Tim Love: The Rootinest, Tootinest, Doggone Shootinest Chef in the West
Beneath all that folksy cowboy bluster, he harbors a secret.
On a windy April morning, Tim Love bounds onstage to Kiss' "Calling Dr. Love," blond hair spiked, eyes alight with mischief, to kick off the first Austin Food & Wine Festival.
Two hundred fifty people are fanned out in front of him in a park, 100 charcoal grills making the air between them shimmer. Love’s demo, titled “Grills Gone Wild,” will require class participation. Attendees have paid for the privilege—$250 for a basic weekend pass, $850 for VIP—of donning white aprons and cooking their own food. Accompanying those 100 grills are 100 red plastic coolers containing bottles of white wine, two gorgeous cuts of meat (skirt steak, New York strip), and a head of broccolini. “What is it, 9:30?” Love bellows as he calls for everyone to take a shot of tequila. The audience will be sunburned, sand-whipped, and smelling of smoke tinged with rendered fat by the end of the two-hour event. “Y’all don’t understand,” Love says. “This is the greatest day of my life. People grilling, smoke everywhere, cold tequila, white wine, my friends all here. This is some of the craziest shit you’ve ever done in your life.”
For me, it’s a lot to process. Before moving to Texas, I spent most of my life as a yoga practicing, California-dwelling vegetarian. For my adopted state, I hold the fascination and fierce loyalty of the convert. But friends say I still use meat like a condiment. It also does not bode well that I have dual French-American citizenship. A recipe note in a cookbook I picked up before the demo has Love making jabs at French classical tradition and its fancy sauces; who needs them? So I can’t help but feel equal parts bewildered and intrigued by this man who makes jokes about “uncovering your meat” and starts every third sentence with the word “shoot.”
It seems to be working, though. Love has created an empire. The Woodshed Smokehouse, his latest success, snagged a prime spot on the Trinity River and a best new restaurant nomination from Bon Appetit. D Magazine named it one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2012. Love bounces between festivals in New York and Aspen and gives grilling tips to men’s magazines. At the Austin demo, attendees wore Tim Love aprons and cut skirt steak on Tim Love cutting boards, part of a new Tim Love line sold at Sur la Table. “People love him,” says Food & Wine publisher Christina Grdovic. “Everyone want him everywhere.”
Certain realities—for instance, Love’s smiling mug appearing on Sur la Table’s catalog the day after his demo—make it tempting to conclude that the man is nothing but the product of clever marketing. Witnessing a crowd high on his energy, you might take him for an opportunist who capitalized on an image and is grilling it for all it’s worth. You would be wrong. To understand Love is to grasp something fundamental about Texas—its mix of authenticity and myth, showmanship and sincerity. They are not mutually exclusive.
As Love signs autographs after his cooking demo, Margaret “Queenie” Love, having found a seat in the shade, tells me that her son’s folksy demeanor betrays him. “People always say the same things,” she says. “They don’t get how hardworking he is. He’s the most hardworking kid.”
Growing up in a family with a single mother and six older siblings, Love couldn’t afford nonchalance. When his mom came home with a $50 bag of groceries, it was everyone for himself. Love ate a lot of cheese and mustard sandwiches. When you grow up as he did, says Queenie, who still works as a surgical assistant, you learn you have to fight to get what you want.
As a 12-year-old with a paper route, Love changed the way the Denton Record-Chronicle did business. It made more sense to bill first, then deliver, he reasoned. So they let him. On Sundays, when the paper was thick and heavy, his mother drove him. If friends slept over on Saturday, they knew they’d be up with him at 6 am and return to the house with ink on their hands.
From the age of 11, when his parents divorced and his father bought a 26-acre farm in Tennessee, he also learned the discipline of farm chores and the pleasure of making things grow. His father, an anesthesiologist, had bought the farm “more or less for tax reasons,” Love says, but father and son grew to relish country life. “I was always a big outdoors person,” he says. On the farm, he fed rabbits, cleaned chicken coops, and cared for a couple dozen head of cattle and goats, pigs, and lambs. He cut grass, tended the 1-acre garden, and turned clippings into compost.
Love’s descriptions of the farm have a mythical, Tom Sawyer quality. The creek where he caught crawdads was bordered with wild watercress. Blackberries and purple Indian corn grew wild. He was 12 when he shot his first deer, and he used its hide to make the backpack he carried through the halls of Denton High School. “I sewed it with my dad,” he says. He relates the details matter-of-factly, without flair. For him, advanced calculus and a deerskin backpack are part of the same story.
