Lark on the Park's Chefs on Dallas' Lackluster Farmers Markets and Downtown's Evolution
It seems as if Dallas is quickly becoming a destination for chefs that hail from California. Several well-reviewed kitchens across the city, including Gemma and Victor Tangos, are helmed by chefs who honed their skills in Napa, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica. Chefs Melody Bishop and Dennis Kelley of Lark on the Park, situated on a prime piece of real estate facing Klyde Warren Park, are just over one year into bringing their own blend of globally influenced California cuisine to Dallas.
In addition to running a restaurant that has impressed diners and critics alike, Bishop and Kelley also have a family together. I sat down to talk with them about the delicate balancing act of working and living as partners, searching for a lighter cuisine in the city, and how they plan to keep fresh produce on the menu during the dead of summer.
You have worked in restaurants together before, but I can imagine that opening and getting a brand new restaurant off the ground is a completely different experience. How have you guys handled working together in such a high-stress environment?
Melody Bishop: Sometimes very delicately. We know what to expect from each other, so it's nice to know that I can really rely on Dennis for his strengths. You also know what you're getting, so there's no really no surprises. Sometimes, in the chaos of running a restaurant, that's a really nice thing to have.
Dennis Kelley: I agree. I think we've survived because we know each other's strengths, and we can lean on each other to divide and conquer. Once you figure out how to delineate responsibilities in the restaurant and get into a routine, it just makes life much easier.
Do you balance each other out with different strengths and weaknesses? Are you very similar in the kitchen or more like polar opposites?
DK: I don't think we're totally opposite, but she definitely has her strengths and I have mine. Combined, though, we're really strong. Melody is really organized, very good at doing menus and is always coming up with creative dishes.
MB: Dennis is really strong at cooking on the line and working with our staff. It's not that he's really strong at all of the other components of being a chef, but if I had to say his biggest strength, that's what it would be. He's a really strong, fast cook who is also really great with our staff.
Was it difficult to translate coastal, California cuisine into a dining scene that is known for very heavy food?
DK: I think it was kind of a slap in the face. In California, you go to the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and you can walk through and see everything that's in season. Here, it's more like you have to look back at the menus from last May to figure out what's in season right now, and then figure the menu out from there. Produce is also more in flux here. Sometimes stone fruit comes in early, sometimes it comes in super late. Sometimes, cherries are here in April, and other times they don't come in until late May. So I have to constantly ask my suppliers what we can get. We used to be lucky enough to have relationships with farmers in California that were more consistent, and now it's more up in the air.
MB: That's been the hardest part. I would say that feeding people and them enjoying our style has not been that difficult, but acquiring product isn't easy.
A lot of chefs in the area have expressed similar concerns. What do you think it's going to take to make fresh, seasonal produce more consistently accessible in Dallas?
MB: It seems like there's a lot more farmers in the Austin area. I think if they knew that there were a lot of restaurants in Dallas that are eager to buy from them, they might come up here and sell to us. But if they think that they're just coming to Dallas to sell, say, one case of peaches, they're not going to make that trek. We do have a lot of really great tomatoes around here, squash and peppers.
There's stuff here, but it's not as easy as going to one place in downtown Santa Monica and seeing it all. Hopefully when the Farmer's Market here is revamped, it will kind of resemble that. Where restaurants could visit one or two days a week and know that our vendors are going to consistently be there with product that we want to use. We also want to become inspired by some of the more unique things that they have.
Lark on the Park is in a really unique position being right across the street from Klyde Warren Park. This area has grown so much in the past few years, and that has to be really exciting for you both. How have you seen Downtown change since opening the restaurant?
DK: The park opening brought people here from all over. We didn't live here before the park was open, but from what we hear from everybody, no one ever came down here to eat. People would come Downtown to go to the museums and then go hang out in Uptown. It's like it never occurred to them that there were restaurants and places to go in the middle of that. Klyde Warren has just opened up this area completely. If you walk around, the diversity on a Saturday afternoon is huge. You see families of all different colors, shades, whatever, hanging out in the park. It's not like there's just one kind of person who comes down here to enjoy it. It brings people from all over?
