Mercury Rising

What did I learn when I hung out with a star chef in the kitchen of one of Dallas' hottest restaurants? He can take the heat.

June 2001By Comments

Chef Chris Ward wiped his hands on the kitchen towel he keeps thrown across his left shoulder and called for more iced tea. One minute he was frying bacon, the next he was grabbing butter with his fingers and putting a big dab in each of three sauté pans. Then he was dumping riced potatoes into a big stainless-steel bowl and throwing in a bunch of corn kernels and chives to make potato-cranberry galettes for a tuna entrée. He tasted the potatoes and tossed in the dried cranberries, then made a small, fat galette in a ring mold and put it on the grill to get a nice brown crust—all this while workers at the sauté station zigzagged around him as if guided by radar, never smashing into him or each other or whacking anyone with a pan. It was 7:45 on a Wednesday night—rush hour—at the Mercury, one of Dallas’ high-profile restaurants. I had asked Ward if I could hang out with him for a day, because I’ve always been curious about what life is like on the other side of the swinging doors. We had been on the go for more than ten hours, and I’d picked up interesting tidbits of insider information. But I’d learned even more about what kind of people flourish in this environment. Liking to cook is fundamental, but being able to do it under stress is more important, because working in a big restaurant kitchen can be a little like working in an emergency room. And one other thing was becoming clear: A person who wants to move up the ladder shouldn’t expect to have a life.

The standing joke among Ward’s co-workers is that he comes to work in his pajamas. He doesn’t, of course, but the employees at the restaurant’s central business office still tease him when he shows up around eight in the morning, hair uncombed, in his chef’s pants and a sport shirt, and they rib him about having an iced-tea habit that runs to several quarts a day. “I’m out of the house in fifteen or thirty minutes,” he says, taking time only for coffee and a few moments with his girlfriend and their two-year-old daughter.

At 42, Ward has been a chef all his adult life, but he became a star with the opening of the Mercury, a sleek Mediterranean spot in North Dallas, in 1998. A year later he had another hit with Citizen, a trendy Euro-Asian restaurant and sushi bar in the Oak Lawn area near downtown. Both places are owned by a restaurant-development group called the M Crowd, named for its founder and chief executive officer, Michael “Mico” Rodriguez. The two restaurants are gratifyingly successful. Last year the Mercury logged $2.7 million in sales, Citizen $2.9 million. For his part, Ward, who is an M Crowd partner, gets paid well into six figures—and all the iced tea he can drink.

Our day began at nine-thirty in the morning at the M Crowd’s offices near downtown, where Ward was placing orders for food. I had expected that he might go shopping at the farmers’ market, but he doesn’t have time. “I would have to get up at four,” he says. For my benefit, we stopped by American Foodservice, an enormous warehouse that supplies most of his fresh vegetables, to check out its amazing global inventory, dodging forklifts zipping around like demented oversized toys. Then we headed for Kazy’s Gourmet Shop, a sushi specialty market, where Ward picked up some fresh big-eye tuna. The next stop—a brief one—was Citizen. Although it was noon, Ward didn’t eat. “I snack when I’m working,” he said. Typically he cooks three days in succession at each restaurant (and at another M Crowd enterprise, the Chop House, in Fort Worth). His two-year-old BMW has 44,000 miles on the odometer. When I remarked that at least he gets a bit of down time between the two cities, he said, “Not really. I’m usually on the cell phone, and lately I’ve been dictating into a tape recorder.” He’s working with local freelance writer Christine Carbone on a cookbook-biography titled Restaurant Life.

Even though Ward didn’t set out to be a chef, food has been a lifelong infatuation. His mother, who is from an Italian family, is a fabulous cook; his father, a doctor, loves to eat. “When I was a kid in Shreveport,” he says, “my parents and brother and I traveled and ate out all the time.” By the age of twelve, he had been to Ernie’s in San Francisco and Lutèce in New York. “Even now, I can tell you what everybody had,” he says. His restaurant career began with a summer job in Dallas in 1978 at then-prestigious Arthur’s and progressed through equally big names like the Pyramid Room and the second Agnew’s. He was running the kitchen at the Bedford Village Inn in New Hampshire when, in 1997, Mico Rodriguez lured him back to Texas.

