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The power of Love: Chef Tim Love tops the FW foodie chain

Who's Fort Worth's best chef?
Posted 7:33am on Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2012

The way Tim Love sees it, his new restaurant, Woodshed Smokehouse, is a love letter to Fort Worth -- a picture postcard that showcases some of his favorite things about living here. The restaurant's spacious patio and open-air dining room provide panoramas of one of the city's least-appreciated resources, the Trinity River. And the vibe at Woodshed is pure Cowtown -- an eclectic and imaginative menu of wood-fired delicacies in a backyard barbecue setting. Boots, beer and bike riders from the nearby Trinity Trail are all welcome here.

"I think this place has the potential to make the trail system get used more," Love said during an interview at the Woodshed the day before its official opening in February. "My back yard is just like this fence, right to the trail. (Love lives on the river in a 4,830-square-foot house in west Fort Worth.)... You'd be surprised how many people you talk to in Fort Worth have never been to that waterfall at the top of the trailhead by Carswell. It's spectacular. And it's free. We have all this, and it's free. That's pretty awesome."

But not everybody sees the Woodshed the way Love does.

For some, it represents a sweetheart deal served up on a silver platter to Fort Worth's most high-profile chef. After news got out that the Trinity River Vision Authority had signed a 10-year lease with Love and spent $970,000 building the restaurant without an open bidding process, some restaurateurs were fuming that they didn't get a shot at the prime location. And some residents questioned the use of tax money to "build a barbecue joint." There was even a small Occupy Woodshed movement that took up a table at the restaurant on its opening night.

Views of Love can often be just as divergent.

His popularity and profile have exploded in recent years, thanks to regular appearances on national TV shows such as The Chew and Top Chef.

In 2003, when Love staged a "trail drive" from Fort Worth to New York for an appearance at Greenwich Village's James Beard House, a star chef was born -- the trail drive not only attracted the attention of local newscasts in cities along the way, it earned Love an appearance on NBC's Today show. Love sealed the deal in 2007, during an appearance on Iron Chef America in which a Stetson-clad Love and his staff took shots of Tuaca Liquore Italiano en route to taking down Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in a chile-pepper battle.

Love also has proved himself to be a shrewd businessman, running Fort Worth's Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, the White Elephant Saloon, Love Shack burger joints (two in Fort Worth and one in Denton) and now the Woodshed. He regularly appears at food-and-wine festivals across the country, and he acts as official chef for Austin City Limits. And his Love-related cookware and merchandise are being included in an upcoming line of kitchen products for Sur Le Table.

With five restaurants and the White Elephant, a full-time publicist and an assistant, and regular appearances on TV, he is a Love machine.

Love has attracted his share of critics, too. In 2006, he opened a Manhattan location of Lonesome Dove, and the same cuisine that had earned him praise in Fort Worth was savaged by New York critics. The restaurant closed less than six months after its splashy opening, and detractors labeled Love a one-note wonder whose cowboy cuisine couldn't travel beyond Texas' borders. Back home, Duce, a tapas and small plates concept in the Ridglea neighborhood of Fort Worth, never caught on and closed after a couple of years, and since then Love has stuck mostly to what he does best: steaks, game dishes, burgers and now the barbecue creations that he has developed for the Woodshed.

Patricia Sharpe, food critic and executive editor for Texas Monthly, says the Woodshed continues an evolution for Love, who has sometimes received as much attention for his ambition and ego as his cooking skills.

"I think that his reputation early on was of somebody who was so eager, and driven, and maybe a little full of himself, that he rubbed some people the wrong way," says Sharpe. "But lately ... he's coming across a lot better. He's had a lot of success, his new place, the Woodshed Smokehouse, is great, and he's more relaxed and confident."

And at age 40, the cowboy chef with the spiky blond hair, camera-ready smile and shoot-from-the-hip style, says he doesn't have time to worry too much about his public image. Results are what matter most.

"I'm not going to argue with somebody online or comment on somebody's comment," Love says. "When people call me an asshole, I think it's just funny.

"But am I confident? Absolutely," Love says. "You don't open up seven restaurants and not have some sort of confidence. You don't employ 300 people without some sort of confidence. So am I arrogant? I don't know. I don't really think so. I'm good at what I do."

Young man with a plan

Love's business sense and drive to be an entrepreneur developed long before his cooking skills. It began back when he was an 11-year-old paperboy in his native Denton.

"Actually, I should say my mom and I had a paper route," Love says. "She used to wake up and drive me on Sundays because the papers were so big. But even then, I redid the billing system for paperboys to where people paid for the paper before they got it instead of the opposite."

Love's parents divorced when he was still very young, and Tim, the youngest of seven children, spent most of the year in Denton with his mom. Summers, though, were spent at his father's Tennessee farm, and that's where he gained some of his food knowledge -- by osmosis as much as anything else.

