Drama for Dinner: A Q/A with Kitchen LTO Creator Casie Caldwell

Categories: Chewing the Fat

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Even in reality TV-obsessed Texas, where there are more shows filmed about drunks, housewives, pint-sized beauty queens, gays, bling, dance moms and cowboys than you can count, odds are you won't score a cameo in one. Still, the more I hear about new Trinity Groves concept Kitchen LTO, the more it sounds like a reality TV show, part Top Chef, part Design Star and part American Idol. But this show will be one you can visit the set of live, over and over, for a front row seat to watch the shit go down.

Well, I sat down with concept creator Casie Caldwell (of Greenz Salads), and she told me the whole story about Kitchen LTO's birth at Trinity Groves, the new restaurant, retail, arts and entertainment start-up incubator at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. It's a good one.

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Kitchen LTO
Left to right: Phil Romano, Casie Caldwell, Stuart Fitts and Larry "Butch" McGregor of Trinity Groves at the signing

Tell me about the new concept.
Kitchen LTO has been in the works now for about a year. A good family friend of mine was friends with [Trinity Groves co-founder] Phil Romano and I knew what he was doing down at Trinity Groves. So I said I'd love to talk to him about what's going on down there. I knew in the first five minutes that we weren't going to talk about Greenz. He told me about Trinity Groves and why he wanted brand new concepts that aren't chains, very grassroots. He was really complimentary toward me as an operator but wanted to know what else I was working on.

I bet you were like, "Oh crap," right?
Right. I thought, when he left that day, that it was cool to meet the legendary Phil Romano, that he was really nice, but I'd never see him again. Then my friend called me and said that Phil really liked me and he wanted to see me work on something for down there.

So how'd you come up with the idea for Kitchen LTO?
Phil Romano calls the development at Trinity Groves an "incubator." I'd never really thought about it like that. I'd once thought about using Greenz as a pop-up type thing where restaurants close in their slow times and do a pop-up dinner and whatnot but the idea never went anywhere. But I kept thinking about it, and I thought what if you did that permanently? What if you had a place like that for upcoming chefs? That's how the idea came about. So I dropped everything and worked on the business plan. Then I called my friend back and said I had an idea, and the next thing I know I'm down there pitching the concept to Phil and Dallas Investment Partners.

Sounds more "pressure cooker" than "incubator." How's Kitchen LTO going to work?
The whole idea really started with the focus being on the chef. Then I saw a restaurant in New York where the interior changes by the season. The focus isn't on the chef at all. They make the restaurant look completely different, based on the season or the time of the year. So I thought that sounded really cool; but what if you did the same thing with designers we match up with the chefs, and then it was like what if I don't even control who the folks are, and we get the millennials engaged, now there's a story to tell on every layer. It's a deeper way to experience a brand and an up-and-coming chef and designer.

So how do you pair them up?
Based on the timeline, the chefs and designers will have to be chosen five to six weeks out. I think the designer has the harder job, timewise. They'll be selected at the same time, when the voting starts. Right now we're accepting applications. That's just on paper, so we have to narrow it down to six to eight applicants, and bring them in for a tasting. Once they pass that litmus test we put them out on the website with a bio and tell them to self-promote. You can vote multiple times per day.

Like, with hashtags or on Facebook, or...
We're working with Lifeblue (the agency that created the Perot Museum and Klyde Warren Park websites), and they're working on the site and the plan for voting and everything. They're all about the experience online, which is so important. We've sat down and talked about how many times we want people to be able to vote, how they'll share, etc. You'll go online, see the chef's bio and maybe a video so the public can get to know them. People will vote and they'll be able to track and see how their chef is doing. We're working on incentives for voters too. We're trying to really engage them. I think foodies will want to engage. They get to be the judges.

It really sounds a lot like reality TV. What an incredible opportunity for these chefs.
The cool thing for the chefs and designers is that the investors behind Trinity Groves basically want first dibs on each chef. If the chef aspires to own their own restaurant, at the end of the three months they'll have three bigwigs ready to invest. Phil Romano is sitting at the end of the line waiting. There's a lot of upside. And of course the designer gets lots of exposure too.

