Next in Line
Editor's note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big name chefs grow to demi-god celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unrecognized. Next in Line is a monthly column celebrating back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Chad Dolezal
Kitchen: The Hightower
Position: Co-owner and cook. I’m not really a fan of the term “chef.” Right now, with the way things have changed in our profession over the last five years, I can take more pride in being a cook. Being a chef means a lot more things and it’s a wide range. To me, it’s become more of a figurehead public speaking role versus cooking in a kitchen. And I feel I can take more pride standing in a kitchen with cooks, being a cook.
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
When did you first start cooking? My grandfather cooked a lot. He had a restaurant in Portland, Oregon so he came from a cooking background. [His place] was nothing fancy, just a family neighborhood restaurant. Between him and my mom — I would help her cook a lot and she was an amazing cook just like he was — and it kinda stemmed from that. We made a lot of really simple stuff. My mom grew up in San Antonio and Austin, so a lot of times when we sat down for comfort food, it was enchiladas and tacos and things like that. So a lot of the reason we do what we do here is because it’s the food we grew up on.
What was your first cooking job? My first kitchen job was in Portland. I went to culinary school up there [at the Western Culinary Institute] and started cooking at a restaurant called Portland City Grill. And it was just a massive, huge restaurant. The kitchen was bigger than the entire space we have here now. It was on the 30th floor of this building and it was just insane. We’d do happy hours every day where we’d just get our tickets and throw them away because there was no point in even trying to keep up with orders. We’d just make food until the food runners told us to stop. It was fun for me getting to learn there because it was the busiest restaurant I’ve ever worked in and nothing’s ever going to beat that. Everything else has been like, “Okay, if we’re in the weeds, we can handle this because it’s never as deep as it was there.”
How did you end up in Austin? I love Portland and I love the food scene there. There were a lot of similarities between there and Austin. I was living there with my girlfriend — who’s my wife now — and she’s from Oklahoma and her parents now live in Austin. We kept talking about being so far from family [and] we decided to get closer to where we’re both from.
What other places have you cooked? I moved back to Austin and I worked at Bess [Bistro] for a short time. Straight from there I went to El Arbol and that’s where I met Vic [Farnsworth, The Hightower co-owner and general manager]. And that was a massive undertaking that I probably wasn’t prepared for when I took it. I started off as a sous chef but, before they opened, I took over the role as executive chef. And it was a beast but I’m still proud of the kitchen and what we put out there. Some of the people that worked in that kitchen are working all over town now. I think I hired very well there because we had a great crew. But it’s what led to [The Hightower]. Vic and I looked at that, not only the size of the place but the price point too, and it was very much one of those things where we said we wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something that fit in more, where our friends could come in and have a beer, have some food, and they could do that every week if they wanted to.
Between Portland and Austin I did a stage in Nuits-Saint-Georges, France at a restaurant called La Gentilhommière. I had a great chef there and his motto was, "You should always be cooking for the people you love and you should always put love in your food." It was one of those things where we felt like we had to get back to serving the people we saw every day and we wanted to make sure that was our best attempt at a neighborhood restaurant, which is what I hope we’ve done at The Hightower.
What chefs were your biggest inspiration? My mom, my grandfather, and then, as far as cooking in a professional sense, a chef out of Chicago called Paul Kahan who does The Publican, Blackbird, Avec. He’s someone who’s not trying to be TV personality — he’s a chef. I mean, he’s what I would see as a definition of a chef, someone who goes in and works with his restaurants and cultivates good food and good people to work in those establishments. And the chef I worked with in France, his name was René Pianetti at La Gentilhommière and the sous chef there, Alex, as well. We would get excited, as cooks, because there were all these toys to play with ... but something [they taught me] stayed with me for a long time [is] don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t get caught up in trying to impress somebody. Do your best to make the food good and the person’s time well spent and money well spent.
What do you love about cooking? I love the creative outlet of it. I played music for a long time and that was one of the things I always loved about music. Whether you’re just playing with your buddies in your garage or playing a show, you got that sense of satisfaction, almost an endorphin release where you’re like, “Wow, this was us doing something together.” It’s a small community we’ve created ... and honestly working in kitchens translates perfectly to that because you have the cooks you stand side by side with in your kitchen and y’all create together. And Austin has an awesome food community.
What’s your favorite music to listen to while cooking? It kinda depends. Our playlist that we play here is a lot of the music we listened to while we were getting ready for this place. It’s a lot of Fugazi, Spencer Davis Group, Lucero, Hot Water Music, Bobby Bare — all different kinds of stuff. And this is really, really cliche and a little too meta for me, but sometimes I think we have a feeling for that in the food we’re creating. If something was a little bit bigger or softer in terms of flavor or texture, a lot of that came from how we were feeling at that time and probably what music we were listening to.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? Mostly hanging out with my wife and kid. Honestly, that’s all I do. We have very limited time off. I mean, that’s not unique to us at all. In this industry you have very little time off. And I have a 15-month-old son and I can’t spend enough time with him. There’s nothing I’m more proud of than him and this place is a very distant second. Unfortunately, this gets probably about five times my time as he does. Hopefully in the next year or two that’s rectified at least a little. But definitely spending as much time with my family as I can.
What do you like to eat when you’re not working? Because Austin has such an awesome food community, we try to go out and support our friends the same way. Great restaurants like Josephine House, Swift’s Attic, Olamaie — those guys are really amazing and they were big supporters of us when we were getting going — Kome, Contigo. I know I’m probably forgetting a ton of people, but what we try to do ... is say thanks to those people for coming in here. And at home, I cook as simple as I can. We eat a lot of pasta and my mom and my grandmother made really good meatloaf, so we make that. And a lot of tacos.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now? Right now, I’m probably most proud of the new tofu. We make our own tofu in house and hickory smoke it and it comes with huitlacoche and avocado puree, small sopecitas we do as a play on orecchiette, pinto beans and a vegan crema that’s actually a puree of almonds and cashews. I was really proud of our last vegan dish, which was very cauliflower heavy, but I think this one is more of a cohesive plate. That’s one thing we talked about from the beginning — that we always wanted to have vegan and vegetarian options on each menu.