DEXTER SMITH and his wife, Toni, had both worked various jobs in the restaurant industry when they decided to take a leap of faith during the pandemic days of September 2020. They launched a restaurant of their own, Open Kitchen, in a relative’s commercial space near the eastside intersection of 30th Street and Sherman Drive. Last summer, the couple relocated to the Irvington-adjacent neighborhood of Little Flower, where Smith continues to whip up his comfort-gourmet renditions of frenched pork chops with herbed potato cakes and apple chutney; caico de pepe; and smothered chicken.
What was your first restaurant job?
I got my first job in the kitchen when I was 16, working at Community East Hospital. I was the one putting together the trays. I would get milk if they needed it, or juice if they needed it. I had to puree the food for certain patients.
Did that job spark your culinary interests?
I knew I didn’t want to work in a warehouse or anything like that. I didn’t want to be a math teacher or an accountant. So, I went to culinary school in 2012. I did my internship and externship at Harry & Izzy’s. I was the garde-manger, which means I was in charge of the cold foods. I did the salads and desserts—and the famous shrimp cocktail that everybody gets. And then I got a job at a country club in Anderson, which is where I started seeing fine dining. Steaks and shrimp.
You eventually landed the sous chef position at Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta and Market. What was it like working with a chef as accomplished as the owner, Tony Hanslits?
He was a director at the Chef’s Academy when I was there. The first time I saw him, he walked in our classroom with a cigar in his mouth. I thought, He looks like he’s important. You need to know who he is. So, I kind of connected with him during school, and he was always very supportive—to all of his students. But I was lucky enough to have him take me under his wing. I worked for him for about two years. He showed me how to properly run a business.
What made you decide it was time to open your own restaurant?
I got tired of filling out applications. These applications want you to tell your life story in three to four pages, and I reached the point where I didn’t have an hour of my day to fill out any more applications.
When you were creating the menu for Open Kitchen, what was the one thing you knew you had to include?
My biscuits. It took me four years to perfect the recipe.
What’s the secret to perfect biscuits?
I don’t think it’s a secret—just cold butter, sifted flour, baking powder, salt, buttermilk, and milk. That’s it. And try not to over-knead.
Any mistakes that you see home cooks make often?
Yes. They watch YouTube videos on how to make stuff, and a lot of YouTube videos are wrong. But really, it helps just to have the proper equipment. You need to have the right kind of pan to do something like sear a chicken.
What is the right kind of pan for searing a chicken?
Everybody’s going to say cast iron, but a good metal pan with a sturdy bottom will do the trick.
I learned that lesson the hard way. By the way, have you ever caught your stove on fire?
No, I haven’t caught my stove on fire. But I did cut the tip of my finger off once.
How did you do that?
I was cleaning the slicer. It took off mostly all of my fingernail and almost the whole tip of my finger. I cut it on the bias.
Did that experience turn you into a safety fanatic in the kitchen?
The thing is, I’m really, really particularly safe. I’m always telling people not to play around on the slicer, to pay attention to what they’re doing. It just so happened that it was Christmas, and we were busy. Very busy. I was cleaning the slicer so that I could cut up some cheese. I was talking to someone, and I looked away for a second. I felt my hand go around the spool. I didn’t look down at first. I was like, I know I did not just cut off my finger. Well, it’s one of those things where you just have to look.
That sounds traumatic!
It actually grew back. The whole tip is back now.
You’re basically a gecko.
Yeah, if you looked at it now, you could never tell that I cut my finger off.
Aside from not slicing off a finger, what advice would you give anyone who wants to open a restaurant?
Understand that this is a 24-hour thing. It’s not a job. You don’t just clock in and clock out. Also, don’t expect to know everything. You have to be able to listen to constructive criticism. That’s people trying to help you do better. I try to learn something new every day.