Like most people in the world, I enjoy eating food. Like a lot of people in the world, I enjoy cooking food. And like a slightly smaller but still significant portion of people in the world, I am obsessed with both eating and cooking food. But I am not a chef or a restaurant critic, and I have never held down a job in the service industry.
I am a DJ.
Recently, my forays into food reached a high point when I was asked to guest-chef alongside Matt McCallister and Alex Stupak at FT33, one of the best restaurants in Dallas, TX. But before we get to that, let me tell you a little about myself and how this crazy opportunity fell into my lap.
Started from the bottom
I was raised in a home where dinner usually consisted of reheated bags of frozen Salisbury steak, tuna casserole, TV dinners, and so on. My mother was actually a good cook, but we lived in a home where convenience was the rule of the day. Processed food was a close friend. I spent most of my life disliking a lot of different foods, especially if they seemed healthy—bologna sandwiches good; spinach bad.
My mother owned only one cookbook that I can recall. It was a well-worn orange copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I used to flip through it in my spare time and stare at the pictures of the desserts—I especially liked that chapter. I cooked very little at the time, though I was able to make tuna fish sandwiches (extra fancy when I toasted the white bread) and Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup (my 13-year-old gourmet tip: Use a can of milk instead of water). As I got older, things regressed even further. I learned I could save time eating Chef Boyardee raviolis right out of the can without even having to heat them up! Discovering Olive Garden and TGI Fridays was a big fucking deal. Putting Hidden Valley Ranch dressing on pizza was just straight flexing. Suffice it to say that my tastebuds and cooking ability were operating at an adolescent level, and I always worried that it would always be this way.
A young Damian Higgins enjoys a typical meal of microwaveable pizza. (Photo courtesy Damian Higgins)
My relationship with food began to evolve when I started going to the gym and getting healthy about 15 years ago. I became intent on making sure I was eating super calorie-specific meals, and to do so I pretty much had to cook most of my own food. I learned to make basic stuff—scrambled egg whites, beans, steak, etc. Nothing too fancy really, and most of the time cooked in the simplest ways possible. But at least I was developing a basic skill set in the kitchen.
It wasn’t until a Christmas trip to my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) parents’ home about nine years ago that things really took a turn. I was bored over the holidays and ended up finding my now mother-in-law’s collection of Taste Of Home magazines. I spent hours flipping through them, looking at the recipes and thinking, “Why couldn’t I make this stuff?” So I did. And over the next year or so I embarked on a journey to become the best cook I could be. I started eating out at as many restaurants as I could; my DJ schedule that takes me all over the world turned into an opportunity to eat everywhere.
My DJ schedule that takes me all over the world turned into an opportunity to eat everywhere
Fast forward to today: I have a giant cookbook collection. I’ve had a subscription to every food magazine for years. I read food blogs daily and watch too much food TV. I hang out with chefs, food writers, restauranteurs. I’ve presented at the prestigious Star Chefs. I write food pieces for this very website. I even compete in nacho battles from time to time with famous chefs.
Dieselboy cooks up his signature Destroyer Dog for FWF. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
But none of this could really have prepared me for the absolute thrill of cooking for paying guests at a prestigious restaurant alongside some of the best chefs in the country. That’s where this crazy adventure begins…
From home cook to guest chef
Last year, I had the pleasure of dining at an amazing restaurant in Dallas called FT33. I knew little about it, only that it was supposed to be this new hot spot that was pushing out interesting plates of food. I reached out to the head chef and owner Matt McCallister on Twitter to say what’s up and found out that he was actually into my deejaying and music from back in the day. After my meal that night, he came over and we had a chance to talk for a bit. He was a cool guy and his food was delicious. I promised to return the next time I was in town.
Dieselboy after competing in FWF’s Second Annual Nacho Battle. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
In February of this year, I competed in a nacho battle for First We Feast against great chefs like Seamus Mullen, Wylie Dufresne, Michael Anthony, and my friend/chef Alex Stupak. Shortly after this event, I received an email from Matt McCallister—he wanted to know if Alex and I would be interested in doing a collaborative guest dinner at FT33 in June. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m a home cook!” I am not on the same level as these guys. It felt like being a bedroom DJ who was asked to perform on the main stage at Coachella between headline acts. I was nervous. But I also realized what an amazing opportunity this would be to push my personal boundaries and do something fun. Not many people get this sort of invitation dropped in their laps. So, of course, I accepted.
It felt like being a bedroom DJ who was asked to perform on the main stage at Coachella between headline acts.
Slowly, I started brainstorming some ingredient and dish ideas for the dinner. Matt told us that the theme was going to be “elevated Mexican” and that we would each be responsible for three dishes. In the beginning, I thought that the words “collaborative dinner” meant that we would all pitch in ideas for dishes and come up with the menu together. I later found that this was not the case. I was going to have to develop my own dishes…on my own!
