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TCU Magazine Feature

A new course

Joe T. Garcia's Chef Lanny Lancarte II '97 proves when it comes to nouvelle cuisine, you can come home again.

By June Naylor '79

Lobster ceviche is hardly among the dishes you'd expect to find at a dinner at Joe T. Garcia's. Nor is the Fort Worth temple of Tex-Mex food a destination you'd consider for duck breast over butternut mole, but these are typical of the surprises served in the restaurant's elegant La Casita dining room. For this sort of diversion from the Joe T.'s enchilada-fajita norm, you just have to ask the right Lancarte to cook for you.

Wearing a white chef's coat and hovering above an azure glass plate, Lanny P. Lancarte II '97 arranges delicate slivers of microchives just so atop a scallop shell. The shell cradles a small piece of outrageously expensive Tai snapper, and the detailed work makes Lancarte focus every ounce of his attention on making this amuse bouche plate an artful study.

"I keep telling him he should be having fun, but look at him. He's really intense," says his dad, Lanny Lancarte, who oversees operations at Joe T.'s.

Lanny II -- who, at 28 years old and 6-foot-2, has nearly given the childhood nickname of "Little Lanny" the slip -- shakes his head and flashes a quick grin. The work is fun, he insists. But when dinner-party hosts are paying up to $70 per person, the product had better be done right. The dinner at hand is for a youngish supper-club group of 18 that is lapping up one of the tasting menus of seven to 10 courses that have rapidly become the signature work of the Joe T.'s scion.

Returning to Fort Worth upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York a year ago, Lancarte -- the first in four generations of the restaurant family to ever take a cooking lesson -- has prepared his tasting-menu dinners for an impressive coterie of clientele. To spread word of his nouvelle Mexican cuisine, and to prepare for eventually opening his own bistro, Lancarte produces lavishly wrought creations in petite portions. This tasting-menu style of dining, which has become the rage at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Morimoto in Philadelphia, allows guests to sample a wide variety of flavors, which Lancarte often pairs with wines.

Private dinner groups sampling his work in the past year have eaten braised beef short ribs atop an apricot mole, antelope carpaccio with pasilla-citrus vinaigrette, and tequila-cured rock hen with basil chimichurri. Although the creations seem complicated, the flavors are so carefully wrought that they resonate with clarity. In his dish of goat-cheese-stuffed huitlacoche (a delicate corn fungus, much likeFcadf a truffle) ravioli, Lancarte adds an heirloom corn salad and places the pairing in a shallow pool of corn nage, or broth that bursts with fresh, sweet corn essence.

To achieve this, Lancarte combines the best seasonal products he can locate -- even having items shipped from overseas -- with pure Mexican cooking and classical training.

"My nouvelle Mexican food lets me put different techniques and cuisines I've learned with authentic ingredients to present those ingredients in a new way," says Lancarte.

Some diners, such as Edward P. Bass, have found Lancarte's dinners worth a return visit. "A seven-course meal with Lanny in the beautiful [dining] room at Joe T.'s ranks as one of the all-time great culinary experiences in Fort Worth," says Bass. "Lanny's marriage of French cuisine with indigenous Mexican tradition is truly magical."

That Lanny Lancarte II, the great-grandson of founder Joe T. Garcia, is central to events at Joe T.'s surprises no one, but it wasn't until four years ago that he investigated cooking for a living. Lancarte grew up at the restaurant, spending days since babyhood chatting in Spanish with Mamasus, the widow of Joe T., who baby-sat her great-grandchildren at her apartment at the restaurant while making pots of Joe T.'s famous red enchilada gravy.

"If I wanted to see my parents, it was here at the restaurant," says Lancarte, referring to a spread that can now seat 1,000 patrons when all the gardens and private rooms are in use. "I had two tables in the front room to wait on by the time I was 8."

After majoring in Spanish and food management at TCU, Lancarte joined the restaurant as a manager. Within two or three years, he was running the front of the house. He began to read newsletters that advertised cooking study in Mexico and finally made the leap in 1999. In Oaxaca, he met Diana Kennedy, the person who made the most profound impression on his culinary mind.

"I had made dishes from her cookbooks, and finally I was getting to meet her," says Lancarte. "She sat at a table full of ingredients, and she was so passionate about every last tomato and chile. The way she approached every single item made me understand that if you don't have respect for the food, it won't come out the way it should."

