In late 2007, after more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, self-taught chef Danton Nix (along with his longtime friend and business partner Kyle Teas) opened Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen. Mere months before the economic crisis, it was, in Nix's words, "the perfect time not to open a restaurant." But Nix and Teas persevered, and their reward has been a restaurant that has become both a critical and popular favorite. Eating our Words recently caught up with Nix to talk about Galveston Bay oysters, menu development, Groupon, and more.
EOW: Tell me about your cooking style.
DN: I grew up cooking in a large family of cooks, and we always celebrated food. But I never never had any formal culinary schooling and never worked with a chef. When I got into the restaurant business I was running the front of the house as a general manager, and I just gravitated toward the kitchen. And actually I call myself a cook. That's what I think that I am. I don't have the skill set of people who went to cooking school, and I'm envious of what they have. But what I'm trying to do here is put out great-flavored food.
I call this restaurant a Gulf Coast kitchen. I'm very influenced by Cajun cooking, because I grew up eating the gumbos and the etouffees and the creoles, and I spent a lot of time in South Louisiana. It definitely has an acute influence on my cooking, as does Mexican cuisine. But I don't throw this place out there as a New Orleans or Cajun restaurant, because we're not. Just Gulf Coast. My approach is to put the freshest product I can out there. This place is a throwback restaurant: I'm not doing anything cutting-edge, I'm not doing any fusion confusion, I'm not breaking any new ground or reinventing the wheel. I'm not trying to. I'm just trying to celebrate the food that I grew up with.
EOW: Has the menu changed since you opened?
DN: Absolutely. I've got about 65 items on my menu right now, and it continues to grow. As I do different specials, people want them all the time, and I want to make everyone happy. But I'm at the point where I need to scale back because the menu's getting too big. I also do 10-15 specials each day, depending on what I can get in the back door. One of the good things about being a mom-and-pop restaurant is that I don't have to have everything on my menu every day. If something's not up to par then I won't serve it. And I want my customers to know that. Hopefully, part of the allure of coming here is knowing that food won't go on the plate if it's not something that I personally would want to pay for or put in my mouth.
EOW: If someone's favorite dish gets cut from the menu, will they still be able to order it?
DN: Oh, absolutely. Eighty percent of the things I take off the menu I'll still be able to reproduce. It'll be one of those things where the waiter says, hey, I can get that for you, and it becomes a little more special to people, but also gives me a little more room to work with.
EOW: I've heard from other chefs that one of the most challenging aspects is how customers expect their favorite dishes to be on the menu at all times, because it means that chefs have to prepare the exact same dish every day in exactly the same way.
DN: This is something that I face every day. I'm happy that people get that attached to certain dishes, but it gets real old making the same thing over and over. My menu's full of things that if I don't have them, people get upset or walk out the door. It's like their world has ended if I don't have corn bisque. I think I share this frustration with all cooks. We always want to cook dishes that are new and different, and to cook something three or four thousand times, the thrill is gone, no matter how good it is.
EOW: In addition to dishes named after you, the menu also contains Oysters Kyle and Kyle's Crab Salad. Do these dishes have any special significance?
DN: Mostly I'm just throwing a name out there, and for some of these dishes, just because it has my name on doesn't make it any more special. I'm a shameless self-promoter. And I just named a few things after Kyle because I wanted him to feel good too.
EOW: So Kyle didn't help with the creation of those dishes.
DN: No. I don't handle the books, and he doesn't handle the food. It's a good partnership. You don't want me on a computer or signing checks, and you don't want him cooking.
Tune in tomorrow for more with Danton's executive chef Danton Nix.