Secrets of a chef: Inside the heads and homes of culinary masters

Working in the garden of his Oak Cliff home is the ideal way to spend a day off for Gmo Tristan, who is a sous chef at FT33: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Working in the garden of his Oak Cliff home is the ideal way to spend a day off for Gmo Tristan, who is a sous chef at FT33: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Working in a kitchen is not glamorous. It’s hot. It’s demanding. The profit margins are small. The hours are long. And the work has to be perfect every time. We wanted to know what life is like for a few of our neighborhood’s best chefs, so we asked them a bunch of questions in an attempt to get to know who they really are.

Gmo Tristan

“If something doesn’t look right, tell me.”

Gmo Tristan worked three jobs while studying visual arts at Eastfield College, and one of them was in catering. Eventually, he realized that cooking was his true passion, so he enrolled in the pastry program at El Centro before deciding on cuisine. He then worked at a seafood restaurant in Montauk, N.Y., and went to work for Charlie Palmer at The Joule in 2008. He started as a sous chef at Matt McCallister’s FT33 last year. He lives in Oak Cliff with his wife, Melissa, and their 6-year-old son, Luca.

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What is in your fridge right now?
Pasture-raised eggs. My wife buys them from Vital Farms. Peanut butter and Nutella so I can make sandwiches for my son. We do have a lot of vegetables. My wife likes to do a lot of juicing.

What is your favorite kitchen item?
My coffee maker, whenever I can actually get to use it.

What is the least-used thing in your home kitchen?
Anything having to do with pastries. I have a lot of that stuff from when I was a pastry chef.

What is your ideal comfort food?
Anything I can cook at home with my family. Usually chicken, some steamed veggies, maybe some whipped potatoes and a nice hearty salad.

Your significant other has family coming in for the weekend — what do you cook for them?
Fresh-made pasta and a fresh Bolognese sauce. One of my favorite foods is Italian food. A nice hearty salad, a baguette with Parmesan, and that’s probably it.

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If you could cook for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
If I could go back, I would probably cook for my grandparents, to show them how far I’ve come along in my career. My grandmother was a cook for the family. My grandfather wasn’t much of a cook, but he would eat anything my grandmother would put in front of him. My grandmother was a big breakfast person, so I would cook her a big breakfast. My grandfather was more of a barbecue man, so I would try to cook barbecue, or if not, I would probably call Jack Perkins [of The Slow Bone] and sneak that in there.

If you had to eat the same lunch every day for the rest of your life, but it could be anything in the world, what would it be?
Breakfast cereal.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

What would you have for your last meal on earth?
A nice, big, hearty bowl of ramen is probably the last thing I would want to eat.

It’s your birthday and you are stuck in the neighborhood. What would you like to do?
I would probably get up early, go eat brunch. I usually go to El Jordan, and then afterward, I would want to come home and work on our garden. My wife has this really nice English garden going on in the front yard, and I love the way it looks. We’ve got some vegetables growing in the front as well.

What is your favorite neighborhood restaurant for a quick meal?
In a pinch, El Jordan is always good. I’ve always liked it. It reminds me of my grandparents, so it’s very down-home for me.

What is your favorite local beer?
I’m not really a beer drinker, but I tried that Deep Ellum IPA, and I thought that was really good.

What dish have you created that you’re really proud of?
The one I did for last year’s Chefs for Farmers I was really proud of. It’s a collaboration of things I learned over my career. It was a Moroccan glazed lamb loin, served over a roasted-carrot hummus with fried chickpeas, drunken raisins and cumin almonds.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
Maybe that’s a question for my wife. When I first started out, I remember marinating chicken, and I grilled the chicken and then I poured the marinade over the cooked chicken. She was like, “Uh, we can’t eat that. It’s contaminated.” I didn’t know any better at the time.

What’s on your DVR right now?
I watch a lot of movies. But I also watch whatever my wife watches. “Modern Family” … I usually like a good documentary.

What is your favorite major-league sports team?
I used to like hockey a lot, so I guess the Stars.

What is your Starbucks order?
Caffe latte, usually. That’s it.

Has a food critic ever hurt your feelings?
No, they’re just doing their job.

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career so far?
Scott Romano, the executive chef at Charlie Palmer, told me that if something doesn’t look right, tell me, and take more time.

When Justin Holt isn’t running a ramen pop-up shop or butchering a 400-pound hog at Lucia, he likes watching B-movie horror films: Photo By Danny Fulgencio
When Justin Holt isn’t running a ramen pop-up shop or butchering a 400-pound hog at Lucia, he likes watching B-movie horror films: Photo By Danny Fulgencio

Justin Holt

“Do it to the best of your ability, and then go further”

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Justin Holt, originally from Paris, Texas, began his culinary career at Nonna. He then worked at Lucia for two years, and he made a big impression on Oak Cliff with his pop-up ramen shops at Ten Bells Tavern. After a stint running the kitchen at Driftwood, he has returned to Lucia as co-sous chef.

