Chef Chat, Part 1: Dagan Lynn of 024 Grille, On Life on an Island in Puerto Rico, and Selling His Jeep to Work with Famous Chefs in NYC

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Dagan Lynn 024 Grille at the Westin Memorial City 945 N. Gessner Rd. Tel: 281-501-4350

This is Part 1 of a three-part Chef Chat series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

It's a Friday afternoon, and even though he's in full chef's gear and responsible for the entire food operation at the Westin Memorial City, chef Dagan Lynn exudes calm. To look at him, you wouldn't know that he was overseeing a big banquet that evening, or that he'd been working long hours since he was brought in to transform the ill-fated Trattoria Il Mulino into 024 Grille. But as you'll find out in today's chat, the 37-year-old chef has already done the frenetic New York thing, and is no stranger to working in high-pressure environments.

EOW: So, Dagan Lynn. You're not from here.

DL: Upstate New York is where I grew up.

EOW: And how long have you been in Houston?

DL: Two years now. Two years January 3.

EOW: And what brought you here?

DL: To open the Westin Memorial City.

EOW: Were you working with the Westin before?

DL: I was actually at the W Retreat and Spa on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. It's a small island off Puerto Rico which the navy bombed for 50 years. And they just stopped bombing in 2003, and they started to clean it up, so they opened a hotel there.

EOW: That was hard to leave, I'm sure.

DL: The first eight months, living on the island was beautiful. You go to the beach every day. The hotel wasn't open, so I spent some time in San Juan. What a beautiful place -- so much history, and the people there are just so much fun to be around. We were on an island, so you eat and drink and go to the beach. Not a bad life. I was there for two years.

EOW: Prior to that, I understand you have a pretty hefty résumé. Tell me about that.

DL: This is my seventh city -- that includes one island. I've been with Starwood for six years now. I opened up three hotels with them. One on mainland Puerto Rico, one on the island, one now in Houston. And then I was at the Westin Minneapolis, too. So I went from minus 40 degrees to 75 every day.

EOW: And now you're in Houston. Okay, so tell me about your philosophy around this menu.

DL: We're in a hotel, so guests have these special requests and dietary needs. We tried to gear the food to meet the expectations and specific needs of the guest.

EOW: We're in Houston. What do you think the guests want?

DL: They want value, moderate portions. And, I always try to find the best products. Whatever's out there -- I want the best meats, I want the produce, wines.

EOW: You work for a hotel group. Are there rules around what you can or cannot provide?

DL: Starwood is a big hotel company, and they are really very forward-thinking. They spend the time and money recruiting the talent, and spend a lot of effort and money developing the talent. They don't really put any parameters on what I do. Years ago, they used to put parameters around what you could buy and who you could buy from. But now, they leave it up to the chef.

EOW: So, I heard that you've worked with some big-name chefs.

DL: Yes. Alain Ducasse ran the food and beverage at the W Retreat and Spa in Puerto Rico. I actually worked for him back in 2003 when I first moved to New York. I did an internship at ADNY -- Alain Ducasse in New York at the Essex House, and they were opening up Mix in New York. I trained for a while, and then I helped open that property, and they actually signed the deal for Vieques in 2003, but it took them to 2009 to get it built. So I worked with Ducasse -- he actually opened up Mix in Las Vegas. And then I worked in a few different properties in New York -- basically with the same team -- and then I worked at Per Se also.

EOW: What's it like working for a famous chef?

DL: I have 30 cooks upstairs and downstairs. In New York, we had 30 cooks for just one service. The service is unbelievable. You have an army. It's a classic system, with the head waiter, back waiter -- they don't miss a beat. And the kitchen is no different. The food had so much detail. Working with Ducasse, you get the best products in the country. He had his own caviar, his own champagne...

EOW: How much exposure did you have to him?

DL: A lot. On the island I got more exposure than I got in New York. His head chef, Didier Elena, was amazing. He got three Michelin stars for ADNY, and he was at Adour for a while. And I got to work with Doug Psaltis, who's still a good buddy of mine -- he's the corporate chef with Lettuce Entertain You now. I learned a ton from these guys. From the organization to sourcing the products from the farmers. Plus, when you have a $350 check average, you can buy whatever you want. And they don't waste anything. They use every single part of everything you buy.

EOW: How old were you when you were with them?

DL: I was about 25 at the time. I'm 37 now. Working for Keller -- I worked with him, too -- you really see why he's so successful. The New York experience -- people go there, and they train there, and it sticks out on their résumé, because there's no place like it. You're always busy. When we opened up the place, we're doing 150 covers for lunch and 250 for dinner, and we only sat 80. So, it was just crazy.

EOW: So for people who have aspirations to work in these kitchens, is it worth it?

DL: Yes, it is. It was painful in the beginning, and it took ten years for my bank account to recover, but...

EOW: Why?

DL: Well, I went from culinary school to there. I sold my Jeep, I sold everything, because I didn't work for three months. I mean, I worked but I didn't get paid for three months.

EOW: What do you mean you didn't get paid -- you were staging? So to get in you started as a stage? How do you get people to hire you?

DL: Work for free in New York City. Even when I made it up to manager, I wasn't making that much money. Thirty-five, maybe, and you were working five or six shifts a week. I look back at it, and I worked with such talented guys, because Ducasse was opening a restaurant, and everybody wanted to work there. I look at the roster -- one guy is corporate chef for Lettuce Entertain You, one guy is corporate chef for Tom Colicchio, one guy was chef de cuisine for Robuchon for a long time, and last I heard he was in Hawaii. It's a huge career builder. It's a springboard.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Dagan Lynn.

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