At this restaurant, eat, drink, connect
Restaurateur’s determination, vision won over doubters
Cheryl Hall talks with Hedda Dowd, whose Rise Salon de Soufflé is more than a place to eat. Dowd uses her three restaurants to connect with the community.
It’s early evening during the holidays at Rise Salon de Soufflé in Inwood Village. Founder Hedda Dowd is clearly in her element. She glides from table to table, chatting with the 100 or so patrons who’ve filled the tiny restaurant and are noshing on artisanal cheeses, salads, and yes, savory and dessert soufflés. Some might think Dowd is working the room.
But the 64-year-old CEO of Rise Soufflé Holdings, epicure and unabashed Francophile will tell you that she’s drawing sustenance from it.
She’s not simply profferring creations of her chef partner, Cherif Brahmi. She’s providing a place for people to commune over them.
From the moment customers pull open Rise’s heavy antique wooden door, they’re transported to a simpler time in the French countryside, where meals are eaten slowly, face to face, and conversation is savored as much as cuisine.
“People talk to each other here. They look at each other. There’s a completely different culture,” says Dowd, surveying the small main dining area where tables are nestled. “You don’t talk about it. You just see it happening.”
Her clientele is a mixture of loyalist locals and people who’ve come from as far as Japan to partake of the menu à la the late 1700s.
Laura and George W. Bush, frequent customers since his White House days, were dining at “their table” — a converted 18thcentury school desk — when then-President Barack Obama called to tell the former president that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan.
“People talk to each other here. They look at each other. There’s a completely different culture. You don’t talk about it. You just see it happening.” Hedda Dowd, founder, Rise Salon de Soufflé
“My phone was blowing up because that was historical worldwide,” Dowd recalls. “Newspapers from all over the world were calling me, asking, ‘Is it true? Is is true?’”
Countless marriage proposals have been made in this romantic throwback, where it’s déclassé to pull out anything with a screen for anything other than snapping a convivial photo.
On Jan. 15, Rise No. 1 will celebrate its 10th anniversary — defying the prediction of a well-known restaurateur that her concept would deflate faster than the airy baked egg concoctions she was going to serve.
After all, this is the land of steakhouses. At best, her froufrou offerings would appeal to ladies who lunch, but the restaurant would be deader than a mausoleum come dinnertime.
“Nobody thought I was going to be a success,” she says. “Nobody.”
It took two years to convince Brahmi and a group of 10 prominent businesspeople that her headstrong determination could pull off what most thought was an impossible feat. Au contraire, mes amis.
Rise No. 1 will close this year with $5 million in sales.
She and Brahmi, who are equal partners, named their first restaurant “No. 1,” always believing there’d be others to come.
Three months ago, they opened Rise No. 3 in Fort Worth, following No. 2 in Houston in July.
Expansion is being funded by a second round of equity investors, some of whom were part of the original 10.
Brahmi is in charge of the back of house. Dowd controls its stage.
“The biggest reason why this partnership works is because there is complete respect of the other person’s craft,” she says. “I would no more step foot in that kitchen and tell Cherif, ‘You know what? Why don’t you do it this way?’ When someone’s been doing a profession for 40-plus years, they know what they’re doing.”
Dowd — the daughter of a French mother and an Italian-American father — lived with her parents in Memphis during the school year but spent every summer with her maternal grandparents back in Grenoble, picking fruit and vegetables from the backyard orchard and garden and going at least once a day to local farmers’ markets for provisions.
“My life was raw and natural,” she says. “It was just pure.”
Her mother and grandmother made soufflés for as long as she can remember. “I grew up with soufflé and a salad as the perfect meal.”
She was struck with the idea of a restaurant with French home cooking on a plane back from France in 2006 after a buying trip for her retail business, Antique Harvest.
She couldn’t wait to rope in Brahmi.
They had met and become friends in the mid-’70s, when she was selling food to fine restaurants and he was a young executive chef at Phil Vacarro’s landmark Old Warsaw.
“I called up Cherif and said, ‘I have an idea that I’d like to open, and you’re the only person I want to do this with,’” she says, looking at Brahmi. “He’s calm. He has an unbelievable business mind. And he knows how to execute an idea. Finally, he said yes.”
“It took me awhile to believe that a soufflé concept would work in Dallas,” says Brahmi. “The thing that got me was when she said that she got up every morning with a burning sensation in her stomach that said she had to open the restaurant. That burning didn’t leave her. That’s when I decided, ‘I will do it.’”
Then he had to figure out how to pull it off.
“All of the chefs in town thought I was crazy,” he says. “There was no way anybody can open a soufflé restaurant. Every chef was scared of it, basically.”
You see, making soufflés en masse is a tricky business. The egg yolk and hand-whipped egg-white mixtures usually take 25 to 30 minutes to bake, and the oven door needs to remain shut for the first 20 or they’ll fall flat as a pancake.
