Listen to your lady (insert wife, husband, significant other, life companion, etc.). Listen and listen well. He/She has your best interests in mind. I have been fortunate to be part of an amazing team with equally amazing partners in a little place called LUCK for the last couple of years and I owe it all to my lady, Chris.
People often come into the restaurant and ask how we got started in all of this, and while I’m always happy to share, we’ve stopped short of enshrining the menu backs with our story. Not saying we won’t at some point, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to get it down in print. And also, I have more freedom here to ramble where I often feel like speeding up the story when people are trying to dine.
Early disclaimer: I’m going to ‘name drop’ here and there because I feel it is important to give recognition where recognition is due.
I like to cook. I really enjoy it. I enjoy it more when the people I’m cooking for rave about the dish I’ve just prepared for them but I still enjoy it just from the experimentation factor. When I’m in the kitchen it is like having my own food laboratory to see what works and what doesn’t. The ‘misses’ will be forgotten unless they’re REALLY bad but the ‘hits’ will be remembered fondly and something you can pull out of your culinary library when the need arises. My wife also appreciates that I do (and have always done) most of the cooking in our household. She doesn’t like to cook. I used to say she couldn’t cook but she makes a mean no-bake boxed cheese cake and also an orange chicken but I digress. My mother, Barbara, also instilled in me a passion for cooking, good worth ethic, and following through on your dreams at an early age. So I need to pay my respects to her for the inspiration, as well.
As I said, my wife doesn’t like to cook so a few years back she strongly suggested that I become a volunteer at Central Market’s cooking school. Not just to be involved in the culinary life but to see if it was something that I wanted to do professionally instead of the pencil pushing number cruncher that I was becoming. Not that there is anything wrong with that but my true passion was cooking and she saw that in me. I thought why not, I’ll give it a go and see what comes of it. And what came of it was a magical journey that I’m still on, relationships were formed with people that I count as friends for life, and my passion for the culinary arts blossomed. On my first day as a volunteer, I met a guy that was also there on his first day; not as a volunteer mind you but he was there for his first day as the Cooking School Manager. He was young, confident, maybe even a little pompous bordering on arrogant but I liked him. I vividly remember telling him that “when I grow up, I want to be you”… I am 7 years his senior and he knew that but when I explained to him what I was doing there at CM and that I could see myself being the manager of a cooking school down the road he got a little gleam in his eye. I won’t rattle off all his accolades/work experiences but the name of the young man I met that day is Chef Jason Harper who, for the last 6 years has been the owner & Executive Chef of Trio New American Cafe in Colleyville. Jason wasn’t the only chef I had the privilege of working with while volunteering at CM. Other local “celebrity” chefs that I learned a great deal from include Brian Olenjack, Terry Chandler, Blaine Staniford, Donatella Trotti, and Jon Bonnell.
Truth be told, I had met Chef Bonnell a few years before I started my volunteering career but the relationship/friendship we struck up while working his classes was one that opened up doors for me later in life and I count him and Chef Harper as my unofficial mentors on this wild ride into the restaurant life. Quite a few national celebrity chefs passed through that kitchen, as well. The likes of Cat Cora, Martin Yan, Stephanie Izard, Tre Wilcox, and on and on. Just being able to watch them work was awe-inspiring in itself. I also met other talented chefs/home cooks/foodies while volunteering at CM. I’m afraid to mention them by name for fear I’ll forget someone but I’ll give it a go anyway. In no particular order, Christine-an awesome jayhawking baker, Nelly-not sure how she reached things on the top shelf when I wasn’t around, Ms. Kelley-pretty sure she was just there to get a break from her 27 kids…or was it 37, Priscilla-I can’t say enough good about my friend and miss her greatly even though Austin isn’t that far, Trish & the late Dennis-the quintessential loving couple, Sarah-the glue that holds it all together, Henry-my dreadlocked brother from another mother, Sandy-if you look up ‘spitfire’ in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure Sandy’s picture will be there, Deb-the rockstar in what would equate to the FOH in a restaurant, Mikki-not sure she has a mean bone in her body, Steve-we’ll always have one pot buddy, and last but certainly not least Jeff Dietzman. Saying I didn’t like Jeff in the beginning is probably being a little too harsh but I think it is because I got tired of being called Jeff. What, just because we’re both 6’4” with shaved heads and facial hair we look the same?! At the time we met, I had a goatee and he had those ridiculous trimmed down mutton Chops… we didn’t look alike… we DON’T look alike… I’m not bitter… ok, maybe a little but in my defense, I’ve been being called “Jeff” for 7 years now.
