So, where were you born, Dave?
Grand Rapids, Mich.
How did you wind up on St. Simons Island?
I was unemployed in Atlanta, and Mac Mason hired me to open J Mac’s. It used to be where Georgia Sea Grill is now. It closed about four years ago.
How did you get into being a chef? Where did you get your start?
I’ve been doing this since I was 10. Well, I’ve been in the kitchen since I was 10. I had a morning paper route in Michigan, and it was very cold. I would come in, and most mornings, my mother would have her version of an Egg McMuffin waiting for me, nice and hot. The paper had to be out by about 7 in the morning. I came home one morning, and she had slept in, so I took the occasion to try to re-create that sandwich.
How did it come out?
Not very good.
Well, you’ve come along way, I guess.
Well, I’ve been cooking for a living since the day after I turned 16 and got a driver’s license, where I could go to work. I’ve been doing it every since.
What was your first job?
I was at Mr. Steak, in Grand Rapids, which is still in business. It’s a small chain of about four or five restaurants.
What attracted you to working in a kitchen?
I like the change every day. That’s part of it, but I think the big reason is I like to take a raw product and create something from it. Whether it’s a carrot, or a lime, or a steak, or whatever, it’s about creating something. What’s really fun, in the second half of my career, I am using both sides of my brain. There’s the creative, food side, but also the numbers side and running a business. It’s a constant challenge, and it’s a lot of fun. Back then, it was fast-paced, it was crazy, it was organized chaos.
What was the first restaurant that you owned?
What year did that open?
2000. We are super lucky. Super, super lucky.
And Tramici came after that?
It’s 10 years old. 2007.
What was going through your head when you decided to open a restaurant? Were you scared? Nervous?
Well, failure was no option. I mean, we were really hungry, my former business partner and I. We were young and dumb. Failure was no option, that was what we were thinking. We wanted to do it for ourselves.
What do you think has been the key to your success over the years?
Staff, bar none. We’ve had different crews throughout the years, and there are different personalities to each crew. There are obviously individuals in the crew, and each year I can look at the crew and tell you the overall personality. Without them, I can’t do it. While I’m sitting here with you, I’ve got people over there eating lunch, and prepping for dinner. I can’t be there to watch them all the time. I have to make sure we hire the right people who want to do their stuff. It’s all about them, it really is.
So, how often do you change your menus?
Tramici changes quarterly. We probably change 25 percent of it with the seasons. Halyards is also the same, but it changes almost drastically, quarterly with the seasons. Halyards actually prints its menus daily. So, they have the ability to change on a whim.
So you change it based on what’s in season, or what’s been caught?
Oh, that’s what I’d love you to think and know. But some of it is what’s still here from last night. The average restaurant throws away one percent of everything it purchases. That adds up to a lot of money, so waste is a big issue. The beautiful side of our business is, you know, when we get some great ingredients in from Sapelo Farms, or a great olive oil from somewhere, then, yeah, that’s going to be part of the special. The other side of my brain, I’m thinking we’ve got to make sure we utilize everything.
When you plan your menus, what’s going through your mind?
Well, how much truth do you want? The fact is, I don’t cook anymore. I hire chefs because I’m here running a business, I’m running a brand. But what the chefs do when they’re creating a special is fun. They’re thinking about what they had at a restaurant for lunch — maybe at a little Vietnamese restaurant in Brunswick. If they’re going through Golden Isles Olive Oil Co., up in Redfern, if they were walking up through there on their day off, and saw something amazing, what are they doing? It’s maybe something we’ve seen, maybe something we’ve heard, or saw on television. Those are some of the catalysts for what we do.
When you’re cooking at home, what do you like to make?
I like simple stuff at home. Just because I like to enjoy my time at the house. I like making empañadas at the house. Some of the Colombian stuff, because I’m Colombian.
What advice do you have for people when they’re cooking at home?
Use the recipe as a guide, but have fun with it and change it as much as you like. Recipes are great guidelines, but if you can make it more your own, go for it.
Do you find when you cook, you enjoy the artistic part of it?
I think less and less as time goes by. Yeah, you eat with your eyes first, and it’s an important part of what we do. I’ll do a little of it at home, but I find that as I’ve been cooking longer and longer, it’s more important that the food tastes good, rather than how it looks. One of the analogies I tell some of my younger staff — and I’ll never forget the first time I heard this story — Can you imagine walking up to a brand new Porsche? You open the door. You sit down. You slide in that leather and smell that new car. You close the door and you hear that crisp click of that expensive car — but then you go to crank the motor, and nothing happens. Imagine if you have this beautiful dish, and it tastes horrible. For me, more and more, it’s about how it tastes and the hospitality behind it. Not to take away from how it looks, but it’s certainly not as important. I think the hospitality behind the dish is more important than the dish itself. I think it’s more important at home, as well as a restaurant. If I’m concentrating too much on the food, I’m not spending time with by guests. That’s not hospitality.
Do you have something on the menu at either of your restaurants that’s your favorite?
Tuna de Halyards. And I can never get tired of the mozzarella we make every day at Tramici. We knead our own cheese every day, and it’s pretty incredible.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Well, it’s been a great community that’s taken care of us. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the community. When it comes to being a chef, yes, the food is important, but the hospitality behind it is more important, and I’ll tell my chefs that. People will come back for great hospitality and good food. If the hospitality is mediocre and the food is great, to me, that doesn’t matter.