This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Check back with us on Thursday and Friday for the second and third installment of this series.
Dylan Murray is eating a colorful salad from a huge stainless steel bowl. A jumble of vibrantly colored vegetables -- radicchio, kale, nuts, and more-- the salad is typical of something you'd find on at Local Foods, the gourmet sandwich shop and younger sibling to the popular Benjy's restaurants owned by Benjy Levit.
Opened in November 2011, Local Foods has become a favorite neighborhood spot in Rice Village, a destination for families, students, hipsters, and just about everyone wanting a quick and casual, delicious meal. Its success has as much to do with the overall vibe of the restaurant-- cool, young, and current-- as it does with the fantastic food that comes from the kitchen. Round mounds of pretzel bread stuffed with truffle egg salad, crisp ciabattas filled to the brim with shrimp and blue crab, and tasty falafel on wheat are simply delicious, a credit to Murray, who masterminded the entire menu.
We caught up with him for a chat about what he's doing at Local Foods, his philosophy in building a menu, and his role in the Benjy's organization.
EOW: Dylan, what is your title here?
EOW: Did you start out as chef-partner, or how did that evolve?
DM: I was the executive chef here at Benjy's in the Village for four years, and when we decided we wanted to open up a second location on Washington, that's when my position evolved.
EOW: What's the function of a partner, because you're a chef. Are you still in the kitchen?
DM: I'm in the kitchen at Local Foods a good bit.
EOW: 'Cause that's your baby, right?
DM: It is. Mine and Benjy's. Obviously Benjy's been around for 17-18 years, so by the time I got here, he was established.
EOW: But he's more the front of the house, decor, running-operating things, and you're more the food component.
DM: Correct. And with the two Benjy's, we have two executive chefs -- Mike Potowski on Washington, and Joseph Stayshich in the Village. And so, if you're going to have an executive chef, you need to let them be an executive chef. So I, for the most part stay out of their hair. I just help them with quality control, employees, equipment.
EOW: So when you say you're helping with quality control, what are you doing?
DM: Meaning, sometimes it's good to have a fresh set of eyes on things. So I can go over to the Washington location and take a look at the space more from a customer's perspectives. And sometimes there are things that can be improved, and I just point that out and we work on it together. Just helping them better the product. When you come in and see the same thing everyday, it's easy to lose perspective.
EOW: How old is the Benjy's organization?
DM: 17 years. I came in about nine years ago.
EOW: That's a nice evolution for you. Do you like how your role has evolved?
DM: I do, because it allows me to still have a lot of direct contact with the food, mostly through local. But it also gives me time to go out and find tune product, make new relationships with farmers, keep abreast of what's going on with the food scene. I go to the Urban Harvest Eastside farmer's market every Saturday and load up my truck. I drop the produce off at each of the restaurants, and that's what they're making their specials out of.
EOW: So you're doing the shopping, the chefs aren't doing it?
DM: They do when they can, but it's just hard. We're open for lunch and dinner and brunch on weekends, so it's hard for them to get out.
EOW: Let's go into this thought process of, "I'm at the market, how do I choose what to bring back?"
DM: A good part of what I do is talk to them. That way I know what's coming in, what's going out, what's having a great season, what's having a tough season, how the rain's been, so I can anticipate what products they will be having. But mostly, it's just shopping -- picking stuff up and smelling it and tasting it.
EOW: So, you bring home these ingredients, and you give them to the chefs, and then they have to play with to make the specials. It's almost like an episode of "Chopped!"
DM: You can say it's like a black box. But rather than being some type of chore, that's arguably the favorite part of their job. They don't know what's coming. Now, for instance, it's fig season. So I bring them beautiful figs, and they're super stoked, and they've got this nice local pork that they can pair it with, and they have fun with it.
EOW: So what has been one your best specials that have come out of that process?
DM: You know, I don't pick favorites. Basically our mission is to incorporate more and more local products. Our pig guy is Felix Flores of Blackhill Meats, who used to be our general manager here -- he now raises hogs. Our fish guy is Frixos, who we get our shrimp and our fish from. The idea would be to get to where almost everything is coming from these guys. The reality is seasonal. In Texas in August, the only thing that grows is okra and eggplant, and maybe tomatoes -- you can't fill your whole menu with that.
EOW: One of the things I love about Benjy's is your commitment to farm-to-table before it became just a big deal in the mainstream. I love the your emphasis on fresh, whole foods.
DM: I don't want to preach to anybody, but I'm really trying to push that movement at Local Foods. I'm about 90 percent vegan personally, but I don't talk about it a whole lot.
EOW: So, when you're cooking do you taste the food?
DM: Oh, absolutely. You can't be a respectable chef and not taste the food, in my opinion. I just am not happy with the American diet. I want to be a part of the vehicle for change. I want to show people that you can eat really good food that's good for you. That's my personal mission for Local Foods.
EOW: Oh, wow!
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DM: I'm not going to do it by shaming people. It's one step at the a time. If you'll notice, all the sides over there are vegan, except for one, which is the kale, which has a little bit of parmesan. And we sell a ton of the falafel sandwich, which I'm super excited about. That's the direction that we're going with it, just not really advertising it.
EOW: That's your own personal mission. You had that when you were creating the menu initially.
DM: Yes, because the food at Local is very close to the way that I like to eat. It's just simple and clean, not really saucy. We use a fair amount of cheese in the sandwiches, but I use almost no dairy in terms of butter and cream.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Dylan Murray.