As it turns out, Jeff’s wife, Laurie, ALSO sent him to CM’s Cooking School to volunteer to see if it was something he wanted to do on a more professional level because (surprise surprise) he did most of the cooking in his household. Jeff was, and still is, an electrical engineer for a small firm in Ft Worth. Despite my personal issues with constantly being called Jeff, he and I struck up a friendship. We’d decompress after classes at Button’s Cajun Cuisine and grab a beer or two. Turns out we had similar interests; craft beer, unique restaurants, good food. We started to exchange emails talking about a new brew that was coming out, or some wacky kitchen gadget, or a new restaurant that was getting ready to open that we wanted to go check out, or a cooking competition that he was thinking of entering-more on these contests later. After volunteering for a bit, Jeff bit the bullet so to speak and registered to attend the Culinary School of Fort Worth. He aspired to not just volunteer for classes as CM but to be the Chef Instructor. I took a different path and helped Chef Harper, now departed from CM, and his lovely wife Miriam open their dream in Trio. Harper needed help and I was eager to learn so I helped him as somewhat of a prep cook. Prideful, he tried to pay me but I was mindful of what it must take to open your own place so I would just slip the money back in the register even as he protested. All this time Jeff and I were still volunteering at CM whenever possible and I got to live vicariously through him becoming more and more intrigued about the possibility of attending the school myself.
Fast forwarding a bit, when Jeff was getting ready to graduate from the culinary school I decided it was my time to attend. I enrolled and was chomping at the bit to soak up the knowledge. While there I had some great instructors that helped mold me; Heather Kurima, Callie Salls, Steve Cerreto-same Steve mentioned before… he ALSO took a liking to the culinary life, Brad Waier, Brian Latner, Julie Morris, Tiffany Costanzo, Jessica Allain, Kevin Martinez (they should ALL have Chef in front of their names, but I thought it redundant and left them off). I learned a lot. A lot about cooking. A lot about leadership and teamwork. A lot about what works, what doesn’t, and how to adjust when problems arise. But above all, I learned what I wanted to do with my life. Someway, somehow, I wanted to immerse myself in the culinary world. I wasn’t quite ready to jump into the deep end however and quit that number crunching job mentioned earlier. I had a young child now and couldn’t mentally make the plunge to leave the reliable bill paying job behind. But my brain was working in overdrive. Jeff and I started talking about what kind of restaurant we would open if we “ever won the lottery” OR “when we retire” OR “the right opportunity comes around”. That ‘opportunity’ came to fruition at the culmination of three key moments. Just before my final semester of culinary school was to begin, it was determined that I needed to have my gall bladder removed.
While recovering from that surgery, and thus taking a semester off of school, I really started to buckle down on the whole idea of opening a restaurant. I developed a menu, ran it by my chef mentors to get their take on things, and explored funding options. The next two ‘moments’ are emails that passed between Jeff and I. The first was one from me to him that was an article written by Scott Metzger now of Freetail Brewing that projected the impact of the craft beer industry on the Texas economy was $650M in 2011 (this was mid 2012) and that it was projected to reach $5.6B by the year 2020. I remember telling Jeff, “we’re a couple of smart guys, we have to figure out a way to get a piece of the 5.6 billion dollar pie.” The next email was from him to me talking about his new area called Trinity Groves that was looking for new restaurant concepts put up by new to the game restaurateurs where investment partners would “put up the money to live out your dream of having your own place”. The semantics of the next step are a little fuzzy but Jeff contends that he just sent me the email to tell me about yet another place we should check out when it opens, but I saw it as our Willy Wonka Golden Ticket and pitched our idea to open our restaurant concept.