"We raised pigs, goats, lambs, like 25 head of cattle, big 1-acre garden," Love says. "And every summer, that's what I did. That was my chores. I hated it . Hated it. I remember my dad throwing pillows at my door, I'm 14 years old, he's like 'Get up! The east fence is down; we've got four cattle out!' I'm a teenager, man, I'm supposed to sleep till 10, you know? So I get out there, go get the cows back in, mend the fence."

At the University of Tennessee, Love got a restaurant job to pay his way through school. But he still had no interest in being a chef. He wanted to be a bartender, a server or a host. He was hired to make salads at a Greek restaurant, but he didn't know how to cook. The guy who was supposed to train him -- on a busy day with a huge college-football-watching crowd -- didn't show up. So Love had to learn on the fly -- and he got an unforgettable lesson in feta cheese.

"Well, in 1990, feta cheese came in milk buckets and smelled like hell," Love says. This guy on the line, his name was Boogie ... says, 'I need two Greek salads.' 'I don't know what the hell a Greek salad is.' He says, 'Basically, it's an everything salad. You put feta cheese on it.' I open up this bucket, and go, 'Oh, man, that shit's sour! You do not want this on your salad!' He says, 'That's what it's supposed to smell like.' I say, 'That's stupid. Nobody eats this crap.' And my hands stunk, and it was awful. After I got done with the shift, I realized that food was coming in, [and] I didn't know if it was good or bad, I didn't know what a lot of this stuff is supposed to taste like."

But the adrenaline rush hooked him. He liked the pressures of the kitchen, and a year later, he was running it. He knew that this was what he wanted to do, and he set out to work for every chef he could find -- sometimes for free. He continued to work his way up, taking a full load of courses while studying for a degree in finance, taking summer classes so he could graduate on schedule. His father, a doctor, had his doubts.

"I remember when I told my dad I was going to be a chef, I thought he was going to shoot me," Love says. "'What do you mean you're going to be a chef? You can't be a cook. You're not going to make any money.' I said: 'I don't know if I'm going to make money or not. I love it. It's what I want to do. I think I can be good at it.' He didn't understand the whole business. I mean, he was a doctor. He'd never had a social life. He got out of school when he was 32 years old, so he didn't even understand what happens between 22 and 30."

Love graduated with a degree in finance when he was 22. By that time, he'd already been a chef for the Radisson hotel chain, which sent him to the Culinary Institute of America for a year. But even with all his energy and drive, he began to feel like he was in over his head. So he moved to Colorado and took a job washing dishes. He began snowboarding, and he had a brief professional career, earning more in free gear than he did in cash. In Colorado, he would meet his future wife, Emilie.

"We met on the mountain in Breckenridge," Emilie Love says in an e-mail. "We were both working in restaurants out there. He had long hair, and he was a snowboarder, but he could dance and he swept me off my feet, both literally and figuratively."

Michael Thomson, the executive chef at Michaels Cuisine Restaurant & Bar on West Seventh Street, met Tim and Emilie when they were looking to come back to Fort Worth. Thomson got them a management deal at Mira Vista Country Club.

"I certainly sensed the drive and know-how that he has," says Thomson, a pioneer in Fort Worth-style cowboy cuisine. "That's why I was interested in helping him get back to Fort Worth in the first place. [But] I don't know if I saw it to this extent."

Emilie went on to work at Del Frisco's, and Tim became one of the chefs at the original Fort Worth location of Reata, which featured some of Tarrant County's current best-known chefs, including Louis Lambert, Brian Olenjack and Grady Spears. Spears, who was part-owner of Reata, spotted Love's ambition early on.

"He always wanted it," says Spears, who runs Grady's Line Camp Steakhouse, southwest of Granbury. "He was hungry, and he went out and took his bite. He injected himself into that arena, and there were just so many people. I don't like to push myself on people; I'm more of a sit-in-the-corner type of guy. But he certainly had the drive and the want to get his name out there."

Adam Jones, who owns downtown Fort Worth's Grace restaurant, ran Del Frisco's when Emilie was working front of the house there. He remembers Tim had big plans and big dreams.

"Basically, back in 1997 or '98, he told me what he was going to do," Jones says. "He kind of gave me a long-term plan, and this is before he did anything. Everything he told me he was going to do, he's gone and done."

Agent of change

Jones wasn't the only one that Love told about his goals.

In early 2000, Love ran into Star-Telegram Eats Beat columnist Bud Kennedy in Milano's, the Seventh Street pizza-and-pasta restaurant not far from Michaels. He told Kennedy that he was a chef and that he was about to open a great new restaurant. Kennedy shrugged it off as a random encounter with a stranger. Six months later, he wrote that Lonesome Dove Western Bistro might be the best of several new restaurants that opened in Fort Worth that year.

