For one young Fort Worth chef, making soup feels right — in good times and bad. Bria Downey realizes this truth now, more than ever.
In just a few short weeks, Downey has registered extreme highs and lows: On Feb. 26, news arrived that she was a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year in the 2020 James Beard Awards. About three weeks later, she was out of a job. Clay Pigeon Food & Drink, where she’d served as executive chef for two years, was closed by the covid-19 pandemic. (Clay Pigeon isn’t one of the restaurants open for takeout service.)
Chefs generally become accustomed to the tumultuous nature of the restaurant business ― anything can happen in the life ― but nobody expected the dark period now descending upon the industry from here to Hong Kong.
Downey, at 29, has enjoyed success at an early point in her career, and now she’s learning, alongside countless colleagues, how to ride out the worst storm ever known to the restaurant community. Her solution, for the moment, lies in the therapy that comes with making soup.
A couple of weeks ago, her friend Kevin Martinez, executive chef at Tokyo Café in Fort Worth, offered her his ramen food cart for a pop-up evening. Downey seized the opportunity to cook and serve, choosing a soup close to her heart for the occasion and taking to social media to let friends and loyal patrons know to find her outside Tokyo Café the next Thursday evening.
“Passover for me is a reminder of perseverance through times of struggle. We’re all in this together, and there’s one thing we can all agree on: #matzoballsoup,” she posted. It was such a big hit, she sold out in a couple of hours and offered an encore evening the following Thursday.
Though she didn’t get that recipe from her own bubbe, she credits her own mother, grandmother and friends’ grandmothers for teaching her the joys of fresh foods and cooking for family. As a little girl, she and identical twin sister Tia spent summers with their Colorado grandmother.
“She had 10 acres out back, where she grew tomatoes and strawberries,” she says. “We’d pick until the buckets were full, and my grandmother would can everything. She was an incredible cook. I realized later she was making tomato concasse, but of course she didn’t call it that. And her pan gravy was a wonderful roux.
“With her, I learned to preserve, to make sauces and salsas. It’s powerful how food touches you.”
Born in Texas but raised as a military brat in other countries, Downey and her twin chose Texas State University in San Marcos for college. Initially aiming to pursue dentistry, Downey found herself halfway through college with a yearning for culinary school. Her mom wasn’t thrilled, afraid Downey wouldn’t be serious about a career. The daughter prevailed, earning her culinary degree from El Centro in Dallas and landing a job at Meddlesome Moth. There, she met mentor David McMillan, who would bring her with him to open the Moth’s sister restaurant, Bird Café, in Fort Worth, in late 2013.
Her later work at Piattello Italian Kitchen in Fort Worth, which opened in 2016, led to the executive chef position at sister restaurant, Clay Pigeon, in 2018. Her sister Tia worked there as well, overseeing the bar. Situated on Fort Worth’s west side, near the Cultural District and neighborhoods, Clay Pigeon provided Downey with challenges she welcomed. Serving a crowd that eats frequently at one of the area’s country club dining rooms, she learned to patiently tempt palates toward a little more adventurous fare.
“We had a lot of regulars who could come in once or twice a week and usually order the same thing, which was fine with me, but I wanted to see if I could interest them in more,” Downey says. “So I’d just send out chicken heart pate or escargot and see what they’d think. I wouldn’t get too wild, and they came to trust me. And started ordering those things.”
It fascinated Downey that her patrons are well-traveled and understand sophisticated cuisine but still wanted to stay in a comfort zone. She simply learned how to gently push boundaries to good effect.
“When I first put bouillabaisse on the menu, I called it something approachable, seafood stew — and then it wouldn’t sell,” she recalls, laughing. “So then I just wrote bouillabaisse on the menu, and it was a huge hit.”
Her creations, from bouillabaisse to prime beef tartare with cured egg yolk and pickled beech mushrooms to seared scallops over summer succotash, turned heads. Her nuanced work drew a following, and then came the James Beard Award announcement. Downey was joined this year by Ellerbe Fine Foods’ Molly McCook, who’s a semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas, as the first two chefs from Fort Worth to be recognized in the Beard competition — ever.
“I really couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t breathe for a while. It’s so huge for our city, and I love that it’s two women to be the first,” Downey says, remembering how overwhelmed she was back in February. And how her twin gave the appropriate sibling response. “I sent a screen shot of the announcement to Tia, who said, ‘It’s probably a typo.’ “
And just as the best news washed over her, the pandemic shut down the restaurant industry. Downey can’t predict where she will land whenever restaurants reopen, as nobody knows when that might happen or which places will survive. The excitement of a few weeks ago feels as surreal as a world with non-existent restaurant life.
“It’s kind of like the rug being ripped right out from underneath you. Some days it feels like it was all a dream — like did that actually happen? But right now it doesn’t matter. Right now feeding my community and all of us getting through is what matters,” she says, like someone older than her years. “And I’m so grateful to Kevin.”
Fellow chef Kevin Martinez, who created his Yatai Food Kart for special events, enjoys loaning his kitchen-on-wheels to Downey and other chefs. Though busy with Tokyo’s takeout service, Martinez helps Downey prep for her soup evenings, and each of the two pals feeds off the other’s upbeat energy.
“There are people who will never give up, and Bria is one. She’s going to push through this. Her cooking is so thought-out, with so many layers of flavor, she will succeed,” Martinez says. “We are a community, helping each other out.”
The James Beard Foundation has postponed naming its awards finalists — that was to have happened in late March — and hosting its awards ceremony at least until summer. Downey doesn’t give that a lot of thought anymore. She’s just thinking about what soup to make for the following Thursday’s pop-up. So, what’s in her repertoire?
“Definitely Italian wedding soup — I’ve had requests for that. I make a tomato and piquillo pepper soup that people love, so I’ll probably do that as well. What is available will dictate what I make. But I’m always open to suggestions,” she says, smiling. “I tend to stick to the classics that just make you happy because they hit all those memories. It doesn’t have to be anything wild. It just has to be good.”
Yatai Food Kart is located at 1311 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth. For a menu and schedule, visit facebook.com/yataifw/.
June Naylor is a Fort Worth freelance food and travel writer.
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced fennel
2 cups leeks, cut lengthwise and julienned
1/2 cup finely diced shallots
1/2 cup garlic, shaved on mandolin
3 slices lemon
2 to 3 Calabrian chiles, pulsed in food processor to make a paste
About 3 to 4 pounds seafood (see note below)
1 (750 ml) bottle dry white wine
1/2 cup unsalted butter
Sea salt, to taste
Chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Your favorite warm crusty bread loaf
Make a sachet with seeds, bay leaves and thyme in cheesecloth tied with kitchen twine to put in pot while cooking.
In a pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sweat the carrot, celery, onion, fennel, leek and shallots, along with herb sachet, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Once vegetables are translucent, add garlic. Sweat until garlic is aromatic. Add lemon and Calabrian chile paste and stir. Add seafood and immediately deglaze pan with white wine; add butter and stir.
Once seafood is cooked and shells are open, about 3 to 5 minutes, add salt to taste. Add any extra lemon juice, if desired. Divide evenly among bowls, garnish with chopped parsley and crusty bread.
Note: The combination of seafood can be anything from 2 dozen mussels, clams or scallops, along with a pound each of monkfish, halibut, snapper, or shrimp — whatever is freshest. Be sure to cut fish into large diced pieces of equal size.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Source: Thanks https://www.dallasnews.com/food/restaurant-news/2020/04/13/the-pandemic-put-fort-worths-rising-star-chef-out-of-a-job-but-shes-found-hope-in-making-soup/