Interview with Chef Tom Fleming of Central 214 - Dallas

May, 2007

Jami English: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Tom Fleming: I started at age 10 cooking for my family. My mother inspired me. She always told me if I were a chef, I’d never have to worry where my next meal was coming from, which was a pretty good motivating factor. My older brother, Robert, was the first person I worked with in the food industry, so he really got me involved. It was primarily family who inspired me. Right after I graduated from Kendall College in 1990, I moved to France to study the culinary culture.

JE: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
TF: Before moving to Dallas in 1997, I lived in Chicago and worked under the Jean Joho at Everest. After five years at Everest, I opened Brasserie Jo for Joho. I then worked as chef de cuisine at Mediterraneo and executive chef of Riviera. I also worked at Lombardi Mare, Lobster Ranch, and I was the executive chef at Old Hickory Steakhouse at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center before coming here.

JE: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
TF: I would recommend culinary school because it teaches the necessary foundations for cooking, but it’s definitely not imperative. The executive sous chef at Central 214 wasn’t formally educated at culinary school, and he’s really great.

JE: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
TF: My biggest is my oldest brother Robert who really got me involved in the industry. John Joho, the executive chef at Everest in Chicago and John Hogan at Keefer’s in Chicago. Here in Dallas, David Holben of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

JE: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
TF:. I first ask them to tell me about their three strengths and then explain their three biggest weaknesses. I’m looking for someone who is confident in their ability but who is humble enough to know they always have to constantly learn and improve on what they know to become a better chef.

JE: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
TF: I would suggest finding someone who can mentor you and stay with them for 3 to 4 years so they can learn all facets of a kitchen, including managing and dealing with people, both guests and co-workers. I think understanding the human aspect of a kitchen is the most important thing. Cooking is easy, but motivating a staff is hard work.

JE: Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
TF: Jim Severson at Sevy’s in Dallas, Kent Rathbun at Abacus, Dean Fearing at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, and David Holben.

JE: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
TF: Cauliflower. I use it all the time. I like to steam it whole with a little salt and pepper.

JE: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
TF: A really sharp Japanese mandolin and a good knife.

JE: Describe a culinary technique that you have either created of borrowed and use in an unusual way.
TF: I brine chicken before roasting it, which keeps moisture in the meat throughout the roasting process. I also blanch whole ducks in court bouillon and dry them out for three days before roasting them. I always keep steak as simple as possible and season it only with fresh kosher salt and black pepper; everything else gets in the way of the flavor of the steak.

JE: What are your favorite cookbooks?
TF: The Way to Cook by Julia Child.

JE: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
TF: Italy.

JE: What's your favorite restaurant-off the beaten path-in your city? What is your favorite dish there? What are your favorite after hour places and bars?
TF: Amigos for carne asada. As for after hour places, I have two kids so I don't really get out much!

JE: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
TF: I'm seeing a return to comfort food cooking.

JE: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TF: I try to write menus that are approachable for everyone who walks in the door of my restaurant. I want my guests to feel comfortable ordering, not overwhelmed and intimidated. My job as a chef is not to educate diners but to service their dining needs, whatever they may be...

JE: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
TF: I would be a cabinet maker. I like to do woodworking and furniture building as a hobby when I’m not cooking, but I think it would be a pretty good career, and not nearly as stressful.

JE: Which person in history would you most like to have dinner with?
TF: George Patton. He’d eat a real steak – a cowboy steak.

JE: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
TF: To me, success means earning the respect of my colleagues and peers. The people who know this business and what it takes to do well are the ones that really matter. When they close the lid on me at my funeral, I want them to say “That guy was a good cook who worked his ass off.”

JE: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
TF: I am the father of two, so I try to do as much for children’s charities as I can. I have an event coming up in Columbus, Ohio for the Children’s Hospice Association, as well as an event in Oregon benefiting Children’s charities. Right now I'm putting together a book-drive to help stock the library at the children's ward. I also do benefits for The Amercian Heart Association because my father died of heart disease. Next up is the annual Cotes du Coeur food and wine benefit for the American Heart association in Dallas. I’m also doing Zoo To-Do which benefits the Dallas Zoological society. I try to do as much charity work as I can which usually means focusing on around four pet charities that are really important to me every year.