Chef Timothy Hollingsworth has spent the bulk of his culinary career at The French Laundry, where he cooked along Thomas Keller on the line. After 14 years with TKRG, he moved down to Los Angeles to open his own concept last fall: Barrel & Ashes, a bourbon and barbecue restaurant spotlighting the nostalgic foods he grew up eating in Houston, Texas.
In this Q&A, we ask Timothy all about his fine-dining background, how it translates to barbecue, and how the face of “fine dining” is changing is evolving overall to adapt to new tastes and formats.
You have an extensive background in fine dining. I’d love to hear what attracted you to that type of cuisine and how you got started out.
It really all stemmed from my childhood. I grew up working with my father, and he instilled a pretty serious work ethic — a desire for perfection.
There came a time when I wanted to move on and do my own thing, so I went to work at a country French restaurant in my hometown. I got a job as a dishwasher and worked my way up. It was a smaller kitchen, so I spent a lot of time with the chef there, who had a lot of influence on me. He was from France, and the food was very classic country French: coq au vin, beef bourguignonne, escargots. He started teaching me about the books La Répertoire de la Cuisine, Escoffier, Carême and telling me the history behind what we were doing. He would travel with his book and make the recipes no matter what hotel he was going to be working at. That really inspired me to be a chef.
I thought, if I’m going to be a chef maybe I should go to school for it. So I flew myself out to the CIA and flew to New York, to Le Cirque, and ate dinner there by myself. I was probably 19 at the time. It was my first time on an airplane. I took a train up to Hyde Park, spent a week there at the culinary school, then took a train back to the city and ate at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant for lunch, at the Essex House. I spent $250 for myself at lunch — no alcohol.
Were you blown away by these meals?
Yeah, definitely. Blown away. By this time I was buying every cookbook I could buy and really immersing myself into food and the culture behind it. I was 19 or 20 at the time — I told myself, I’m going to work for Ducasse or Thomas Keller, because those are the two best chefs out there. I decided to work for Thomas because he was about a three-and-a-half hour trip from my parents’ house.
Being young, naive, and somewhat ignorant, I went there and ate dinner and turned in my resume. I told Chef Keller, I want to get a job here. I basically called him and called him and called him until he was like, come and try out. I went and tried out, and called and called and called. And finally I received a letter in the meal that I had been hired. That’s how I got into fine dining.
That must have been the best day ever.
I was super excited. Actually, it was not that shocking. I really thought I was going to do it. I was very young, very naive, ignorant — thinking, I belong working in here. Not really aware of how much hard work and dedication I was going to put in.
How did working at The French Laundry shape you as a chef?
It’s where I grew up, you know? I worked my way from the bottom to the top, pretty much working every single station. I was working in the kitchen alongside Thomas Keller — there are not a lot of people who can say that anymore. When he was on line, working every single service. That was a pretty amazing experience, just being able to learn from him and from the other amazing chefs that went through The French Laundry.
So what made you decide to leave, both The French Laundry and fine dining in general?
Fourteen years of fine dining and constantly changing the menu every single day. It’s a great experience, and I don’t know if there’s anybody that can say they did that at The French Laundry. It challenges and pushes you so much, but at some point in time you realize that you want to do your own thing. You want to do something for yourself. Just like Thomas said — he opened up a restaurant, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue my own success, not my success behind somebody else.
Fourteen years is a long time to work for anyone.
For sure. Especially in the restaurant industry. People are usually hopping around a lot.
I read that you were thinking about opening a taqueria before Barrel & Ashes came about.
Yeah, I was. I moved down here, did some consulting in Lebanon and Korea, and a little bit in the U.S. I was planning on opening up a taqueria because I really like Mexican food. It’s something that I have been really passionate about, and it’s food that I enjoy eating on my time off. I still might!
Tell us about your barbecue pop-up.
