David Skinner is the owner and executive chef of Eculent – an avant garde dining concept in Kemah, Texas. The unique restaurant is known for breaking the barriers between food and art while also doing incredible work in food science and sustainability. We talked to David about how he got his start in the culinary industry and how he dreamed up and operates the one-of-a-kind Eculent.
Did you always know you wanted to become a chef? How did your career begin?
I wanted to cook since I was about 4 or 5 years old. My grandmother was a fantastic cook and a pastry chef. She made wonderful elaborate cakes. For my fourth birthday I asked her to make me a carousel cake. She did and I think that is what set me on a path to make food that was delicious and unique. My first restaurant was when I was 16. Luckily, my grandmother had a gourmet food store called the “Wire Whisk.” I told her I wanted a restaurant someday and she said to take the space at the back of the store and build one. So I did. It was called “La Vie en Rose” after the Edith Pilaf song. It was French bistro food, which made sense because for the three years up to that point I had been making all of Julia Child’s recipes.
Your restaurant Eculent is known for its delicious avant-garde food and multi-sensory environment. How did you come up with this concept? In what ways do you think your restaurant is breaking boundaries of food and art?
It’s funny how things happen sometimes. I was on a long flight to Asia and had a very bad airport meal. Food was on my mind for the whole trip if you know what I mean. Anyway, I don’t ever sleep on flights and always bring a notebook and do thought experiments. On this flight I thought about what restaurant had never been done before. It was quite a hard problem to solve as most every cuisine and fusion has been done in one form or another. On the return flight I decided to look at the common denominator and realized that the answer was quite simple. Make the atmosphere dynamic. Every restaurant in the world has a static atmosphere. That is to say the artwork does not change, the music is not choreographed to go with the courses, the smell does not change, and the lighting is the same throughout the entire meal. I started with that basic premise and began developing systems which would allow me to control the whole restaurant with an iPad. Once we knew we could impact all of our guests senses, we began thinking about how this could make both the experience and the food more enjoyable.
One of the hardest things I have had to deal with is getting chefs who work for me to think beyond the typical culinary boundaries. Because we can alter the environment to enhance each dish, you have to think more like a performance artist rather than just a chef. It’s a given the food has to be delicious, but then how do you make the dish memorable? It’s the first question I ask myself or my staff. Will a particular lighting or scent enhance the flavor? Should we design a service piece to make the dish more fun or intriguing? Are there new ways to engage the guest that will leave them saying WOW? There is an old saying – You eat first with your eyes, then your nose, then your mouth. I use this as a rule when we create a new dish. How does is look? It should be beautiful! Who wants to eat something sloppy? It should smell great and the aromas around it should be complimentary. Lastly, it has to taste wonderfully delicious – otherwise don’t serve it! Sight, sound, smell, and touch can greatly enhance the enjoyment of a dish, but they cannot overcome bad taste! Being able to coordinate all the senses is not easy, but that is what makes us Eculent.
Can you describe your unique process when it comes to creating new dishes and experiences for your restaurant? Where do you draw inspiration from?
For many years, I was not a professional chef but a strategic adviser to multi-national companies and governments on difficult and risky decisions. My expertise was helping them see options that they did not see or to take components (think ingredients) they had, and make something new and more valuable from them. That experience honed my ability to see interesting combinations and to develop a process for the restaurant we call FATS™ which stands for Flavor, Aroma, Taste, and Senses. This approach allows us to quickly formulate ideas and run them through an analytical framework to determine which dishes to continue developing and which to shelve. The starting point for any dish is an inspiration. When I was a child, I would get in trouble at school for daydreaming. I have always had an overactive imagination and would dream up crazy ideas. My mother would be kind to me and say when you grow up maybe you can pursue that idea. Little did she know that I would pursue many of them. So it only makes sense that the new menu at Eculent is called “Daydreams and Memories.” The inspiration is daydreams and memories when I was a child and the world was full of possibilities.
Eculent is also home to a food lab where you have identified, tested, and archived over 650 different ingredients. Why was it important to you to have this space to experiment and further explore the ingredients and tools you work with?
For Eculent, the lab and our ingredient library are a necessity. We have many guests with various allergies or food aversions and we want them all to have the same experience. Which means, if at all possible, they have the same dish but with altered ingredients to accommodate their allergy or aversion. The lab is a special environment for me as it is away from the kitchen and quiet. My cell phone does not even work in it. We also have every possible tool to play with which is important if you want to break boundaries. I will often see something beautiful in nature and immediately think about how to make it edible. For example, I love lilies, but they are not edible. So, I began thinking about how we could make them edible and out of that inspiration and some trial and error in the lab, we now have a dish where you eat the stamen from the flower and it tastes like a margarita.
Protection of the environment and it’s natural resources is important to you and a big part of Eculent’s mission. How does Eculent incorporate sustainable practices and different methods of preserving resources?
I have a fifteen year old daughter and I want her to be able to live in a world that is not polluted or under nourished. We waste so much food in this country and for no reason. Just because a tomato is not perfect does not mean you throw it out. You find a way to bring out its beauty in being irregular. You also find ways to use all of the resource. We have several courses that focus on tomatoes. One dish we peel them and instead of throwing the peel away we freeze dry it and use it as a bacon substitute in another dish. If you look hard and think creatively you can find a use for 100% of the ingredient.
Tell us about your decision to have each dinner at Eculent begin with a portion of education with your guests in the food lab to talk about where the food comes from, supporting local farmers, and more?
I am both shocked and amazed at how many people of all ages have no idea where their food comes from. If you ask many of them, the answer is “the grocery store.” I want all of my guests to understand where the food they will eat that night comes from, the effort that was put into raising it, and the difference quality products make in both taste and nutrition. Farmers and ranchers are a dying breed and need our help. If each of my guests just start to think a little differently about their food and buying habits then I have done something beneficial.
What advice would you give to any young chefs aspiring to one day open their own creative concept?
Everything good takes time and hard work. Every endeavor will be discouraging at times, but if you believe in it – don’t give up, just persevere through it. The best time to take a chance is when you are young. You have very little to lose and a lot to gain! Even if you fail.
Photography courtesy of Jeremy Pierson. https://www.jeremypierson.com/