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Hangin’ with Klecko: Executive Chef David Perez at Black Dog Lowertown

Usually when I interview chefs for this column, I have a pretty good idea what the article is going to be about before I arrive at their restaurant. But, every once in awhile I get to talk with someone so interesting that I’m forced to scrap my original game plan.

This is one of those instances.

Friends, meet Chef David Perez.

If you aren’t familiar with him, you should be, because he’s trending hard in the Capital City. Currently he is the executive chef at Black Dog Lowertown.

When I sat down with him for this interview, the conversation began with David explaining what the Black Dog is doing to remind people that they are no longer exclusively a coffee house, but a thriving restaurant as well.

In the kitchen with Executive Chef David Perez at Black Dog Lowertown.

“It all starts with us getting bodies into the building,” he told me. “I think we’re doing a good job with that. In addition to hosting poetry slams and wine dinners, we’re also utilizing our extra space with musical recitals, wedding parties and board game tournaments.”

I’d eaten here several times and have become a fan of the menu. When I asked David if he designed it, he explained: “I’ve been a part of that process, but I work for an active ownership group and we make many of our decisions as a team. Recently we’ve been swapping ideas on catfish nugget tacos and portabella mushroom burgers.” He said he enjoyed the process and was thankful he had earned their trust.

As David spoke about his current gig, he smiled the whole time and I found it refreshing to listen to somebody who really valued his employer. When I asked how his culinary experience started, his grin widened as he said, “There was a time in my life when I needed structure so I decided to go to culinary school. I pretty much thought I was going to be the next Gordon Ramsay, but reality hit me when I met Chef Stacy, who was my soup, sauce and stocks instructor. She really pushed me hard. When she found out most of my experience was with Mexican food, she began to introduce me to new spices, spices without heat.” 

Then David laughed as he confessed, “Looking back, I’m really grateful to her, I know it may seem strange, but up until that point everything I ate, everything I cooked was Hispanic-influenced so when Chef Stacy introduced me to tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, it was an adventure and that really inspired me to broaden my skill set.”

And that’s exactly what he did. After working stints in burger joints and Italian restaurants, David eventually landed a position at Meritage (the French brasserie in downtown St. Paul).

“I learned so much at Meritage. Without the training I received there, I probably wouldn’t have my current job. When you work for Chef Russell (Klein), you know you’re working for the best. Every person on his crew is fantastic. To be honest …”

At this point David paused momentarily with sincere gratitude before continuing, “The experience was so challenging that I questioned if I had what it takes to be great. Right when I was at the tipping point, Chef Jon Beyreuther took me under his wing and that made a big difference. The thing I appreciate most about Chef Jon is his level of calm. When I made mistakes, he didn’t yell at me. He explained my mistakes and gave me advice on how to prevent them from happening again.”

I asked what was next, and David responded, “I really enjoy working at the Black Dog. Earlier in my career I thought about getting into fine dining, but now I’m enjoying working with comfort food. If comfort food is executed right, nothing is better.”

After a brief pause, there was more. “I’m committed to working here for three years. I still have things to learn on the numbers side. And my bosses are really supportive, but down the road, I want to help my mother pursue her dream. You know how everybody in the industry says their mom is the best cook? They’re wrong, because my mom is the best.”

 I really loved this guy’s confidence. When I asked if his mother had cooked professionally, he beamed with pride. 

“My mother hasn’t done much in commercial kitchens, and that’s kind of the point,” he said. “She’s a home cook, but she has a fantastic palate and over the years I have traveled with her to California, Arkansas and Chicago. Everywhere we go, the first thing people do is ask her to cook for them. She’s that good.”

As I reminded my enthusiastic friend that commercial kitchens are operated differently than home kitchens, he responded, “Yeah, of course I get that, but there’s a middle ground. My mom makes real Mexican food and we think if she was in a position to bring the Mexican home experience to a neighborhood restaurant, it would work. If you tasted her 10-hour mole sauce or her hand-made tortillas, you’d totally understand why I believe she will build a strong clientele.”

So where will this restaurant be, I asked?

 “My family lives in Cottage Grove, so that would be a good place. Nobody likes driving across town after putting in the kind of hours it takes to open a restaurant. But if I’ve learned one thing in this industry, it’s that you have to be flexible,” he said.

Finally I couldn’t resist and had to ask the money question.

“When you and your mom eventually open up your restaurant, I realize it will be a partnership, but who’s going to be the boss.”

Without an ounce of shame, David grinned hard and told me: “Yeah, my mom will, it’s like I told you, she’s the best cook around.”

 St. Paul, you heard it here first. There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is David Perez.

Now that Lenny Russo has moved on and David Fhima is reshuffling his culinary deck, Lowertown could use a new hero. So do yourself a favor and head over to the Black Dog Lowertown and check out some of the best food made by a man you can trust. If you don’t believe me, just ask his mother. 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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