It seems like the Dallas culinary scene’s thought leaders and trendsetters are getting younger and younger as each year passes. Shortly after her 29th birthday, Kirstyn Brewer, executive chef at Victor Tango’s, is leading a restaurant that’s been a Henderson Avenue institution for more than 10 years.
The few years have been a bit stagnant for Victor Tango’s, but it’s undergoing a mini-Renaissance in this L.A.-born chef’s capable hands. I sat down with Brewer just before she started prepping for the night’s dinner service to talk about her culinary background, taking the reins at an established restaurant, and the one ingredient that you’ll never see on a Kirstyn Brewer menu.
What was it like to come into an already-established restaurant and kind of turn it on its head by changing the menu so dramatically?
I think because that was kind of the goal, not to change everything but to take it in a different direction, it had to be gradual. I started at Victor Tango’s as a sous chef, working for Greg Bussey. I did that for about a year, just learning the flow and pace of the kitchen and restaurant. Even then, I was adding my own touches and doing my own dishes. It was slowly pushing on what we could get away with the guests. At first it was a little hard if we tried to do something adventurous, but as time went on, it got easier and easier.
When they put the bone marrow on the menu before I even got here, I know that was a big deal. Nobody wanted to order it and they would sell three a week, now it’s one of our top sellers. I think the whole city is evolving, and it was just trying to keep up with that more than change the restaurant.
What do you think is making the city evolve? What are those forces behind the changes?
It’s hard to say, but I’ve definitely noticed it just in the last few years that I’ve been here. Maybe it’s the economy on the coasts being more expensive so more younger restaurant people are migrating inland and bringing more variety to the city. I feel like the entire country as a whole is evolving when it comes to food and its become a pop culture thing lately. And that’s good.
Do you think it’s easier for a young chef to come into a restaurant with such a long history and completely change it from the ground-up, or start their own place?
No, I think it’s a lot harder. If you start your own concept, you can do what you want. If I started this from scratch, there would be a lot of things I would do differently. But there are people who love it, and you can’t just change it. You have to kind of go with it. For being an established restaurant, it’s the least constraining it could possibly be.
Earlier this year the menu underwent a huge overhaul — the classic chicken and waffles aren’t on the menu, the mac and cheese is gone. Was that a difficult transition?
Oh yeah, we still have the chicken and waffles and mac and cheese if people want them. It was pretty gradual and people weren’t noticed, then all of a sudden everything was different. It was easy until people noticed that everything had changed, so we had to keep the chicken and waffles and mac and cheese. I don’t understand why every restaurant in Dallas has to have a mac and cheese on the menu, especially when we have a carbonara dish that’s very similar. But people want it.
Are there any ingredients that we won’t ever be seeing in a Kirstyn Brewer dish?
Truffle oil. I hate it. That’s the only thing. I used it a lot, and I think I probably just burned myself out on it. Whatever, I’m not snobby about the concept of it – I don’t care. It’s everywhere, and I love truffles, but truffle oil is so overpowering. Even just a drop of it takes over the flavor of a whole dish.
I wasn’t really ever a fan of olives but I’ve started to get into that. I like the brininess, and I’m getting into castelvetrano olives lately. I’m starting to get into it. Since it was the only thing I don’t really like, I do force myself to eat them occasionally. You start to figure out why people like them and you can appreciate them, but you won’t see kalamata olives all over something like that.
You’ve been in Dallas for three and a half years after studying and working in Los Angeles. Do you prefer the food scene in Dallas, or are there really things you miss from home?
I miss the variety. There’s definitely less variety when it comes to ethnic foods, you have to travel a little more and find it. I particularly miss all the Asian stuff. I go to Richardson sometimes and get dim sum, but authentic Japanese and Korean food is hard to find, but it does exist and it’s really good. But in L.A. there were 10 places that I could find a particular dish, now there’s maybe one.
Is there one particular dish that you crave?
Ramen. Really good ramen. The only one that I’ve had here that I thought was comparable to Little Toyko in L.A. was at Tei-An, and it’s obviously more expensive and served in a much smaller portion. I am really excited about his new place that’s opening – the 10 seat place? I have high hopes for that. The other places? They’re good, but they’re just not quite there yet.
