by Tony Valainis
DEAN SAMPLE grew up in the small town of Paragon, Indiana. His grandparents farmed corn and soybeans. His dad owned a machine shop. Sample—a bit of black sheep who played guitar in a death metal band and worked the grill at Steak & Shake—chose culinary school over the family’s rural business trajectory, dreaming of one day opening a country-style restaurant that served the kind of food he grew up eating.
Except somewhere along the way, the gourmet life drew him in the direction of higher-end dining. He landed a series of covetable jobs at places like Oakleys Bistro, Meridian Restaurant, and Northside Social, and was eventually put in charge of running the pizza concept Nook. Through it all, he gravitated toward the more casual end of his restaurant’s menus and the kind of food that people called Southern. “I don’t really agree with that, but it’s how people pigeon-holed it,” he says. “I’ve just always wanted to do something that would feel like my family could come to.”
Sample regards his next project, Big Bear Biscuits, as the course correction he’s been waiting for. A breakfast and lunch spot set to open this summer, Big Bear will focus on hearty farmhand dishes elevated with Sample’s rustic-gourmet touch. He is working on a Korean short rib biscuit with kimchee, for example, as well as a Hot Brown biscuit and spicy chicken biscuit, which will share the menu with country classics like chicken and dumplings, shrimp and grits, and a shrimp etouffee that can be poured gravy-style over the fluffy, flaky main attraction.
“The pandemic and everything that happened really made me think about what I want to do,” says Sample, who hopes he’ll still be able to pursue one of his favorite relaxing pastimes, bass-fishing from his kayak in area lakes. “I used to wake up at 5 a.m., fish all morning, and then work all night,” he says. “I might need to become a night fisherman instead of a morning fishermen. You just have to make time to do the things you love to do.”