Texas chef Tim Love channels the spirit of cattle-drive chuckwagon cooks for a July Fourth feast prepared over an open fire—salad and all.
I had my first food epiphany when I was 11, at about the same time other boys were discovering girls. My best friend's father drove his son and me from our small town in Louisiana to Fort Worth, Texas, to spend a couple of days exploring the remnants of cowboy culture. He fed us a steak as big as we were, cooked over a roaring fire right there in the restaurant, and I swore for most of my life it was the best piece of meat I'd ever eaten.
I've spent years trying to relive that moment. As co-owner of a barbecue restaurant in Connecticut, where I now live, I've become passably knowledgeable about cooking primal hunks of meat over wood fires. So when I got the chance to go back to Fort Worth to check out a wood-fired July Fourth feast from chef Tim Love, I went. I figured I'd have to like any chef who offers up a "salad" recipe that calls for four-and-a-half pounds of steak with six ounces of greens.
Love's July Fourth parties always feature cooking over open fires, the way cowboys cooked. There are always big steaks. There are always Southwestern touches, like yucca chips spiced with chile powder and cumin. And there is always plenty of food: smoky chicken with garlic and scallions, several fresh-vegetable dishes, beans, potatoes and desserts like peach shortcake with vanilla whipped cream. I tease Love that he is contributing to American obesity with meals of this size, and he says, "It's the Fourth of July, and in Texas, we have to do it big."
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Love's flagship is the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, which sits astride the Old Chisholm Trail in the Stockyards district of Fort Worth—perhaps still America's premier cow town. The area is a bit tawdry, struggling to hold on to a history that's fading fast. Restaurants in ramshackle buildings have remarkably similar menus: big steaks, barbecued ribs, calf fries (don't ask). As I wait for Love, I walk through the restaurant where I had that first epiphany; it's still cooking steaks, although, I'm told, with less skill and attention than I remember.
The Lonesome Dove is different, almost sissified. The nachos have ostrich-and-huckleberry sauce; the sausage is made with rabbit and rattlesnake and served with Manchego rösti; a BLT contains lamb's belly and watercress. Love calls his work "urban Western cuisine."
But the cowboy in him is beckoning. He is in the very early stages of creating a new restaurant, tentatively called the Meat Market, inspired by chuckwagon cooking—the kind that, in the 19th century, sustained cowboys on Chisholm Trail cattle drives from Texas ranches to Kansas railheads. "Chuck" means beef, beans, salt pork, game, Dutch-oven biscuits, cobblers and stews. Great cowboy cooks, or "cookies," were in such demand that they were often paid twice the rate of ranch hands.
At the Meat Market, Love will offer prime, hand-cut beefsteaks; venison, buffalo and elk; three or four game birds; and freshwater and ocean fish. A glass-walled "pit room" will contain a number of grills, fired by hickory, oak, mesquite or pecan. Love wants his customers to see the wood, touch it, smell it and choose the type they want for their meal. He will also cook stews, beans and fresh vegetables in Dutch ovens, the primary cooking utensil of the old-time cookies. He claims, "Dutch ovens are the greatest cooking device ever invented."
Not coincidentally, the Tim Love Collection of cast-iron cookware includes a Dutch oven. Indeed, Love is so busy these days attaching his name to new ventures that it's hard to focus on the fact that he is a world-class chef. In addition to the Lonesome Dove there are two Love Shack burger joints, with more coming; the White Elephant, a saloon and music hall; and a taco restaurant in the works. A TV show is under discussion. These are heady times, and Love is clearly having fun: "I enjoy making my own mistakes without apology."
Love was born in Denton, Texas, but spent summers with his dad, a doctor and gentleman farmer, in Tennessee. He started in the restaurant business to help pay his way through the University of Tennessee, wound up cooking by accident and found he was good at it. He is largely self-taught but says he has been influenced by Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali.
He has only one partner, his wife, Emilie. They met while working at a restaurant in Colorado, a job they did to support a skiing habit. They saved their money, returned to Texas and bet it all on the Lonesome Dove. Love tells me, "Emilie almost fainted when she first saw the place, but the rent was right."
It is hard not to like Love and pull for him. He is soft-spoken and earnest and more naturally shy than his public persona as the Cowboy Chef would suggest. As he gives me a tour of his house, talking about cooking for Emilie and his eight-year-old son and seven-year-old twin daughters, he stops to show me his Love Box, an outdoor roaster big enough to cook a whole animal. (A metal grate on top converts it into a grill.) We stop at his garden, which is really more like a small farm and orchard, with everything from 10 kinds of peppers to Meyer lemon trees. I remind him that he'd told me how much he hated working on his father's farm as a kid and ask why this is different. "That was chores," he says. "This is love."
Later, he teaches me a few things about grilling. He starts with rib eyes, searing the meat over a very hot fire for a minute or two per side. He takes it off the grill and lets it rest as he assembles the rest of the meal. Then he finishes it on the grill. "The biggest problem for amateur chefs is getting everything to the table at the same time, and this helps manage the process," he says.
Love talks me through the rest of his July Fourth menu, advising me on the best poblanos for his skillet-grilled chiles rellenos ("The ones with the deepest recess around the stem taste the best"). Then he tells me how to make his cucumber-lime ice pops spiked with gin. I observe that the pops bear a striking resemblance to the numerous margaritas I'd sampled at Lonesome Dove the night before. In order to assure myself toxic substances weren't being served to the restaurant's customers, I suggest the ice-pop recipe come with a warning. Love nods his head and says, "Well, this is one popsicle I won't be serving my kids."
Thomas O. Ryder, a longtime magazine publisher, lives in Connecticut and eats and drinks with enthusiasm.