What is in your fridge right now?
Leftover Chinese food, tare [Japanese soy basting sauce] from my last ramen pop-up, Champagne, and beer and butter.

What are your staple groceries at home?
I don’t cook enough at home enough to have staple groceries. You go to the store for a reason. I don’t go to the grocery store to shop for a week.

What is your favorite kitchen item?
My pasta extruder.

What’s that?
It’s like this big clunky piece of equipment that mixes dough and pushes out pasta that has this texture that’s similar to dried pasta, but it’s fresh pasta.

What is the least-used thing in your home kitchen?
Microwave.

What is your ideal comfort food?
Ramen.

If you had to eat the same lunch every day for the rest of your life, but it could be anything in the world, what would it be?
I don’t eat lunch. This is lunch, energy drink and cigarettes.

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It’s your birthday and you are stuck in the neighborhood. What would you like to do?
Honestly, eat at Lucia. For my birthday? Hell yeah. Maybe get a slow burn [cocktail] from Boulevardier.

What is your favorite neighborhood restaurant for a quick meal?
I like Greek Café for gyros, but you definitely have to be in the mood for it. Chicken Scratch, Rudy’s. I love Rudy’s.

What is your favorite local beer?
The Hammer [Peticolas Velvet Hammer].

Have you created a dish that you’re really proud of?
No, they’re all works in progress.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
I used to sear hamburger patties in a skillet and boil them in beer for my buddies, before I went to [culinary] school. In hindsight, I am sure it was terrible, but at the time, I guess we thought it tasted pretty good.

You’ve just received a $1,000 bonus and two consecutive days off. What’s on the agenda?
Get out of town and go eat somewhere. Spend it all.

What’s on your DVR right now?
I watch like B-movie horror all the time. The worse it is, the better.

What is your opinion of reality TV cooking shows?
They’re caustic. They’re creating a false environment. They’re making all the younger cooks have these false expectations of what they should get and what life as a cook is. People are … not expecting to have to sacrifice anything for the guest and for hospitality as a whole. You’re giving up your life, your social life, to surround yourself with miscreants and all these shady individuals who are just getting off work at midnight.

What’s the best piece of wisdom or advice you’ve received in your career?
Go as hard and as fast as you can. Really push yourself and really leave everything out there. Do it to the best of your ability, and then go further. You’re always setting your own pars. The business will always expect more from you than you can deliver, which is good. That keeps you pushing.

Mike Gibson likes coffee. The Lucia sous chef knocked on the restaurant’s back door one day and asked to “stage,” the culinary tradition of volunteering in a kitchen until a cook has proven himself: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Mike Gibson likes coffee. The Lucia sous chef knocked on the restaurant’s back door one day and asked to “stage,” the culinary tradition of volunteering in a kitchen until a cook has proven himself: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mike Gibson

“Don’t chase a paycheck. Work for places you want to work.”

Mike Gibson worked at the Dallas Country Club for a year and a half following the Air Force and culinary school. He’d heard about David Uygur’s Lucia, where every two weeks, they break down a whole 350-to-400-pound hog and make it into charcuterie. He wanted every part of that. So he knocked on the back door of the restaurant and offered to “stage,” the culinary tradition of volunteering in a kitchen until a cook has proven himself. Gibson says he was waiting for Uygur to “tell me ‘never come back’ or ‘you have a job.’ ”

What’s in your home fridge right now?
Out-of-date milk, butter, lots of butter, bacon, biscuits and beer.

What is your favorite kitchen item at home?
If I had to answer that question, it would probably be my coffee maker, but I don’t want to answer that question.

What is your ideal comfort food?
Chicken and dumplings.

Your significant other has family coming in for the weekend — what do you cook for them?
Has to be chicken. Her dad doesn’t eat anything but chicken. We roast chicken, and I did a pan-fried chicken before … I got him to eat collard greens for the first time in like a decade, he said. But it’s always chicken.

If you had to eat the same lunch every day for the rest of your life, but it could be anything in the world, what would it be?
Ham sandwich. It’s got to be the spiral-cut ham with white bread.

Mayo?
No mayo, just really good ham.

It’s your birthday and you are stuck in the neighborhood. What would you like to do?
Eat at Lucia, and then I would go to Ten Bells. It’s really bad having such a love for the neighborhood and being stuck here, and it’s your birthday, you’ve got to celebrate.

What is your favorite local beer?
That’s tough. My favorite beer is Lone Star… I’m being serious.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
Back in college, we used to eat a lot of brisket, and it’s college, so you’re always broke. Sometimes all the meat from the brisket would be gone, and we would eat brisket-fat sandwich.

You just received a $1,000 bonus and two consecutive days off. What’s on the agenda?
I could easily spend it all in two days [in restaurants] and Underberg [herbal bitters].

What’s on your DVR?
‘SportsCenter’

What is your favorite major-league sports team?
The Texas Rangers … although not this year.

What is your Starbucks order?
Oh, I don’t know. Have you ever heard of Green Beans Coffee? [Editor’s note: This is a coffee shop chain that serves military bases.] They have a drink called the M.O.A.C., mother of all coffees, and it’s a black coffee with four shots of espresso.

