Texas Chef Marcus Paslay is a Food Purist
There aren’t many chefs I’d send into my grandmother’s kitchen, but Marcus Paslay is one she would have loved. That’s because they’d see eye to eye on what it means to be cooking from scratch. Unlike chefs who say scratch-made simply means they are making homemade dishes by combining ingredients—even if those ingredients include prepared foods—Chef Paslay takes a purist’s stance on the subject.
“To me, what it means is that we are buying whole, raw products; they’re not prepared or tampered with in any way until they get here,” Chef Paslay explains. “Then we’re taking these whole raw products and cutting them, cooking them, curing them, butchering them, whatever we need to do to turn it into food. That’s what I mean when I say scratch-made.”
Clay Pigeon Food and Drink, the restaurant he opened three years ago in Fort Worth, is all about translating pure food preparation into a polished dining experience—a philosophy that has earned him accolades as one of the Lone Star State’s top chefs. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an avid hunter as well, and Paslay agrees analogies can be drawn between his passion for hunting and his food philosophy.
“Yeah, I think with my style of cooking there are parallels: We do everything in-house. We make all of our bread and ice cream, and we do our own butchery, make our own bacon and sausage. If you look at the industry as a whole, I don’t think a lot of restaurants do that anymore, that from-the-ground-up kind of food—all scratch-made food,” he says. “I think there’s a parallel to that and hunting, because you are closer to the product in its original state when you do food that way, and two steps before what we do is the killing of the animal.”
His skills as a hunter run the gamut from hunting big game with a bow, to shotgun sports (basically for bird hunting—think dove, pheasant, duck), to fishing. Laws prohibit bringing any of his trophy catches into the restaurant to serve, but the spoils of his hobbies come home to feed family and friends. “We use the whole animal, it’s pretty fun,” he says.
The same whole-animal approach applies to Clay Pigeon as well, and while there’s not a separate butchering room at the restaurant, he explains, “We have a good-size kitchen, so we’re fortunate in that regard, but we don’t have infinite space or resources. However, being dinner only, we have all morning and afternoon to get things done.”
The Road Home
As committed as Chef Paslay is to the quality and integrity of the food he’s serving, what originally attracted him to the industry was the business aspect. “I’ve always been attracted to the restaurant business—how transparent it is and how immediate the feedback is. I can’t think of another business where someone can order a product from me and within 10 minutes I can have feedback from that order,” he says.
Ironically, he didn’t consider being a chef as a viable career option until his junior year of college. He was pursuing a business degree at the University of Oklahoma, but decided to chuck that route and follow the dream. “I was starting to think about restaurants more, and the business of restaurants, and the [cooking] hobby turned into an obsession. It just became one of those itches I felt like I needed to scratch—so I dropped out of college, applied to culinary school at the CIA, got in, and moved up to New York.”
That was the first of many moves along his journey to opening a restaurant. After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, Paslay and his wife—both adventuresome spirits—traveled and worked around the country. “We were in Alaska briefly—I was the chef at a hunting and fishing lodge in the middle of nowhere, it was a great experience. And from there we came back to Texas and my wife went to UT Southwestern Medical and got her doctorate,” he says. But they hadn’t come back to stay; they hit the road again, spending time in Seattle, Colorado, and Hawaii.
He’s not going to pick a favorite, but says Seattle “certainly ranks way up there. It is such an amazing town, with lots of culture, a great food scene, and natural resources. You’re near ocean, near mountains, and you have a great growing climate, so produce is amazing. ”
But splitting time between seasonal gigs in Colorado and Hawaii had plenty of perks as well. “In Colorado we lived in a town called Frisco, right next to Breckenridge, and our back porch was at 9,000 feet—so we were up in the mountains pretty good. And the lifestyle—in terms of being able to go hiking at any time, or fly fishing—I really loved that kind of accessibility to the wilderness.”
Easy to see how a hunter turned chef could love such an idyllic, footloose lifestyle—what’s harder to imagine is how he made it all come together. “Luckily, with my wife’s profession as a physical therapist and mine as a chef, we’re pretty marketable in just about any town,” Paslay says.
Their strategy was to send out résumés and start building contacts in places they wanted to live, but often they made moves on blind faith. They worked hard and traveled light. “We lived cheaply—and if we could fit it in the back of the truck, we moved with it, and if not, it didn’t make the trip,” he quips. “I remember when we first got married, I was in school in New York, and we joined together all of the money we had—it was maybe $900—and rented this tiny apartment for $950 a month. Then my wife worked three jobs, and I went to school and worked two jobs.”
As for traveling light, there were just a few necessities that always got loaded onto the truck: “For our wedding we got some really nice All-Clad pots and pans—and, of course, those will last you a lifetime if you take care of them—so those were always the first thing in the truck. And then, of course, my knife roll went in.”
Their travels around the country lasted about 10 years—then the urge to nest set in, and along with it the hankering to head back home. “I guess my heart never really left Fort Worth,” Chef Paslay says. “It was time to put down some roots, start building for the future, and a week after we decided to come home to Fort Worth we found out we were pregnant with our first kid.”
That would be their now-four-year-old daughter, who was joined two years ago by baby brother—and the entire family gathers once a week at Clay Pigeon for dinner where dad works.
There’s still the occasional travel; he and his wife spent 10 days touring Italy last year, a perfect prelude to opening his next concept, Piattello Italian Kitchen. Next on the travel bucket list is Spain; he’s not sure when, but it’s the trip he’s dreaming of.
For now, he’s thrilled to be back home in Texas. “Fort Worth is really booming,” he says. “It’s great to be on this tidal wave of new and improving restaurants ... and to bring the things I learned in other states back to everyone I know here.”
Perhaps the aspect that has surprised and delighted Paslay most has been the opportunity to become a vital part of the community. “We’ve been welcomed by the community and the surrounding neighborhoods—and we have a loyal following of regulars. We’ve gotten to know them really well. We know their names, their kids’ names, when and where they go on vacations—it’s that ongoing rapport we have with them that makes a difference.”
And those relationships have helped pave the way for opening his second concept, the Italian restaurant that’s due to open next month. The other unexpected lesson learned from restaurant No. 1 is what he calls “the yin and yang to the employee question,” referring to the great team he’s managed to build as well as the occasional disappointments with staffing that inevitably occur.
Within the past year, he explains, his approach to hiring has undergone a fundamental shift. “In the beginning, I hired experience. Now, I hire personality. I’ve really begun adopting Danny Meyer’s 51 percent mentality where you hire the personality and teach the skill. We’re looking for the right people, and when we find them, we find a place for them to work and train them our way.”