DALLAS The three-meat plate -- ribs, brisket, wings and couple of sides -- sitting in front of Tiffany Derry at Dallas’ Baby Back Shak looks unfinishable, and it is, as Derry had already had breakfast not too long before this 12:30 p.m. lunch. She could have just gone with the two-meat plate, but she loves the wings -- and she helped make the ribs and brisket TV stars.
Baby Back Shak, a Memphis-style barbecue joint a couple of blocks south of Interstate 30 near downtown Dallas, was featured on the season premiere of Hungry Investors, a new Spike TV series in which two existing restaurants seek money for improvements from a trio of investors that includes Derry, celebrity chef John Besh, and Jon Taffer, well-known to Spike viewers as the abrasive host of the cable channel’s Bar Rescue. (Baby Back Shak was up against Fort Worth’s Billy’s Oak Acres BBQ).
Derry, now a private chef and consultant but formerly executive chef at Dallas’ now-closed Private Social, is no stranger to reality TV, having appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars.
But it’s when Clarence Cohens, president and CEO of Baby Back Shak, sits down at the table that you really feel like there’s a reality-TV star at the table. As he was on the show, Cohens is charismatic, energetic and a little folksy. But he’s a little less contentious.
“Sometimes, when you’re trying to make a horse run in the Kentucky Derby that’s not a racing horse, it is hard for that horse to even get adjusted to running beside nine others,” Cohens says. “I consider myself a young rookie greyhound in a race that I’m running at the greyhound park. I’m just a rookie on the block. But do I want to win, place or show? The answer is yes. Who doesn’t want to be rookie of the year in any sport?”
Derry interjects with a laugh: “He has the best metaphors.”
Cohens and Derry hadn’t looked so friendly during parts of Hungry Investors, especially when Derry -- while praising Baby Back Shak’s ribs -- not only told Cohens that his brisket was terrible and incorrectly cooked, but made him try her own brisket recipe, which customers preferred even though Cohens had been doing brisket his way at Baby Back for nearly two decades.
Judging from their interaction at this lunch, Derry and Cohens more than made peace with each other.
“You have to understand, I’d been travelin’ 19 years alone,” Cohens says. “So sometimes it’s difficult to embrace change. But I still yield to professional intelligence any time. [Derry laughs.] The show made me a somebody. I went from just being a guy in the neighborhood, and I wasn’t really locally known. ... this show put me on the map, not only in this city, but on a national level.”
Whatever problems the brisket had before, they’re gone now -- the meat is flavorful and tender. But it’s still upstaged by the ribs, which have a wonderful, peppery rub that’s more distinct on the ribs than the brisket. And the sides, especially the spicy Shak’s Beans, are terrific. One guy sitting in the restaurant notices Derry and says, “You’re the reason I’m here.”
Hungry Investors, which debuted May 4 on Spike, has aired two episodes, both filmed in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the second, Lewisville steakhouse the Grotto went up against the Colleyville location of Mac’s Steaks & Seafood. (If you missed them, don’t worry; Spike will repeat the premiere at 1 p.m. Sunday and episode two at 11 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday; they’re also available in full on the Hungry Investors YouTube channel.)
Arguments and tears are part of the reality-TV equation, with restaurateurs battling with the show’s lead trio. Among the “investors,” though, Derry is relatively benign, as is Besh, while Taffer’s catchphrase over the course of two episodes has been a variation on “your food sucks!”
“The thing is, everything didn’t suck,” Derry says. “And [Taffer] has his own way of dealing with it and getting his point across. What I found out from working with Taffer is, he just gets through the bullcrap. Because when you first get to know [restaurateurs], it’s basically this fairy tale of a story. By doing that, it just kind of cuts through the drama.”
But Derry says she understands why the restaurateurs -- some of whom, like Cohens, have been around for some 20 years -- might be resistant to change.
“Especially for a chef, I get it,” she says. “You put all your hard work, all your time, everything into making that restaurant successful. Chefs, a lot of the time, may not understand all the business to it, but they understand what they want as far as a restaurant. It’s hard to go in, and so sometimes I try to smooth it over a little bit and Taffer’s like, ‘Come on, Tiffany -- that wasn’t good.’ ”
Both episodes have depicted the judges arguing over which restaurant to invest in, with even Besh -- often depicted as mild-mannered and good-natured on other food-based reality shows -- losing his temper in debates over who should get money to improve their restaurants. Yes, it can be hard to trust reality TV, but Derry says that the arguments among Taffer, Besh and herself can indeed become pretty heated, and that a lot winds up on the cutting-room floor.
“When we finished [the premiere episode’s] debate, Besh was still mad,” Derry says. “It took him a day to get over it. ... And deliberations take hours. It was hours of back and forth, back and forth.”
Derry says she’s familiar with that, having had to sit in the “Stew Room” with other contestants during two Top Chef seasons while judges debated who should win an episode and who should be sent home. “I never had any deliberation on Top Chef where we were in the Stew Room for less than seven hours,” Derry says. “It was intense. And now I understand what the judges go through.”
Since leaving Private Social, Derry has been working with healthcare company Novo Nordisk doing healthy-cooking demos; working and traveling with the Texas Dairy Foundation; and working with the Art Institutes nationwide, as well as making frequent appearances on DFW and national TV.
“It’s so different right now not being in a restaurant,” Derry says. “This is the first time I haven’t been working in a restaurant in 16 years.”