This is Part 2 of a three part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 Friday.
Yesterday, we chatted with Dylan Murray, the chef-partner of Local Foods and Benjy's, about his role in the organization, and his commitment to promoting healthier eating habits. Today, Murray talks menus and provides details for the new Local Foods location coming to Upper Kirby.
EOW: How do you describe the cuisine at Benjy's? And the two locations are different, aren't they? Because Mike [Potowski] has more of a Japanese, almost fusion thing that he does...
DM: And Joseph [Stayshich] has more of an American-Southern thing going on. It's not just the chefs though. It's also the crowd. The Village is more of a neighborhood restaurant. We have customers that have been coming here forever. Over on Washington Ave, it's a little younger, probably a bit more "hip" for lack of a better word, and maybe you can be more adventurous with the food. So yeah, we have a handful of staple dishes that are at both restaurants that are basically the same, and the other 75 percent are chef's choice.
EOW: What are those? What are the dishes that are "Benjy" dishes?
DM: Well, the crunchy chicken is the plate that will never go away. It's our No. 1 seller always. Just as the crunchy chicken sandwich at Local is our No. 1 seller. The pistachio crusted goat cheese appetizer has been on forever, and will probably stay. The Mom's chocolate cake -- Benjy's mom makes it. We've got a few pizzas that are pretty standard, and the Asian chicken salad. Other than that, it's more seasonal and chef's choice, and see what works. You can have a great dish that just won't sell, and you need to find what works.
EOW: Ok let's talk about Local Foods. I remember when I talked to you during the week of your opening, you said "Oh it's such a sandwich shop," --what made you decide to do a sandwich shop?
DM: I think that Benjy and I had been interested in doing something more casual for a long time. We feel like that's the direction the market is headed. There's a lot of new quick-service type concepts there. It's partially that. And I guess we just wanted to take something that's an American standard, and see how good we can do it. The burger thing is kind of played out, and neither of us had any interest in opening a steakhouse, so we thought, "Why not sandwiches?" That's about as Americana as it gets.
EOW: That was a big risk, though. I mean, it's sandwiches, right?
DM: It is a big risk. We didn't know if people would be willing to pay the prices we needed to charge. We get the top shelf ingredients. I've got a 10 dollar banh mi, when you can go to midtown and get one for three bucks. But for me, that was the motivation to say, "Okay, this better be good." Because people will laugh in my face if it's not.
EOW: So the menu at Local foods is all you, where there are executive chefs at Benjy's...
DM: I would say it's chef-driven, though we don't run nearly as many specials. We are trying to ramp that aspect up. Culinary side, yes, this is my baby.
EOW: How much has the many evolved or changed or expanded since you started?
DM: We started at around eight. We're at eight right now. We try to run specials almost all the time. We did away with some things that we used to do. We made a ceviche which you could just buy a la carte. We tried to do a grocery concept. We thought that if we offered staple groceries for the community, that they would stop by and get a dozen eggs and some milk, but it just never had response.
EOW: What do you think has kind of captured Houston at the moment? Because people are happy when I walk in there.
DM: It's a fun vibe. I think, at least in the inner city, and across America, people are realizing that people need to eat better. I think there's a sizable movement that you just can't eat pizzas and hamburgers every day and get by on that. With the rise in fuel prices, we've seen food costs go way up, which makes locally foraged products a better deal, because you're not paying for transportation. So all of a sudden you've got stuff that used to be 50 percent more expensive is now 15 or 20 percent more expensive. Maybe there's a feeling of community with it.
EOW: You said that you wanted to help people eat better, but not into a pushy, judgmental, in-your-face kind of way. How are you incorporating that into the menu?
DM: As I mentioned with the falafel, for instance. There's a lot of people who don't know what falafel is. It's a garbanzo bean-based patty of ground garbanzo and cilantro and herbs and spices. Traditionally it's formed into balls and deep fried, but we just form it into a patty and sear it.
EOW: Which is much healthier.
DM: Yes. The salads -- every time we run a special salad, it just flies out.
EOW: How many salads do you have at a time?
DM: We have five. EOW: I'm addicted to the Asian slaw and the kale salad.
DM: Those won't change.
EOW: Were there any surprises? In terms of what was more popular, what worked, what didn't?
DM: I'm surprised how equally well all of the sandwiches sell. I mean, the crunchy chicken sells an immense amount, but all the others are neck and neck. You know the biggest surprise is the truffled egg salad.
EOW: That's my sandwich! You did it so well, because the truffle is very restrained, and then the bread is amazing.
DM: Slow Dough's got it down. I pat myself on the back for making the decision not to do my own bread, because there's no way I could do it that good.
EOW: How many types of bread do you have?
DM: Currently, we have five. The pretzel bun, the ciabatta, the mini baguette for the banh mi, the sliced whole wheat, and then we do bagels from New York bagels in Meyerland. The bread is definitely taken into consideration for each sandwich. And it's funny because sometimes people do switch the bread out, and it doesn't work. You can tell just by looking at it that it's going to fall apart and be really hard to eat, but that's what people want, so it's fine.
EOW: So, if it's going so well, are you guys going to open another one?
DM: We are! We are taking the Taco Milagro space in Upper Kirby. We hope to be open in January. EOW: So close to this location in the Village?
DM: So, it's somewhat of a risk, but on the other hand, we feel like the 59 freeway is a barrier for a lot of people. So we're pretty confident that we won't cannibalize ourselves. My other thought with that is -- if you can have a McDonald's every mile on the same street, why can't we have one two and half miles away.
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DM: And we're going to be doing some entree offerings at the new location. We're getting a rotisserie machine. I want people to feel like they can come in and get a dinner plate. We don't really have the kitchen set up at Local now to do that because the sandwich line is so separate from the kitchen, but at the new place they'll be the same, so I'll be able to pull it off.
EOW: Any ideas on new entrees? What's playing in your head right now. I'm not holding you to it.
DM: I'm really a big fan of what Frixos does (our fish guy). So I'd like to feature his special fish and shrimp on some entrees. The basic philosophy that I want is that it has to be really simple, very easy to execute. So I want to get really good protein products, like Felix's pork, lamb, or beef, spit roast it, and slice it to order. A couple very simple sides to go with it. I don't want to overcomplicate it. And I want to feature Frixos' stuff, maybe as a mini ceviche bar. Ceviche's one of my favorite things to do and make.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Murray's food.