What is the best advice you’ve received in your culinary career?
So far in my career, it’s a sous chef at the club who told me, “Don’t chase a paycheck.” Work for places you want to work. Don’t go for the money.

Kyle McClelland can survive on mango smoothies from Bolsa Mercado and Cocoa Pebbles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Kyle McClelland can survive on mango smoothies from Bolsa Mercado and Cocoa Pebbles: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Kyle McClelland

“This is the place that you can do what you love to do.”

Some Dallasites may remember Kyle McClelland from his days at The Cedars Social. He helped start that restaurant with friends he’d known since their early days at Toppers at the Wauwinet on Nantucket, Mass. McClelland was born and raised in Cape Cod and also worked at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, N.Y., and Caviar Russe in New York City before starting his own restaurant, Prospect, in Brooklyn. Prospect was a critical success. It received great reviews from all the New York papers and a Michelin rating, and it was McClelland’s dream come true. Lucky for us, he grew weary of paying a large kitchen staff and scraping to pay his own exorbitant rent. “If the restaurant isn’t doing that well financially, whose pay has to get cut? That’s me,” he says. McClelland is working on a program of oysters and absinthe at Driftwood, and he’s hired pastry chef Annika Loureiro from Cedars Social and Prospect.

What is in your fridge right now?
I’ve been living at my friend’s house for a month and a half until my loft is ready, but I actually went to the market the other day. I got some melons — melons are very nice right now — red grapes, Cocoa Pebbles. I love Cocoa Pebbles. Lots of drinks; I’m a drink guy. I got white grape juice, Fresca … I bought some of that Blue Bell blackberry cobbler. But yeah, I buy Honey Bunches of Oats and Cocoa Pebbles, and I mix ’em.

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What is your favorite kitchen item?
My knife.

What is the least-used thing in your home kitchen?
Probably my stove.

What is your ideal comfort food?
Watching Sunday football and eating a bucket of chicken. That’s comforting.

Your significant other has family coming in for the weekend — what do you cook for them?
I’ll go to the market and get what I think looks freshest. Some seafood. It’s grilling season right now. Recently I did some halibut and dry-aged rib-eyes and then grilled vegetables. When I’m at home, I’m not too meticulous; I’m very simple.

If you could cook for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
My grandfather. He passed away right before I graduated high school. My mother’s father. They lived up in New Hampshire. He would come home with bags of lobsters, and we would whole-boil them and dip them in butter. That was such an amazing thing when I was a kid. I remember having those moments, and I never really got to cook for him.

If you had to eat the same lunch every day for the rest of your life, but it could be anything in the world, what would it be?
I’m a smoothie guy. That’s my lunch and breakfast [pointing to his mango smoothie from Bolsa Mercado], besides Cocoa Pebbles.

What is your favorite neighborhood restaurant for a quick meal?
I like going to Dalat [on North Fitzhugh]. They’re open late, so for me, it’s like I can get out of here and go get a bowl of noodles.

What dish have you created that you’re really proud of?
I’ve been doing the Dover sole since Nantucket. Right now, we do it with fresh pea tendrils, smoky bacon, duck-fat potatoes and whole roasted onions, à la meunière style, garlic-lemon breadcrumbs. It’s a very classic French dish. It’s good.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
My ‘Chopped’ experience. I got leftovers. It was horrible.

Has a food critic ever hurt your feelings?
No. Because it’s only one person. We had 144 write-ups in the first year of Prospect. Most of them were very positive. We got all great things, but I guess … it’s only one person. I get the best feedback from my guests.

You just received a $1,000 bonus and two consecutive days off. What’s on the agenda?
I’m pretty close to Mexico. I’d take a couple days on the beach. Just relax. Or I’d just sleep and keep the $1,000.

What’s on your DVR right now?
‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Silicon Valley’ … I watch a lot of series like that.

What is your favorite major-league sports team?
I take a lot of crap for this, but I am a Yankees fan. I am a Steelers fan. For hockey, the Bruins. For basketball, it’s so hard. I’m a Boston Celtics fan, but since half my Celtics team moved to Brooklyn, and I lived in Brooklyn, I became partial to the Brooklyn Nets as well.

What is your Starbucks order?
Grande Hazelnut iced coffee, usually, and sometimes a classic coffee cake.

What is your opinion of reality TV cooking shows?
They’ve made this industry look glamorous, and it’s not. This industry is hard. It’s very, very hard. You’ve got to have a love for food because it can beat you down. I am very work-driven, and a lot of people don’t understand why my life is my work and my job. But I set goals for myself, and I was going to achieve them, and I did. Now I have new goals.

What’s the best advice you’ve received so far in your career?
My mentor, Dave Daniels — I worked for him about eight years in Boston and Nantucket. He definitely showed me the ropes, but he always told me to leave my [baggage] at the door. No matter what’s going on in your life, this is your place where you can let it go and have a little sanctuary. This is the place that you can do what you love to do and not worry about anything else.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity 

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