Living in New Orleans as a small boy, and visiting there often after his folks moved to Germantown, Jason Dallas has countless memories of fishing and cooking with his dad. Though he cherishes those times and still loves Cajun food, today he's planning menus with a classical French flair.
In November, Dallas was appointed chef de cuisine for Chez Philippe at The Peabody, the only Forbes 4-Star and AAA 4-Diamond restaurant in the Mid-South. As just the fourth chef in Chez Philippe's 28-year history, he's got some "big shoes to fill," says the 39-year-old Germantown High School graduate who spent three years at the University of Memphis in graphic design before deciding to enter culinary school.
That decision came during a summer break, when he took a group bicycle trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C. On that excursion he met his future wife, Mari, who was completing medical school in Philadelphia. With a desire to be near her, and a lifelong enthusiasm for cooking, Dallas entered the Restaurant School of Philadelphia.
Earning his culinary arts degree, Dallas interned with Susanna Foo, a two-time James Beard Award winner and one of America's top Chinese chefs. Contrasting that experience to days of crawfish boils and grilling fish with his dad, he adds with a smile, "It was a lot more refined, and a lot more pressure!"
Perhaps the experience that influenced Dallas most was a two-week tour of the French countryside with acclaimed chef Jean Marie Lacroix, another James Beard award winner. While visiting Champagne, Burgundy, Dijon, and Epernay, Dallas learned about the makings of wine, cheese, mustard, and champagne, and witnessed the passion the French have for the food they produce.
Dallas and his wife later moved to Seattle, where for the next few years he worked at 4-star restaurants, including The Herb Farm and The Fairmont Olympic Hotel. With celebrity chef Todd English, he also opened two prestigious Marriott Hotel eateries, the Fish Club and the Meritage.
In 2009, when his wife accepted a position as pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the couple and their two girls — Emi and Mia, now ages 5 and 3 — moved to Memphis. As Mari settled into her job, her husband took care of the children and worked part-time at Chez Philippe under Reinaldo Alphonso. That Cuban-born chef — who followed Jose Gutierrez's 22-year stint at the restaurant's helm — had put a more global spin on the menu, introducing Asian and South American dishes. When Alphonso took a job in Philadelphia, he told Dallas he should toss his name in the hat for the chef position. "I knew the restaurant wanted to get back to classical French cuisine," says Dallas, who rose to the top over several candidates. "I like that style of food and I'm grounded in it."
Guests will find him out in the dining room, discovering what dishes hit the mark. "I enjoy cooking for people and making relationships with the guests," he says. And when friends from his Germantown school days come to dine, "that's really fun and a challenge," he says. "When I know people and their tastes, I can make something special that's not on the menu."
He hopes to banish the idea that French food is all butter and heavy beurre blanc sauces. "I do coq au vin with a different twist. And basil-infused salmon, with basil I grow and dry at home. It's not hard to put my fresh touch to the food." He's also adding a late-night weekend tapas bar menu that he expects to extend into the popular lobby bar.
In his limited free time, he bike-rides with a local triathlon team, and sometimes dines at other local eateries. "There's a surprising number of good ones," he says, mentioning Restaurant Iris, River Oaks, Judd Grisanti's Trattoria, and Pearl's Oyster House.
And he still cooks for his daughters. "They've gotten pretty adventurous," he says, "but they can still say, 'I don't like this!'"
Looking back on his decision to become a chef, Dallas — who first learned about Chez Philippe as a kid watching a cable TV show called Great Chefs, Great Cities — knows he's found his niche. "I just love the energy that comes with cooking."