A Conversation with Chef Kent Rathbun:
The Man With the Golden Touch
The Missouri native and Iron Chef, inspired by his gastronome parents, worked his way through the ranks at Dallas’ Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Landmark Restaurant before opening his own landmark, Abacus restaurant, in 1997. The highly lauded fine-dining establishment sent Rathbun’s star into orbit, and he’s since opened numerous other restaurants in the DFW area and Houston, as well as launched a line of home-cooking products called Kent Rathbun Elements. Amid juggling the operations of those projects, he also owns a full-service catering company and travels frequently to food and wine festivals and leads culinary excursions the world over. Happily, he took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Cocktails & Joints to discuss what he’s been up to. FYI, it’s the usual: cooking, globetrotting … and sipping coffee within blessing range of the pope. Yes, that pope. Here’s more.
Tell us a little about your upcoming endeavors – I know you’re doing food festivals and traveling a lot.
Well, you know, springtime/early summer for chefs is crazy, especially. We have all kinds of food and wine festivals scheduled all over the country – I just got back from Atlanta, Food & Wine Magazine’s food and wine festival. We just did Food & Wine’s festival in Austin. I’m getting ready to go to Aspen’s Food & Wine Festival for a private client, which is kind of cool as an extension of our catering operation. We’ve been asked to go and cook a meal for Flexjet, the private jet company. They’re entertaining 80 of their top clients in America at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, so we’re flying in to cook for their clients, and that’s going to be pretty cool.
I have Disney coming up in October. I have been part of the Epcot Food & Wine Festival for the last … oh, how many years? Eight. … Let me just say that the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is one of my favorite events. Primarily, it’s done in Disney fashion, which is everything is over the top and fantastic. So not only do they do the event over the top and really awesome, but they also treat the chefs like kings. And so one day we get our personal guide that takes you through all the parks, so we get to go in the back door, we get to go straight to the front of the line – we don’t wait in any line. It’s pretty special, and I have to remind my children it’s not normal, ok – if we come here on our own, we will not have the little guide.
It’s pretty special, though. For me, Disney is an example of a company that [says] “whatever it takes, we’re gonna do the right thing.” This food and wine festival that they do goes on for several weeks, and they bring chefs in every week from all around the country, and they pair those chefs with all the chefs at Epcot. You know, Epcot Center is the world showcase. So it’s really pretty cool because we get to see food from all over the world. And, by the way, some of these chefs that work in these countries in Epcot – they’re pretty on top of their game, so you get to see some pretty fantastic ethnic food from around the world from their chefs, then the other guys will come in from around the country and bring cool stuff, too. So it’s good times.
Oh, and Cabo – that’s also my vacation. [Pulls recorder to his mouth] I cannot wait for that [laughs].
You could have a much worse gig to pair with your vacation …
Let me tell you how Cabo got started. My wife’s good friend knew a lady that worked at this resort when it first opened. And they got this crazy idea to go and have her birthday – meaning my wife’s friend – down at this Capella Pedregal. So she got 18, 20, 22 people together – well, I was supposed to be on that trip, but I decided it’d be a good idea to try to rollerblade, and … that didn’t turn out so well. … That prompted another trip, because they wanted me to see it. This time, I got involved and we did sort of a culinary thing. We ended up putting together a group of 24 people, and they all came down and I paired with the chef to make a little dinner, we did a cooking class, and we also did an organic farm tour where everybody got to gather all these vegetables and we came back and prepared them and created this fantastic dinner with all that stuff. Well, this went over so well with the hotel that they wanted to talk with me about further partnerships. So during that conversation, I said, “you guys need to have an annual food and wine festival that’s all about Capella and that’s all about the Baja region of Mexico. You need to invite two or three chefs and they need to do this weekend of Capella Pedregas. It seems to me you could pick a weekend that’s historically slow for you and turn it into a have-to-do ticket. And I think you could do it in a matter of years.” Which they’ve done.
So last year was our first one, and I think I’m locked in for a while … because it was my idea [laughs]. They might kick me out at some point, but I’m still gonna go. I just talked to Marco (at the hotel) and he told me they’re nearly booked, and this is the second year. My feeling is that next year it’s going to be a hard ticket to get.
This year, we invited Dean Fearing. Dallas is a big market for Capella, so they’re extremely well-represented with me and Dean. … Also the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry is one of the chefs this year, so it’s pretty big. I’m just happy to be there.
You have a ton on your plate …
We have seven restaurants if you count KB’s [Woodfire Grill in Plano] as a restaurant – right now we’re using it as a venue [and catering and office headquarters]. … Then we have the line of products, then we have the catering operation, then we have the charity things that we do, and we have the appearances that I do, so it does get busy.
