Downey took over as executive chef of Marcus Paslay’s Clay Pigeon this year.
“I’ve been in the industry since I was 15 for a total of 13 years to this point,” Downey says. “I’ve learned so much from the different chefs I’ve surrounded myself with throughout my career.”
She jumpstarted her career by focusing her talents on pastries after studying in the baking and pastry program at El Centro in Dallas. Just like cream always rises to the top, chef David McMillan spotted her skills and allowed her the opportunity to shine — first at the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, and then when he brought her to Fort Worth as part of the opening team of Bird Café.
“Chef David McMillan will always be the chef nearest to my heart,” Downey says. “He taught me how to be confident in myself, but how to still manage to stay humble.”
Chef Marcus Paslay expanded her role when he brought her on as sous-chef as part of the original “dream team” that opened Piatello Italian Kitchen in Fort Worth’s Waterside. Fort Worth Magazine awarded Piatello Best New Restaurant, and it received the Best Restaurant of the Year, Taste Maker Award by Culture Map during her tenure.
Downey then moved to helm Clay Pigeon, Paslay’s original restaurant, where she continues to spread her wings.
“Clay Pigeon is, and always will be, special to me because this is Marcus’ first restaurant. It’s his baby. He sees something in me and trusts that I’ll lead this restaurant just as he does,” she says.
You don’t really know what all goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant kitchen. For Downey, timing is everything. “The one thing I cannot live without is a timer,” she admits. “It’s the most valuable utensil we have. I’ve got timers for everything! One hour for octopus, 3 minutes and 30 seconds for blanching, 30 minutes for proofing buns, etc. As chefs, we are constantly setting and resetting timers — almost to the point that I hear phantom timers go off in my head.”
Clay Pigeon is classic American fare executed with Downey’s French technique. In the lead role, she enjoys still having her hands on the food. “It’s a matter of pride in your work. If you dine with us at Clay Pigeon, it’s more than likely that the steak you just ordered was butchered by me.”
The kitchen is also a place of constant learning for her. “For the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring fresh pastas. Lately, I’ve been trying to perfect and teach folds to my cooks. It’s important to me to teach my cooks new techniques,” she says. “I’ve also enjoyed visiting new kitchens and seeing other chefs’ ways of doing things — how they arrange their kitchen or what crazy-cool wood grill design they have. The wood-burning grill at Harlowe MXM in Deep Ellum is by far my favorite.”
Besides the chefs who have mentored her along the way, Downey says the influence of her grandmother made quite an impression. “My grandmother made everything from scratch. She was the one who taught me how to cook with love, and I feel there is a genuine difference that you can taste.” She also picked up one of her favorite ways to unwind from her stressful profession: “I like to crochet. It’s another skill my grandmother taught me.”
Chef Downey thinks Fort Worth has its own vibe. “What makes Fort Worth great is that good food doesn’t have to be pretentious,” she says. “Sometimes you realize all you need is salt and pepper. At Clay Pigeon a lot of our menu consists of straightforward good food. I’m looking forward to having my first holiday season here; it’s my favorite time of year in the kitchen — with plenty of big meats and slow braises.”
Round One: Chicken stir fry
Round Two: Seared salmon with capers and black olives
Round Three: Seared duck breast with charred Belgian endive and creamy rendered foie gras polenta