Lonesome Dove was more than just a white-table restaurant opening in the steak-and-potatoes world of the Stockyards. Love's cowboy cuisine included grilled quail quesadillas, sweet lobster cakes with black-bean salsa, and such offbeat menu items as kangaroo carpaccio nachos and rabbit-rattlesnake sausage. His adventurous spirit in the kitchen earned the restaurant national attention.

"Food movements are slow, especially in traditional towns, and that's what Fort Worth is," Love says. "At Lonesome Dove, we had to have steak and mashed potatoes, so people would come. And eventually they'd go 'All right, I'll try the red deer. I'll try the rattlesnake sausage.' "

Lonesome Dove quickly became a hit, and Love's reputation began to spread beyond Fort Worth, especially after Southern Living did a feature on the restaurant. Business was so strong that Emilie Love left her job at Del Frisco's to help Love run it. "I never imagined Lonesome Dove would get as big as it is, because when you gamble, you don't think like that," Tim Love says. "It's kinda like playing blackjack. You bet $200 a hand, you start high with something like that, you don't imagine you're going to win $200,000.... Gambling works by saying, 'Do I have the nuts enough to do it like this?' And then you do it. And then you look at the next gamble, the next hand. Because nobody can anticipate winning 20 hands, but what you can say is, 'Can I win four out of six?'"

A couple of years later, Love made another gamble. He bought the nearby White Elephant Saloon and White Elephant Beer Garden from longtime owner Joe Dulle.

Still in his early 30s, Love made some changes that upset some people in the tradition-bound Stockyards, including bringing in younger acts to play the White Elephant. Stockyards veterans feared he was also trying to chase away older clientele.

Steve Murrin, the president of the Stockyards Business association, admits to being a little skeptical about the noncowboy, "baggy pants" crowd coming into the Stockyards because of Love's changes, but he's been supportive of Love from the beginning.

"[He's] a very talented, capable and competitive asset to the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District," Murrin says. "He is very much a perfectionist. If you have read the biography of Steve Jobs, a parallel comparison is hard to avoid."

Thomson says he believes the dust-up was just part of what happens to anyone who's successful.

"I think that it's important to fit in to wherever you go, but a lot of people don't like change," Thomson says. "If [Tim] goes into a place and does something and it doesn't work, you know, the change loses. But if he goes in and does some new things and creative things, and it has an impact on the area, maybe it was time for that change."

Striking out

One of Love's first TV appearances was on NBC's Today show in 2003, coinciding with his becoming the first Fort Worth chef to cook at the James Beard House in New York City's Greenwich Village. But Love's showmanship was as much in evidence off TV as on: He traveled to New York by staging a modern-day "trail drive" that included stops in Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia. Most of the trail drive was done by bus, but Love and his kitchen staff did ride paint horses at each stop to shop for food and supplies. The stunt helped him to attract the attention of local-TV morning shows along the way, as well as the Today show.

Since then, Love has appeared on a number of local and national TV shows, perhaps most notably as a contestant on a 2007 appearance on Food Network's Iron Chef America, a competition in which challengers from across the United States take on an "Iron Chef" in a 60-minute cooking battle. Each chef has to make five dishes centering on one ingredient. Love and his staff took those shots of Tuaca while they cooked dishes featuring chiles -- jalapeños, habaneros, shishitos and much more -- in a battle with Morimoto, the only Iron Chef in the American series who was in the original Japanese Iron Chef show. With dishes such as jalapeño margaritas with chile-crusted buffalo femur and monkfish osso bucco with posole stew, Love edged out Morimoto (who rarely loses) and showed off some of the more unusual aspects of cowboy cuisine.

The whole episode is available on Love's official website, ChefTimLove.com, along with video from more than a dozen other TV appearances. Love has also been a guest judge on Bravo's Top Chef and a regular judge on Food Network's barbecue competition Best in Smoke, but he's at his best on TV when he's cooking: Energetic, rowdy, flirtatious and infectiously enthusiastic about his food. He is definitely not camera-shy.

"I don't know if it's about working the machine," Love says when asked how he manages to get so much exposure. "It's about cred. I don't know why people call me for specific reasons, but they seem to enjoy me being on TV and enjoy my personality and what I do and what I talk about. But I enjoy doing TV. I like it. I feel like I'm pretty good at it. But me doing TV is going to open the door for a lot of other people from Fort Worth. It all starts somewhere."

But just as Love's national profile was rising with regular TV appearances, he suffered his most high-profile flameout.