But I will tell you that part of my job as a chef in our company and the owner of the company is to make sure I’ve got really great people around me. And I can tell you that we could never do any of this if I didn’t have a good team, and part of building the team is years of running a good business and having a good reputation, but mostly it’s allowing some of these people to come here and learn and grow, and giving them a little bit of autonomy while sticking with what I want to see as a company and as a brand.
The other thing about our company is we have all these different concepts that allow me as a chef to kind of really get creative, because I can come here [Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen] and do a shrimp and grits plate, and go to Abacus and do some really cool foie gras dish, and I can go to Shinsei and I can do a Kobe beef dish. And then catering is off the chain, because we can do anything, from a kids’ taco bar to a super-fancy meal for hundreds of people.
And then there’s the endorsement part of that … I do a lot of things with different food councils around the country, you know. We work with the avocado council, we work with the beef council, I’ve developed Freschetta pizzas, I’ve developed Pizza Hut pizzas – we’ve done so many things. I try not to say no to these things, because I always learn as a chef. Even if it’s something that I might not turn around and put in my own restaurant – like the frozen pizza – man, there’s so much I learned in that project. … You kind of have to be open-minded to get that.
Tell us about your culinary tours.
I love to travel, and I have no problem traveling with people … as long as they behave. So I learned years ago that I can travel with a group and let people experience what I experience, which is, quite honestly, a bit of a gift sometimes. Being a chef in a restaurant that serves a lot of wine, we have a lot of assets around the world in wine regions, and we are welcome in a lot of places with open arms and amazing treatment you might not get as a normal person. … So we like to be able to arrange for some of our top clients to get that same experience. Cabo is a really good example, even though it’s more of a vacation than a culinary tour. This is a place where the resort is fantastic by bringing these chefs together and doing all this cool food. We like to be able to bring people to that. We’ve taken people to Spain, we’ve taken them to Italy a couple different times, we’ve taken them to Sonoma, Napa, New York. We have an itinerary that’s planned for France; we’re trying to take a group to Istanbul. [Ed. note: To get notices about these trips, sign up for
Rathbun’s email newsletter at KentRathbun.com.]
Do you have any new restaurant concepts on the horizon?
We have lots of opportunities that we’re looking at. You know, we’ve been approached months and years ago by [Fuddrucker’s and Macaroni Grill founder] Phil Romano, and we’re still looking at that project. We’re looking at the new farmers market project. We have several sites around Dallas and Fort Worth that are trying to get us to go in.
I will tell you, I have definitely learned a few things during this last economy blunder, and that is the super, super expensive restaurants, it’s not going to be the direction we head. For instance, we think a restaurant like Blue Plate is the wave of the future, and that is a restaurant that has some bones in it that maybe failed for someone else, but we can come in and we can do a really cool re-fit, put in a cool concept and go on and do business without a high, high outlay of cash.
Another big thing for us is that we just inked a deal with a company to represent us with airport restaurants. What we’re hoping to do is expand Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen to Rathbun’s Blue Plate Burger or Rathbun’s Blue Plate Barbecue. There’s actually a lot of discussion about putting both of these concepts in the same terminal, as an example.
The cool thing is … Blue Plate Burger and the Blue Plate Barbecue would be driven off of [Rathbun’s Elements] products.
How do you find time for all these different aspects of your life and business?
I wish I had more time. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could clone myself.
I work every day. I work from morning till night. And I fit my life in there – people ask me, “well how do you separate that from your personal life,” and I always laugh and go, “there is no personal life.” And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. My life is entertaining people through food and restaurants. That’s what I do. Everything I do, every time I travel, every time I go to a vacation, it has got something to do with this industry. Whether I’m looking at food and going, “I could do that at home” … I love to see new products, I love to see new foods. I love to go to countries, and all I do is wander through markets and look at all this cool food. So for me to say to you that I try to separate my life, I don’t. There’s nothing separate about it. My children are living this life; they understand it – they do their thing. They have a schedule, I have a schedule, we have a schedule, but everything is all together.
I don’t know any other way to do it. I can’t turn myself off on a Sunday or a Monday. … so I put my free time in when I can.
… including on work trips to Cabo!
The Cabo trip is more play than work. And by the way, for me – that place, not Cabo but Capella, is my favorite place in the world. And if you go, you have to go through this tunnel in the mountains to get to it. It’s in a beach area that’s secluded from the town. … I’m telling you when I go through that tunnel, it is a complete shutdown of my normal life, you know what I’m saying? It is a place where I can get a little bit of a turn-off – I can turn myself off a little bit there because I’m secluded. … That’s the only time I can really chill.
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.