Chef Tim Love opened his first restaurant, The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas in 2000, and his hard work and creativity resulted in a ground-breaking restaurant that combined Western influences with modern culinary techniques and ingredients. Love regularly dons a cowboy hat in place of a toque while he cooks, blends foie gras with chile, flies in fresh lingonberries from Sweden, cheese from Spain, and spices from Mexico. His wine list is decidedly Australian, a place that he visits often and whose outback he believes is reminiscent of America’s old West. This month, Love’s desire to “cook with the best” has brought him to New York, where his second Lonesome Dove just opened on 21st street. The space shares many of the same winning qualities as the original Fort Worth restaurant, with exposed brick walls, pressed tin ceilings, and brightly lit paintings each of which carries special meaning to Mr. Love. The menu will change daily to reflect available meat and produce, but Love’s innovative creations will always call upon wild game, seasonal fish, and fresh local ingredients. We interviewed Chef Love, on the day he was scheduled to open.
Q:How did you become a chef, did you have any training?
A:I got involved with restaurants after taking a job to pay for my school. I have a degree in finance and a degree in marketing, both from the University of Tennessee, and the job paid for my schooling there. I applied to be a server, a bartender, or a host, and the general manager offered me a job making salads. I’ve never been without a job since I was 11 years old, so I took it in anticipation of getting another job, and I just fell in love with it. The first day I worked I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When I was a kid, my parents were divorced and I’d spend my summers in Tennessee, where we had a big one-acre garden that I had to take care of. I hated it because that was my chores, but then as I got into cooking I started to learn how much I already knew about food because I had raised it all my life. I had moved cattle, I had grown produce, I had done all that, so that really became a big benefit. I’ve never had any formal culinary training, although I’ve taught at a bunch of culinary schools - kind of ironic - and I’ve taught wine classes.
Q: You have a strong Australian influence on your menu, what are the origins of that?
A: I believe Australia is lot like what the West used to be. There’s a lot of uncharted land out there, a lot of opportunity in Australia, and there’s a lot of land that doesn’t have fences - it’s kind of what I pictured the West being in the United States when people first went there and found land. There’s not much of that left in the United States but the West still lives out there. I think that’s the true extension of what my cuisine is all about, which is the ethnic groups that made up the West. I feel like my wine list reflects that too - everything west of the Mississippi all the way to Australia is what I call fair game for me.
Q: What was the experience like in opening your first restaurant in 2000?
A: Tiring. For me I feel like I’m in a unique situation because we don’t have any investors. My wife and I used our own cash, the restaurant carries no debt. So going into it you’re nervous as heck, you’re like ‘oh, shit, I don’t have any money left and we’ve got a mortgage to pay for,’ so as a chef that drives you to make sure you’re very precise about how all the food is, and exactly how you want it to taste. To me, you can’t open a restaurant and just be the chef of the restaurant. If you do that, the restaurant is going to fail. It has to be congruent between everything whether it’s the business partners, the person who runs the front of the house, the chef; they all have to be doing the same thing. All of them have to pick up a cigarette butt if it’s sitting on the floor no matter what, even though it’s not what the chef does. The food has to be driven by the person at the front door, and the front door has to be driven by the food. When I hire servers, the hardest thing is to get the server to portray the chef’s passion of the food to the guests. I can come to any table and get them to order anything that I want. If I walk up to a table, the whole table will try something because I say “you’ve got to have it, it’s unbelievable.” I’ve got a story behind it, so they’re like “hell yeah, bring two of them,” but the server can’t do that unless they somehow envelope the passion of the chef and that’s the hardest thing.
Q: I understand you are doing the Iron Chef show, have you done any planning for that thus far?
A: Yeah, I’m doing Iron Chef in a couple of weeks, I think I’m going against Morimoto. I’ve got a lot going on right now and Iron Chef is 3 weeks away - that means I’ve got 3 weeks to figure that out. My chef in Fort Worth is freaking out because I’m bringing him up here to do it with me and every day he calls and says, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’ and I am like ‘damn, let me just open up this restaurant first!’
Q: What makes the Lonesome Dove restaurant different from other restaurants?
A: We do a lot of game, which most people aren’t used to, that’s kind of a different deal. But it’s really something I try to teach my kids and I try to teach in a classroom; it’s sitting down and having a nice meal which doesn’t happen very often anymore, and that’s what I try to do at my restaurant. People come in and have a good time and have a damn good meal - there’s no pretentiousness about it. My servers are fun and happy and if you see somebody at that table over there, you’re not afraid to yell at them “hey, what’s going on?” just like if you are sitting down to have dinner at home with friends. I want people to feel like I’m throwing you a little dinner party every night.
Q: Even though it was a few years ago, could you tell us about the filmed journey that you made to the Beard House Dinner?
A: I got invited to cook at the Beard House and I wanted to make sure I did something really cool. I don’t really like to do things the way everybody else does them. On my farm when I was growing up, we used to make watercress and mayonnaise sandwiches instead of peanut butter and jelly, so I wanted to use that watercress for a salad. So I started thinking how can I get it and ship it, it wouldn’t be ripe, so maybe I’ll just go out and pick it up, and then my mind just started – I said, “Shit, what if I just try to pick up every ingredient just for the hell of it?” So then it started growing and growing and the next thing you know we’re driving horses, and it was tremendous. We met so many farmers, great ingredients along the way, and we put a whole kitchen on a bus. It was a hell of an adventure, then there was a blackout in New York - only I would get a blackout in the city when I’m heading to that city - so it was a good thing we got all of our ingredients on the way because there wouldn’t have been any food for us to have when we got there. We did the same thing to Los Angeles, and the Food Network did a show about it, one to New York, and one to LA.
Q: Because this is your first New York restaurant, was this harder than your first one was in Fort Worth?
A: That’s kind of a yes and no answer. No, because I knew what the hell I was doing. Yes, because I’m in a city where I don’t know anybody. In Texas, I’ve got some really good ties and if I need a favor I can call somebody to help me. I don’t really have any favor people in New York, especially dealing with the City. Here they say ‘call that person’ and then that person says ‘call this person’ and you go around in a frigging circle, so that part’s tough. With Lonesome Dove I contract all the work myself. I designed the bar on the back of a manila folder and drew it on the floor for the contractor!
Q: What was your motivation for coming to New York?
A: I came to New York because this is where the best food supposedly is - the food capital of the world - and in order to be better you’ve got to put yourself beside the best. The only way to do that is to be up here. You can read about it, you can eat at different places, but to me the only way you get better is to put yourself beside the best.