[Photos: Justin Chesney]
In all aspects, the past few years have been quite the roller coaster ride for Dale Levitski. After hitting the national scene as a runner-up on Season 3 of Top Chef, the longtime Chicago restaurant veteran subsequently helped open and helm two well regarded Chicago restaurants, Sprout and Frog N Snail. But with the sudden passing of his father early last year, Levitski felt the need to step back, parting ways with the restaurants and heading to Montana to work as a guest chef at The Resort at Paws Up. After five months of working at the resort and then taking time off, a call came in, asking if he would be interested in a job in Nashville. Now a partner and the executive chef of Eighth Avenue hot spot Sinema, Levitski is quickly adapting to life in the South. And with a kitchen hitting its stride and the restaurant's first official review out just this week, Eater caught up with him to talk change, style and all things Nashville.
How have your first few months been at the restaurant?
I can't believe it's already been a few months. I've kind of lost track of time. I think my first impression is I'm having a great time getting my bearings, really kind of understanding what my new market is. Being in Chicago for 15 years, I knew exactly what to expect. And here I've gotten some surprises as far as what people have liked or have not liked. So I've made some adjustments here and there, which has been a challenge but fun. So now I know I can go in some different directions with different dishes. Seeing what the local palate is like and exploring that has been fun.
So since you mentioned it, how is Nashville's palate?
The good thing about my style, my roll among all the chefs in Chicago, was that I didn't cross boundaries into kitsch or trendy ingredients, just to be different for different's sake. I would use different techniques or modern, more updated presentations with very common ingredients. I love cauliflower, I love kale, I love just basic ingredients. I don't put many bells and whistles on them. I play with the food, but it is very approachable. I put unique and interesting flavors in different places that are comforting or elicit flavor memory for you, bring you back to your childhood in certain ways and I think that's how we're getting such a great response here. I guess I didn't really know what to expect coming here and thinking ok, "the South." I just wanted to kind of keep an open mind and that's the reason I was recruited to come, to do my thing. So I kind of honestly did not want to scare myself with doing too much research on the local palate, just kind of wanted to say this who I am and see how they respond and it's been fantastic.
I think the one thing that I felt the most pressure with was chicken. Nashville hot chicken is the 'it' food dish in the country right now. And I was like, I don't want to compete with that, and I'm not going to even try. So I went the opposite way with the chicken on my menu, kind of went more sweet, and I'm getting major props from the locals for the way we're cooking our chickens, so I think that's a major victory. Literally, if I was to try and put hot chicken on there, they would be like 'Who is this guy from the north trying to do hot chicken?' I'd rather go out for hot chicken than try and make it. Brunch I might do some biscuits, but that would be it.
On the topic of your personal cooking style, in an interview you did with TV Guide a few years back regarding your getting knocked off of Top Chef: All Stars on a challenge where you were to emulate the style of a particular chef, you said that you took it as a compliment that you were eliminated because you do your own style of cooking.
I think in my own little layman's terms I call it 'comfort food on crack.' I say it's familiar food, just where a chef pays more attention to it than you would at home. I think some of the dishes are derived out of classic bistro or classic flavor combinations, I have fun with it that way. It's like comfort food with ADD. The food is based in the heart, not in the head. There is logic to it, but it has to have a connection. I went to a two-star Michelin restaurant in New York and I hated it, because it was so conceptual. You were supposed to like it because it was this certain thing. My main goal is that guests like it because it's good.
What is your take on what's happening with the restaurant scene here?
I think I'm the beginning of the next phase of what's going to happen in Nashville. Obviously there's all the great local restaurants that have put it on the map. And then you've got Lockeland Table, 404 Kitchen, Catbird Seat, all these new restaurants that have opened up in the past few years that helped up the standard of what the local palate is. And now that it's blowing up on a more national scale, you'll start to see more eclectic restaurants opening up. Like I think Epice is one of the best places in the city that I've been to. And you wouldn't think of Lebanese or Mediterranean food when you come to Nashville, but it's fantastic there. So I think Nashville is no longer going to be a one-trick pony, which is a fantastic thing to think about. But I've gotten word about a lot of other chefs coming in town, and I don't want it to be a feeding frenzy. I like how loyal Nashville is. I think they will smell a chef or a restaurant a mile away that comes in to town just to try to capitalize on what's happening here. I moved here to become part of this community and change my life.
Last year you had a major life event with the sudden passing of your father. I'm assuming that was the impetus behind you leaving Chicago and then your restaurants subsequently closing. How through all of that did you decide that you were ready to get back in to the business?
I just had to go away, I think is what it was. But even looking at the past five or six years. Two years after season three of Top Chef, my mom passed. Then I opened Sprout, and that was just a huge spike. And then opening Frog N Snail, which was a little more difficult. And then my dad suddenly passing away. I had a few years of just huge highs and huge lows. Even the Monday before 4th of July here I had to put one of my dogs down, he was 15. Before going to Montana, it had been just such peaks and lows. Like I had a $4 million restaurant in the works that tanked because in 2007 the market crashed. And then turning 40 at the same time, not that that's a bad thing. At my dad's funeral I gave a speech, I hadn't even planned to talk, and just standing there speaking, I think that's what told me I needed to take a break. And then I suddenly got this opportunity to go to Montana for five months. It was lucrative and very focused, just me and a kitchen. And then this [Sinema] oddly enough just came about with a phone call from a recruiter. I thought I was done with restaurants, but even [longtime sous chef] Kyle said 'we knew you weren't, you just didn't know you weren't. '
Now were you searching for projects, or were people reaching out to you?
There was a place in Santa Monica that I was in talks with. And then I was on the phone with them and thought 'I forgot what it's like to talk to people from California.' (laughs) I'm kidding. I was getting recruited, and in January/February I started looking around to see what's going on. And then this was just serendipity. I'm very, very happy.
So I know you're going to be doing brunch. When will that start?
I'm still not exactly sure. We've just got to figure out schedule-wise what's going to make the most sense for us. I get very excited about brunch for some reason. It's my sucker punch, my secret superhero power. But brunch is probably the most difficult service, both from a guest standpoint and a cooking standpoint. I think it's the most personal meal of the day. And nothing can make people more cranky than bad breakfast or slow breakfast, there's so many little factors that can make people very angry. It is a very tricky service, in my experience. My first job in Chicago was actually cooking brunch.
So what can we expect? Any dishes from your former Chicago restaurants that might make an appearance?
Nothing you've ever seen in Nashville. And oh sure, I definitely have my signatures. But it will be putting different spins on them because I get bored. So right now I'm making these dishes, tasting them and seeing if I still like them. It will be one of the biggest brunch menus in Nashville. It should be exciting. Breakfast is one of those things where places can phone it in just to make a dollar. But I don't believe in that. We're going to feed you and impress you and make sure you have a good time.
Will you allow children? I read that Huffington Post interview where you said they wouldn't be allowed at Sprout.
(Laughs) I made national news for that. We will, because we actually have space. I guess, to give a little back story defense on that, Sprout was a very tight restaurant, very narrow. And we were a three star restaurant, very nice flatware, glassware, china, white table cloth. We didn't have high chairs, you couldn't even fit a stroller in the aisles during service. Having kids in there was literally a fire hazard. So just based on that alone. Plus, there are appropriate places and not appropriate places for children. In my opinion, a three star restaurant is not somewhere you can roll up with a double-wide stroller. Just because it says brunch doesn't mean it's the appropriate brunch to go to.