Tim Byres: The Man Behind The Smoke

Later this month Food Republic will be heading down to Austin, Texas for the Austin Food & Wine Festival (April 27-29). Stay tuned as we catch up with some of the participating chefs and personalities.

It's a big state, but we reckon Tim Byres might be busiest of them all in Texas. The founder and executive chef of the wildly popular Smoke in Dallas recently announced an upcoming cookbook with Rizzoli due in 2013. And he just opened his latest venture, Chicken Scratch—a casual chicken concept next door from his laidback bar Foundry. Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner shouted him out by name in a recent interview. A few steps away from both venues is a recently relocated garden, now in its third year.

We took a few minutes of Byres' time to talk about a life-changing trip through the Mississippi Delta and how he almost ended up selling organic soaps for a living. Thankfully, this did not happen.

How has it been at Smoke?

Right now Smoke is busier than it's ever been. We're booked Thursday through Sunday, even Sunday dinner. The thing here is totally [to] cook from scratch, and to cook with firewood and charcoal. Your breads, jellies, bacon, ham, sausages is all made here. And it really has a handmade approach. In the beginning, this was something we were more aspiring to. Especially in this medium of no gas assisted fire cooking, rustic Americana. The culture of Smoke has really grown.

What are some of the regional inspirations behind Smoke?

We're in Texas, and this is a regional restaurant, but we're also not like cowboy and barbed-wire. We're influenced by Mexican foods, Louisiana, the South and all this wood and mesquite. What we got going on is this mix and this crossroads.

What's the mood like at the restaurant now?

We try and focus on cultivating the spirit of hospitality. All the pretentiousness and formal stuff gets pushed to the side and it's a true friends-and-family dining experience. People are getting into it more. In the beginning, it was a little difficult to do what we were wanting to do and we kept at it. We can have 20 people at a table, and it's like roll up your sleeves and pass the biscuits.

You spent several years working at high-end restaurants in Dallas (The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Stephen Pyles), before you decided to open Smoke. What went into that decision?

The big business of the restaurant kind of choked me and I got burned out. There were all these unachievable goals and expectations. This customer needs this and this. Before Smoke happened I took a trip east and went through the Mississippi delta and was looking to find old Americana and see some things that were inspirational. The number one inspirational thing I saw is that real authentic-ness is still alive.

Were there any particular places on that trip that influenced you?

I made it to this little town Helen, Arkansas. You go there and it's like a ghost town. I had this conversation with these two people at their community bookstore and they sent us out trying to find Robert Johnson's real grave! Walking around the streets I saw this little family restaurant – I think it was called Mama D's Country Kitchen. I brought a picture back and someone said, "It's great how they designed this." Well, you don't get it; there was no designer. Mama D's son went out front with a paint-brush and made it happen. And they served farm fresh eggs, they know where their chickens are coming from. They buy pigs locally. It's not because it's sustainable or farm-to-table, but it's the circle of commerce. So in order for this little diner to survive they use the same egg farmer, the same pig farmer and it all stays in this little town. Otherwise if they didn't support each other, the town would just die.

And you wanted to bring that into Smoke?

Yes, so coming back here it was important to be true to ourselves and put our best foot forward. We aspire to this all-natural, hormone-free meat program. We've got a family that raises pigs for us. We slaughter every Wednesday for delivery on Friday. They raise eggs for us. They do ducks and cornish hens for us. There's this great aspiration to stay in this natural world. And that's the goal. Like with tortillas we started buying them fresh from a local factory. And then we made our own tortillas. We do all our own pickles and we smoke hams and we do things the hard way. We have a restaurant that is critical mass busy and these guys are crazy versatile. It creates this momentum that's infectious.

It sounds like Smoke was very cathartic for you.

This was like my last stand. I was almost going to become a food stylist. That or making organic soaps.

Organic soaps, really?

I was just trying to find something that I could do and stay creative. And make a little bit of money and be with my kids. That's why I put everything into this. I stopped reading blogs, I stopped reading reviews, I stopped worrying about anybody being critical.

Can you talk about Chicken Scratch?

Chicken Scratch is a narrow, and deep, chicken shack. It's skillet-fried, right out of cast iron pan, stovetop, all-natural, hormone-free chicken. With garden fresh sides and homemade biscuits. Everything on the menu is cooked from scratch and it's fast food.

You also have a cookbook deal and are scheduled to publish it next year. How's that going?

I'm about halfway through. It's about firewood cooking and Americana roots. We want to demystify things and make it accessible.

How do you feel Texas dining has changed? And Dallas in particular?

Texas is a unique place. There's a lot of cultural diversity here. Dallas has a newer, younger generation. There are a lot of guys around my age that are finding their place. I just got off the phone with Stephen Pyles and he's doing his thing and we're doing our thing. Before it used to be all [highbrow restaurants] were expensive and fancy. The gap is narrowing. This neighborhood is a great example. If I wanted to roll up my sleeves and have a good time, I'd go somewhere here.

Any goals for the upcoming Austin Food & Wine Festival?

We're the only restaurant from Dallas going and we're going to have a good time. We're going to roast pigs on an open fire and offer something homemade. We're about having fun. I think we'll represent Dallas well.

Buy tickets to the Austin Food & Wine Festival, April 27-29, online at austinfoodandwinefestival.com.

More Chef Talks on Food Republic: