In the aftermath of a University of Tennessee football game, things were hectic at Kotsi’s Grill. It was Tim Love’s first day making salads at the Knoxville restaurant, and he remembers being in the weeds from the jump.
“I got my ass whipped. I had no idea what I was doing. There were all these tickets on the window and the guy who was supposed to train me never showed up,” recalls the no-nonsense chef-owner behind the meat-centric Fort Worth restaurants Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Woodshed Smokehouse, and Love Shack, as well as the music venue, White Elephant Saloon. “I loved the pressure and was like, ‘Holy crap, this is exactly what I want to do.’ I think, because I played soccer for years, I viewed working on the line as a game.”
It used to be that giant chunks of steak on a plate were enough. Now, quite frankly, it’s more about how the meat influences everything else.
Love has come a long way since those early days at Kotsi’s, appearing on shows like Top Chef and CNBC’s Restaurant Startup as he builds out his restaurant empire. While some skeptics might view his predilection for cowboy hats and taxidermy as mere shtick, the native Texan’s swagger makes him a force to be reckoned with, and his cooking gives the Wild West of yore a contemporary spin with dishes like rabbit-rattlesnake sausage with manchego rosti, and Wagyu ribeye accompanied by truffle orzo. As one of the founders of the Austin Food + Wine Festival, Love has spent ample time in the Lone Star State’s funky capital. Come spring, he will ply locals with wild game at a more modern version of his flagship, Lonesome Dove.
Although he’s known for hefty steaks, Love is well aware the role of meat has evolved at the dinner table. “It used to be that giant chunks [of protein] on a plate were enough. Now, quite frankly, it’s more about how the meat influences everything else, like how sushi first introduced us to the idea of layering flavors and textures with one piece of fish,” he explains. “People are more into vegetables than they ever have been, but they don’t necessarily want to be vegetarians. It’s about making dishes that have the flavor of killer beef without overwhelming you with a 14-ounce steak.”
From a memories of “shit on a shingle,” to beachside red snapper grilled over a bonfire, here are 10 dishes that have helped shaped the “cowboy chef’s” affinity for the brawny meats and bold Texas flavors.
Shit on a Shingle
We didn’t have much money growing up, so my mother would often make the military dish ‘shit on a shingle.’ It was just chipped beef and béchamel sauce over toast, but it remains one of the most comforting dishes I’ve ever had. Because we had it all the time, even for breakfast, it was one of the first things I learned how to cook. I was so young at the time I didn’t realize that béchamel was such an important French classic. I still make shit on a shingle for my kids early on Christmas morning, before we do anything else. (Photo: food-rules.com)
Arroz Con Pollo
My mom’s boyfriend was a really good cook and he made chicken with rice for us all the time. He’d braise the chicken thighs; add carrots, celery, and onions; and pour in chicken broth from a can. It was such a delicious, hearty winter dish. Sometimes he’d add white wine to the broth and finish it off with a little bit of cream, and when he did it reminded me of what French food should taste like at a time when I didn’t know what it was. I kind of make a Mexican version of his dish now with some beautiful chile peppers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Watercress and mayo sandwiches
I spent summers on my dad’s farm in Cookeville, TN, hauling hay while my friends were at camp partying. He grew a lot of vegetables there, and it sounds so cliché, but I remember picking asparagus from the garden and thinking it tasted completely different from the kind we found at the store. I only wanted to eat asparagus raw after that. He also grew watercress on the banks of a beautiful spring, and we’d pile it on sandwiches with mayo. Other people ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but we ate these because they were so fresh and simple. (Photo: watercress.com)
Salad at Kotsi’s Grill
Making salads at Kotsi’s was my first real restaurant job. I applied to be a bartender so I could meet girls, but Frank, the owner, had an opening in the kitchen, so I took it. I had no idea how to cook or even make a salad for that matter. It was the era of leaf lettuce, six different types of dressing, and feta cheese from buckets of milky water. But it taught me how to cook on the line. It’s how I learned to hustle. (Photo: Organic Earth Market)
Prime Rib at Kotsi’s Grill
Sure, I made burgers and steaks as a kid, but at Kotsi’s, I learned so much about meat and different cuts of beef. Frank was a great butcher. There was a big window where guests could see us grilling. It was here I made prime rib for the first time using the rotisserie. It was hard roasting a gigantic piece of meat with the bone in and stoking the fire. I think prime rib is taken for granted because it’s kind of a 1990s dish, but at the end of the day, it’s damn delicious. I do a venison version, which has the same mentality but is a little more exciting. Many people think of wild game as tough, but if you cook it right, like I learned at Kotsi’s, it becomes a velvety piece of meat. (Photo: huwareserve.com)
When I started working at Kiva Grill in Knoxville, they assumed that, because I was from Texas, I knew how to make salsa. But even though I grew up on spicy foods and chips and salsa, I didn’t. I was young and cocky, though, so I went ahead. The Southwestern boom was just starting—it was the same year Mesa Grill opened in New York—so I made a grilled tuna with spicy strawberry salsa. It was a progressive restaurant and people loved it. That particular dish was a turning point for me, making me realize I wanted to be a chef outside of the way I always thought I would be a chef. I started making things like lamp chops with a raspberry-chipotle demi-glace, and these fruit salsas became core for me in that moment of time.
Roasted Garlic Stuffed Tenderloin at Lonesome Dove
I was working at Uptown Bistro in Frisco, CO when I came up with what would become my signature dish. Everyone loves beef tenderloin, but it’s so plain and simple. I wanted to make it taste better, so I added roasted garlic. The julienned cabbage, the crispy potatoes, and the thick veal demi-glace all added texture. It has a big, bold personality—the things you’re told a dish should have, times 10. I brought it to Lonesome Dove, and we sometimes make 250 a night. If I took it off the menu there would be a huge uproar. With all the cool shit I do, it’s still the beef tenderloin they want. (Photo courtesy Lonesome Dove)
Elk Loin at Lonesome Dove
The elk loin with salsify puree, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, crispy fried Swiss chard, and candied grapes at Lonesome Dove is not only a great dish, but it also reflects the way I’ve modernized my cooking. I love the challenge of layering flavors now. Meat doesn’t have to be the center of the plate for me anymore. (Photo courtesy Lonesome Dove)
Gnocchi at Lupa
I feel like the ricotta gnocchi at Lupa in New York is the dish everyone wants to replicate when they make their own gnocchi, but no one can. It’s light and pillowy, offset by the herbaceous fennel and the richness of the sausage. It’s just perfectly done. Anyone serious about making pasta needs to eat this one. (Photo: NYC Go)
Grilled Red Snapper
One time, while in Galveston with the kids, we made a bonfire and grilled red snapper on the beach. I scaled the fish, wrapped it up in foil with fresh mint from the yard, and threw it onto the coals. It turned out beautifully and made me think of all the things you can do with fire. A lot of people think wood is about burning, but it’s so much more influential—like when you store wine in oak barrels, or when I make lentils and throw wood chips into it for a smoky hickory flavor. The beach is what helped inspire the idea of Woodshed Smokehouse. (Photo: Gourmet)