In September 2006, Love opened a Manhattan location of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. He and Emilie signed a $10.2 million, 10-year lease for a space in the Flatiron District. (Love took up temporary residence in an apartment in the West Village while Emilie ran the Fort Worth restaurant.) But Lonesome Dove was panned by New York critics, many of whom disliked Love's use of game and love of spice rubs. "When it comes to flavors and ingredients, Mr. Love's idea of a festive hoedown may strike you as a bruising slam dance," wrote The New York Times' Frank Bruni, who also panned the restaurant's decor. Love told the Star-Telegram at the time that critics "just put a target on my head because I'm from Texas," but he closed the New York restaurant after less than six months and came home to Fort Worth

"[It was] kind of a kick in the nuts," Love says now. "But at the same time, it's probably the best thing I ever did in my career, because of the respect I gained from some of the biggest chefs in the world, opening that restaurant. They all loved it. So while critically it wasn't great, I earned so much respect from so many people."

Love says that the experience didn't sour him on trying to open a restaurant outside of Texas again, but he has stuck close to home.

The same year the Manhattan Lonesome Dove opened, Love also opened Duce, a Camp Bowie Boulevard spot offering tapas and larger plates, as well as a late-night bar. The restaurant had good early buzz, but the menu proved too exotic for some diners, and after a few months, Love turned Duce into more of a steakhouse, with an emphasis on presentation and offbeat side dishes such as pancetta-wrapped asparagus topped with a sunny-side up quail egg. But the restaurant never really caught on, and after about two years, Love sold it to Chicago-based chef Efrain Benitez -- who couldn't make a go of the location, either. (It is currently home to a location of the Jakes hamburger chain.)

"I think [Duce] was a little bit ahead of its time," Love says. "At the same time, I don't make excuses -- it just didn't work. So I sold it. But that's not going to stop me from doing it again, trying something else, doing something adventurous."

Failures are a fact of life in the restaurant industry, probably more than successes, but Grace's Adam Jones notes that Love was able to salvage something of a silver lining from his New York debacle.

"His real-estate deal [in New York] was brilliant, and he was able to re-lease it and have economic gain," Jones says. "Restaurateurs take challenges, and sometimes we hit 'em out of the park, and sometimes we don't. But if we don't take the swing, we don't know. Tim's gutsy. He's made gutsy calls, and he's lost, too, at it."

Adding to the empire

The setbacks hardly slowed Love down. Shortly after closing Lonesome Dove's New York location, Love opened the first Love Shack, expanding his Stockyards holdings with a location on Exchange Street. He was on the front end of a Fort Worth burger renaissance that also included Dutch's, the TCU-area burger palace founded by his former Reata colleagues Grady Spears and Louis Lambert. Love Shack was successful enough that Love was able to expand, with locations just south of Seventh Street near Trinity Park in Fort Worth, and just east of the downtown square in a burgeoning restaurant district in Denton.

Love downplays Love Shack a bit, saying he feels like it is a spinoff, but the crowds at his Fort Worth locations, especially during pleasant weather, are indicative of just how strong a spinoff it has been. And it's not like the place just throws down slabs of ground beef on buns -- the signature Dirty Love burger is a mix of tenderloin and brisket, topped with wild boar bacon, a quail egg and "Love sauce."

But Love is more effusive when talking about Lonesome Dove -- and Woodshed Smokehouse, which he calls the longest and hardest restaurant project he has ever done. For nearly two years, he has overseen every detail of the Woodshed, from the brisket-stuffed piquillo peppers to the biodegradable corn-syrup beer cups. And once again, Love believes he is ahead of the curve; he expects cooking with wood to be the biggest food trend of 2012.

At Woodshed, he uses four types -- mesquite, hickory, oak and pecan. Icons on the menu identify which type of wood was used for a particular dish. Dishes range from snacks that include hickory-smoked almonds with chile salt ($4) and smoked artichokes with lemon and Parmesan (also using hickory; $9) to a "dining with friends" menu -- dishes meant to serve four people, such as a very Love-esque open-fire paella of mussels, clams, shrimp, rabbit-rattlesnake sausage, game bird and fennel aioli ($75).

The menu also includes traditional barbecue offerings such as beef and pork ribs, and "New Q," featuring such items as fancy mushrooms of the season served atop polenta, topped with a sunny-side up egg that bleeds into the dish when you cut into it ($18).

"I think the food here is going to make an impact," Love says. "I really believe that. I wouldn't do that if I didn't believe it."

So far, people have been streaming in to sample Love's signature dishes, to try a couple of the 25 craft beers on tap and to soak up the river views. The TRVA may have provided nearly a million dollars toward building the structure, but Love points out that he still put a lot of his own money into the project and he feels confident that, in the long run, Woodshed will be seen as a trailblazer along the river.

"The fact that somebody can complain about me as a tenant spending a half-million dollars to make a restaurant on the water, and drive to make this happen -- trust me, by me doing this, nobody's going to take three years to build something on the river next," Love says. "It's going to take six months. Nobody gets that part. I laid the groundwork, and people will go, 'Oh, OK, it can work.' That stuff used to really bother me. But I just look forward and stay positive."

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