What about the weekly crowd? Is this area still very reliant on people who come Downtown on the weekends just to visit the park?
MB: We definitely have a strong weekday lunch crowd. Dinner can be busier as the week goes on, but we still get weirdly busy on a random Tuesday night. Then, on Thursday night, it will be surprisingly slow. It's hard to gauge, but that's this business. Last summer, the park was not as busy as it is this summer.
DK: It sounds cheesy, but the park literally built a bridge from all those Downtown offices to where we are. It's great.
How have you adapted the menu to more suit this crowd. Were there some things that you wanted to do that really didn't fit in with the palate of Dallas diners?
MB: I don't think so, people here have been really receptive to what we've wanted to do.
DK: The diners in Dallas are pretty adventurous as diners go, they're open to trying things. In LA, any time we'd do something with any kind of spice or heat, and most of the orders would ask for "no spice," or "chili on the side." Here, people love it. There's a couple of things we might have done that people may have not been sure about, but we didn't just sell one or two. It may not have been the most popular dish on the menu, but it would definitely sell. We did a fresh mackerel with uni and it may not be the biggest seller here, but people are willing to try it.
MB: I think people are really adventurous, and it's been nice to see.
How do you see your own personal cooking styles come together on the menu?
MB: We both just love food. Whenever I was younger, my whole goal was to travel, and I kind of ate my way around the world. Mostly just Europe and Asia, but also all over South America. I've always loved to travel and I've always loved food, so I try to incorporate all those things I encountered along the way that I loved. I cooked a little bit in Thailand, and for a classic French chef with Asian and Mexican influences. I kind of have a wide background of different styles.
DK: I don't want to say we come from opposite worlds, but we definitely have a little bit different backgrounds when it comes to cooking. I worked mostly in Mediterranean, Italian style of restaurants. California cuisine is basically what Mediterranean cuisine is, just in a different place in the world. It's fresh, seasonal, local produce that you just cook and make taste good. The beautiful ingredients speak for themselves. That's Mediterranean cooking, it's very simple. Like Italian food - it's tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and pasta. If your tomatoes are awesome and you're using a really nice olive oil, you really don't need much more than salt and pepper for it to be delicious. That's kind of where I come from, and I'll always have my base there.
MB: Dennis also kind of grew up in the restaurant industry and spent many, many years working in a kitchen. This is my second career.
What was your first career?
MB: I was in the film industry, the art department. I worked in the film industry for about 10 years, doing buying. I do miss it sometimes, especially because it was freelance. You could work for a year solid, really strenuously like we do here, and then take six months off. Now we don't have that option. I also really miss the traveling that I got to do. Cooking and food have always really been my passion, though, so that's why I quit.
With the increased focus on seasonality, it's going to be really, really hot in the next month and all the produce is probably going to die. How do you cope with that as a chef?
MB: You have to figure out what can survive and base your menu on that. We'll have a lot of field peas, okra, peppers. Then, we supplement with great produce from California. When we say local, Texas is certainly our focus, but what we can't get from here, we try to not go much further than California or Florida. We try not to venture down to Chile or India, we want to get it here from as close as possible. We still talk to a lot of our farmers in the Los Angeles area who have really great food.
Do you have any specific changes you're making for summer because certain ingredients won't be available or too expensive?
MB: For one, apricots and cherries are in season for such a very short time. We have an apricot-cherry salad on the new menu, and we're going to use apricots in a few other dishes. Once that season is over in June, we'll transition into other stone fruit like peaches and nectarines. Tomatoes should also be here very soon. Last year, we got heirloom tomatoes, watermelons, and a few other things from a local farmer named Don Baugh, and his produce lasted really long into the summer, well into July. So I guess we'll just have to see.
