An Interview with Dallas Chef Kent Rathbun

August 19, 2014

Mr. Harper has recommended the cuisine of chef Kent Rathbun's Dallas restaurant Abacus since 2011. So, it was an especial privilege for an Andrew Harper staff member to speak with the Texan chef about his time in hotel restaurants, his international food research, where he gets his inspiration and where he’s going next. Rathbun holds a stake in seven restaurants across Texas and continues to eye future ventures. The chef is a James Beard Award nominee, and his restaurants are perennial inclusions in the Zagat guide.

Interview with Kent Rathbun

Chef Kent Rathbun ANDREW HARPER STAFF (AHS): You spent time at the kitchens at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and The Melrose. What makes cooking in a hotel unique or different from cooking where you’re cooking now?

KENT RATHBUN: Well, you know, you have full-service to deal with. You have breakfast, lunch, dinner, buffets, sometimes room service. It adds a different component to what you’re doing but it also allows you some things that you don’t get afforded in a lunch and dinner restaurant. From a financial standpoint, you can really be able to do some cool things in a hotel restaurant at night because you’re not so dialed in on trying to figure out what to do financially.

AHS: I hear you took an annual trip to Thailand when you were working with hotels. How has that influenced the food that you’re cooking right now?

KR: Well, when I was at the Melrose, I went to Thailand three years in a row. I’ve been back one time since. My annual trips are not necessarily just to Thailand anymore but abroad. I like to do at least one or two trips a year, for the purpose of researching food, looking at new items, looking at new products, new restaurants, design. I’m actually getting ready to go to China. We’re leaving for China in June. It’s a multicultural type of trip but it’s really going to be centered around food.

AHS: Where are you going in China?

KR: We’re going to go to Beijing. We’re going to go to Hong Kong. We’re going to go to a third big city. We’re kind of doing the whole thing. My children are going and my partner and his wife are going so it’s going to be a good trip.

AHS: Is there one meal that you’ve had in your life that you’d be willing to travel across the globe to have again?

It’s the experience that I’m always chasing. It’s not just the food component. It’s the experience itself.

KR: That’s a really good question. There have been so many good meals that it’s almost hard to remember. There’s always two or three meals on every trip that we take that are memorable. Those are usually the things that I bring back to the restaurant. It also has to do with something more than just food. I believe that food is one component of a really great experience. When you’re in Italy or when you’re in Turkey or when you’re in Thailand, and you’re having those foods, you’re surrounded by this really cool cultural explosion of new things. That’s what makes these experiences great. I don’t know if I could tell you one meal but I can certainly tell you that it has to do with more than just food. It’s the setting. It’s the place that you’re in. It’s the people that you’re with. It’s the experience that I’m always chasing. It’s not just the food component. It’s the experience itself.

AHS: So, shifting towards Dallas, you have a handful of restaurants in the Dallas area, and you’re thinking about expanding. Where are you going next?

KR: We have restaurants outside of Dallas. We have Jasper’s in Austin, and a Jasper’s in Houston, too. Abacus is our first restaurant in Dallas. We have seven restaurants in total, five in Dallas, one in Houston and one in Austin. We are looking to expand, but, quite honestly, with what I’ve learned about running a company remotely, I don’t want to be too far away from my restaurants. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to do restaurants in L.A., Las Vegas, San Francisco. People talk to us about New York all the time. I don’t know that those things interest me that much because, first of all, that’s learning a whole new market. Gambling those couple million dollars with a restaurant is something I don’t know I want to do now. I like the idea of being in a place where I understand the market and that I can get to within a couple hours drive. Houston, Austin, San Antonio, South Lake, Fort Worth, these are places that appeal to me right now. I don’t want to spread myself too thin.

AHS: That makes a lot of sense. So, final question, what is a dream vacation for you?

KR: I might be getting ready to take it. I love traveling to places that I refer to as a “different world.” I will tell you the interesting thing. When I went to Bangkok, Thailand, in the nineties, I truly thought it was such a different world. I went back two-and-a-half years ago and it wasn’t such a different world anymore. You know, the internet and the technology-based businesses and all of that stuff have changed it. We really have become a global planet. Whereas you used to get on a plane and go to these new wonderful places, things are growing more [similar] in terms of what you see around you. Billboards, advertising, people, cars, technology, items for sale, they’re the same in Italy as they are in Bangkok as they are in Dallas as they are in New York. What’s interesting about that is, although you’re in a different country, there’s a lot of familiarity. Right now, I am always looking for the totally different experience.

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