Dexter was 17 when he first started in the food industry on the cold salad prep line at The Resort at Glade Springs, in West Virginia. He originally applied for a dishwashing job at the resort, but they didn’t need any at the time, so when he was asked if he could handle a knife, he responded, “I can learn,” and eventually worked his way up.
Dexter attended West Virginia University for one semester, where he began studying Pre-Med, and decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do. “The beginning of my career is probably the strangest sounding one. The majority of chefs always wanted to cook since they were young and they grew up in kitchens, but that is not at all how I started. I literally needed a job, and ended up loving the ordered chaos and madness in the kitchen, and busting your ass for 12 hours a day, and still being able to have a smile on your face.”
CC: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“I always wanted to be a doctor,” said Dexter, who explained that chemistry classes were what got him interested in becoming a chef. “There was a guy at the W (WVU) that came in and did one of our chemistry classes, he did like an expo on cooking and chemistry, and how it works together, and how one is reflective of the other – it just blew my mind,” said Dexter. “He was big into molecular gastronomy, which is pretty much using science to cook food; there are so many things you can do with it.”
CC: What is your favorite thing about being a chef?
“Being able to put what I want to on a plate.”
CC: What is it like working at a winery? How do the two correlate?
“It’s awesome, wine is such a quintessential part of cooking; it is the basis of French cooking itself,” said Dexter. “Between tasting the wines and trying to figure out what wines can go best with what dish, I get to experiment a lot on flavors, especially those that are unique to this vineyard. I get to play around and figure out, year-to-year, the different vintages of wine, and how I can actually use those to revenge the food in the kitchen.”
CrossKeys is the first Vineyard that Dexter has worked at, and in October he will be celebrating two years with the winery. In addition to The Resort at Glade Springs, Dexter has also worked at Smokey’s on the Gorge, located in West Virginia.
CC: Did you have a “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
“My ‘aha’ moment was when they (Glade Springs) asked me to move from the cold salad prep. Someone hadn’t come into work and they really really needed help up on the hot line,” so Dexter made the switch. “The head chef at the time literally put a sauté pan and a squirt bottle of oil in my hand and said, ‘do what I do.’” Dexter had no previous training on the hot line before, so he stood right beside him the entire night. “It was probably the most stressful night of my life, but by far the most fun too.” Today, Dexter uses the same method of training new chefs in his kitchen.
“After that moment when he moved me up to hot line permanently, (there was) no more cold salad prep, thank God,” Dexter said. “Let me tell you what, cutting 50 pounds of onions every single day, it looked like I got into a fight every time I got home; my eyes all puffy and red, it had just looked like I had been crying for three days straight – it was horrible.”
CC: What is the best advice you have ever received?
“The best advice I have ever received was from my sous chef. He literally said, ‘if you have any doubts about anything on a plate, throw it away and start over.’”
To this day Dexter follows this advice and makes everyone in his kitchen taste everything they do, he makes everyone look at everything they do, and he makes sure that they would feel comfortable serving it to their mother and father, because, “If you would serve it to your mom or dad, you can serve it to the guests.”
CC: What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten?
“So I grew up in West Virginia, and when I say West Virginia, I mean backwoods West Virginia, and when I actually started working, it was when I got to try out all kinds of new things; like there are a lot of things I have never tried before in my life, and didn’t even know the names of. So, there was this guy who came up to West Virginia, and it was the first time I had ever had offal. He made me a dish of veil heart, sweet breads and veil tounge, and it was best thing I have ever eaten in my life; it opened my world to be able to use every part of an animal.”
Dexter explained that offal is made of the organs of the animal that you wouldn’t normally eat. “You can use every piece of an animal for something, everything from a cow; from the horns down to the hoofs, you can use the entire thing.”
CC: What is your favorite ingredient? And how do you use it?
“Carrots. Carrots are by far my favorite ingredients. Raw, they give texture to a dish; and then the more you cook them, the sweeter they get, then you can caramelize them, then they give a smoky, nutty sweetness to a dish. Plus, it’s a way to add sweetness to a dish without overpowering the dish. My favorite carrot dish is by far caramelized carrots and sunchoke puree. On top of that, I serve that with braised pork belly, cream leaks, and a cider gastrique, or vinegar reduction; it cuts through all the heavy flavors you have going on there.”
CC: What is an ingredient that turns you off the most?
“Old Bay, I hate Old Bay. Everyone uses it on everything, all the time. It is the most over used spice out there besides salt. It’s awesome when you use it sparingly for certain things, but it is just the most overused spice.”
CC: What is your favorite tool?
“Chinese mandolin. It allows you to make very small threads of food that you can garnish with, and it has like ten different blade attachments, so you can cut pretty much what ever you want to with it.”
CC: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking?
“I’m a techno nerd, I’m a geek, I love to work on computers, I love to read – literally the exact opposite of what I do at work, is what I do in my pastime. I get a certain state of mind when I go into work, I get my work done, I go home, and then I try not to think about work or what I am going to do the next day, and that doesn’t always work, so I guess you can say I loose myself in reading. I am also a big video gamer.”
