Maternal advice isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Daniel O'Leary's mother warned her son away from restaurants. A waitress, she knew hard work and lousy hours. But by age fourteen her boy was scrubbing pots anyway. A good thing, too. Had he minded his mom, he would have missed his calling and deprived diners in Dallas of some very good food.
Today O'Leary, who is 36, is making a name for himself with an unpretentious style of cooking that has earned his three-month-old restaurant, the Conservatory in the Hotel Crescent Court, four stars from the Dallas Morning News. "His style is simple," says Waltrina Stovall, who wrote the review. "And his simplest dishes are the best rating." This is precisely the kind of remark O'Leary intends to elicit from diners each time his kitchen dispatches a dish to the 56-seat dining room. "We're trying to do food that has a simple, clean taste," O'Leary maintains.
O'Leary's culinary start was auspicious. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1977 (he was 22), he rose quickly through the ranks of Washington, D.C.'s most exclusive kitchens, including La Bagatelle, Maison Blanche and Le Lion d'Or. He gained experience in a high-volume kitchen as executive chef at the Old Ebbitt Grill in 1983. Then in 1987, recruited for the second chef's slot at the acclaimed Mansion on Turtle Creek, O'Leary had to prove he could maintain the high standards set by Dean Fearing, who was on the road promoting his cookbook. "It was a big challenge primarily because I had never cooked Southwestern food before," O'Leary says. "But I told Dean, 'I know how to cook. Show me the ingredients," says Fearing, "It was amazing how fast he caught on here."
Impressed with his performance, officials at the Rosewood Hotel Group, corporate parent for both properties, made him top chef at the huge Crescent Court a year later. Have there been second thoughts about the hard work and lousy hours? Says the talented chef: "The moment I started working in a kitchen I knew all I wanted to do was cook."