The bartender poured a trio of tequila shots into clear plastic glasses, turned around and handed them over to the ne'er-do-wells that were about to hop on stage and put their chef skills to the test during the Sprouts Culinary Showdown. This time, though, Jason Dady wasn't whipping up a dish in less than 30 minutes like he had the past three years. Instead, the restaurateur was master of ceremonies.
Dady clinked his plasticware, unfazed by the tequila burn, and hopped on stage.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?”
Working a crowd isn’t new for Dady, the chef-owner and face of Jason Dady Restaurant Group, which is also managed by wife Crystal and younger brother Jake. After 16 years in San Antonio’s culinary scene, the 6’4” chef has innumerable local TV appearances and hundreds of food events under his toque. He’s in his element in front of a crowd.
Dady will need to hone every ounce of that skill as he sets foot on the biggest stage of his career yet — competing in Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet this April. But his journey there began in the early 2000s.
Intimate, romantic, and set inside a renovated Castle Hills estate, The Lodge became one of the it locations for special occasions. Dinners there meant choosing between five or eight courses, and settling in for several hours worth of oohing and ahhing at picturesque plates.
“San Antonio had a very different dining scene, with few restaurants doing high-end innovative cuisine. Dady, trained at the California Culinary Academy, established a team that quickly became a critical favorite and a noted spot for romantic dining,” wrote the San Antonio Express-News when Dady announced The Lodge’s closing in 2011.
The 24-year-old Texas Tech University grad was looking to make a scene when he made his way to sleepy San Antonio, where he made a splash by opening The Lodge, a fine dining restaurant with elaborate tasting menus.
“It was inventive…where he opened a fine dining restaurant in this beautiful mansion — it hadn’t been done in a while,” says Karen Haram, former Express-News food editor for 28 years.
No, The Lodge wasn’t the only restaurant of its caliber at the time, but it was one of the few in the Alamo City, its only real peer being Andrew Weissman’s Le Rêve, which opened in the late ’90s. Otherwise, the city had a few big names like Mark Bliss and Bruce Auden, who were tackling projects such as Silo Elevated Cuisine and Biga on the Banks. Nowadays, the number of chefs the city can brag about continues to grow and now include areas in Southtown, The Pearl, and throughout San Antonio.
The Lodge wasn’t it for Dady. Ron Bechtol, local critic since the late ’70s (and frequent Current contributor), put it succinctly. “[He] initiated what was apparently his plan all along: the culinary conquest of San Antonio. And beyond.”
Empire sounds too colonial, but it’s one of the words that come to mind when describing Dady’s group of restaurants. Here’s what Dady’s done in the last 16 years.
In 2004, he opened BIN 555 with modern American cuisine and followed it with Tre Trattoria’s Tuscan Italian in 2007 in Alamo Heights. Dady delved into his love of smoke when Two Bros BBQ Market opened off West Avenue, and showcased new American dishes inside The Fairmount Hotel’s Restaurant Insignia in 2009. His answer to the food truck craze came in 2010 with Dady’s Underground Kitchen, or DUK Truck for short, with DUK tacos of duck confit and steamed buns.
They weren’t all winners, but one of Dady’s greatest strengths appears to be his chameleon-like ability to adapt and reinvent. In 2011, he scrapped Insignia for Tre Trattoria Downtown. He looked at national trends that showed the declining popularity of fine dining and closed The Lodge on New Years Eve of that year. In early 2014, BIN 555 closed and Dady opened Umai Mi, a funky, rap-filled fusion Asian eatery that was probably too edgy for its time here, and followed that up by partnering with Jody and Steve Newman to open Southtown barbecue joint B&D Ice House that March.
Umai Mi’s location proved its major weakness, so Tre Enoteca replaced it in 2015 with burrata and house-made pastas. Dady took a chance at casual and opened Shuck Shack on Fourth of July of 2015 with oysters on the half-shell, lobster rolls and patio pounders off Grayson Street. Most recently, Dady reimagined BIN 555 as The Bin, a tapas bar filled with gin and tonics and sangria. Oh, and he gave up coffee and Diet Coke as of last March.