So what did you bring with you from your work in L.A. restaurants, like Jose Andres’ The Bazaar, to Victor Tangos?
I don’t think I really brought anything specific, maybe just a little more of a focus on produce. The lighter side of food. That’s huge there. I worked in Santa Monica for years, right across from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, and all of that market produce was just right there at your fingertips. It’s harder to find here, but getting easier. We’ve partnered with Comeback Creek Farms, and they’ve been great about planting whatever we want.
Do you think that’s something that Dallas lacks — there aren’t a lot of places to get something that isn’t a huge-ass steak or something else heavy?
Now, I think it isn’t lacking in that respect much at all. For a while there, I felt like it was. The local produce thing is kind of a trend, and everyone’s trying to go in that direction, and I appreciate that.
The menu at Victor Tangos has undergone such dramatic changes in your time as executive chef. What’s your favorite dish?
Right now it’s the green veg with puffed rice. It’s got whatever really good, really fresh green vegetables I can get that week. Fiddlehead ferns, sugar snap peas, and ramps are in the dish right now. Then I dehydrate rice, flash-fry it, then saute it with the veg and put a little sweet soy, fried egg, and a little house made hot sauce. It’s kind of like fried rice if you break open the egg and mix it all together. It’s really satisfying and still healthy, nice and light.
I think you have a really unique kind of creativity, but I can’t put my finger on it, so I’ll ask you. What do you think makes you and your food different?
People ask me that, and I have a hard time answering the question. Really, it’s just what I feel like eating. That’s what I like to make. I love eating more than I love cooking. That’s all where it comes from – stuff that’s craveable, but I don’t like anything that’s really heavy. I love Asian food so there’s always those influences there, but it’s hard to describe where it comes from.
You also feature a lot of small plates and food that is easily shareable. Why is that so important to you, the emphasis on sharing?
That’s how I like to eat. I don’t like having one thing and seeing all these other delicious dishes that other people have. I like the idea of taking a couple bites of everything and having a variety. That interaction with whoever you’re with, that’s just fun.
What about the cuisine of your own culture and childhood? What did you grow up cooking, and are there any elements of that on the menu here?
My mom’s Hispanic, so I’m half-Hispanic and I grew up making tortillas with my grandma. There’s mole on the scallop dishes so there’s some influence there, but we didn’t have those kinds of foods all the time. My mom worked a lot so we grew up on Shake N’ Bake. I love those kinds of foods, though. I love playing in that 90s, weird middle class food genre. I think it’s really fun. I’ve wanted to do a Shake N’ Bake dish on the menu here for a while, I just haven’t gotten around to it.
Is there anything on the menu at Victor Tangos now that’s representative of that “weird 90s middle class food genre” now?
My turkey leg is a play on just a cafeteria Cobb salad, but it has an entire roasted turkey leg. What else do I have on there? I have mussel escabeche. I pickle the mussels and serve them with crackers on the menu, and that comes from eating canned oysters with Cheez-Its all the time. I did have a wild boar chili last year and melt cream cheese in the middle because I used to make Hormel chili and cream cheese dip when I was a kid all the time.
How do you elevate those foods?
Just use quality products. They’re already delicious, so you don’t want to change anything about the flavor. Just elevate the products you’re using. Don’t use Velveeta or anything like that.
So you want food to be good quality, but not overly fussy?
Yeah, I just want to eat delicious food. I don’t put a ton of time into plating or watching Food Network to see what’s trendy. I hope it looks nice, but I mostly just want it to taste really good.
Is it difficult to keep up with that? To know what’s trendy and what’s played out?
It’s kind of organic. I don’t really care what’s trendy or watch a lot of Food Network, but I do keep up with chefs I admire on Instagram. Eating out as much as you can and seeing what chefs are doing in your area is also important. So is traveling. [At Consilient, Victor Tangos' ownership group] they’re really big on travel — trying to get us out to New York once or twice a year to just see what’s going on in food there. I spend so much time reading magazines, looking online, and just learning everything I can.
When you travel, which cities do you consider to be real “food destinations.”
I’ve been planning my food since I was a little kid. We would go to Virginia to visit my step-dad’s family, and I would tell my mom “I want to go get crabs and clam chowder and crab cakes.” That was just my thing.