He found the answer at a Paris soufflé restaurant during a reconnaissance mission with Dowd.
They ordered soufflés, and 10 minutes later, voilà! they were miraculously being served.
“I was blown away. You cannot have soufflé in 10 minutes,” Brahmi says with his ever-present French accent.
He went back the next day and learned that the restaurant used a high-heat chamber oven usually used to bake bread.
“We have two high-heat ovens on top of each other. I cook the savory in one and the dessert in the other. That way we don’t get confused,” he says. The ovens bake souffles in 12 to 15 minutes depending on the density of the ingredients. “That’s how we could do many soufflés here and do them right.”
Just how many? On a typical day — that stretches nonstop from 11 a.m. into the night — the 110-seat Rise No. 1 will serve up to 500 soufflés.
The most popular savory soufflé is crab meat, followed by truffle-infused mushroom. For dessert, it’s chocolate. During the holidays, the faves are seasonals: duck à l’orange for meals and pumpkin for dessert.
For those who are into slightly heavier fare, there’s seared ahi tuna or a 6-ounce filet mignon.
Rise No. 1 was an instant success. But the early days were a troubled time for Dowd personally. Her husband, Jack, died three weeks after the restaurant opened, and her son was away for his freshman year at college. There were mornings when she wanted to keep her grandmother’s antique duvet over her head. But she knew Brahmi, employees and investors were depending on her.
“There’s a survivor in everybody. When push comes to shove, you have to get out of bed,” she says. That’s a lesson she hopes will inspire other people who have a dream but are afraid to take the leap of faith.
The original investors have been repaid multiple times over, says Garrett Boone, co-founder of the Container Store. He invested in his longtime friend, not in her concept, which he didn’t quite get. He was in the middle of selling the Container Store to a private equity firm, and he figured it was worth risking “not a huge amount of money” to stop Dowd’s polite but persistent yammering.
“It turned out to be a really good investment,” Boone says. “It’s been incredible to support Hedda as she creates a truly unique, wonderful and beautiful restaurant.”
Michael Lanahan, cochairman of Greystone, which owns senior living communities, including the Edgemere in Dallas, had similar reasons for investing.
“I invested in Hedda,” he says. “She was just not going to give this up. Anyone who knows Hedda knows that whatever she does is going to be authentic and unique. When you go there, you’re not just going there for a meal, you’re going for the experience. Hedda’s attention to detail is displayed throughout.”
Glasses are made from recycled wine bottles. Dishes are crafted by artisans at Homestead Pottery in Elm Mott, outside Waco, Scrabble letters and trays are on the tables.
“You wouldn’t believe what I find when I leave at night — poems, stories, words I can’t repeat,” she says.
A family table
Some intimate restaurants treat children as second-class citizens. Dowd treats them as her raison d’être.
“Children first, children first, children first,” Dowd says. “I was so lucky because my mother cared so much about what I ate every single day. Bring the baby. Bring the child. Go back to being a family. I honestly feel that’s why we’re successful.”
Rise holds birthday parties where children whip up their own soufflés, put them in the oven and then eat them on the enclosed patio.
Dowd hopes these festivities spark interest in cooking at home.
“We spend far too much time allowing the youngest of children to have their eyes down with those instruments in their hands,” she says. “They’re not looking anyone in the eye. They’re not learning to communicate or write a letter.”
Dallas attorney Michael Holmes and his wife, Garnett, were among early loyalists, bringing their children to Rise No. 1 as a weekly experience shortly after it opened.
“It’s romantic and quiet, but it’s humble and it’s gracious,” says the partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP. “My wife and I have actually had lunch there and stayed through dinner talking on several occasions.
“People sometimes over and over use the word ‘magical,’ but it’s rare that as parents that we can bring our kids to a place like this and they love it, too.”
Now the couple and their five kids — ages 18 to 5 — can stop at Rise No. 3 as they head back to Dallas from their weekend retreat at Possum Kingdom.
“The ambience at the one in Fort Worth is almost eerily the same,” he says.
Forget watching the Cowboys while feasting on fluff.
“There’s never been a thought about a television. There’s never been a thought about a high-tech anything,” she says. “It’s all about going backwards — communing, communicating and talking about the food.
“The day that there’s a TV screen in Rise is the day I won’t be here.”
Diners enjoy the company and the ambience at Rise Salon de Soufflé in Inwood Village.
Founder Hedda Dowd, chatting with a regular customer, says that her clientele is a mixture of loyalist locals and people who’ve come from as far as Japan.
Chefs whip up soufflés in the kitchen at Rise No. 3, which opened three months ago at the Shops of Clear Fork in Fort Worth.
Cherif Brahmi, the chef who is Hedda Dowd’s business partner in Rise, says of the early days of their venture: “All of the chefs in town thought I was crazy. There was no way anybody can open a soufflé restaurant. Every chef was scared of it, basically.”