Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Why Kitchen LTO’s “permanent pop-up” restaurant format works
Chef turnover every four months may sound daunting, but founder Casie Caldwell says that's the point.
WEST DALLAS The very nature of kitchen turnover is part of the game – it’s an all-encompassing reality in the restaurant world. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; cooks and chefs go through restaurants, gaining experience and esteem, and then repeat the process somewhere else. However, such volatility does inherently bring with it the need for nerves of steel in those who run the restaurants themselves. What happens to the restaurant when a chef makes a name for him or herself and then leaves for another opportunity? Are people going for the chef, or the restaurant? It’s a question many restaurateurs don’t want to answer. Unless, of course, the restaurateur is Casie Caldwell. She prefers to force the issue.
It’s been three months since Caldwell’s Kitchen LTO opened in Trinity Groves, and Caldwell is already looking for her next chef. It’s not that she thinks current Chef Norman Grimm isn’t doing wonderfully, but she’s ready for a new look, a new chef, and new dishes. At least, she’d better be: it’s all part of the concept. LTO, which stands for Limited Time Only, is a ‘permanent pop-up,’ a description that may seem contradictory at first, but is in fact completely descriptive of the execution.
“What that means is that the four walls stay the same, but we rotate the chef every four months and simultaneously we have transformable design elements that will change,” says Caldwell, who also owns Greenz. “So essentially, three times a year, we’re recreating the restaurant experience for our guests.”
The first iteration, which features Grimm’s cuisine and a design by Coevál Sudio’s John Paul Valverde and Miguel Vicens, features New American cuisine in a simple, but modern atmosphere with strong colors and a constructed tree in the middle acting as a focal point. The large patio presents outdoor dining on nicer days, and the lively, partially-open kitchen lends an upbeat sense of activity. The process of choosing chefs and designers through a competition-style selection may seem mix ‘n match, but for the first time at least, Caldwell is happy with the way in which the two complement each other.
“They did a nature-inspired look with the tree, but they did it in upscale fashion, where it doesn’t feel so raw,” Caldwell says. “I think it really mirrors the sort of a fresh, organic style of cooking that Norm is accustomed to.”
Though Grimm describes his food as "new American," he also notes the different aspects that go into his dishes. To pigeonhole them into one specific category would be to disallow for the thought and ingredients that go into their preparation. With dishes from sake-glazed pork belly to ricotta cheese gnocchi and even crispy-skin chicken with tabbouleh, eggplant caviar and Moroccon Jus, the menu covers items and techniques from around the world that Grimm has picked up in his more than two decades in professional kitchens.
“I’m very heavily French influenced, and I’m applying a lot of that technique with different ingredients. Braised lamb with farrow, Moroccan spice, just different kinds of fruits being cooked with different things, and applying the stuff I know to American food. It’s pretty straightforward,” Grimm says. “I like to do foods that people can kind of flash back to childhood memories. Like braised pork belly with apple puree relate to pork chops and apple sauce. People eat it, they can’t quite identify what it is, but it has a childhood memory. That’s the fun part about food, you can really do a lot with it.”
But Grimm’s tenure at LTO is short-lived, and as the prospects for the next chef and design begin to throw their names in the hat, Caldwell is left with the task of organizing the competitions and getting the judges ready for the next round of applicants. The applications can come in at any time, but three times a year the LTO culinary community, which consists of chefs and restaurateurs from around Dallas (Chris Zielke of Bolsa, Sharon Van Meter at 3015 Trinity Groves, and Cafe Momentum’s Chad Houser among them) will gather to screen the applications. The finalists are invited to a casual tasting of one dish that best represents their menu.
“They will prepare a menu for proposal, and they’ll answer the question, 'If I were to run Kitchen LTO, what would you do?' So we essentially invite them to that tasting, and at that same time it gives us an opportunity to do a deeper dive,” Caldwell says. "We interview them, because a lot of chefs look good on paper, but can they really cut it in the kitchen? So that really gives us and opportunity to get up close and personal with them and determine if they’re really legit.
“Then we basically say, 'Okay we will have a voting party, where we basically launch the voting.' That’s where essentially we put our five finalists – and designers, as well. We take those finalists and we put them out for the social media vote through our website. We will have a party to kick that off, and as many of our guests will say, 'How do I get invited to that party?' You just join our email list,” she says with a smile.
The uncertainty of what your kitchen will be serving – or what it will even look like – in a matter of months is a fortune that might seem harrowing to any restaurant owner, but she seems at ease with the proposition. And while the chefs may wonder what happens after four months, Caldwell says the results Grimm is seeing are more than moderately encouraging.
“What I found out is that some chefs are scared of it, honestly. Maybe they’re in a stable job and one of the most popular questions that I get is, ‘Well, what happens to me after the four months?’ And I always have the answer and say: ‘I don’t know. That’s sort of up to you, if you think about it. You’re investing in yourself just as much as we are – yeah, you get a paycheck but after that four months, if you’ve knocked it out of the park, you know you’re going to have all eyeballs on you.’”
When Grimm steps out of the kitchen at LTO, he may jump from limelight to limelight, with a new culinary adventurer taking his place. Regardless, it’s the unknown and the novel that make Kitchen LTO such a unique spot. And as they head into another round of selecting a chef and designer, she’s prepared for an enlightening, if exhausting, process.
“I think this is the most fun part,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s also the most challenging part.”
Changing a restaurant from the kitchen to the design to the menu and atmosphere every four months may certainly be challenging, but it’s also unique. And it’s exactly why the phrase "permanent pop-up" can make complete sense.
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