High laurels, big work

Restaurant Beatrice basks in James Beard nomination, but there’s work to do to reform the restaurant industry

RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer

Duck and Andouille Gumbo. Photo by Kate Voskova

In late March, the news hit that lesbian-owned Restaurant Beatrice was up for a James Beard Foundation Award, and owner/Chef Michelle Carpenter and her team are up for Best New Restaurant.
The Oak Cliff-based eatery will learn on June 5 in Chicago if they take the gold.

Once the news broke, Carpenter — who also owns Zen Sushi — is busier than before, and, “For that, we are grateful,” she said. But she did take the time to talk with Dallas Voice about the nomination and what it means to operate a restaurant that recognizes more than just the menu.

Dallas Voice: Congratulations! How was you and your team’s reaction to the big news? Michelle Carpenter: Thank you! The original nomination was a shocker because the Beard Foundation doesn’t give nominees notice. We’re a small business, and I’ve been working in the industry for 35 years. I am acquainted with working studiously to build customers one-by-one. That’s really the only kind of success I’ve ever known.

What’s this feeling like then? Being a finalist is a new feeling. We can’t label it yet — some kind of mix of gratitude and shock. Whatever feeling we have probably won’t sink in — settle — until after they announce the winner in June. For the first semi-finalist notice, our vendors heard the news, and they texted us. We didn’t know until other people told us.

This time, we just checked the news.

When you received the news, what happened first? Like anyone else, it was a great feeling of validation and recognition. Working to change the industry is reform work. Reform work is met with resistance, every day, all the time. We haven’t really had time to celebrate. We’re busy with guests and restaurant operations.

How do you describe Restaurant Beatrice? Contemporary Louisiana. I am half-Cajun, and my co-executive chef, Terance Jenkins, is Creole. We offer two concepts in one location — casual boils on the patio and a more formal fine dining interior — And this represents the two different facets of how great Louisiana food is.

What led you to open this restaurant? Restaurant Beatrice was the other part of my identity that I had not shared to my supporters. Opening Restaurant Beatrice made me feel I was able to finally pay tribute to my father’s Cajun side. Zen Sushi honored my Japanese heritage. My dad was a Cajun airman who married a Japanese woman from Tokyo. I was born in Tokyo and spent the first five years of life in Japan.

Restaurant Beatrice is emblematic of my life in Louisiana and pays tribute to my Mamaw, Beatrice Carpenter.

What do you feel Restaurant Beatrice has that stood out to the James Beard Foundation? JBF recognized us for undergoing B-Corp certification and trying to live our values. The toughest lesson that I had to learn — I am still learning — as a chef was that making good food isn’t enough. Dining is about the overall experience.

There was a worldwide reckoning that happened during the pandemic. Today, younger generations are questioning if the means justify the ends. What is the point of making the very best food on earth if the restaurants are being wasteful of the earth’s resources or exploitative of marginalized groups? If women are being abused in the kitchens and BIPOC are being underpaid compared to their white counterparts? If queer folks are being fired for being queer? If line cooks and chefs are throwing away meat and vegetable scraps that can easily be repurposed?

Then what is the meaning of being the “best?” Do paradigms of the culinary industry have to be so wasteful, sexist, homophobic or racist? Of course not.

You and your team certainly represent a unique perspective. Every incoming generation redefines what it means to be human. It is due to the legacy of civil rights advocates of yore — which includes the work of LGBTQ activists — and it is due to the young protestors that carved the narrowest of corridors that a face like mine and a face like Terance’s could be recognized at the regional and national level.

Terance and I were groomed in kitchens that were abusive and hot-tempered, and all of that was normalized. Faces like my own have been in the industry for ages. But marginalized folks in the service industry are generally invisible.

This recognition of chefs for their own biographies and personal integrity is still developing in mainstream culture. This is a kind of a lifetime recognition I did not anticipate. I’m grateful I am the beneficiary of this kind of reckoning that has spread into the culinary world.

I do not have faith that, had Restaurant Beatrice opened five years earlier, we would have been recognized for any of our operational differences. We certainly have made our mistakes, but Restaurant Beatrice operates with this larger responsibility in mind. We have endless unlearning to do.

What do you like about owning and operating a restaurant here in Dallas and particularly in Oak Cliff? Oak Cliff is my ’hood. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I never feel like I don’t belong. As a restaurant owner in the Bishop Arts, I have always been proud of the fact that not only are the retailers and restaurants independent, but so many of the operators are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+. Black, brown, queer, trans, straight, white, working class and upper crust folks — almost anyone can feel comfortable in Oak Cliff. Most neighborhoods are not so inclusive.

I am able to make a direct impact in the very neighborhood that I live in and work in. Over 70 percent of my staff are locals. It’s our neighborhood.

I don’t happen to be located here. I don’t just work here. I’m investing in the betterment and empowerment of Oak Cliff, a part of the city that has been and continues to be under-resourced. Restaurant Beatrice is a product of Oak Cliff so this success is OC’s success, too.

Restaurant Beatrice is located at 1111 N. Beckley Ave. RestaurantBeatrice.com.