Through it all, he’s cultivated a celebrity chef persona — he joined Twitter in March 2009 and interacts with his close to 7,000 followers on a daily basis. Same goes for Instagram, where more than 5,000 fans have double tapped his eclectic posts since June 2013. He rarely turns down a TV appearance, shares recipes whenever he’s asked and has been a part of the Food + Wine Festival circuit since 2001.
The father of three makes it work with help from business partner and wife Crystal, brother Jake, a gaggle of managers and chefs at each eatery and catering company, all tasked with executing his vision. He’s also shaping San Anto’s future by surrounding himself with a team that’s gone on to do well on their own. His end goal: helping the city get the attention it deserves. “2017 is San Antonio’s year. Mark my words,” he posted on Facebook this January.
Dady's impact is felt through the local talent he’s fostered in his restaurants.
A 20-year-old Robbie Nowlin was attending St. Philip’s culinary program when he first applied to work at The Lodge. “I learned the importance of salt and balance from the kitchen perspective,” Nowlin says.
Nowlin, now 33, went on to work at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry before relocating back to San Antonio to helm Citrus and is currently the executive chef for sister eateries Boudro’s Texas Bistro and Zinc Bistro & Wine Bar.
Moreover, Nowlin says, Dady helped create jobs in the city.
“He’s made a lot of jobs! It’s funny ‘cause he doesn’t get the benefit of that. He’s made up 250 jobs for our city and that’s a big deal,” Nowlin says.
Over in Monte Vista, former Tre Trattoria chef Mark Weaver is still learning lessons from Dady as he maneuvers his first solo venture, Periphery. After seven years with Dady, Weaver opened Periphery in early February with rustic new American dishes. Though he can’t pinpoint any one specific lesson from Dady, Weaver says it all started to make sense to him when he was the one dealing with the numbers.
“You start to understand things [as an owner] that, as a chef, would have pissed you off,” Weaver laughs. “Numbers are everything. [Dady] has this motto: ‘Make it happen,’ that’s really true. Whatever troubles you’re going through, the guests don’t care, you just make it happen.”
He points to Dady as a mentor and friend who took him on trips he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go on, but he also notes Dady’s hands-off leadership style.
“He put a lot of trust in me, left me alone, let me make mistakes, let me play and experiment,” Weaver says.
And again, Dady's love for his adopted city comes up.
“We get overlooked a lot, and in a way, he makes it personal,” Weaver says. “He knows everybody, everything that’s going on.”
At King’s Hwy. Brew & Q, Emilio “Emo” Soliz, says he learned everything from Dady, including how to do a one-handed quenelle (read: the fanciful egg-shaped dollop of ice cream or whipped cream restaurants use to wow diners).
“I never learned the other way,” Soliz says.
Before leaving to open Sweet Christi’s food truck and King’s Hwy. in 2015, Soliz served as garde manger, or pantry chef, for Dady at The Lodge and later pitmaster at Two Bros BBQ Market. He says he learned how to conduct himself in the public eye, how to run numbers, keep inventory, and be a family man from Dady.
“Stefan [Bowers] was my Obi-Wan, but Jason is my yoda,” Soliz says.
And seemingly Dady still carves out time to coach former chefs on all manners of things. Soliz will text him questions about how to balance family life (Dady has three children, Soliz has four), handle situations with employees or rude guests, or price a catering menu.
The texting continues in a three-way conversation between Dady, Nowlin and Stefan Bowers, who worked for Dady as chef de cuisine at The Lodge for three years building creative menus and plating beautiful dishes.
“The best thing that ever happened to my career was getting fired by Jason,” Bowers says. “He knew it was time to get fresh blood in there.”
At just over 18 months Dady’s senior, Bowers’ relationship with his chef involved a lot of pushing and pulling, until he finally pushed too hard. (“I got fired for being a total asshole. I was too much, you have to know whose house you’re in.”) He left The Lodge in 2008 and landed at 20Nine Restaurant & Wine Bar. The chefs didn’t speak for more than three years.
