Hard Work Puts Chef Casey Thompson Atop the Food Pyramid
In sleuthing around for the primary culinary influences on Casey Thompson -- yes, the same Casey Thompson who first impressed The Mansion's Dean Fearing, bowled over the Dallas dining establishment with Shinsei, wowed the cable-ready food world on Top Chef, and whose Brownstone in Fort Worth is the area's latest temple of locavore dining -- you need look no further than her grandparents.
More specifically her matched set of grandmothers -- one with roots firmly buried in the loamy soil of Texas, the other who can chirp "La Marseillaise" flawlessly because she hails from France.
The 32-year-old, Lewisville-born Thompson can credit many languid childhood weekends spent with those two grand-matriarchs with the early molding of what would become Thompson's eclectic, homespun approach to restaurant dining.
Thompson's flour-coated memories of her "Texan" grandmother include her scratch biscuits, and a formidable chicken-fried steak, surrounded by an armada of sliced tomatoes, okra and hush puppies.
"She was such the real Texan grandmother, that she always seemed to have a fresh-fruit cobbler ready," Thompson says.
On the other side of Thompson's genealogical tree was her French-born grandmother, who bequeathed to the fledgling foodie a first serious exposure to lamb. Thompson also got introduced to the Gallic wonders of steamed asparagus with a simple vinaigrette, homemade mayonnaise, and coquille St. Jacques, which grandma insisted on serving in its traditional scallop-shell chariot.
"Now that I think about it, all of those times spent around the tables of my two grandmothers were preparing me in some subconscious way for the hospitality and catering to others of my future restaurant world," Thompson says.
Thompson was barely two years out of high school when her love affair with the culinary arts was definitely stirring. In those days, she was often spotted flipping through Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, not Vogue or Marie Claire.
"At that point," recalls Thompson, "When I was around 20, the only thing I knew for certain was that I was interested in every aspect of the food business."
She matriculated at the University of North Texas but left early for Houston to take a marketing position with -- even Thompson can't quite explain it -- a jet fuel distributor.
"All during my Houston period, what I really wanted to do was read culinary magazines and catch up with latest episode of Emeril," says Thompson, who, nevertheless, slogged through three years of heals and business suits, flogging jet fuel.
This was also her self-described "Rain Man" period as she would spend hours obsessively handwriting her 100s of accumulated recipes -- embedding cooking fundamentals into her brain with every pen stroke.
However hard she tried, Thompson could no longer ignore the persistent tug of the culinary world. She returned to Dallas and gave herself a two-week trial period in the unforgiving boot camp of a professional kitchen.
Arriving without even the most basic knife skills, Thompson would spend two weeks in the inner bowels of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, access finally granted to her thanks to a brief interview with the ever-cowboy-boot-clad Dean Fearing.
Arriving to The Mansion's prep kitchen by 6 a.m., Thompson geared up for 12 hours (at $7 per hour) of killing lobsters, peeling potatoes, tying 300 corn-husk boats, grating 50 pounds of cheese, 75 pounds of asparagus and 100 pounds of onions.
"What I most learned from months and months of being at the bottom is how to work faster," recalls Thompson. "I also learned how to endure pain, like from grating your knuckles and having lemon juice squirt into 20 nicks and cuts."
Thompson was eventually promoted to one of The Mansion's numerous line-cook positions, and that's when her hard-knocks kitchen education really began. On the line, she had to endure a sexist atmosphere in addition to such common kitchen hazards as bleeding palms from a malevolent mandoline, cramped quarters, and jerk-ish sauté cooks while making barely enough to afford highway tolls.
"At one point, in that horrible environment, I went to the bathroom, bawled my eyes out, but there was no way I would quit. I had gambled too much to walk away," says Thompson,