Now, on his 4,500-acre ranch in Gordon, Texas, Love hunts oryx, blackbuck antelope, white-tailed and axis deer, wild pig, dove, duck, and wild turkey. Sometimes media people ask him about his hunting. Conversations go something like this:
“So you kill it. Then what?”
“Then you skin it.”
“You mean you skin it?”
“Well, yeah. Who else is gonna skin it?” Silence. And an “Are you for real?” kind of look.
“What am I supposed to say?” he asks. “You see a snake, you get a broom, you step on it and kill it. I don’t know how else to explain it. There are lots of people who like to talk about food, but they’ve never killed anything. It’s a lot of talk. And that’s okay. It’s just a different world.” Then, almost as an afterthought: “Slaughtering a cow isn’t easy to do.” This is not mere machismo on display.
Love thinks deeply about what he eats. “I want people to understand where food comes from,” he says. “In America, we have divorced ourselves from the way food is made. Get rid of hormones. Get rid of antibiotics. Take the risk of growing food the right way.” He stops, grins. “And then eat the shit out of it.” Love didn’t go far from his father’s farm when it came time for college. While studying at the University of Tennessee, he worked 50- to 60-hour weeks, many of them for a Knoxville restaurateur named Frank Kotsianas, whom Love calls a “short Greek dude and a tremendous butcher.” He learned he could “kick anybody’s ass on the line,” but it was hard to balance the work with his studies.
Unable to crank out problem sets for a class one time, he told his professor: I work full time and just can’t do the homework. The professor cut him a deal: maintain a B-plus average, and he could skip the problem sets. When the scores came in for the next test, his name was called: 98 percent. “Giddyup!” he says, thumping a counter.
He graduated with a double degree in finance and marketing and wrote a thesis on the wine industry of Napa. “I’m a businessman,” he says, not for the first time. But by then he’d decided he wasn’t going to be a banker.
Love was 28 when he opened Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth in 2000. With no culinary degree, he relied on what he’d learned while working in restaurants in college. The man who leased Love the space for Lonesome Dove wasn’t hopeful. “He anticipated me closing in six months,” Love says. But he also got odd and unexpected votes of confidence, including from one of the owners of the historic saloon around the corner. The White Elephant Saloon had been in business for more than 100 years and had become an institution in the Stockyards.
“We’ve all decided you’re going to buy the White Elephant,” the man said.
“That’s great,” Love shot back. “It’s kind of interesting how this is going to work out, because I’m broke.”
The story feels like a tall tale. Details fall away. Plot simplifies to its essence. Where are the logistics of budget predictions and risk-assessment plans? Why did the owners want to sell? The plausible and the mythical collide. Love’s stories are like that. And for some reason, the questions seem irrelevant. As you’re carried by the story, you know it’s fundamentally true.
As for the White Elephant, buy it he did. “Shoot, that’s where my wife, Emilie, and I would go at night, have a beer and go home. I love the bar,” he says. He found himself saddled with more debt than he’d ever carried. He jokes when he says that their balance sheet left Emilie curled up in the fetal position, but he’s serious when he calls it one of the scariest times of his life.With Lonesome Dove and the White Elephant, Love’s feet were planted firmly in Fort Worth. Still, the city wasn’t sure it trusted him. Some thought he would ruin the White Elephant. Others looked askance at menus whose kangaroo carpaccio nachos with habanero-fig demi-glace were a far cry from home cooking. But Zagat quickly ranked Lonesome Dove the No. 1 restaurant in the city, and the Dallas Morning News awarded it a four-star rating. “For a restaurant in the Stockyards, that was kind of unheard of,” Love says.
His “urban cowboy” cuisine aims for the boldness of unfussy food, well executed—like a steak that tastes of wood smoke and grassfed beef. Communing with fire and a hunk of meat is a primal urge, he’ll tell you. It taps into something deep, like a hunger for the Western frontier. Everyone wants to be a pioneer at heart. “They wanna be Americans,” he says.
“I love the whole attitude of what the cowboy is and was,” Love says. “A pioneering person with this innate politeness, yet adventurous and risk-taking. Not scared. I feel like I’ve always had that attitude in everything that I do, including my food. I’m not afraid to get beat, either. Cowboys are not always the winners, by any means. They’re just the ones that weren’t afraid to take the risk.”