CC: What is something you would like to do before you get to old to do it? What comes next?
“I want to be able to run a test kitchen. Test kitchens are involved with certain restaurants, a lot of fine dinning restaurants, and what they do is, the executive chef will go into his test kitchen and all they do is cook all day long – they cook, they taste, they cook, they taste, they experiment, it is all experimentation. It would be the dream job, being able to go into a test kitchen, take notes and cook something and see the reason why it does what it does.
CC: Aside from cooking, do you have things on your bucket list?
“Yes, to get outside of the United States; I have never left the United States.”
CC: Tell us a deep dark secret.
“I’ll never forget this. We were extremely busy one night (at Glade), and we had one beef wellington left. As I am carrying it from the oven to the plating arena, I drop it on the floor. The chef is standing there, just staring at me, and he just says ‘really?’ I said sorry and that I would start prepping another one right now, but he said ‘no, you just dropped $38 on the floor, you will sit there and eat that entire $38, while I go prep another one.’ So I pretty much had to eat a steak off the floor, and that table had to wait almost an hour for another one. To this day I have not dropped anything on the floor.”
CC: How do you deal with stress?
“Put my head down and work. I am not one of those people that when I get stressed I yell at people. If you yell at someone they are going to get angry, then they are going to shut down, then that is twice the amount of work you have to do.”
CC: Tell us a funny story from the kitchen.
“Ok so, out of Glade, in order for you to get downstairs from the cooler, upstairs to the restaurant, there was a spiral staircase. This is also the staircase we would take trash down at the end of the night. Well, I’m walking up and our dishwasher is walking down with two bags of trash in his hands. This is a metal spiral staircase with pieces that love to just catch trash bags. So, as I am walking up, I have no idea he is walking down, and said trash bag snags on something and I get about 40 pounds of trash poured all over me; I get showered in chicken wings, chili, nacho cheese sauce; it was horrible.”
CC: Is there someone who you would like to meet?
“Anthony Bourdain. He is awesome at what he does, he has a no bullshit attitude when it comes to food, and he is actually one of the few celebrity chefs that has worked their way from the bottom up; you can throw him anywhere, and he will still be able to cook well.”
CC: Who would you like to cook for?
“I have never thought about this before. I don’t know who to cook for.”
CC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn? Or is there something you just can’t get right?
“The hardest thing I am struggling with right now is prefabricated food, and the huge out flux of that. It is taking some of the complexity out of cooking for the majority of people. Lets say you get premade chicken tenders, if you look at the back of the box there’s 40 ingredients listed, when it should be chicken, flour, salt, pepper, eggs, done. It’s making simple things too complicated. Simple foods are my weakness – when I go home, I like to cook and eat simple foods with three to four ingredients.”
CC: What is your favorite “simple food?”
“Mac and Cheese is by far my favorite comfort food. All you need is cheese, milk, cream and pasta.” Dexter has a seven-year-old, so he begrudgingly has to have Kraft on hand. “I have to eat it, I have to, and oh god, if I see Spongebob (shaped pasta) one more time.”
CC: Is there some little something you do for your family to make up for the time you’re not with them?
“So much shopping, for things that I don’t care about. On my days off, I go shopping with the girls, wherever they want to go.”
CC: Does your family reap the benefits of you being a chef?
“No they don’t. My family back home is very contemporary, they don’t like to try new things and they are big into southern country cooking. When I grew up, I didn’t know that you could eat a steak that was still red until I was probably 16. Now I eat my steaks rare.”
However, Dexter added that it is cool when he is able to cook something for his family that they end up liking, because then he knows he has done a good job.
CC: How did becoming a chef change your life?
“The majority of people when they get out of college are planning on a nine to five, with a dedicated 401k plan and retirement; you don’t get that in this field. You make what you earn. I have also learned you have to have a supportive family; if you don’t have a supportive family, then you can’t function at work.”
CC: Are you happy with the path you have chosen?
“Yeah, I’m happy. I am good at what I do, or at least I think I am.”
CC: What are you most well known for here at CrossKeys?
“This place is so well-known for our reuben, but then again, every restaurant has a reuben. So we take our reuben and do a complete twist; we make our own kraut in-house, and we use purple cabbage as apposed to green cabbage, and then our sauce is not a typical sauce at all. We make everything in house here except for the bread, and we will slowly get to actually being able to make the bread too.”
CC: How do you tie in the wines made at CrossKeys when creating your menu or new specials?
“I normally do a tasting about once a month to see how the wines have changed, because even from the time that we bottle, to three months down the road, they slowly start to change, so I try to do a quarterly menu. So what I’ll do is I’ll go in, I’ll do another tasting of all the wines, take notes on all the wines, and formulate a menu based on the tasting. But, there are some things that will never go off the menu; reuben, crab dip – people come here for those.