Tim Love says he has grown up. The Fort Worth, Texas-based chef’s empire includes the critically acclaimed Lonesome Dove Western Bistro and the historic White Elephant Saloon, but in recent years he’s gotten more attention for his persona, which some critics have said is arrogant. In June he opened a second outpost of the Lonesome Dove in downtown Austin. It is the biggest—and most expensive—restaurant he’s ever built. “Everything in here is exactly the way I wanted it to be,” he says. “It takes a lot of guts and a lot of time to do that.”
We sat down with Love at his new restaurant a week after its opening and discussed the challenges of breaking into Austin’s insular dining scene, what Chinese food has to do with Texas and how he deals with critics calling him a “celebrity-chef douchebag.”
Was opening a restaurant in Austin a natural progression for you?
Yes. As conservative as Fort Worth is, and as unconservative as Austin is, they actually do have a lot of similarities in the mentality of its people. It’s a pretty laid back town and a pretty forgiving town if you’re someone who wants to try hard and do things well. They really accept that. I get offers to go open all kinds of places, but I’m such a hands-on person. Aside from that, the city is just exploding. It’s so cool and so fun and so energetic, it’s hard to not want to be a part of it.
How hard is it to break into the Austin dining scene?
To come here you’ve got to be part of the community. Really, when you go into any city that you don’t live in, people are going to question why you’ve come and are trying to take their money. It’s the carpetbagger mentality, and fair enough. I respect that.
Austin’s a great market, but I feel like there are certain ways that you need to come into the city and certain ways that you don’t need to come into the city. I’ve been working in Austin for almost six years, doing the food for Austin City Limits music festival and then Austin Food + Wine. We wanted to come in here very, very humble, as low key as we could, and I think it’s proven to be very successful for us.
Do you see yourself as part of the Austin community?
I just got a place here, and I’m basing myself out of Austin until Christmas. I’ve tried really hard to become a part of the city over the past few years. It’s played out in my favor honestly to keep working in Austin, keep getting to know the people, the chefs. It’s a great community of chefs down here. I wanted to make sure everyone knew I wasn’t coming down here thinking I was going to be the king. I wanted to come down and complement all of the great stuff that’s here.
How does your style, Western food, fit into Austin?
When I looked at doing Austin years back and started searching for a place, I noticed that there really wasn’t a “Texas” restaurant in the capitol of Texas. There’s a guy named Jeff Blank who has a place called Hudson’s on the Bend that does some wild game, but it’s a very different style than what I do. There are lot of good steakhouses in Austin, but nothing that really says “you’re in Texas.” The Driskill does a little bit of that, but it’s in a hotel. I feel like this city may or may not have known that it needed something like this. It’s one of those things that you put on paper and people go, “I don’t really think that’d work in Austin,” but people walk through the front door and they go, “Oh yeah, alright. I get it.” The room’s been full every night since we opened, even on the Fourth of July.
There’s a fine line when you’re dealing with Texas stuff that it’s not too kitschy, especially in Austin. It’s hard blending modern, downtown with a Western theme, but that’s really what the food is. We used real leather on the chairs and real cowhides, which are not cheap. We wanted to make it feel real and comfortable and authentic. To me, no matter what the restaurant is, if it’s authentic and true to what it is, it will always do well.
So what exactly is Texas cuisine?
I don’t like to pigeonhole it. My cuisine is a combination of all the people who settled Texas, which includes Chinese railroad workers, German settlers, the French who came in from Louisiana and a little bit of Italian influence on the meat side. And of course you have all of the Mexican influence, so you have this really melding of flavors. Real Americana. I also use stuff from Australia, because I feel like that’s kind of what Texas used to be, this wide open area with people doing stuff the way they wanted to do it, their own way.
What do those influences look like on your menu?
I do a farro congee that’s just ridiculous. Kale pesto, Guanciale, fresh tomatoes and a soy-cured egg. I eat it for dinner every night. I also added a program here specifically for Austin called fettine, which is a bunch of wild game cuts melded them together into roulades and then roasted over mesquite fire on a grill right there in front of everybody. Then we shave it on a vertical slicer and it’s the most spectacular, most beautiful plate of cooked charcuterie, if you will.
Where do you like to eat in Austin?
la V and Odd Duck, which is a really interesting take on Texas cuisine. [Head chef] Bryce [Gilmore] likes to use a lot of ingredients on his dishes, which is the opposite of me. I’m a minimalist, but he piles it on and it’s really good. It’s fun.
I’m over the small plates thing. At Lonesome Dove you come in and have a meal and you will leave full. I’ve done millions of tasting menus and I like them, but I find that people want to sit down and eat. And I want to provide that experience for them. I wouldn’t even call my place traditional, it’s just that small plates to me have gotten so out of hand. It’s all so very delicate that you find yourself going to Whataburger afterwards.
How do you deal with criticism on social media?
I take a look at all of it. Social media is both the greatest tool ever and it’s killing everybody. There’s a lot of overreacting going on, a lot of over analyzing. It isn’t reality. What I know for sure is if I feed 200 people, 10 of them aren’t going to be happy with the experience. It doesn’t matter what I do or how I do it, it’s that either they’re pissed off or they ran over their dog or they just don’t like me. They could come in and already hate me, so the food’s going to suck. That stuff used to really bother me, but I’ve grown up and matured and opened and closed a few restaurants. It is what it is. Haters are going to hate.
Last year your hometown paper, Fort Worth Weekly, published an unfavorable cover story about you, saying you’re arrogant. Then Esquire called you a “celebrity-chef douchebag” of the same caliber as Todd English. Were you afraid of bringing that reputation with you to Austin?
No. The guy who wrote that piece has had it out for me for 15 years. He wrote the same exact thing about me when I bought the White Elephant in 2001, but it turns out the White Elephant’s doing better than it’s ever been. People want clicks. If you put me on the cover and make fun of me, people are going to read it. I fought really hard to get myself to be one of the bests in Fort Worth, if not Texas, if not better, so of course people are going to take shots at me.
I’m going to continue to do all the great work that I do and all of the charity work that I do and I’m going to continue to have all the great friends that I have and I’ll just continue to have people who don’t like me, I guess. When you strive as hard as me and my team do, you’re going to have people who don’t like it either because they’re jealous or because they don’t think it’s fair. Most of those people don’t want to work hard enough to get in the position to have people hate them. My dad always told me, “nobody boos a nobody.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep
FROM THE HEART OF TEXAS TO THE MIDDLE OF HARLEM