Alex was extremely busy with a million projects going on in his life and, as it stood, barely had time to work on his own stuff. I started panicking and doubting myself. The dinner was $125 a person and it had sold out within hours of being announced. Apparently, the response was greater than any other collaborative dinner the restaurant had previously thrown. This was both great and stressful. I didn’t want to screw up. My dishes had to stand side-by-side with Matt and Alex’s food without looking low-brow or ridiculous. I can make tasty hot dogs and nachos and smoked short-rib sandwiches. This was a different challenge entirely.
Dieselboy cooks his smoked short-rib sandwich for Vice. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
By chance, I had been booked to deejay in Dallas again about a week before the dinner. And before my show, I once again dined at FT33 (Chef McCallister was unfortunately in Atlanta on business). I had started to worry that maybe the other cooks at the restaurant would be annoyed by some non-cook entering their arena and thinking he could hold his own with them. “Yeah, it’s that damn DJ that chef likes,” I kept imagining them saying. I was wrong. That night, practically everyone that worked there came over to say hello and give me a hug and tell me how amped everyone was for the upcoming dinner. I even put 22 of them down on the guest list for my show that night! Given how worried I was about possibly going down in flames the next week, the experience really put my mind at ease and gave me a much needed boost. I was determined I wasn’t going to screw it up and that I was going to surprise people with my food.
For the next few days, I focused on getting my dishes locked down. I needed to give FT33 a list of ingredients I would require and make sure that any dishes that might take a few days to prepare would get a head start. I knew for sure that I was going to be doing a lamb tartare dish. I had been screwing around with making steak tartare over the past year or so and really wanted to nail that dish. I knew I wanted to do something related to elote (“Mexican street corn”), but I wasn’t sure where to go with it.
Chef Matt McCallister at work in his restaurant, FT33.
During an early consult with Alex, he had suggested using the elote flavor profile to make a stuffed pasta, but after deliberation I wasn’t confident that I could make it work. I then started thinking about a great short-rib dish that I had a restaurant here in NYC called Betony. Chef Bryce Shulman takes short ribs, cook them sous-vide for two days in aged beef fat, grills them, and builds a dish around them with fried sweetbreads, grilled romaine, and a lettuce-and-potato puree. I wanted to do something similar while utilizing the flavors of barbacoa, and I wanted to also include goat cheese and charred padrón peppers somehow. For my dessert, I wanted to reference a classic dish from Puebla called chiles en nogada, which is basically a poblano pepper stuffed with pork that has been cooked with fruit and almonds, then blanketed with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. I knew poblano ice cream had to be a part of this dish, but I wasn’t completely sure about the rest of the elements.
Dieselboy sets a restaurant playlist.
I called Matt in Dallas to go over my ideas and see if he could help me hone stuff down and flesh out a few of the unfinished concepts. He liked the idea of the tartare and suggested using fried green papaya as the crunchy element over what I had originally thought to use (either a disk of crispy forbidden rice or sunchoke chips cooked in garlic oil). He said he had access to smoked brisket fat that we could use for the short rib and thought that turning the charred padrón peppers into a relish might be a good move. We discussed maybe making “Mexican street corn” fritters (filled with corn, goat cheese, honey, cayenne, and lime) as well. For the dessert, I suggested a tart shell of walnut and almond, filled with pomegranate curd. Maybe pickled raisins. He said pomegranates were out of season and countered with doing a walnut tart with hibiscus syrup for the tartness factor. Boom. In less than 10 minutes, he helped me focus my dishes into cohesive ideas that would work and that were seasonal.
The big night
I flew into Dallas on Sunday with Alex and his wife Lauren (a great chef as well). Alex’s menu was going to consist of guacamole with pistachio and jalapeño; sopa seca de fideo with zucchini and zucchini blossoms; and a dessert consisting of fresh gooseberries, whipped cream, jackfruit, tangerine ice, and mezcal toffee. All three dishes are greatest hits from his restaurant menu at Empellón, and all are amazing. Alex’s confidence was high. He knew he was going to crush it, and I still wasn’t even 100% sure of every element that was going on my plate!
We spent Sunday eating tacos and getting drunk on gin and tonics and whiskey. Note to self: When you are stepping way out of your comfort zone to cook a meal that people are paying $125 a head to eat, being hungover never helps. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The next morning at 9am I showered, grabbed my bag containing my chef’s knife, fish flipper, Kunz spoons, and Thermapen, then headed to the restaurant.
And so began one of the most insane—and most amazing—days of my life.
When I arrived, I started to panic a little. I didn’t know where anything was! I had never cooked in a professional kitchen before. I wasn’t even sure what I should start prepping first. The first guy I met turned to me and said, “Chef! Let me know if there is anything you need me to help you with!” Ha, what? Chef? Very surreal and funny at the same time.
