by Leigh Cox

The Interview: Josh Dalton

It’s just past six p.m. on a Saturday evening. It’s biting cold outside. Through a long bank of windows along Gay Street, I see a man—mid-thirties, bearded, bespectacled—surrounded by ransacked boxes and discarded packing materials. He’s expecting me, but he appears content in his occupation. The boxes contain culinary tech. Tools of the trade.

Elsewhere, kitchens are abuzz. Dinner rush has begun. This space, save the man and his collection of contraptions, is devoid of people. It’s quiet and bright. What is likely to be the city’s best new restaurant of 2018 doesn’t open for another few weeks, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.

I know the man inside; I’d interviewed him nearly four years prior at the renowned Veritas Tavern in Delaware. His name is Josh Dalton, and this place is his new obsession. But this time, I’m not here for the food. I’m here for him. I tap on the window, and he lets me in.

Josh Dalton is not flamboyant. He is without tattoos. He doesn’t wear a chef coat. Admittedly, I’m enamored of these qualities. Perhaps I’m biased. He and I are the same age. We arrived in Ohio in the same year (albeit for entirely different reasons). We’re both educators, in a sense. In truth, we’ve got more in common than two people in this particular scenario ought to have.

But we are also profoundly different. Where I am flippant and lax, he thrives on focus and control. I saw the contents of his packages as toys; he saw them as investments. I had a cold that night and coughed into my scarf. He used automated hand sanitizer dispensers even when we hadn’t touched. A grasshopper and an ant.

Chefs—at least many of the ones I’ve met—seem to be this way. But Dalton wasn’t always such.

The origin of a chef is often complicated. Some grow up working in the family restaurant; others work their way through culinary school. One of Dalton’s new disciples had previously worked at a Wendy’s. But in spite of the diversity, few stumble mistakenly or are thrust arbitrarily into the profession. Many of the good ones, as it frequently happens with artists, draw inspiration from adversity. Or failure. Or foolishness. When asked about inspiration, Dalton said this:

“Everybody says something about their parents. It’s half-joking, but for me, if anything happened to her, I could finally fucking relax. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is to make her proud.”

The woman in question, of course, is Dalton’s mother. Of Costa Rican birth, she was adopted by missionaries and traveled with her new parents wherever they would go, from Cuba to Lebanon and beyond. She wasn’t a chef herself. The effect she now has on her son is, shall we say, largely of Dalton’s own making. Dalton did not grow up in a professional kitchen. A military brat, he bounced from North Carolina to the Gulf Coast of New Orleans before moving to Columbus in 1999. As a youth, by his own admission, he was…less than stable. We agreed to omit some of the more colorful details.

“I was a troublemaker for years. Basically, I partied way too much. I got fired from just about every restaurant in Columbus. When my mother and her friends would all talk about their kids, they were all doing these amazing things, and Josh was always the screw-up. All the stories written about me now are her time to shine. Call it redemption after me being a shit for so long.”

Dalton’s gritty formative years must have conflicted with something inside him. Looking at him now, the stories seem slightly misplaced. The stoic, disciplined, obsessive perfectionist at the helm of this ambitious new project wasn’t there ten years ago.

After getting evicted from his apartment in 2007, he pulled up stakes and got out of Dodge. His experience, rocky though it had been, netted him a job offer about 30 miles north of town.

“When I moved to Delaware, I had two hundred dollars in my pocket and took an executive chef job making like $24,000 a year. Delaware was great for me. It got me away from all the bullshit—gave me a chance to hone my skills, grow up, get some responsibilities. I became a completely different person. I turned super goal-oriented. Everything was about the food, the work. I still drank, but I’d fall asleep in the restaurant at the bar and just wake up and get right back into it.”

Eventually, after five years in Delaware, Dalton opened his own restaurant: Veritas Tavern. Anyone who dined at Veritas Tavern knew what Dalton’s obsession wrought. Technique was made paramount. Execution was refined, perfected, broken apart, and refined again. Dalton built a culture based on the ideal. Be the best, or don’t f*cking bother.

“I had a goal to open my own solo restaurant by the time I was thirty. I missed it by six weeks. It was my 30th birthday, and we hadn’t opened. I threw my phone across the room and smashed it to pieces. I should have shut down in the first three years of Veritas. That place hemorrhaged money. First couple years, there’d be nights with two customers. It was fucking depressing. Last two years have been really good. We’ve been lucky to get a lot of good publicity, but sticking true to what we were doing, not compromising … I think it caught up.

It was the patrons who caught up with Dalton’s vision, and Veritas Tavern lapped the competition. Local writers (this one included) have been calling it the best restaurant in central Ohio for years now. But that kind of dedication comes at a price. And it ain’t the price of a hunk of A5 Wagyu.

Money is hands-down not the most important thing to me. We look at things ass-backwards as a restaurant. Food cost doesn’t come up until the dish is done. The whole 35% thing doesn’t come into the picture. We bring in product all the time that we know we’re going to lose on. I don’t know many people. I don’t have time for that shit.. I live in a box. There are a lot of people that think I’m an asshole. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. I’m just thinking about other things.”

