I caught up with peripatetic restaurant concept guru and Nicholas Cage look-a-like, chef Dean James Max, in town this week for a few days for meetings at his splendid Asador at the Dallas Renaissance Hotel, for a late lunch and some food talk.
Decidedly un-trendy in its slightly out-of-the-way location close to the West End entertainment district and Love Field, the recently re-decorated Renaissance (try saying that three times) is a stunner – and wasn’t lost on me that my dusty vehicle was not going to require valet parking as I pulled into a convenient space mere steps from the hotel’s front entrance.
Chef Max is known for sourcing locally and using good ingredients. The consulting partner and creative force behind a bunch of successful restaurant concepts, he’s also having a lot of fun. He leads the good life with a capital GL, shuttling between restaurants he’s created for properties in places like West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, the Cayman Islands, Dallas and a couple of towns in Ohio.
An avid sailor and down-to-earth farm boy who grew up learning about produce from his father, a second-generation farmer/produce broker – Max often cooked with from his grandfather, a chef who eventually owned a bed and breakfast on the Jersey Shore.
His treasured memories include going out to the tomato patch with a knife and salt shaker in his hands and feasting on the ripe produce and fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. What was to have been a career working in his father’s produce business took a turning the road when he traveled to Florence, Italy and was “mesmerized by European-style dining.”
It was in Florence that he realized that being a chef would become his true passion.
Cooking skills honed in top San Francisco, Virginia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Southern California restaurants combined with his business acumen to bring Max full circle to an arena in which he’s an award-winning culinary leader who knows how to seek out and choose the best product, buy it right – and cook it right.
Max’s pure joy in the blending and layering of flavors and textures that are both healthy and delicious is obvious. His whole face lights up as he teaches me to make his recipe for homemade mayonnaise, substituting grape seed oil for some of the extra-virgin olive oil, using a fine Champagne vinegar – and timing the introduction of each ingredient (eggs, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, salt and Dijon mustard) into the food processor just so.
This is a guy who never misses an opportunity to insert healthful ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, turmeric cauliflower, arugula and every kind of fruit and vegetable he can get his hands on into his creations.
He shaves local Gouda cheese onto grilled asparagus, tops roasted shishito peppers with lime salt and sets out homey jars of house-picked vegetables laced with habanero vinegar.
The stuff that dreams are made of: Max’s blackened rock shrimp tacos with pineapple-jalapeno relish, cabbage and lemon aioli are totally irresistible. The tortillas are freshly-made by an excellent local purveyor (Superior), nicely charred and perfect in texture and flavor. This, to me, is as good as the lobster rolls of my New England childhood.
Max and his on-site, David Trubenbach, buy all natural meats and poultry, sustainable seafood, and as much locally fresh produce as possible. Organic, natural, seasonal, locally-sourced, artisan, hormone-free, preservative-free and pesticide-free are words that are part of the litany around here.
Desserts, like everything else here, display the kitchen’s reverence for ingredients.
Apple upside down cake (more like a tarte tatin, but with a simple pate brisee crust) blends thickly cut Fuji apples with butter, cinnamon and brown raw sugar. Baked and served slightly warm, it is topped with house made dulce de leche ice cream.Asador 2222 Stemmons Freeway, Dallas