Get it While it's Hot
Sep 09, 2013 11:34AM
● By tina
Chef Norman Grimm and Casie Caldwell.
By Linden Wilson, Assistant Editor
In February of last year, Dallas-based restaurateur Phil Romano sat down for lunch at Greenz Salads on McKinney Avenue, but the man behind the success of Fuddruckers and Macaroni Grill wasn’t there just to enjoy a flavorful salad in an upscale-casual environment. He was there to convince Greenz’s innovative owner, Casie Caldwell, to spearhead a novel business venture he was sure she couldn’t pass up.
The proposal: Create a permanent pop-up eatery housed in Trinity Groves, a budding 15-acre restaurant, retail, artist and entertainment destination in West Dallas that Romano conceived of about eight years ago. It’s quickly becoming known for its inimitable restaurant concepts and for fostering the growth of business startups.
“My focus had been and is on growing Greenz, but I thought it would be really stupid to blow him off,” says Caldwell, an entrepreneur who had just opened her first of four Greenz locations in 2004 after noticing a lack of restaurants serving quality yet affordable salads. Although she already had her plate full, Caldwell jumped at the chance to work with Romano, who fell in love with the restaurant model she presented to him two months later.
Kitchen LTO (Limited Time Only) might first cause you to raise your eyebrows, but then you’ll want to make a reservation. The restaurant, scheduled to open Sept. 9, will change head chef and lead designer every four months, essentially reinventing itself three times a year and providing customers with an endless offering of new tastes and sights. As someone who loves to try new places, Caldwell designed Kitchen LTO to continually deliver something totally new and different.
“I rarely go to a restaurant twice,” she says. “I’m always looking for the new chef, the new up-and-comer. What is he or she working on? What are the new flavor trends?” Yet it was the heavy social media component Caldwell incorporated in her Kitchen LTO proposal that really caught Romano’s eye. Chefs and designers interested in becoming a part of the restaurant concept must first apply, then if chosen as finalists, they are thrust into the Internet spotlight via Facebook, Twitter and Kitchen LTO’s website where the public votes on who they’d most like to see take over Kitchen LTO.
“This intrigued him because he’s very much after the millennials,” Caldwell explains. “He knows they want to be a part of molding and designing something.”
Once Romano and West Dallas Investments, the company he owns alongside investors Stuart Fitts and Butch McGregor, officially signed off on Caldwell’s idea that December, she immediately began converting the concept into a reality. One of her main tasks was selecting a knowledgeable panel of judges who whittle the applicants down to chef and designer finalists the public can choose from.
“That was a collaborative effort with people I trusted in the business and others I knew and respected,” she says. “I approached the restaurant industry at different levels. We have Jason Kosmas, who used to be a chef and is also a national award-winning mixologist and cocktail artist, then we have Rebecca Wright, who’s responsible for planning Truluck’s events, so she comes at it from a planning and marketing side. I wanted chef talent mixed with owners and marketing professionals so we’re not just looking at one aspect.” Other judges include Sharon van Meter, a chef specializing in classic French technique who once worked as executive chef at the Ritz Carlton International; Chris Zielke, a Madrid native who co-owns Dallas-area restaurants Smoke, Bolsa, Bolsa Mercado and Chicken Scratch/The Foundry; and four others, plus Caldwell herself.
The first go-around produced about 15 applications — lots of intrigue but lots of people in wait-and-see-mode, Caldwell says. “It was a sell job. Some people applied on their own, but I sought out others from various design groups and the Texas Chefs Association. We ended up narrowing it down to five chefs and five designers.”
The big hesitation with potential applicants, Caldwell adds, is what they would do about their current job if they had to leave it for something that’s only a four-month stint.
“A lot of people are scared to dip their toes in the water,” she says. “But if they’re looking at this opportunity correctly, there’s no other place they can get the experience and the exposure. We are trying to elevate their talent and be that showcase for their abilities. It’s one more thing to put on their resume, and it could change their career. For designers especially, it’s an opportunity for them to be on display for four months.”
Although she didn’t win, Southlake designer Karen Chidiac was selected as a finalist after Caldwell discovered her impressive portfolio on LinkedIn. Kitchen LTO intrigued Chidiac because it would allow her to expose her business, House of Holland, to the Dallas community in a way that it had not been before.
“I work primarily in residential but have experience in restaurant design, so it sounded like a fun and interesting experience,” Chidiac says. “You have to take advantage of situations as they come and make the best of them.” Chidiac, who describes her personal design aesthetic as traditional quirky, began turning down work about a month before the final results were announced, knowing that if she did win, designing the Kitchen LTO space would take up the majority of her time.
In the end, the winning designer wound up being a duo from Coeval Studio, a Dallas-area space design and concepts company. Co-owners John Valverde and Miguel Vicens have extensive experience designing Dallas restaurants, including Belly and Trumpet, PakPao Tai, CampO Modern Country Bistro and Mutts Canine Cantina, a restaurant/dog park combo that allows you to sip a beer alongside man’s best friend. Caldwell says their design for Kitchen LTO will be very modern with clean lines and a warm, subtle use of color.
“They’re incorporating a vanishing art piece along an entire wall,” she explains. “Day one, there will be little decals on the wall, like removable wallpaper, and each week we will remove them. So the art changes like Kitchen LTO changes — I thought it was a unique way to play into the brand.”
And for the winning chef? Norman Grimm, whose culinary pedigree extends far beyond the walls of Big D restaurants The Mercury, York Street and Nosh Euro Bistro. He’s also worked in France and has been in the restaurant business for 23 years, cooking under renowned chefs like Traci Des Jardins and Richard Reddington.
“He’s really refined his craft,” Caldwell says. “His goal is to open his own restaurant, so he’s using this opportunity to show what he’d like to do. You’ll see modern American cuisine with a French flair. I don’t doubt for a minute that someone’s going to have their eye on him, whether it’s our group of investors or others who will recognize his ability and talent. He’ll have his own restaurant — this is his last step.” Dishes like rice crispy tuna tartare and a melon salad will be part of Grimm’s Kitchen LTO menu, which will feature a moderately priced lunch ($13 to $15) with a more upscale feel come dinnertime.
“We want the prices to be mindful of the customer base at Trinity Groves,” Caldwell says. “Lunch is driven from downtown and West Dallas, but we also know we’re more of a destination, so people will come from everywhere.”
Kitchen LTO has generated lots of buzz since the news broke this past February that it would be part of the Trinity Groves culinary scene, and rightfully so. There are restaurants that periodically change chefs or let guest chefs come in, and there are restaurants that change their design seasonally; but there is not one Caldwell can find that does both, and Trinity Groves is the perfect home for it.
“It’s the best fit because everything they are doing there is homegrown,” she says. “It’s going to have that made-from-scratch feel, so if our mission is to take that homegrown designer and chef and elevate them, there isn’t any better place.”