What he’s thinking about is how to improve. Not that most chefs aren’t, but very few outside of Dalton have brought the kind of product or creativity for which he strives to Columbus, let alone Delaware. He doesn’t care about cost. He doesn’t care about value. It’s not a gimmick. He wants the throne.

“I’ve actually got something that can be taken away from me now. Last year, I went to San Francisco, Anaheim, DC, Napa, Tulum, Portland, Boston, Nashville, Minneapolis, New Orleans—this year, I’m not going anywhere. It’s on lockdown. One thing only. I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to being an obsessive control freak. If you want to be relevant, you have to push it.”

FOOD

When I first experienced the food at Veritas Tavern, I was blown away: partially by the food, and partially by how food that complex, delicate, and adventurous finds a home not in a flyover city, but in a tiny offshoot of a flyover city. The first thing I noticed was the elevation of the ordinary. Brussels sprouts had character. An egg had phases.

Beyond that, there were techniques you simply didn’t see employed in most restaurants. Dehydrations, complex aromatics, fermentations. Science-y shit.

Then there’s product. Ingredients that would never find their way onto even a forty-dollar plate of food. Opulence is not the motivation.

It’s about making the good better and the better best.

“That whole ‘local, local, local’ thing is horseshit. I want the best apple, and I don’t give two f*cks where it’s from. We have a lady up in Waldo, OH. Elizabeth Lee, Frontier Farms. Super amazing. Ungodly smart, makes some of the best bread, the best kombucha. Stupid good. She’s been very gracious—lets me give input. It’s great that she’s local, but that’s just luck. Ohio has some great products. I like my seafood flown in from somewhere fresh. No one [in Columbus] is dumb enough to do the shit we do. When people say we can’t do something, it drives me nuts. How over the top can we do it? I don’t think there’s anybody here willing to waste the kind of money we are or go into the details as much as we do. In that part, I don’t think there’s much competition. There are some places that have the money to do it, but they don’t. Which is probably why they have all that money.”

The accolades speak for themselves. Still, somehow, there is a question whether people in Columbus are ready for the new Veritas. Eighty dollar, nine-course tasting menus? Dalton has heard it before: “What is this one-bite bullshit?” Somewhere along the way, there was a moment of commiseration between the two of us about portion sizes—that value exists in a to-go box. Veritas doesn’t do to-go boxes. And Ohio doesn’t do Michelin stars. National recognition might be difficult to come by. But Dalton’s aspirations for the new Veritas are nonetheless nothing short of astronomical. Culture changes via conflict and discomfort. It may be on us, the citizens of Columbus, to at least some degree, to tell ourselves that it’s important to support this kind of venture, to expand boundaries, culinary or otherwise. To hang out all the way downtown. It’s on us to call Dalton’s bet.

“I’m shooting for the f*cking stars here. I don’t want to be a great restaurant ‘in Columbus.’ I just want us to be great. Period. I can only worry about what happens in these four walls. If people like it or not, it’s kind of out of my control. All I can do is control the details. Even beyond the food: what does it smell like, what’s the lighting, how’s the water coming out? The water here goes through a softener, then a filtration that gets it down to three microns, then each sink has its own purification system. From sauces to really anything you put out…if the water’s shitty, what are you doing? This is an extension of my house, and I have an expectation of how the night is going to go.”

FUTURE

Like dog years, chef years should probably be a thing. I don’t want to help perpetuate the rocknrolla, devil-may-care martyrdom complex some in the profession share, but running a restaurant ain’t easy. Hell, running a donut shop can put hair in your ears. The target for Veritas is beyond Columbus. Beyond Ohio, even. Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, the James Beard Foundation—these are the few brass rings on the edge of the carousel. And Dalton makes no bones about what he’s reaching for.

“If a chef ever says he doesn’t care about national recognition, doesn’t care about publicity, write-ups—they’re full of shit. You’re in it for fame and glory. If you’re not doing it for bragging rights or some kind of acknowledgment, you’re probably coming up short.”

All aspirations aside, Dalton’s future may be better measured in the talent he produces. Two of Columbus’s best culinary minds, Avishar Barua (now at Service Bar) and Silas Caeton (Cosecha Cucina), are both Dalton disciples. He has a habit of getting the best out of people. At some point, being an influential chef is determined by more than just what’s on the plate. You need to be an educator, a mentor, a benefactor. When I asked what his pipe dream was, what he’d do if Veritas Downtown soared beyond his wildest expectations, Dalton looked to his family (of staff and chefs):

“I’d love to get my people out there and make their dreams come true. Help them with their own projects, their own fantasies. I really don’t care what other restaurants are doing, but it makes me happy as a pig in shit when my friends succeed. Fortunately, if this place craters, my people will be fine. I’ll be f*cked. But they’ll be fine.”

Success carries with it responsibilities—those things Dalton had to go to Delaware for a decade to discover. If he pulls this off, if Veritas does what it can do, maybe there’s real change on the horizon. Maybe the bar gets raised on all of us. Maybe I’m making too much of it. But goddamn it, maybe I’m not.

“Small cities can have big-time restaurants. Why doesn’t Columbus have that kind of reputation? What’s stopping us? Restaurants can become the identity of a city. I want us to be that bucket list restaurant.”

The new version of Veritas Tavern opens this month at 51 N High St. For more, visit veritastavern.com.

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