We got to the Mercury at about four o’clock. The kitchen staff of nine, almost all Hispanic men in their twenties, was in full swing. Given what I’d read about restaurant culture in Anthony Bourdain’s riotous memoir, Kitchen Confidential, I was ready for a bunch of boom-box-playing, pot-smoking wackos, but everyone was the epitome of decorum (they knew I was coming, of course). The kitchen is at the back of the restaurant and is partially visible above a chest-high counter—the workers manning the ten gas burners, the flat griddle, and the grill provide live entertainment for diners. (They also sweat a lot: The temperature near the stoves is hellacious.) As the prep cooks chopped, blended, and blanched, they gradually filled some three dozen six-inch-square stainless-steel containers with baby artichokes, morels, salsify, green lentils, Monterey jack cheese, leeks, asparagus, haricots verts, tomato concassée, roasted-corn relish, jícama salad, chives, garlic, shallots, vegetable stock, and much, much more. On weekdays the restaurant typically serves 125 to 150 customers; on weekends, 200 to 275. Weekly food costs come to $11,000.

Around six, Ward popped a filet of beef on the grill and cut a slice of foie gras from a colossal goose liver to prepare samples of the evening’s two specials. The appetizer was seared foie gras on butter-lavished mousseline potatoes with a dainty crown of micro greens. The entrée was a towering Tuscan bruschetta stacked with a filet, asparagus spears, and a balsamic-dressed salad. In the dining room he described the dishes for the six waiters and waitresses and left the samples for them to eat (the scraps of food, when they finished, looked like something from the piranha tank in You Only Live Twice). A few minutes later the first customers of the evening walked in. It was show time.

At seven the pace picked up. All of a sudden four orders appeared on the paper tape of the so-called POS (point of sale), a small printer connected to computer terminals at the waiters’ station. Ward read aloud: “Two tunas on potato galettes, one filet special, and one rack of pork.” He didn’t even raise his voice, and no one asked him to repeat anything. They all knew the drill. In half an hour the kitchen was moving at a steady clip. Risottos were bubbling, shrimp frying, and used sauté pans still sizzling as they hit the dirty-dish bin. The camaraderie and shared purpose were palpable. “When the dining room is full and there’s that energy in the air,” Ward says, “it’s the best thing in the world.”

Around nine the controlled frenzy had perceptibly slowed and everybody relaxed a little. Typically, if there is a lull, Ward says he tries to step outside the back door about this time and look around: “I do that at least once a night to be sure that nobody has stashed a couple of filets out there.” He trusts his crew, but the restaurant business is full of scams. “I’ve had waiters void cash sales and pocket the money,” he says, “and one guy used to write ‘Thank you’ through the line that said ‘Gratuity included’ and keep the extra tip.”

At ten the last chocolate soufflé had disappeared into the dining room and, for the cooks at least, the evening was over. The Mercury had fed 110 customers—not bad for a Wednesday, but not quite as busy as Ward likes. Because restaurantgoers are a fickle bunch, chefs are predictably paranoid. “Even when there’s a good reason for a slow night, like it’s spring break, it can feel weird,” he says. “You’re only as good as your last meal.” At ten-fifteen he finished his last glass of iced tea and headed out the front door. The crew would clean up. When he was younger, he might have gone to a bar with friends, but these days going home sounds like a great idea. Most nights he showers, maybe looks at a cookbook for inspiration (he has more than four hundred), and tries to wind down by midnight or one. “Too bad I gave up beer for Lent,” he said as he unlocked his car door.

In the morning he would be up at seven-thirty and back at the office, where he and Rodriguez are working on two more concepts—a second Mercury, in Plano, and a $1.7 million French restaurant, to be named Paris Vendôme, close to downtown Dallas. He’s also pondering what he’ll prepare at the James Beard House in September. (In the food world, an invitation to cook at the New York-based culinary foundation is a sign of having arrived.) The only day of his usual 75-hour workweek that Ward takes off is Sunday, when he tries to catch up on his reading (not just Food Arts but the Wall Street Journal and Forbes) and spend time with his family. His life is grueling right now—”I can’t go many more years at the pace I’m going”—but he doesn’t intend to stop. “I can never see myself not cooking,” he says. “It’s what I am.”

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