Q&A With Chef Chris Ward
Chef Chris Ward developed a passion for food as a child. Inspired by the style of his mother’s Louisiana cooking and his extensive travels with his parents, the seeds of Ward’s interest in haute cuisine were planted at an early age. Now, more than 20 years later, his creativity has been recognized and applauded by such publications as Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, and The New York Times.
Ward’s professional culinary career began in 1979 at Universal Restaurant Group’s upscale establishments Arthur’s and Old Warsaw in Dallas, where his talent was quickly recognized and rewarded with a promotion from line chef to sous chef. From there, he accepted the position of executive chef at Dallas’s landmark restaurant, Agnew’s, where his fresh New American dishes earned a four-star rating from The Dallas Morning News. In 1985, he was honored with the distinction of being the first American chef to assume the Executive Chef position at the Dallas-based Fairmont Hotel’s Pyramid Room and Venetian Room. In August 1995, Chris was handpicked as Executive Chef at the AAA Four-Diamond Award-winning Bedford Inn and Restaurant in New Hampshire.
In 1998, Ward brought his expertise to the Dallas-base MCrowd Restaurant Group, the company responsible for such Dallas favorites as Mi Cocina and Taco Diner. The company invited Chris to join them in creating a fine dining division. The result of their partnership is called Restaurant Life, a boutique restaurant group which showcases Ward’s cuisine with sharp style and sense of casual elegance.
Restaurant Life includes The Mercury, which features French-inspired New American cuisine in a minimalist atmosphere; Citizen, which offers neo-Asian fare in sleek surroundings; and Chop House, a prime steak house with a distinctly modern flair in Fort Worth. Chris serves as executive chef at all three of these award-winning restaurants.
Currently, Chris Ward and his partners are working on the opening of a new Restaurant Life concept. Paris Vendôme, a French brasserie, is scheduled to open in Summer 2001. In addition, Ward is working on his first cookbook, RESTAURANT LIFE which includes a varied selection of signature dishes from his many restaurants. RESTAURANT LIFE will be published in Fall 2001.
How much of your Louisianan roots makes its way into your food style?
Not too much at all. That part of Louisiana is not really influenced by the Creole style of food.
How do you juggle your time between three operations?
I set my schedule so I work at each restaurant three days in a row, that way every one knows when to expect me. With another two restaurants soon to open, this will become somewhat more of a challenge.
When I am at the operation I spend my time solely in the kitchen. I use the time to work with the chefs on my ideas for specials and new menu items. I am always open to their input, it is important however that each restaurant produces food in line with its concept.
Dallas... Land of Rib Eye Steak, or have things changed?
The tastes of the people of Dallas and the surrounding areas has changed, we still have a great number of guests that are meat eaters. At Citizen for example we see a little more of a younger "hip" kind of crowd, they love the Asian style of food but we still have one beef entree.
We all seem to be struggling for covers right now with the down turn in the economy..... How about you?
We are still seeing good business here, we were more effected by spring break than the "recession". There is a lot of construction taking place here, so hopefully this current period of recession hype will continue to have only a minimal effect upon our restaurants.
What is your food cost?
Between the three restaurants we run a 36% food cost.
Who are your customers?
It is quite broad, which is a great thing. At Chop House, our prime steak house in Fort Worth we see a more mature clientele and at Citizen we feed a younger set. The Mercury however sees dinners from both ends of the spectrum.
What makes a great menu?
Diversity - Consistency - Quality...
What drives you/makes you get out of bed to work?
A mix of enjoying what I do with never knowing what tomorrow will bring and a fear of failing!
What inspires you?
Seasonality for sure, it is fantastic when the season brings new product. Ramps, purple asparagus morels plus the classics like foie gras and caviar. These are that kind of products that just make you want to cook!
Writing a cookbook, is that as easy as we would all like to think?
With out doubt one of the hardest things I have ever taken on. For every finished dish there are several recipes that are part of it. It takes a lot of time to get those things done properly. The photography is also very time consuming, it takes about eight hours to photograph four dishes. What has made it easier though is the help of Christine Carbone. She has been testing all the recipes in a domestic kitchen, she has been putting a lot of hard work in to it too.
Tell us about the book...
It is called Restaurant Life, a varied selection of my signature dishes from my restaurants over the years
(including some childhood favorites). It will contain over eighty recipes from simple to sophisticated with plenty of pictures. Restaurant Life will be published in Fall 2001.
If you are not a chef what would you be doing?
An airline pilot with out a doubt.... Boeing 747.
A word of advice for the cooks of tomorrow...
In this business what you do has to come from the heart. Do not get in to it if your social life is more important, and find a tolerant spouse that understands the business, it is a killer on relationships!
Chris Ward on Indulgence
Foie gras and caviar are pure elegance. Even though I serve this stuff daily, I personally can’t get enough. It’s not something that you sit around and eat every day, of course. It’s pricey.
The first time I ever ate caviar was when my father ordered it at a restaurant in San Francisco. I remember him eating it and just grinning. I’ve been hooked ever since. I bought my dad a tin of Petrossian Beluga for his birthday. It set me back a pretty penny, but it’s his most favorite food in the world. Besides, if it weren’t for him and my mom, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. What do you get the man who has everything? A tin of caviar.
The best way to experience caviar is cold with a spoon and a glass of champagne. Nothing more, nothing less. Okay, maybe a little bread and unsalted butter. And never ever chopped eggs, onions or capers - it just obliterates the taste. You pay good money for this, why adulterate an already fine flavor? The very best I’ve had is the fabulous Golden Oscietre - the eggs are bigger and have a slight golden tint to them than regular Oscietre. They have that great “pop” sensation on the roof of your mouth - that’s one characteristic of caviar that we are seeing less and less of. If you have the opportunity to try it, I heartily recommend you do so.
Foie Gras is comfort food. You put it in your mouth and it just melts. It’s a treat and about as far away from the liver of “liver and onions” fame as you can get. I’ve been cooking it for a long time and am happy to see its renewed popularity on restaurant menus. Cooking foie gras is not what you think it would be. When you put it in the pan or on the grill, it’s firm. The more you cook it, the softer it gets. When it’s just right, it’s a silky plump pouch, exactly the opposite of what happens when you cook a steak, which gets firmer as you cook it.
The best way to cook foie gras is sautéing, which doesn’t add any additional flavors. It’s just the simplicity of the seared meat that’s accented with a little kosher salt and pepper that makes foie gras so delicious to me. Foie gras is pure magic
I’ve categorized these as indulgences not because of their hoighty toighty history, but because they are a little more expensive and they are a treat. They feed something deep inside you besides a hunger pang. That, to me is the definition of indulgence - a once in a while experience one shouldn’t pass on.