Underground Dallas Chef David Anthony Temple: "Our Food Is Better Than Yours"
For someone who's never helmed a fine dining restaurant in Dallas, David Anthony Temple has a lot of opinions about the city's food and restaurants. Cooking under the nom de guerre Chef DAT, Temple has been hosting underground pop-up dinners across the city for the last four and a half years, and diners are loving it. Attendees rave about the exclusive, trendy dinners, Chef DAT's plates, and most of all, his spicy Louisiana-gumbo-influenced take-no-shit personality.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
If you haven't been to one of Chef David Anthony Temple's underground dinners, you probably aren't as cool as you think you are. Lauren Drewes Daniels interviewed DAT for the Observer in 2012, when he was making big plans for future restaurants, and a lot of them. Two years later and countless underground dinners, DAT still doesn't have his own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
But that may be changing in short order. I ventured out to DAT's location for the evening in Deep Ellum to talk to him about his plans for the future and food, but somehow the conversation took an odd turn and we ended up talking about twerking and Tesar.
Why did you decide to do underground dinners? Why not a traditional, normal restaurant?
We started this four and a half years ago and we were the first people in the entire South to do an underground dinner. I saw that it was being done in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and these dinners were popping up. I thought it was pretty cool, so we decided to do a pop-up dinner. I didn't have the money to open up a restaurant or anything, and I wanted to be cooking. Six months after the first dinner, I quit both my jobs.
Where were you working?
I was maître d and head server at Aurora, and then at Nosh when it changed to Avner Samuel. I still love that man. I was also basically a liaison between the chefs and Tom Spicer for produce. Helping him in the garden some, but mainly just being a salesperson. I was meeting a lot of chefs, learning a lot from Tom, did my first couple of dinners at Tom's store, and it blossomed out from that. This year, we're opening some restaurants.
That was going to be my next question. I've seen a lot of articles talking about you're going to do this concept or that restaurant in the past, what are your plans for restaurants in the coming year?
I dunno. (Note: Tthis answer was paired with an epic shit-eating grin.)
Not even a hint?
We'll see what happens. I will tell you that I have a restaurant called Geaux that I'm opening, it's a po'boy and gumbo shop. We're looking for property in the Lakewood area. I was supposed to get my paperwork started for that today, actually, but I didn't. So I guess next week I'll start raising money, talking to investors.
So it's just going to be straight-up, fast-casual po-boys?
Yup, that's it. Po'boys and gumbo, that's it. Six sandwiches, two soups, and that's it. One daily special. Very fucking simple.
So that's the goal? Keeping it very fucking simple?
Uh, yeah. If we opened up other restaurants we'd do fine dining, but this will be something fun and cool. Geaux will be very laid-back and approachable. I want a place to eat a good po'boy and eat good gumbo and every place that serves po'boys and gumbo here really fucking sucks. I haven't been to Amberjax yet, but those dudes are using the right bread. They're using Leidenheimer's bread from New Orleans, which is the only correct bread to use for a po'boy, so I'm interested to see what's up. I need to go check those guys out. I bet they're really good, but it's a sit-down restaurant. We're trying to open the Subway of fuckin' po'boys. We'll have a drive-thru. It's going to be quick, go, go, go. It's all in the name. G-E-A-U-X.
On the idea that all the po'boys around here suck, does all the Cajun food around here just fuckin' suck?
Yeah. All of it. It's all horrible. I've had some dishes that are decent, but overall no, it's horrible. It's very hit and miss. Dodie's will hit sometimes, Alligator Cafe's been a miss every time. I'm sure they hate me, but whatever.
I can tell by your accent that you're from Louisiana, but are you from New Orleans proper?
I'm from a town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It's in the middle of the sticks and the swamp -- Gonzales, Louisiana.
Aside from the Cajun, Louisiana, Southern-type influences, what other cuisines influence your cooking?