The Local turns out there’s already a place in town called Local (apparently the article “the” is important when researching already used business names) but that’s another story for another time. Anyway we changed the name fairly early to LUCK – an acronym of sorts for Local Urban Craft Kitchen and classified ourselves as a craft beer inspired kitchen & bar where the plan was to have only local craft beer for sale, use local ingredients whenever possible, and to use the local craft beer in our recipes as much as we could.
The consultants for the Trinity Groves Incubator group liked the idea and wanted to bring us in to further discuss. It took a bit for Jeff to believe me that we had a meeting. If memory serves, his exact words were, “we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, I’m calling Danny.” Now Danny definitely had more experience than the two of us combined as he had been at The Four Seasons of Las Colinas for the 8 years prior to us opening LUCK and been cooking professionally for even longer so I was good with bringing him on board. Also, he happens to be Jeff’s cousin so I knew I could trust him. Jeff called Danny to gauge his interest in what at the time was just a slim possibility and I believe his reply was “I will quit my job TODAY.” Jeff wisely convinced him to pump the brakes on that notion but the three of us scheduled our meeting, pitched our idea to the “suits” and they nodded, smiled, looked over our amateur presentation and told us they wanted us to develop the concept more and come back to them. If we were really interested, we’d get back to them in a couple of weeks. The idea being that they’d make red marks all over it kind of like a school paper, give it back to us, we’d correct, and go back and forth like this until it was ‘perfect’. Then we’d present it to the investors and if they liked it, a tasting would be scheduled and if that went well, the discussion to bring us into the fold would commence.
The timeline they laid out for us was one that spanned a couple of months. If, however, we weren’t that interested and didn’t get back to them for six weeks, no harm no foul, everybody would just go their separate ways. After the initial meeting the boys and I discussed the possibility and decided it was something we wanted to genuinely try so for 2 weeks after work we would meet, discuss, menu develop, project sales/profits, and overall plan in general our restaurant-to-be. Danny’s wife, Jennifer, works for an architect firm so we described to her what we wanted the place to look like and she was kind enough to draw up the floor plans-and really was an essential member of TeamLUCK making sure everything relating to the structure was zoned properly, signed off on, and exactly how we had envisioned it. Two weeks and a day after our initial meeting with the consultants for TG, we submitted our packet of documents and a couple of days later they brought us in to discuss. Again with the nodding and smiling and added hushed words among themselves before they looked up and said, “Ok, how about we bring you in for a tasting? Which menu items do you guys want to cook for your potential business partners?” Danny, Jeff, and I looked at each other incredulously thinking what happened to the back and forth, what happened to the red marks and making it perfect for presentation? Their answer was that they were pleased with the work we had done and it was clear that we had a vision with where we wanted to go with our company and they didn’t see fit to change any of that.
The tasting was scheduled. We would make the North Texas Hot Brown, Shrimp & Grits, our Pretzels with Beer Cheese Fondue, and Beer Ice Cream. Flashback to the cooking contests I mentioned Jeff was always wanting to enter; a few years before LUCK was even a blip on the radar, we were on competing teams at Saint Arnold’s One Pot Showdown down in Houston where Jeff’s team made shrimp & grits and my team made soft pretzels with a beer cheese fondue. Turns out even way back then we were recipe developing for the future. Unforeseen circumstances kept me from being able to attend our tasting but the boys knocked it out of the park tailgate style outside the TG offices and about a week later we signed our letter of intent to open LUCK. True to his word, Danny quit his job and used the year that the restaurant was being built to spend quality time with his daughter, test, re-test and re-test recipes and start to pool kitchen staff. I guess I should mention that while Danny is an equal partner in LUCK he also acts as our Executive Chef and we’re lucky to have him.
So there you go…the not so condensed version of how I got started in the restaurant business. I couldn’t ask for a better staff or better partners. I’m proud of what we have created and continue to develop. We’ve learned a lot but speaking for myself I still have that thirst to soak up knowledge whenever possible. I look to my peers and competitors alike for inspiration and motivation. But above all I owe a debt of gratitude to my Lady LUCK because if not for her twisting my arm to pursue my passion, none of this would have happened.
Ned Steel IV Co-Owner & Co-Creator of LUCK