It also depends on where I’m traveling. If I’m visiting New York, I want to see what’s new and what’s happening, but also get some good pizza and maybe some ramen. If I go to Atlanta, I’m checking out farmer’s markets for all the produce. I try to find what is indigenous to where I am, especially if I haven’t spent much time there.
Are there any food destinations that you think are overrated and overblown?
Not really. If anything, there are so many that are underrated. Santa Barbara is one that has tons of cool little places that you never hear anything about, like San Diego. Charleston, SC is blowing up right now. I think Atlanta, even though it has a lot of publicity, food there is even better than people say it is. Of course New York is awesome. There’s so much to see.
Are there any dishes that you’re absolutely going to keep, no matter how not-stylish or played out they are?
The octopus salad. I think it’s kind of a cliche pairing — octopus, potato, and piquillo. That’s a classic, played out plating, but it works for a reason. It’s a perfect pairing, and it’s my favorite dish on the menu. Greg Bussey put it here way before I even got here, but that’s one I’m not touching.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had?
There’s a couple I can say because they’re so different. One of the first time I went to Animal in Los Angeles, I went with a ton of line cooks and we got literally the whole menu. It was delicious and so much fun. I’d also say the French Laundry because it’s the French Laundry. I’d wanted to go there since I started cooking, it was always a dream and it was so worth it. I also saved all my money when I was a line cook and spent $700 on a sushi dinner at Urasawa in Beverly Hills. It was twenty-three courses of just little bites of sushi, but it was incredible. It’s hard to pick just one.
How have you had to adjust your style to cook for Texans as opposed to your clientele(s) in L.A.?
Not a lot, but sometimes. I feel like we have a ton of people who are really adventurous, but sometimes you get people who want something really simple like a steak. It’s hard for me to understand that refusal to try something new and just be super-picky. I’ve never had that feeling before in my life. It’s hard, but I accommodate as best I can. I want everyone to have a good time, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.
What’s the craziest accommodation you’ve ever been asked to make for a guest?
Oh yeah, just a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but limes are insanely expensive right now, and a guest wanted our hangar steak soaked in lime juice before it was cooked. I thought, “I can’t use that much lime juice to use a steak,” so I brushed lime all over it before it went on the grill and then did it again when it came off, and they were not happy with that. They also wanted it with mac and cheese and that was a weird pairing, didn’t sound appetizing to me at all.
How do you respond to a request that over the top?
There’s been a couple of times when I’ve been asked to do something and I just didn’t think it was going to taste good or that they were going to like it. But I usually will. The lime steak person was so sure about it, I just agreed to do it. I don’t get offended or expect everyone to like it because that’s what I like. I hope they do, but if they want to change something, I’m totally fine.
You seem, just in general, to be a really laid-back person. Are you like that in the kitchen?
I work really hard to maintain a culture where I don’t have to be intense. If I tell my chefs and cooks that something is wrong, they just fix it. I don’t hire staff that responds to being yelled at, because that’s not what I do. It just won’t work out on either of our sides. Brandon, my sous chef, is also pretty laid back. We probably have to stay on top of things a little more because they’re not afraid of us, but it’s just more enjoyable. It’s exhausting to be mad all the time, and I’ve had no turnover in the last couple of years. So something’s working.
Is that a conscious thing? To decide to not get riled up about little things?
Definitely sometimes, but it’s a lot easier now than when I was younger. You realize that it is a little thing, and I’m going to scream at them, and it’s going to go nowhere. I’ve realized it’s better to just take a deep breath, fix it, and make sure the guest is taken care of.
You’re still so young now. Executive chef at 28, it seems like you’ve ascended in such a short time. That’s something to be really proud of, but how does it happen?
I didn’t really plan it, I just started with Consilient back in L.A. at Westside Tavern as a line cook. The plan when I was hired as a line cook was eventually to make me a sous chef, but it took a few months to happen. It has been really fun to go from being a line cook to executive chef all in the same company in about five and a half years. It also makes me feel a little more loyal to this company because of that. They’ve definitely taken the time to train me, and I’m appreciate of that. I’m going to stay here as long as I feel like I keep growing.