DK: We'll also use corn, peppers, and tomatoes for as long as they're around. A lot of the farms around here have greenhouses, so they're able to control their temperatures a little better. Amelia Farms does, and they can grow a little bit longer. Maybe Comeback Creek Farms, too?
Can you tell me a little bit more about the new menu? What's changed?
MB: We try to switch up the menu seasonally, and the last menu we had, just a few ingredients were starting to go out of season. We try to stay a step ahead of the weather and have ideas for what we can make when, say, corn, peppers, and tomatoes are ready and fresh, so that we can transition quickly. We're just inspired by really good produce, so it's easy to go with that flow.
DK: It's also hard to get spring produce, like fresh fava beans and peas. We have a lot of on our menu right now, but they're coming off next week. We can't really get them anymore, and what you can get, they're just not very good. They don't have that great, fresh flavor we're looking for or they're inconsistent in size and quality.
Is it difficult to contend with that unpredictability of good produce here? It seems like even once you've found a good vendor, it's still a struggle.
MB: It can be, but you learn to adapt quickly. Pretty much everything is unpredictable in the restaurant business.
What about adapting your flavors to the palates in Dallas. There is a lot of talk about what Dallas expects in a restaurant, but there's a very diverse group of diners here. How do you customize a California cuisine menu to blend with flavors that Texas diners expect?
MB: A lot of people like bolder, spicier flavors here. That's been the biggest thing, but it hasn't been hard for us because we really like cooking spicy food.
That's interesting because it seems like people in Los Angeles would be just as willing to eat spicy food as Texans, especially when you consider all the cultural influences there.
DK: Well, the white people don't eat spicy food. But you're right, there's huge Central American influence all over California, and so many different cuisines and cultures that love spicy food. But there's a certain demographic in LA that is just not interested in spice. The food is spicy, but not so much as here. Maybe it's the hot weather.
Do you like cooking in Dallas more than you liked cooking in LA? We're totally better here, right?
DK: It's just different. I really can't say that I like it more or less, but it's just different. That's like trying to pick my favorite dish on the menu, it's just really hard.
Are you guys planning to stay in Dallas for the long haul and try different concepts?
MB: Right now we're just focusing on Lark on the Park and making it the absolute best that it can be. Then maybe we can talk about something else in the future, but right now we're so incredibly busy.
In the year that you've both been here, what has Lark on the Park taught you?
DK: Make enough money so that you can open your own place?
MB: I don't know, it's ever evolving like other restaurants. It's been interesting navigating the food scene and figuring out what our customers want. It's just a constant learning process because food is always evolving and changing, especially in an up-and-coming food market.
Speaking of the Dallas food scene, what do you wish you saw more of here?
DK: I wish there was good Chinese food in Dallas.
MB: Yeah, I miss Chinese food. There is some, but it's just not very close to where we live. I'm from here originally, and I used to come visit my sisters a lot, and it's hard to find fresh, lighter food. I always remember being here for a week to visit and thinking that it was so nice that I didn't feel so heavy and weighed down after I got back to L.A. I still miss being able to get something that's lighter and not heavy with sauces. I notice that heavy feeling less now, but maybe that's because we're here every day.
Do you visit California regularly to try new restaurants and stay on top of what's going on there?
MB: No, not regularly, we've been way too busy. A restaurant in the first year is really chaotic, but we are going to San Francisco this weekend. We're excited because we haven't been there in a while, so we can try some new restaurants. Now that we've been open for a year, every day isn't a new day with new surprises. It gets a little bit easier every day as you build up that rhythm, so hopefully it will be easier to get out more. One problem with working together, though, is that we do bring our work home. We are still talking about the menu after we get home from work. We also just had a baby in January, and that kind of forced us to stop working such crazy hours. With two kids under two, we've had to slow down a little bit.
That sounds really challenging for you both. Opening and running a new restaurant while raising two small children.
MB: It is. We definitely wanted to make our lives as difficult as possible this past year.
But it sounds like you guys may thrive on chaos a little bit.
MB: Yeah, I think we do. But we survived!