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Essay: Fort Worth's Louis Lambert deserves top-tier praise

Posted 9:25am on Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2011

When people buzz about Fort Worth's most famous chefs, they tend to focus on three names: Tim Love of Lonesome Dove and Love Shack fame; Grady Spears, who helped create Reata; and Jon Bonnell, at Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine. These are the guys who regularly turn up on Food Network segments or as Top Chef guest judges; the guys whose every culinary move is chronicled by the local press, including this publication.

I mean to take nothing away from those chefs, all masters of nouveau cowboy cuisine who have helped Fort Worth become a city that foodies take seriously. It's just that I often wonder why the chef I regard as the finest in town, Louis Lambert, tends to fly under the radar. The owner of Lambert's and Dutch's, Lambert might not have the big, TV-ready personality of a Spears or a Love. Perhaps some local food observers even dismiss him as a carpetbagger -- before settling in Fort Worth a few years ago, he lived for many years in Austin, where the first Lambert's opened in 2001.

But Lambert makes Texas-inspired food that's imaginative and accessible, and he serves it at a price point that doesn't leave you penniless. (Most of the main dishes at his restaurant are less than $25.) As we've noted repeatedly in these pages, his Sunday brunch is one of the best and most delicious bargains in town. His hamburgers at Dutch's bring extraordinary gourmet flair to American's most-beloved comfort food.

It's time for Fort Worth to wake up and acknowledge that this guy is a major civic treasure.

As it turns out, Lambert seems on the cusp of his proverbial moment. Earlier this month, the Random House imprint Ten Speed Press published Big Ranch, Big City, Lambert's first cookbook, co-authored with June Naylor. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that June is a dear friend, as well as a contributor to DFW.com. But I don't think I'm allowing personal biases to get in the way when I say this is a beautifully composed cookbook that combines mouth-watering recipes with eloquent anecdotes that chart the progression of Lambert's cooking identity. After spending just an hour with it, I had already marked off five recipes that I'm hoping to try.

That's a note worth lingering on. Too often, high-end chefs put out cookbooks that function as a kind of taunt -- "Look at this gorgeously elaborate food, with its assorted exotic, unattainable ingredients, that you'll never be able to make yourself." (I once put a hole in my kitchen wall after chucking a Mario Batali cookbook across the room in frustration.) Lambert's recipes, on the other hand, are lucid and plain-spoken.

Monday, I attended a launch event for Big Ranch, Big City at Central Market in Fort Worth, where Lambert conducted a cooking class and served four dishes from the book. It perhaps follows that, of the numerous classes I have attended at Central Market over the years, Lambert's was far and away the best. He demonstrated cooking techniques, told funny stories and graciously answered questions, without a hint of the bravado we sometimes get from A-list chefs.

And let's not forget the food: His chicken sausage made me want to run out and buy a sausage stuffer and start making my own links; his prime rib roast made me realize that I have been roasting my own meat incorrectly for years; his pound cake with brandied peaches single-handedly transformed a miserable Monday into one of the best days I've had in years.

Lambert does what only the best chefs can do: He brings a sense of joy to the experience of eating. Here's hoping Fort Worth and Austin's best-kept secret gets some long overdue recognition from far beyond our borders.

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