Mostly the people I've worked with and the places that I've lived in my life. I've lived in Hawaii for a while, then San Diego, Las Vegas for a while. The best meal I've ever had in my life was cooked by Bruno Davaillon from The Mansion, but not in Dallas. When he was working at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Las Vegas, Mix. Something about that meal was just magic, I had it twice.
Are you classically trained? Did you go to culinary school and do all that?
No, I learned everything in on-the-job training. I started when I was 7 years old. I do my food, and I make sure the food and the guests always come first. I've always worked in very hospitality-forward environments. Well, maybe the chefs I worked for weren't that way, but I'm that way. I try to stay true to that. I was front-of-house before I was in the kitchen, so that's important.
Do you think that comes from your own background in front of the house?
Oh yeah. You get a lot of benefit as a chef from doing that first.
So what made you decide to move from the front of the house to the back?
I think I was always back-minded, but there's no money in the back of house. I was working at Mercury and making really good money, so it just didn't make sense to go to the kitchen and make what, 12 dollars an hour? But I always knew I wanted to be in a kitchen.
Is that also part of why you've gone the underground dinners route as opposed to opening or cooking in restaurants? Is there more money for you in this business than that?
This underground thing is a very hard business. Very tough. We treat this as a pop-up event, but it's also an everyday business. I'm working on this company every single day, making sure that we are set. Most of my conversations each day are setting up events at least a month and a half in advance.
Did that take you by surprise in the beginning that people were so friendly to the concept?
No, not at all. We were serving a product and we were serving it damn good. Our integrity is 100 percent there. The product is high-quality and very affordable. When you come in to eat, it's kind of mysterious, and it's fun. Bring your own wine, sit back in a very relaxed atmosphere. I go out and personally tell every diner what they're eating before each course. It's another touch that you don't get at a restaurant. I think that's why things happened the way that they did for us, we've always kept it changing. We get to be creative every week.
Was that the plan, to build a business doing pop-up and private dinners?
It was supposed to be a one-time thing, maybe happen every once in a while. Four years later, we're doing one or two dinners a week, or about a hundred a year. More than anyone has ever, I think. Most pop-ups or underground dinners happen once a month.
I see all these veggies spread out over the table -- kohlrabi, lotus root, yellow chives -- but what about the proteins? What do you like to use?
We're moving into summer so now things will start to get a lot lighter. We've been doing a lot of steak. Everything here is steak, steak, steak, steak. It's a steak city. City of Ate? Should be City of Steak. Go ask Bruno (Davaillon), (Matt) McCallister, or ask Stephan (Pyles), "Hey, do you want to have a steak on your menu?" They'd say fuck no.
They may have another cut, but not just a steak. Then, ask them what's their best seller. The beef dish. Everyone wants steak. If I plan a seafood plate, we'll fill 25 or 30 seats. If we put a steak on the menu? We'll sell out five nights in a row. You put out the dishes everyone knows -- filet of beef, demi glace, blah blah blah. Tuna poke, stuff that they know. My black garlic ice cream. You put all this shit that I'm known for making and it's like we're turning down 70 people a night.
Is it hard to not fall back on that as a businessman?
Sometimes I have to. Sometimes I've got to just to give the customers what they want. But it's not what I want. But that doesn't matter.
Dallas is obviously inundated with steak. So, to stir the pot -- why would someone as talented as Tesar bring us more of the same?
Meat sells. It's a steak town. He's lining his pockets and laughing at his critics. I have nothing against Tesar at all. John Tesar reminds me of Miley Cyrus.
He breaks all the rules, he doesn't give a fuck what people think, and he laughs at everyone all the way to the bank.
Do you kind of feel like that's what you're doing too, though? Breaking the rules, doing what you want, just with less vagina-thrusting?
I'll twerk. I can twerk. Fuck Miley, Mystikal invented twerking. New Orleans invented twerking.
So what's the one thing you're trying to get across to everyone?
Our food is better than yours. Come and see.