The great irony, of course, is that Lancarte would connect so readily and deeply with Kennedy, who has made no secret of her disdain for Tex-Mex food -- the very stuff for which Lancarte's family has become famous.

He knew he could cook but was bothered that he didn't have classical training. Culinary school was the answer, and at the Culinary Institute of America, his passion won him praise.

"Lanny was the type of student who always tried to achieve flavor, and he has a passion that few of us in the restaurant business have," says Fred Brash, an institute chef-instructor who taught Lancarte in the school's St. Andrew's Cafe. "He's willing to do what it takes, so I'm not surprised that he's taking his family business to a new level."

Eight months into his schooling, Lancarte got a big boost in his hands-on training by landing an externship at Rick Bayless' famous Chicago restaurants. He worked day and night in the kitchen for six months.

"Even though Lanny grew up with Mexican food and culture, he left what he knew at the door and was really open to suggestions," says Brian Enyart, managing sous chef for Bayless at Frontera and Topolobampo.

Driving home after graduation in August 2002, Lancarte visited restaurant friends in Chicago and was offered a head line-cook job at Frontera. He called his dad in Fort Worth with the news.

"Dad said it's time to come home, but I had to tell him that I enjoy the restaurant management but my heart's in the kitchen," Lancarte says. "I had to do my kind of food, and that meant [to come home] I had to have my own kitchen."

Easy enough. "We built that kitchen and put a Virgen de Guadalupe on top of the door and he was on his way," said his dad. Soon the pretty new kitchen with the jade-green tile was filled with contemporary plates in varying shapes and colors. The pantry and coolers were stocked with ingredients heretofore unknown to the kitchens at the 70-year-old institution, among them blood oranges, duck confit, huitlacoche, pepitas, pistachios, panko, annato seeds and epazote.

Del Frisco's general manager Adam Jones has had Lancarte do two parties for friends and for the steakhouse employees. Jones praised the special touches, such as new flatware and plate styles for each course. "I love the course-driven idea, because it's all about taste and enjoyment, and not about getting stuffed," says Jones.

Lancarte and his kitchen crew work in an assembly line to properly arrange each crumb, dollop and fresh flower or herb accent, while servers dressed in ankle-length black aprons and starched white shirts with cabernet-colored neckties stand back and watch, ready to take trays to La Casita.

Lancarte has trained the servers to know the food; he works with them on the various flatware selections and serving from the left and clearing plates from the right. "Atmosphere is about the whole experience, and every aspect is important, from the candles to the light to the tablecloths."

When plating his tamales, stuffed with duck confit and steamed within banana leafs, he unwraps one for a visitor. "The smell that comes when you open them creates another aspect to the dish," he says, smiling, holding it like it was a baby bird. "I love opening it up -- the aroma makes me feel like I'm in a market in Mexico."

With each dish, there's a work in contrast, such as the dessert crepes that he made for the recent supper-club visit. The garnish of an intense, blooming peppermint sprig slices a freshness into the plate's musty comfort of goat cheese and cajeta. His guests roll their eyes with pleasure.

"There are plenty of places in town where you can eat good food, but tonight I've had 10 things I've never tasted. This is really special," says John Holt Smith of Fort Worth.

Lancarte's dad beams as he watches his son, happy that it has come to this. "In my kitchen, everything is crazy, but in Lanny's kitchen there's such balance and imagination," says the elder Lancarte. "To have it all under the same roof and to have the dream of my grandmother and grandfather still going is really neat."

The father is well aware that the son wants to open his own place, something with no more than 60 seats, in the next couple of years. He knows these tasting-menu dinners are about menu testing.

"His wings are flapping, and he'll leave the nest," Lancarte says. "I'm just trying to hold on as long as I can." Until then, Lanny II insists he's having fun -- or as much fun as he will allow himself.

"We're not doing brain surgery here, but I want to touch every plate before it goes out," he says. "I've got to stay focused the whole way, then open a beer after the last dessert is served."

Lanny Lancarte's tasting-menu dinners are available by reservation only. Prices range from about $35 to $70 per person, depending on the menu. Add about $20 per person for wine. Call him at Joe T. Garcia's at 817-626-4356.

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