Kenny Bowers doesn’t bring up Harold Mcgee when talking about food. He doesn’t spend his nights highlighting sections of Nathan Mhyrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, and a visit to The French Laundry likely wouldn’t inspire ideas for his next restaurant.
But make no mistake – Bowers knows food. And he knows restaurants. And now, nearly 20 years after taking his first leap into the restaurant world – at a little place on Greenville called Daddy Jack’s – Bowers has worked from kitchen to kitchen in small seafood spots to corporate-chef gigs to emerge as a chef/restaurateur of his own growing eponymous empire: The Woodfire Grill, the Italian Kitchen, and the Burger Joint. They’re a triumvirate of restaurants designed around familiar (if not simple) cuisines in a warm (if not elaborate) atmosphere. There’s a common thread to them all, and to hear Bowers explain it is to better understand a man who has seen his share of the business.
“They all serve different things, but they’re all straightforward and done well. That’s what Jack [Chaplin, Bowers' partner at Daddy Jack's] taught me – if you’re going to do something, stick to it and do it well,” says Bowers. “And along with that, we go for big portions and make sure people are getting the best value possible.”
Bowers’ demeanor is one that, if he weren’t the chef at these restaurants, you would expect him to be greeting people at the door with a smile and a handshake. He’s not just outgoing; there’s a genuinely friendly personality – and that, paired with two decades’ experience in kitchens from Lefty’s Lobster House to corporate chef at Dallas’s ubiquitous Rockfish (among others), has helped to shape the personality that all his restaurants exude, from the food to the feel.
“All three of our restaurants have pictures of our regular guests on the wall. Because at the end of the day, those are the people that are the restaurant. We’re part of the community; we’re not a big chain – we fly under the radar, and we want to have neighborhood places where the food and that atmosphere combine to make people feel like this is their place,” says Bowers, who is originally from Boston. “To me, the difference is the people – and when I say the people, I mean taking care of people.”
Bowers’ perspective in one that’s been shaped not only experience, but by those with whom he’s shared that experience. Chaplin, a member of the fourth graduating class at Johnson Wales College of Culinary Arts, “Was my school. He was my mentor, a great guy. He taught me how to cook; taught me the business.”
From there, Bowers went North to Addison where he started Lefty’s Lobster and Chowder House, selling his interests to the other owners a couple years later. At that point it was on to a place on Henderson called Natchez Trace as a partner with the owner. It was small and unprofitable (this was before the area’s present popularity), but by the time Bowers left a year later, it was called Big Fish, Little Fish Restaurant and Boathouse and was making a comfortable profit.
And at that point, Bowers called it quits.
“Big Fish, Little Fish started making money, but it was enough money for one person to make a good living; not really enough for two. So I said to the owner, ‘just pay me my money back – the money I put into it – no big deal, and you take the place and live happily ever after,’” he recalls. ” At that point, I was burned out on the restaurant business. So my cousins, who were in the packaging business, were like, ‘Kenny, come work with us – you’re going to make a lot of money, you can wear a suit, and you don’t have to kill yourself in the restaurant.’ So that’s what I did.”
But it didn’t take long for Bowers to realize that the professional kitchen was where he truly belonged, and timely call put him right back on track – and at a faster pace than he’d ever been before:
Right about that time I got a call from Randy DeWitt, who was the principle at Rockfish. He said, ‘Hey Kenny, I heard you got out of the restaurant business – why’d you do that?’
I told him.Well, Randy was a long-time customer at Daddy Jacks, and that’s how we knew each other. He said, ‘Look, I’ve got this Rockfish.’
I said, ‘Yes, I know. I’ve eaten there.’
He said, ‘We’re expanding, we’ve got some money, and I need somebody to come and do the menus, and the food and all that.’
I said, ‘Thank you, I really appreciate that, but you know, if I’m going to run a restaurant I’m going to do it for myself’. He said, ‘But you don’t’ understand. I don’t want you to run the restaurant.’ I asked what he meant. He said, ‘I want you to be our Corporate Chef.’
I didn’t even know what that was. He said he’d give me a cell phone, a minivan to drive and he told me what I’d get paid. And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’
Rockfish grew, and grew well under Bowers’ control of the kitchens, and by the time he left several years later it had expanded to well outside of Dallas and became ubiquitous within it. It was at that point that Bowers decided he wanted to pursue his own place. With a little help from his friends, of course.
“I figured, ‘If I don’t do it now and I get older, I’m not going to do it at all.’ So I took a compilation of restaurants that I love and tried to put it all together – but realized that I couldn’t do it by myself. So my friend Bob Stegall who was our, who had also left Rockfish, partnered up with me, and we created Kenny’s Wood Fired Grill together. And it’s been a great partnership,” says Bowers. “Bob’s awesome; he’s basically great at everything that I’m not great at, and vice versa. I ran the back, and he ran the front.”
It was 2005, and the first of three Kenny’s restaurants had opened – and was doing well. From there, the progression was a natural one.
“We thought hey, we’re doing great burgers, so let’s do a burger joint. So we opened up Kenny’s Burger Joint about three and a half years ago. Knock on wood. Right around the time we did that, Mike Hutchison was at Twin Peaks (part of DeWitt’s restaurant holdings) because they had converted some of the restaurants. So we brought Mike in and the idea was that he was going to run the Wood Grill and eventually when we expanded down the road, and eventually become a partner and our director of operations,” Bowers explains.” So we opened up the burger joint and started doing well there. A few years went by and this space came available, and a neighbor of mine used to work for the management company. So Mike, Bob and I came up and looked around. It had been a Spanish restaurant – we looked around and went, ‘Man, all we’ve got to do is change the flag and we’ll do Italian!’”
It’s been a journey for Bowers, and one that’s threatened to burn him completely out on more than one occasion. But as he hustles to greet the guests at the door and returns to the kitchen with a smile, it’s clear that he’s thrilled to be in a place (three of them, at that) where his personality and philosophy can shine through.
“When people like leave the restaurant, I want them saying, ‘Wow – I had a great time that night!’ Or, ‘I had so much fun; what a great experience!’ And to me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a combination of all the little things we do.”
Just remember, of all the little things they do at Kenny’s, the portions aren’t going to be one of them.