The City of Ate Interview: Union Bear's John Kleifgen
Dallas native John Kleifgen took his first job at a restaurant as a teenager because a gig carrying mulch at Calloway's didn't provide much entertainment. So, when a friend told him about a kitchen job for the Lakewood Country Club, he weighed his options and wisely chose a country club scene instead. After high school he dabbled in college at Texas Tech, then headed off to culinary school at the CIA in New York.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
After graduating, he worked in Boston for four years at L'Espalier and Sal de la Terre, then after returning home to Texas, had a quick stint at The Office, which didn't work out so well. Now he's with the Spillers Group as chef of their new spot Union Bear.
How did you like going to school in New York?
Living in the Hudson Valley is cool because the produce is amazing. Here we don't have seasons - except football, Christmas and summer. Although we do have some advantages here that they don't have up north, like much longer growing seasons. But, the Hudson Valley is a basically a giant salad basket for the city. Every great food has something. France has the Loire Valley, San Francisco has Napa and Sonoma, New York has the Hudson Valley.
"Local" is key at Union Bear. Do you think Dallas as a whole is making any substantial headway?
I hope so. I've only been here for a year. We're definitely trying to source locally as much as we can, like the Paul Quinn Farm. It's kind of like we're all in this together. The chefs have to learn how to use it and the farmers have to learn not only how to grow it, but also how to sell it.
Is it a challenge to track down food?
Yes. It's a lot of luck and happenstance, too. For instance, before I worked here I was at Eno's and I met Andrea (manager at Paul Quinn Farm) and it was just luck that I met her. Also I try to network through people. Like we wanted to use fresh cream to make our own butter, Tom Spicer sent us over the Lucky Layla Farms. So, now we churn our own local butter.
You're getting a reputation for your eggs. What makes the eggs here so fantastic?
The biggest thing with eggs, as with most things, is what it eats. If the chicken is eating soy pellets, then the eggs taste like soy pellets, and they have that really techno-yellow color that no food should ever have. If the chickens eating a lot of bugs and natural stuff, you get a much deeper yolk and lot more natural flavor.
But, I'm not going to all these great distance to get these great eggs and local produce because I'm a nice guy. It's because, well, part of it is because I'm a nice guy, but also it's a responsible way to run our business. It helps farmers and people like Urban Acres. But, really it's because they're ridiculously good eggs. It's worth it for us to go that extra mile to get them.
That's pretty much a top-down prerogative for this organization, correct?
Yes, and the whole building is a testament to that. From the local art on the wall to the local company that makes our sodas.