at high-level restaurants in Miami and New York, cooking at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels and working alongside heavy-hitters like Jonathan Eismann, Hiroshi Nakahara and Stephan Pyles.

“I think that early in my career, I did what I thought was the right thing,” he said. “It was about working at really high-profile restaurants and fabulous cities and five-star hotels. That was a great building block, but you get to a point where doing your own thing is more important.”

An opportunity to be more independent is what brought him to Dallas in 2002. He helped open Tom Tom Noodle House and Nikita, but he struggled to find his footing. Within a few years, he had closed down two restaurants (Standard and Standard 2706) and had returned to high-end restaurants like the Mansion on Turtle Creek and Stephan Pyles.

Byres said he quit his job at Stephan Pyles and took a trip east through the Mississippi Delta in search of inspiration. He was as much interested in learning about Southern food as he was in understanding the spirit of hospitality. For Byres, it was about much more than barbecue; it was about community.

“For me, it was becoming less and less about the restaurant aspect and more about the conversations around the table,” he said. “I’m a chef and a restaurateur who’s interested in that spirit of hospitality. Everybody wears a lot of hats—I’m no exception—but I really wanted to be genuine in all the arenas. That’s tough in the restaurant business.”

In 2009, he opened Smoke.

“We were a  cook-from-scratch restaurant—breakfast, lunch and dinner every day,” he said. “That was when I started to feel a little more connected to what I was doing. I felt more alive in a creative sense. And you know what? That’s when all the awards came, which is really funny because the goal was to push all of that back.”

He opened Chicken Scratch in 2012 and another location of Smoke last year in Plano. In 2014, Byres won the James Beard Award for his book, Smoke: New Firewood Cooking. (The Beard Award is kind of like the Oscars of the culinary world)

“Nowadays, I feel like I’m in the business of being me,” Byres said. “The more that I’m allowed to be myself, the more connected I am to what’s going on. Running a restaurant is kind of like fishing. You can throw the lure out that everybody tells you works, and you might catch a few fish, but you can change it up and see what happens. Something new might come out of it.”

Fellow chef Kent Rathbun has caught more than a few fish.

Rathbun runs several restaurants, including Abacus, Jasper’s and Hickory, on top of a successful catering business.

He said he’s been cooking for himself since 8 or 9, and by the time he was 14, he had his first job in a restaurant, albeit as a dishwasher at a Sambo’s in Kansas City.

“My mother was in the restaurant business. My dad loved to cook outside, mostly on the barbecue,” Rathbun said. “My brother and I were exposed to really great restaurants as young kids, and when I say great, I mean the top restaurants in Kansas City.”

Yet even as a 17-year-old apprentice at the high-end La Bonne Auberge, Rathbun wasn’t set on becoming a chef.

“I knew I had a talent, but I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a chef in the beginning,” he said. “I worked in this business until I was almost 21 before realizing that. As a kid, I saw it more as a way to make money and please my parents, but once I started going out to talk to guests and hearing their comments, I started to realize that this was something that I really saw myself doing.”

In 1990, an opportunity to work as a sous chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek brought Rathbun to Dallas. He worked at the upscale restaurant for two years before taking a job as the executive chef at the Melrose Hotel.

Almost a decade later, he decided to open his own restaurant, and Abacus came shortly thereafter in 1999.

A five-star restaurant, Abacus is a perennial guest to several “best of” lists, and Rathbun said the focus is on quality ingredients and a perfect dining experience. He admits he’s a little more than detail-oriented.

“Because restaurants have such a diverse clientele coming to them—especially high-end restaurants—we have to be extremely detailed, and there are so many things going on that someone is going to notice,” he said. “Not everyone notices every detail, but there’s always somebody out there that notices the things that others might not see. We try every day to please the 5 percent that really know the difference because if we do that, the other 95 will be blown away.”

In 2003, Rathbun opened the first of many Jasper’s in Plano. Billed as a gourmet backyard cuisine concept, Jasper’s has two more locations in Texas, and a new one just opened in Richardson’s CityLine development.

As a result of his success, Rathbun’s day-to-day has changed from those first years in Kansas City.

“I don’t work in the kitchen every day,” he said. “So, cooking for a living now is different for me. Most of the cooking that I do is in a class or a demonstration. I cook for my family and my friends, and that is still my biggest enjoyment in the world.”

Rathbun and his wife Tracy—who is also a restaurateur—do their best to instill strong food values in their kids. He said his son, Max (13), has a palate better than most adults he knows and that his daughter, Garrett (9), is becoming quite the baker.

He has found that teaching others is becoming an essential component of his career and main source of gratification.

“I like teaching, so I love it when I can cook with people or be around people cooking. I try my hardest to interject a little idea here and there. I don’t want to intrude on anyone or intimidate anyone, but I try very hard to make sure the people around me when we’re cooking walk away a better cook,” Rathbun said.

“I’ve never done anything in my whole life besides working with food. If I look back to this 5-year-old kid sitting on the kitchen counter helping his dad season the brisket and start the smoker, I’m glad this is how my life has been.”