The pop-up was fun. We bought a smoker, and it was a chance to break that smoker in and understand the nuances of it and really a hands-on way of learning barbecue. We had traveled and eaten a lot and worked in some kitchens, but really it was then that we were perfecting it.
What was your research like?
A lot of pounds gained. [Laughs.] We went to Chicago, to a place called Bub City, where a friend of ours Doug Psaltis showed us his operation. We went to Green Street Smoked Meats in Chicago as well, where another friend Brendan Sodikoff showed us around and showed us how he was doing different barbecue. Then we went to Atlanta and drove down to Unadilla, Georgia and took a class with a guy named Myron Mixon. He’s like the king of barbecue, known for his whole-hog competition barbecue. Then we went to Texas and ate everywhere in Austin and the surrounding areas.
It was a six-day trip in Texas, and to give you an idea, we’d go to five barbecue places in a day. And that was just for lunch.
So which region has the best barbecue?
Austin. I mean, it’s about preference, and I’m originally from Texas so I’m going to be a little more partial to that flavor profile.
So is this the kind of food you grew up eating?
Yeah, a lot of people ask me, why are you doing barbecue, and how do you go from fine dining to barbecue? There’s even been some negative about why chefs go into much more casual dining after doing such higher-end dining.
Working at The French Laundry, I spent so much time away from my family that it was really about me showing them that I appreciate the food I grew up on. A lot of the recipes at Barrel & Ashes are straight from my mom’s recipe book. There are definitely some hits on the menu that are my grandma’s banana pudding, my mom’s chili. It’s really the way my mom made it and really the food I grew up on. It’s very nostalgic for me.
Is there any way that your fine dining background translates to what you’re doing now?
When you think about barbecue, it’s mainly men that barbecue, and typically the sides you get are not very well made — but the meat is pretty incredible. Being from a culinary background that’s less about one specific kind of cuisine, you understand the balance of different things. We have mac and cheese and collard greens and stuff like that, and we’re utilizing French techniques to make the mac and cheese. We’re not making mac and cheese the way a lot of these barbecue places are making it.
We also wanted to showcase some of the vegetables that are in season, so we do smoked beets, watermelon and jicama salad when that’s in season, smoking tomatoes — just having fun with it.
Operationally, how is your life in the kitchen different at Barrel & Ashes than it was in a fine dining restaurant? Have there been any unforeseen challenges or adaptations you’ve had to make in the transition?
It’s been a great process. It was designing a kitchen, dealing with contractors in different fields, dealing with interior designers, and helping realize the space into what it is today. That whole process was very unique; I had never done that at The French Laundry or anywhere else before.
Day to day, it’s focusing on more the managerial side and operations. We just opened for brunch, so that was fun developing that menu. It’s not even three months old now, so it’s still such a growing process that every day is different. Working at The French Laundry — the restaurant’s 20 years old. By the time I left, the restaurant runs whether you’re there or not. No matter who’s there, they’re going to be able to run that restaurant in an amazing way because the infrastructure is so strong. Here, it’s just about setting that infrastructure up.
What do you have to do to create that?
The number one thing is to put the right people in place. Once you have that it’s really about building a culture. If you can do that, you’re successful. If your culture can be consistent throughout the dining room and the kitchen and you can really develop a belief system that people are following and shouting one mantra, if you will — it’s an amazing thing when you get that. It’s something The French Laundry definitely had and something I want all my restaurants to have eventually.
You said, “all my restaurants.” What are your plans for what’s next?
I’m in the process of opening a restaurant in downtown L.A. It’s contemporary American food; we’ve kind of coined the term “elegant rusticity,” which is an homage to what my time at The French Laundry was, and how do we make that more accessible to more people on a daily basis. It’ll be a larger restaurant, 170 seats, we’re building it from the ground up. My partners are Bill Chait again, and Eli Broad, who’s a philanthropist. He’s opening up a museum adjacent to the restaurant and basically giving it to the city.
