Chef Graham Dodds
Conversation with Farah Fleurima, The Dallas Diva!
Images by Jeremy Brown
Central 214’s executive chef is a man with a mission: He hews closely to inventive, uber-seasonal, local cuisine while being mindful of the desires of the typically upscale, savvy traveler staying at the Hotel Palomar, which houses the fine-dining destination. Coming to Central 214 after putting Oak Cliff’s Bolsa’s locavore-centric dining on the map, Dodds continues to show his flare for wholesome food with an upscale bent; look for Central 214 to launch its spring menu in the coming weeks. Meantime, Dodds dishes to us about spring fare, getting friendly with farmers and his lifelong love for beekeeping.

What’s providing your menu inspiration right now?
It’s always seasonal; more than anything, it’s a relationship with the farmers and it’s what they have growing at this time. I do meet with them and we plan for them to do certain things, and they know what works, what’s worked in the past. Most of the time, it’s driven by Mother Nature, what’s ready. ... The quintessential spring ingredients are the green garlic, I’ve got them from a couple different people. Spring onions come up … a lot of the greens, the chards, the arugulas and the collard greens are even starting. There’s the spring peas, fava beans, there’s some of the nice wild mushrooms, the morel mushrooms. The fiddlehead ferns. … So the ingredients really speak to the inspiration, and that’s kind of how I always do it.

Meats are playing a big part of it. I’m getting a great amount of local meat now. The Wagyu beef that we get from Waxahachie, the goat. We’ve been getting the goose eggs, the duck eggs, those are laying now. There’s a bunch of pork ready from different places. It’s an exciting time of year.

I sometimes hear that other chefs feel limited in their creativity in working for a restaurant in a hotel. Do you feel freedom to do what you want here?
I feel totally free to do what I want with the menu. That being said, I have staples and standards – dishes that the travelers want; like you can always get the Caesar salad and the burger and that sort of thing. That stuff’s always available. We have a grilled cheese and tomato soup, that kind of comfort food that you’d like if you’re traveling. You don’t always wanna eat a piece of goat, you know? But, yeah, they give me a lot of freedom hereto do my own thing.

What’s new in the kitchen?
I got a new sous chef that came to me from Nonna, named Derek, and he’s bringing a lot of new ideas in, so it gives me a chance to kind of bounce ideas back and forth with somebody else and be creative. And he’s super passionate. He actually comes to work talking about dreaming about dishes the night before. You know, it’s neat to have that passionate aspect, somebody that’s totally into it. We’ve been getting some whole animals in, too. We got two whole goats in and got a pig in.

Are you a snout-to-tail kind of chef?
Yeah. And that’s a huge challenge, is finding something to do with all the different parts. It’s fun.

You brought the underground farm-to-table movement well to the fore while you were at Bolsa – would you say it’s a culinary bubble, or is it here to stay?
I think it’s here to stay. I think there’s enough people committed to it and enough of a grassroots movement about it. I hate to think of it as a passing trend. I think it’s a mentality that we’ve got to get back to this as a way of life, supporting your local agriculture. I’m not suggesting that people are gonna stop flying things in from other places, or trucking things in. Because it is hard to support a hotel restaurant in August in Texas, in the midst of all the heat, and you have 10 farmers coming to you with just onions. I mean, what are you supposed to do, an onion menu? It’s some challenges on that front. But that gets back to Mother Nature determining what we do. [laughs]

Tell me about your bees – is there a honeybee season, and what are your menu plans for the product this spring and beyond?
There is a honey season. I lost a lot of hives from the colony collapse and from the drought, so mine have taken a big hit. I have a relationship with Susan Brandon from the North Texas Honeybee Guild here in town, and their bees took a big hit. They think they’ve lost up to 40 percent of them from last year. Which, a lot of it they kind of consider was the aerial spring – with the mosquitoes – that killed off their bees. … So there’s a little bit of a shortage of honey, but the season is funny because it all depends on the weather and the amount of rain and how healthy your hives are to really take off honey. I only do honey in the comb; I don’t spin mine out to do liquid honey.

How many years have you done it?
I’ve done it my whole life; I learned when I was a kid. My grandfather kept bees in Scotland, and I stayed over there in the summers, so I really started when I was 6 or 7. I’d help him tend the bees, I’d help him collect swarms, I’d help him harvest the honey and bottle the honey.

How many years have you done it?On the current menu, what are the must-try signatures?
Well, coming off of winter, we still have some of those dishes, we still have the oxtail ragu, it’s become one of our signatures. It’s one of my favorite dishes. So that one’s nice, but that one’s about to go away now that it’s getting too warm. We put the kale salad on year-round now, everybody loves that. … People loved it and they got mad when I took it off [the menu], so I put it back on. The other signature dish, the Scotch egg, is on there all the time. We’ve been getting some beautiful ribs from Marbelous beef – great big beef ribs. They’re gorgeous, and the flavor’s amazing. So we’ve been doing a little rub on them and dry roasting them, and they’re delicious, so that’s been a must-try. We usually do a play on a barbecue plate with it.

Let’s talk cocktails – how much input do you have into what’s created at the bar?
I have a great amount of input. Amber’s great with that. She always works with me; I’ve worked in so many other places where bartenders did their own thing, there’s that ego and all that. Amber’s great, she is always looking for what the ingredient is that’s around at that time and where we’re getting stuff from. And I’ll bring stuff in and let her try stuff, and she comes up with the most awesome way to use it. It’s great. It’s a really nice, concise experience, because to have your bar program on that same wavelength I think just makes the whole experience rounded out.
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