And you!
It's definitely going to be a lot of work. It's a new challenge for me, my first foray into full-service. But I engaged the Chrises [Zielke and Jeffers of Bolsa and Bolsa Mercado], Blythe ["The Naughty Chef "Beck], Chad [Houser of Café Momentum, formerly of Parigi], Sharon Van Meter [chef/owner of 3015 Trinity Groves] and they've all been great to volunteer their time and be mentors to me. I've already interviewed two general managers because the staff will stay static. And they won't get bored. Then I thought, "Why not change out a mixologist each time?" Well, that might be next. Jason Kosmas [owner/co-founder of The 86 Co.] is on the committee so he could help with that. The public is essentially voting on how this restaurant will come together, and then we'll have to make it happen in six weeks.


That's when it's going to get real. What will the hours be like at Kitchen LTO?
Lunch will be casual. You'll have two choices and a couple sides and you can get it until it's sold out. Fixed price, around $12 or so. Dinner will be reservations-only, and fixed price too, which will vary based on food costs and that sort of thing. It'll have a limited menu with a few choices for amuse bouche, entrees and dessert.

It seems a lot more expensive to do it this way, to change out the interior every quarter. How does that work?
Oh this is the really cool part. An architect is working with me to deliver essentially a modular white box. The kitchen won't change of course, the bar won't change, and the and the flooring probably won't change. It's like a soundstage. Everything is plug-and-play and there are all these transformable elements so the designer comes in and sees what they have to play with -- Paint, lighting, a ceiling that can be raised and lowered -- and $20k.

It's like a $20,000 Mr. Potato Head.
Right. Like a toolbox. They can have fun with the colors, lights, move the tables and chairs. It would be great, down the line a bit, to work with furniture companies and have them donate products and become a partner. We'll have a placard at the front that has the chef, designer and partners on it. Maybe we'll bring in a celebrity chef for a special evening once a quarter with the proceeds going to charity. Maybe we do a face-off between the four chefs that year to figure out who's tops. I think it's important that there's an element of giving back since that's part of the pop-up concept too. Maybe the chef can choose the charity.

Or the public.
Absolutely. And we're thinking of like at Bolsa Mercado where the products chef is cooking with are for sale. That's a way to help out local products that don't have a storefront. If the chef is using it, maybe we sell it and it gives them exposure. You get new talent in the door and the story never gets old. And you'd better get in before it's gone!

You have SO many ideas.
I'm really excited about all the possibilities. It's going to be a lot of work, but it'll be rewarding. We're creating a place for this new talent to really spread their wings and grow.

And for you -- you've come really far.
I was an account manager by trade. I like to complete a project and then start over. People say, "It seems like a lot of work!" and yeah, it's a lot of moving parts, but that's what I do best. You get all the really fun aspects of restaurant ownership all rolled up into one. There will be different layers each quarter with each new designer and each new chef.

It sounds pretty crazy.
Well, I originally designed Greenz for me. Then I found myself designing LTO for me, too. People like to know who is going to be the next chef and what's next. I really think that the idea behind LTO extends the attention span of the "Fickle 500." I'm designing this for food lovers like me.

Well, you've certainly got your work cut out for you.
I told myself I'm never doing a restaurant again and now I'm doing it once a quarter. Am I crazy? Yeah, I am. But it'll be so rewarding when we provide a unique, limited-time experience that you've just gotta get in on.

What's next on your to-do list?
The main thing is getting those applications in the door. We're getting the word out to chefs and designers, culinary schools, whoever is looking for that next opportunity. So that's the story.

And here's where you can download the application. They're due on February 27 for the first go-round.

Kitchen LTO will be located at 3011 Gulden St., Suite 108 and is tentatively scheduled to open in May. I'm thinking of assembling a film crew.

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