The restaurant is on Grand in between 2nd and 3rd Streets. It’s basically built on a bridge, and on that bridge we built a park and planted 100-year-old olive trees. The restaurant is at the end of the park. It’s two stories with an amazing view, so it’s a pretty big project.
It seems like everything you read in the restaurant industry now is about fast casual and casual concepts in general. Do you think that’s something that will continue?
I think the idea of fine dining is transitioning into something that’s more casual. Whether it be going to Louis XV in Monaco and eating food like Ducasse’s in a room with huge round tables with huge chandeliers and it’s so extraordinary, or you’re eating at The French Laundry for three and a half hours — I think people are changing their minds on what they want.
More restaurateurs are understanding that when people go out, people are looking for great food more times. You want to go to a fine dining restaurant because it’s a special occasion, because it’s Valentine’s Day. But you want to go to a place where yeah, you can get dressed up and go to it for Valentine’s Day but you can also go in jeans and a T-shirt and have roast chicken and a beer. It’s still paying attention to the quality of ingredients and cooking techniques, but you don’t necessarily need all the formality and structure that goes along with fine dining.
That’s certainly how I feel people are in L.A. When you think about fine dining in L.A. there’s not really a lot. And I feel that’s the way it is throughout America, and there’s a big surge in Paris of people doing the same kind of food. Great chefs that are cooking with quality ingredients and focusing on all the right things but not necessarily going to this extravagant place where you feel like you need to get dressed up in a suit.
What are your thoughts about the L.A. food scene in general, after being in Northern California for so long?
I think the L.A. food scene is one of the most exciting in the United States right now. I don’t think there’s another city that has so many young and up-and-coming chefs trying to make it right now. There are a lot of people opening restaurants, and people moving to L.A. to do that.
In New York people have been doing it for years. San Francisco, people have been doing that for the past few years. Chicago, for sure. But L.A. now is starting to gain some real traction.
And you know, the ethnic food here is really great, too. There’s a lot of dim sum, a lot of Korean food, a lot of Middle Eastern food. And obviously there’s tons of Mexican food and taco trucks, which are great.
Do you think you’d ever go back to fine dining?
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s what the definition of fine dining is. Would I go back to something like The French Laundry? No, never. I did it for 14 years and for me that was enough time. It’s less about the structure and more about cooking and — I don’t want to say having fun. Because cooking in fine dining is fun, being creative. It’s just being able to do it in a larger format way.
If you think about fine dining you think about everybody getting a course — a nine-course tasting menu at The French Laundry. As Americans, we’re one of the few cultures that eat like that. The majority of the world, they eat from the center of the table. There’s a lot of sharing involved. I think that making the idea of dining more about that — the community and sitting down and sharing things as a table with friends or family. That’s more how I like to dine now, and I think a lot of people are on the same page. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the new fine dining, but it’s definitely a new style of dining that you can incorporate fine dining techniques into.
You represented Team U.S.A. at the Bocuse d’Or in 2009. Any reactions to the recently silver medal win?
It’s really awesome that America finally got on the podium. I’m very happy for Phil — I worked with him for years. I’m also very excited for Thomas and Daniel. They put so much time and energy into trying to get a candidate that would do well and hopefully get to gold, but at least get on the podium. They finally are able to see the fruits of their commitment.
I don’t know how much Americans pay attention to the competition, but it’s a very big thing in Europe. I think that’s really what Thomas and Daniel wanted to achieve — to get that recognition here in America. I remember going over to France and staging in kitchens, probably in 2003, and these guys didn’t know anything about American restaurants. They didn’t know anything about American food. If they know you’re from America they’re like, Tupac and Biggie and hamburgers and hot dogs. That’s really the perception — I’m not even exaggerating. America is a newer country, but there is a lot of history. It’s a conglomerate of a lot of different cultures, and there’s exciting food in America. It’s great to get some recognition for that finally, on a competition level.