There is an expectation – especially among diners new to this ‘underground dinner’ idea – of exclusivity and hushed secrets, of passwords and maps where X marks the spot, of speakeasies and trap doors. They suppose that these suppers give diners access to a chef whose existence is a myth to all but the enlightened – that by eating in his company they are initiated into some secret, underground society.
But David Anthony Temple sees it a little differently.
“Yeah, I think the mystique has a lot to do with it, but what’s the saying – any press is good press?” He says. “Because the goal’s always been to open a restaurant, and these underground dinners are basically just a grassroots way of doing it. Right now I’m out here proving myself through my food and starting a clientele list. I’m working to get more people knowing what I am, what I cook, and what I deliver so then I can follow that with a restaurant.”
Well, he’s getting the press part.
Temple, who acronymizes himself Chef DAT, held his first underground dinner in Dallas nearly two years ago, and has been gaining a steady stream of clients and publicity since. The dates for the dinners, which are announced via email to those on his list, are announced several days – or even weeks – ahead of time, with the exact location to be revealed only on the day of the dinner itself. The multi-course menus are constantly changing according to DAT’s whims, and can be representative of his culinary experiences from around the world, be it Northern or Southern Louisiana where he spent time growing up or regions where he worked professionally, be it Hawaii, California or Texas. The versatility that the format provides is ideal for a man with a professed ‘kitchen ADD.’
“I was a line cook in San Diego, and I cooked the same thing every damn day – it was not a big menu. You had your spot on the line, and I was on the grill. I had like two steaks on the menu, a bunch of burgers, chicken and maybe three fish dishes. That’s it. My job was to take the piece of meat out of where it was, make sure I had enough in there at all times, and put it on the grill. Cook it to the right temperature and put it on the plate. No sauces, no sides, nothing. Just these meats, every f***ing day, over and over and over,” he says. “Then comes day 20 or so, when I get in trouble because I’m supposed to be doing my meats and I’m way on the other side of the kitchen going, ‘dude, what are you doing? How do you do that sauce, man? Come on, do it I wanna see. Can I try it? Wanna go cook a steak over there? Let me make this sauce, dude – I’ll do it for you.’ I was just so tired of fetching the meat. It was at the point where I wanted to eat anything but meat. Just let me drink that sauce over there. Give me a vegetable, give me a salad. Anything but a piece of meat right now. I almost went vegetarian. It’s hard for me to cook something twice – it’s boring.”
It’s easy to see why the underground dinners are anything but repetitive, though they accomplish more than acting as a medium for Temple’s culinary attention span. The events provide an ideal opportunity to perfect his repertoire and hone his kitchen skills, whether they be from a cooking, service, logistical or financial standpoint. There’s a lot more to them chef wanting to gain a little celebrity.
“Well, I have to rent these venues for the night, so I have to bring in my own ingredients every time. I can’t just have a big cupboard sitting in there and say, ‘oh, okay, we can order 500 pounds’ of something. Or 100 pounds of chicken and we know we can take it all; we can put this much in the soup, this much in this, spread it out between these different entrees and dishes. No, it’s a one-shot go. If you order in bulk, you’re going to get way better deals. Say I need a pound of foie gras for the night. I’m going to pay a much higher price per pound, buying one pound versus ten. So I’m not getting a lot of deals or breaks,” he says. “But I’m lucky to have great vendors that I deal with, such as Tom Spicer, that give me discounts, and I praise them for that. I love them for being that sweet and nice to me, and they get well recognized at every dinner we do.”
It’s a different road to owning a restaurant than Dallas is used to seeing, and whether Temple is successful depends largely on the success of these dinners, which have so far been widely praised. However, don’t expect him to settle for underground dinners forever – it’s not exactly what he’s got in mind.
“Is it a sustainable business? Yes, if you keep your day job. It’ll get a little change in your pocket – if this were an extra job for me, I’d be doing really good. But it’s just that you don’t know where the next penny’s coming from. And I don’t want to sit out here and make it sound like I’m broke, or that I’m looking for some handout. It’s just a lot of hard work to get this to happen,” he says. “I don’t want anybody thinking this is some easy shortcut. I’m only out here working my ass off because I want to be opening restaurants.”
As for the kind of restaurant he’d like to open? It fits his personality.
“There won’t be a menu – it’s going to be a tasting menu only, though we can adjust some things if people call in with allergies and things like that,” he says. “But really, there’s going to be no ordering; your order will be when you call and make a reservation.”
That he’s helped to lead Dallas to the underground dinner is no accident, and while this 27-year-old chef has made many fans and friends in the process, fans and friends alone do not a restaurant make. It’s a long road from what he calls a ‘grass roots start,’ but the fact is that Temple isn’t even starting at a grass-roots level.
He’s starting underground.