Chef Dan Morales was born in Mexico, but he moved to New York in 1997. His father, who was working in the service industry, landed him a job at the Harley-Davidson Café on 6th Avenue. Although Morales didn’t suspect it at the time, it was the beginning of his career.
In 1999, David McKenty offered Morales an offer he couldn’t pass up. He offered to pay for his schooling at the New York Restaurant School. Once he finished school, Morales went to work for McKenty at the Mayfair Hotel.
According to Morales, he subsequently took jobs at a series of great New York restaurants, including The River Café, Le Cirque and maybe most notably Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, where he worked his way up from sous chef to chef de cuisine.
I sat down with Morales recently to find out more about his career, his experiences in the kitchen, and his plans for INdustri Café.
OMC: What made you decide to become a chef?
Dan Morales: I never thought I was going to cook. I needed to pay my bills. In fact, on my first day at Harley-Davidson Cafe I broke a plate … I grabbed it and it was hot. But the chef there saw something in me.
I’ve worked in some of the most important restaurants in New York. But, it was the fact that people believed in me that really led me to where I am today.
OMC: You have had quite the experiences. What was it like to appear on television for "Iron Chef" with Bobby Flay?
DM: I’m not a TV chef. I’m just not comfortable. You have no idea how much pressure there is cooking on national TV. I learned I’m not ready for that life.
OMC: What was it like working with Flay?
DM: Some of the best experiences of my life were cooking next to Bobby Flay. The first impression you get from him … people think he’s arrogant, but no, he’s just very confident.
When I applied for my job at Mesa Grill, I had to present a seven-course tasting menu to him. It was very intimidating. But, I must have impressed him because he called and offered me a job. At the time I had another offer on the table, so I turned him down. Five minutes later he called back to give me a better offer.
OMC: What’s the biggest thing you learned from him?
DM: He doesn’t cook as much, but he’s really involved in his restaurants. He’s hands on. He gets behind the line, grills steaks and does the presentations for new menus. He’s not afraid to play with colors and flavors. That’s the biggest thing I learned from him. Simple but well done. I also got to try new things every day, things I would never have eaten otherwise.
OMC: Describe your style of cooking.
DM: I always say that it’s sexy comfort food. I love everything from sloppy joes to hot dogs, but not just American comfort food. Homemade style food. Something that’s going to be easy and well prepared.
OMC: What do you plan to bring to INdustri Cafe?
DM: I don’t want it to be one of those places that’s doing things just because everyone else is doing it. But, I’d really like to bring more seasonal items onto the menu. I’d like to go to the farmer’s market and bring in foods from there and cook them that day.
Everything I do, I make from scratch, from flatbreads to desserts – molten lava cake, apple strudel. It will be simple, well done food.
OMC: What can diners expect to be on the menu?
DM: This is a neighborhood place. When it comes to the menu, we’re going to redesign that format. We’re going to have everything from the INdustri burger to chicken and waffles. We’ll also do some sort of barbeque.
OMC: What’s your favorite kitchen gadget? Why?
DM: My knives. I was trained by an old school chef, and we didn’t have gadgets. We made things by hand. I can totally survive without the gadgets.
At Le Cirque we had all sorts of toys. We had things we barely knew what to do with. But, that’s not how I work. Some chefs carry a tool box. I carry my knives, maybe a zester, a microplane.
OMC: What’s the worst disaster you’ve ever had in the kitchen?
DM: I decided to close the restaurant in California to do a private brunch for 25 women from the cast of "Desperate Housewives." We were a new restaurant with new staff. It was a disaster.
OMC: What kinds of things happened?
DM: The new staff just weren’t prepared. Omelets were getting overcooked. They broke under the stress. I was throwing pans. Everyone in the dining room could hear what was happening. It was one of the worst experiences in my career. Everything ended up going well, but we weren’t happy.
OMC: Do you have a weakness when it comes to industry work?
DM: Like most chefs, my biggest weakness is probably the front of the house. Throw me on the line on a Saturday night by myself, and I’ll make things happen; but if the servers walk out, I’m in trouble.
OMC: What’s your favorite thing to eat when you’re at home?
DM: Actually, yes. I don’t cook much. If you look in my fridge, I have foie gras, Kobe beef. I have good ingredients in my pantry, but I don’t use them very often. The last time I cooked was New Year’s Eve.
OMC: But you must have favorite foods that you really love, right?
DM: Oh, yes. My favorite is hotdogs – 10-inch Mexican hotdogs with jalapenos, onions, bacon, ketchup, mayo, Chalula, queso fresco and potato chips on top.
OMC: What’s the best compliment someone could give to you?
DM: When I walk into the dining room and I see satisfaction on peoples’ faces. You can see how they feel. Their faces change. They smile, they look at the food. It’s not a compliment so much as the look on their face. When I see your face enjoying my food, that’s the best thanks I could get.
OMC: Anything else you’d like Milwaukeeans to know about you?
DM: That I’m cute. (laughs) No, really. I’m excited to be in Wisconsin. I love Walker’s Point. It reminds me a lot of New York – up and coming young professionals. Hipsters. I’m looking forward to a month from now when our new menu launches.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.