I was shown a giant hotel pan full of pumpkin seeds that had already been roasted for me to use in my pepita butter. I asked where the garlic was and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes cleaning and peeling 60 cloves of garlic. Then caramelizing it. Then messing around with a Vitamix blender and my pumpkin seeds/garlic/oil for the next 30 minutes trying to get the right consistency. And making a huge mess. And then realizing I need to make more butter because I didn’t make enough.
Wow. I was getting off to a slow start.
Chef McCallister helps plate Dieselboy’s lamb tartare.
But eventually it started getting better and I started finding my normal kitchen flow that I have at home when I cook for friends. Anytime I needed help with something, there was always someone there to pitch in. Chef Ben helped me clean up the lamb loins for the tartare, which I mixed with chorizo-oil vinaigrette, finely chopped smoked green olives, and guajillo-chile puree. This final dish was garnished with a floral papalo crema, housemade pepita butter, and fried and shredded green papaya for crunch.
For my short rib dish, I managed to pull this crazy red-chile sauce together that was above and beyond what I thought I would be able to make. The fish sauce and smoked brisket fat really took it over the edge (as did the beef that I browned and pureed into it). I decided to forgo the fritter idea I originally had and instead made a garnish more simple yet just as tasty—goat cheese whipped into creme fraiche. Lauren helped with that task. Grilled padrón peppers were folded with corn, red onion, and lime to make a relish to go along with everything. For dessert, Matt jumped in to to roast and peel the poblanos for the ice cream. Maggie, the pastry chef, helped make the tarts and the hibiscus syrup. Golden raisins were pickled in a slightly sweet brine.
As my components started coming together, I helped other people prep items for dishes that weren’t mine. And what I began to experience and realize was that this was a team project. I started feeling the strong sense of camaraderie that existed in that kitchen. When I cook at home I usually cook solo, or have someone just help me prep different things. But this was something different. Standing shoulder to shoulder with talented cooks all working towards the same goal was a very gratifying experience. And the rest of the restaurant staff was also on top of their game. Watching the space come together and seeing everyone set up their stations and locking down their tasks was just super cool. I have eaten at a million restaurants but had never experienced the view from the other side of the pass. And I liked what I saw very much.
As time ticked closer to doors opening, I was relieved to find that no one was running behind. No one was “in the weeds.” I enjoyed my first staff meal (local BBQ) with time to spare. I even had an hour to put into crafting a 4.5 hour playlist for the evening (mellow indie into ‘90s hip hop into current bass/trap music into ‘80s rock…in case you’re wondering).
I have eaten at a million restaurants but had never experienced the view from the other side of the pass. And I liked what I saw very much.
At 6pm, the doors opened and people showed up en masse. Hors d’oeuvres were passed around, as were cocktails—one of them being my own personal Old-Fashioned variation, “The Higgins.” Music played softly and the kitchen was buzzing. Over the course of the next four hours, we managed to put out more than 700 plates of food. Mostly we prepared dishes assembly-line style (we each put one component on a plate), though for Alex’s dessert, we had plates strewn all over the kitchen. This gave me my first opportunity ever to help serve plates to customers, as the dessert had to be served “a la minute.”
Dieselboy on the line
My own food, thankfully, received high marks from the diners. I was told that multiple people who “didn’t like lamb” and “didn’t like tartare” liked my lamb tartare. That was huge. The short rib was a hit, as well. I think glazing them last-minute with burnt honey (turned into a gastrique by my man Brooks) really pushed it over the edge. And even though a lot of people were pretty full by the end, the walnut tart received some high marks as well. I couldn’t have been happier. And the other chefs’ food? Amazing, of course. I was just happy people seemed as satisfied with my dishes—the home cook hadn’t completely embarrassed himself.
There were two moments in the night where I was asked to join Matt and Alex in the dining room to address the customers—once to describe a dish, and again to thank them for coming. This was probably the most nerve-wracking part of the day for me (I’m not good with public speaking), but not a big deal overall. And by the end of the night, after much alcohol was consumed, it was a nice high point to end a very special day. I am not sure I could or would attempt the long climb to becoming a chef at this point in my life (if I ever decided to stop DJing), but I do know that it would be a very rewarding, albeit challenging, experience.
We ended the night at a music studio where a small party was set up for me and Matt (a former DJ) to perform. More drinks were consumed. And Matt, Alex, Lauren, the rest of the staff, and I wound down a very magical evening that I will never forget.
And a night I hope to repeat next year, if Matt will have me.
Here’s the menu, for posterity:
Dieselboy is a veteran DJ and seasoned world traveler who has a healthy obsession with food, cocktails, and cooking. Track his globe-trotting food adventures here at First We Feast, and follow him on Twitter: @DJDieselboy.