His success cemented in Fort Worth, Love was soon ready to light out for a new frontier. Instead of heading west, though, Love went east. And his experience in New York raised doubts about whether you can export the cowboy without turning him into a cartoon.
In 2006, with the original Lonesome Dove doing well, Love opened a second one in Manhattan. Texas-born New York transplant Lisa Fain, whose cookbook The Homesick Texan evolved out of her blog of the same title, remembers walking over to meet her compatriot at the opening of Lonesome Dove. “The door was open, and he and some workers were working on the bar. He was just so nice. Really friendly,” she says. “It’s interesting, though. In the early days, it was packed, and later there were fewer people. It made me sad. He was Texan.” That was the problem. New York, it turned out, wasn’t sold on the cowboy thing.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times played up the culture shock. In his “First Impressions” piece, he feigned ignorance, wondering if he should have worn a Stetson. “Isn’t that what they’re called?” he asked. “Those widebrimmed hats on the range?” His full review one month later was titled “A Texas Saloon Rides Into Town,” and clearly the town Love rode into didn’t know what to make of what Bruni dubbed a “festive hoedown” of flavors.
Reactions registered bewilderment, even pity. Adam Platt of New York magazine commented on the “tattered-looking steer skin” spread on the sidewalk like a welcome mat that took a beating in the late-fall weather. It was a question of bad fi t, he theorized. While Love earned laurels in his hometown, the restaurant seemed “goofy and a little off-key” in New York. The antler chandelier, the paintings of jumbo-size cowboy boots, the chefs in cowboy hats—everything felt like a gimmick.
“It was a little over-the-top, I think, for New Yorkers,” Love concedes. “We should have gone for a more polished ranch feel, as opposed to the more rustic feel that we went for.”
In retrospect, Fain blames bad timing. “I honestly think that it was just too soon,” she says. “I think Texan cuisine has just in the last two years become recognized. There’s a lot of excitement now, but back then, people were like, ‘Oh, it’s the hick from the South.’ ”
Maybe there’s nothing Love could have done. “The George Bush thing didn’t help,” he says. “People hated George Bush in New York City. I mean, hated him. With a passion. It’s like they wanted to not like the restaurant.”
Lonesome Dove closed its doors after eight months. “It was a business decision,” he says. “The restaurant wasn’t losing money, but it wasn’t making significant money. Someone wanted to buy us out. It’s about what’s best for the business, not for my ego. I put a lot of emotion in the food, and I get excited about it, but at the end of the day, it’s gotta have cash fl ow, or we just move on. It’s not emotional for me.”
In many ways, New York’s response to Love makes sense. I recognize the skepticism. They doubted how much of the place could be genuine. How do you convince the sophisticates of the Flatiron district that cowboy boots and Stetson hats aren’t a gimmick where you come from—might, in fact, be so familiar to you that you forget they could seem foreign elsewhere? Removed from its context, Love’s cowboy aesthetic became a caricature. How could it not be? Attempts to provide context only drew the cartoon in more garish hues.
Ultimately, though, Love calls the New York episode the most fortuitous move he ever made because of the connections he forged, connections that landed him on shows such as Food Network’s Iron Chef and pulled him into the high-profile food festival circuit.
After the New York misadventure, Love remembers talking with his publicist. “What are we going to do about it?” Love asked.
“We’re not going to do anything,” came the reply. “The only way you have good PR is if you create it. You gotta be yourself. You gotta build a restaurant that people love.”
Reflecting on the time, Love recognizes his youthful ambition. “What I didn’t realize, maturity-wise, was that what I really needed to do was develop my cuisine in my own town. I cook with so much more confidence now. I know what I want to cook.”
The Woodshed Smokehouse, the restaurant he opened last winter that feels like a backyard barbecue on the banks of the Trinity River, is the perfect expression of where they’ve arrived together, Love and his city. “The city trusts me now,” he says. “It’s a very traditional town. That’s what I love about it.”
But he also notes an adventurousness absent a decade ago. Which may explain why by 10 o’clock on a weekend morning, a welldressed woman can perch at the Woodshed bar and order the last goat-meat breakfast taco before reaching for a newspaper. For the intrepid, there’s Korean barbecue-style Bulgogi beef with house-made kimchi. But there’s also a pulled pork sandwich.
