At this restau­rant, eat, drink, con­nect

Restau­ra­teur’s de­ter­mi­na­tion, vi­sion won over doubters

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - CH­ERYL HALL ch­eryl­[email protected]­las­news.com

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.”

Euro­pean fu­sion

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.

Stay­ing power

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.”

Photos by Robert W. Hart/Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor

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.

Photos by Bran­don Wade/Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor

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.”

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