Chef Spotlight: Kalen Morgenstern

Where are you from?

I was actually born in Dallas but grew up in Atlanta. Went to college at UG, the whole thing.

And how did you end up back here in Texas?

Basically, family. I’ve always wanted to come back, and my parents moved back to Dallas maybe five years ago now. I was in Nashville at the time - this was before the restaurant scene blew up there. When the opportunity arose, it was just like, that’s fantastic, I get to go home. 

So I know being a chef is hard work but rewarding. What would you say your proudest moment was in the kitchen?

I feel like we have proud moments all the time. You can have a customer on a Friday night get super excited about something you did, and that's a pretty proud moment. But I guess a really defining moment was when I was in Nashville, working with two chefs who were really important mentors to me, and I got promoted from line cook to lead. I was like, ok, I chose the right path.

On the other hand, now that I’m the chef, I’ve got to say I’m pretty proud when my guys put their stuff away properly at the end of the night. There’s definitely a teaching aspect to the job - passing down what you’ve learned - and learning from them too. I think you can learn from any experience. I get super proud when one of my guys has a really great day or executes a new dish correctly. It’s like, “Yay, you did it!” When something like that happens, I feel like I've done my job as a teacher, and that makes me proud.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you in a kitchen? Or the craziest?

The most embarrassing would have to be when I worked at the Gaylord - it's this giant hotel, and we had a banquet that night for about 3,000 people. We had all these pre-prepped sheet pans full of food sitting on a rolling rack and…I trip. The whole thing just came crashing down. I thought I was going to get in so much trouble. I’ve just ruined probably half a days work, but instead my bosses rushed over and were like, “Oh my gosh, are you ok? Are you hurt?” They were only worried about me - the food didn’t matter.

The craziest? Well, that’s a different story. So, I’m working at this restaurant (I’m not going to say where) and there was this cook. He had decided that night was his last night, but he hadn’t told anyone yet. He wanted to go out with a bang. So, it’s nearing the end of the night, and he just grabs a handful of popcorn kernels and throws them into the deep fryers. Well, you can imagine…it’s almost instant. There’s popcorn everywhere. And he walks out.

Being a chef, you must see a lot of late nights. What’s your favorite post-work snack/drink?

Lately, I've been trying to be responsible, so I haven’t been eating after work. If we’re going to pretend - tacos. I love tacos. And either whiskey or a super filthy gin martini. But I’m obsessed with tacos.

It’s date night. Do you cook something at home or go out? And if you go out, where do you go?

What's a date? (Laughs.) I don’t remember the last time I went out, but you know, if ever someone was to ask me out, I would love to go to a restaurant. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not cooking.

A lot of the dating thing (or lack thereof) stems from my schedule. Even nine to five-ers who say they're flexible really have trouble with it, so your date sort of becomes your favorite bartender.

That said, if I go out to dinner, I usually try to check out fellow chefs or anywhere that's fairly new - new to me anyway. I don’t tend to eat at chains - it's either the latest dive or full-on fine dining. If it's a chef-driven restaurant, I always want to try what's new or whatever they're playing with. I'll be their guinea pig so to speak.

So what was your strangest job before you became a chef?

I guess the strangest job to everybody else is this: I was a supervisor in a poultry plant for a long time. I did everything from evisceration to the marination department (you know, like the rotisserie chickens you buy at the grocery store). Yeah, I was in charge of the entire Southwest region at one point.

And if you weren’t a chef, what do you see yourself doing instead? 

I think would probably go back to building houses. I loved doing that.

Um, could you to elaborate on that, please?

I used to build very high-end, million-dollar houses, and I loved every second of it. The skills required are similar to the chef world - leadership, organization, creativity. And the chaos too.

You know, all my jobs have been kind of strange. I get bored really easily, so being a chef is great for that. Anyway, I was a general contractor. My dad is a real estate attorney, and he and his partners decided they wanted to take the next step. At the time, I was trying to get out of the chicken world, so I went and got my contractor license and did all the schooling. I did it for four years. I was on-site from grading until we got our final C.O. I even built my own house.

In a strange way, it’s actually kind of how I became a chef. When the market crashed in 2007 - luckily, we had already sold all the properties we had - my parents moved back to Dallas, and I went to Nashville, where my sister lived. I was a super fan of all of those shows - Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, all of that. So I went online and found a culinary school, The Art Institute… and never looked back.

Final Question. It’s your last meal. What do you have?

It would probably be my mom’s beef stroganoff. It's such a basic recipe (don’t tell her I said that) but when I’m upset, that's what I make.