“If you ever get nervous, you can always get that and know it’ll be okay,” he says. Love’s underlying principle: make people comfortable so they try new things. He says, “I’ll see things on Twitter: ‘I don’t know what the hell I had at the Woodshed, but it was awesome.’ ”
But, he says, “I probably wouldn’t have served the Woodshed menu 12 years ago. They would have said, ‘Hey! Do you know where you’re at, boy? This is Fort Worth!’ ”
This kind of honesty—and mature understanding of place—are part of what impressed chef Marcus Samuelsson, a friend of Love’s and owner of the celebrated Red Rooster in Harlem. Samuelsson recognizes Love as a fellow “outsider” with pride in his roots and someone whose hunting background reminds Samuelsson of his Ethiopian heritage. “He’s not wearing a cowboy hat for image. That’s why it’ll always look good on him,” Samuelsson says. “Lonesome Dove is four walls that show that community. It’s in and of that community.”
Midafternoon on a Saturday in the Stockyards, past the original Love Shack hamburger joint, a line forms for the mechanical bull as white-knuckled kids take turns whooping and gyrating. Between rides, the man in the control booth dips French fries from a paper bag emblazoned with the Love Shack logo. This, too, is what it means to be “in and of” a community.
When I ask Love when he first thought he’d made it, he balks. At some point, though, you must realize you’ve gone from cheese and mustard sandwiches to an empire. His is undeniably a success story, yet he seems uncomfortable characterizing it as such. What about the 4,500-acre ranch? It’s a 20-year lease, he says, deflecting. But the question has brought a scene to mind, and in recounting the exuberant moment, he finds himself answering the question:
A festival atmosphere reigns on the ranch as friends join him and his son for the opening of dove season, celebrating with drinks afterward. “Shoot,” he says, “I never thought I’d even come close to that. Everything I do is a dream. I forget it a lot, because I’m so busy trying to make it happen. You either pull the trigger, or you sit back and watch somebody else do it. We started everything from scratch
We had nothing. Not that I’d ever want to go back to that place, but I’m not afraid of it.”
Like he wasn’t afraid to make the Austin festival happen, with its 250 people playing with fi re. “It was a gigantic risk, financially,” he says. (He won’t give figures but likens it to opening two restaurants, all for one weekend.) His co-founder, Tyson Cole, a chef who opened the first high-end sushi restaurant in Austin and was named Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Society in 2011, later told me the festival was the biggest risk of his career. He said this slowly, thoughtfully, and with certainty.
“Before, I’ve always been the talent,” Cole says. “I’ve never been the one who puts his signature on the bottom line. We didn’t want to go too large, but we wanted to make sure it looked great. We handed out a whole bunch of extra tickets, and we basically wanted people to have a good time. We knew we would lose money the first year. It’s a first year.”
The latest outpost of the Love empire is at Amon G. Carter Stadium, on the TCU campus. Love is working with Sodexo, the company that runs the university’s concessions and catering. Horned Frog fans can now enjoy Woodshed menu items, like the pulled pork sandwich, Mexican corn on the cob, and sausage of the day.
“It was me and all these big companies,” Love says of the bidding process. “Everyone looks at me like, ‘Why the hell is Tim Love here?’ Shoot, I wanna bid on it.”
Feeding thousands? Done that at the Austin City Limits music festival, where he has cranked out 70,000 burgers in three days and fed the rockers rabbit-rattlesnake sausage and venison foie gras sliders. Now he had a vision to shake up college sports concessions, go for “real cheese, real meat, fresh ingredients, made-in-house sauces, onions that weren’t cut three weeks ago.” Maybe peddle Bulgogi beef tacos from street carts. Give them something to talk about. “You don’t want to change the sporting experience. You can serve burgers. You just gotta serve quality burgers,” he says. “Course, I wanted to start it in my own town first.”
And there it is again: the way he casts himself resolutely as a mere participant in—not orchestrator of—his success. It’s there in the way he describes the Austin festival as the best day of his life. It’s in the fact that a lived moment on the ranch is his answer to a question about how he knew he’d made it. That’s why you can’t reduce Love to marketing.
Love’s TCU project has his “Giddyup!” ambition written all over it. But this is not bravado. His confidence is both earnest and earned. In this business, he says, you’re like a duck swimming: never let them see how hard you’re working under the surface.