They eventually patched things up after Bowers opened Feast in 2012 and Dady walked in with an olive branch.
“I never could understand what Jason Dady was when I was a sous chef. Once Feast opened, I realized the stress and responsibility of making a restaurant successful,” Bowers says.
These days, they text about what it’s like to keep several eateries afloat at once, as Bowers serves as executive chef and co-owner of three restaurants that are also bringing national attention to the city: Feast, Rebelle inside The St. Anthony Hotel (which drew accolades after opening from the Current, San Antonio Express-News and Texas Monthly) and the recently-opened Battalion, a two-story beast of a restaurant that serves house-made pasta, luxurious sauces, and amaro-filled cocktails inside a renovated firehouse.
“We’re ready for that national attention. I know at least my three restaurants are,” Bowers says.
Maybe 2017 will be San Antonio’s year to bask in the spotlight. Last month, The New York Times shared a spot-on guide on how to spend 36 hours in the Alamo City. The Pearl routinely draws attention from national publications, but as of yet, the city hasn’t hit that rolling boil of constant media nods.
San Antonio's time in the spotlight, until recently, has been focused on its Tex-Mex traditions. Diana Barrios-Treviño, owner of Los Barrios, La Hacienda de los Barrios and Viola’s Ventanas, has had her fair share of experience with national media. According to Barrios’ website, her appearances include The White House, representing Southwestern United States at the Congressional Picnic; Good Morning America with Emeril Lagasse; the Food Network, Food Nation with Bobby Flay; the Weekend Today Show on NBC Good Morning America with Sam Champion; Throwdown with Bobby Flay; the Today Show on NBC with Ann Curry; Martha Stewart Living Radio Show with Mario Bosquez, to name a few
Though Los Barrios opened in 1979, Barrios says her appearance with Emeril Lagasse in 1999 was what really helped catapult the brand.
“It just wasn’t our turn until then,” she says.
These days, she’s recognized across the U.S. and even while on vacation in Mexico.
Dady’s former chefs point to his height, good looks, and extroverted personality as reasons why he’ll make for good TV. Barrios agrees.
“Well he’s cute as can be. He’s really tall, but he’s also very passionate about what he does,” she says while noting his diverse palate and ability to navigate several cuisines as evidenced by his slew of eateries.
The general consensus is it’s Dady’s time to shine. That wasn’t the case in 2011 when he was cut as a “cheftestant” from Top Chef: Texas the night before it was set to begin filming in San Antonio, a secret only a select few have been privy to until now. The 40-year-old wasn’t always levelheaded enough to hold his cards so close to his chest. His chefs have seen the restaurateur mellow out from earlier years (“the nickname Emo comes from him saying Emilio was too long to yell,” Soliz says). Now, Dady steps away from social media before going down a rant-filled rabbit hole (“we get to an age where you realize attacking people is not how you’ll gain credibility or fellowship,” Bowers says).
Or as Dady puts it: “I’ve always known that holding on and being patient would result in the best opportunity.”
Six years after being cut, Dady will take on former Top Chef winners and finalists along with friends he’s made from his travels (including Chicago’s Stephanie Izard and Cleveland’s Jonathon Sawyer) when Iron Chef Gauntlet debuts on April 16. The show’s format will involve a Chairman’s Challenge, where food nerd Alton Brown chooses the best and least successful dishes. The chef with the lowest score will face off against a competitor chosen by the winning chef for a Secret Ingredient Showdown, which will be judged then the loser gets sent home. The eventual winner of all of the showdowns will compete against Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon.
And while he can charm most SA diners — though Dady does have a few detractors, as all top dogs do — he’s got to face Brown, of Good Eats fame.
“He’s so intense, so smart. You’re not going to pull the wool over his eyes. The biggest thing I took away was that you’re talking to the expert of all experts — your food will speak for itself.”
Dady’s strategy: Being himself.
“You take it one dish at a time,” Dady said in an earlier interview. “I wanted to compete as myself and not be anything other than what I am.”
After 16 years in San Antonio, that strategy seems to have paid off.