Bruce Feingold's first job was in a bakery, washing dishes and decorating cookies with sprinkles and frosting. Little did he know it would lead to a future career in one of South Florida's most beloved restaurants situated in a historic home on the outskirts of downtown Delray Beach.
A New Jersey native, Feingold began cooking at an early age -- just 17 -- a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Fate brought him to Florida, when -- just three weeks before he graduated -- a friend called from Palm Beach. A month later he was working at The Colony Hotel on Palm Beach Island, where he cut his teeth at the resort's high-end steak house.
Today, Feingold is best known as the executive chef and part owner of Dada, the popular Delray Beach restaurant with an anti-establishment flare and cult-like following. Here waiters serve up some of the best food in town, while the bar whips up the area's finest mojitos.
Clean Plate Charlie had a chance to speak with Feingold about how he and his team built one of South Florida's most iconic restaurants.
Clean Plate Charlie: You've accomplished quite a lot in your career. How has it been these past 12 years?
Bruce Feingold: I always had high aspirations for myself. I told myself by 30, I wanted to own my own business, and I did. At 26 I opened Truce Bakery in West Palm Beach.
A bakery? Really?
Yes, my friend Todd [Jent] and I opened the bakery. He's the one who called me all those years ago and got me to move down here. I have him to thank for bringing me here. For the bakery, though, it was a small passion project. We did a lot of specialty cakes for area restaurants. Stuff like that. It was never open to the public. But it was ours.
You started out on the Island at The Colony. Where else did you work?
I did the usual jumping around, like most chefs. The last restaurant I worked before Dada was Sforza, which was on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach.
How did you get hooked up with [South Florida restaurateurs and Dada co-owners] Rodney Mayo and Scott Frielich?
I knew Rodney and Scott from being [in the business]. I met Rodney one night at his other spot in West Palm, Respectables. Over the years we got to know each other better, and when he heard I was looking he came to me and asked me if I wanted to open a new place in Delray Beach.
And that was Dada?
Yes. Originally, we wanted it to be something else entirely -- and even had another location picked out. The idea was to open another Lost Weekends type of place where the Brew's Room in Delray Beach -- over near the train tracks -- currently is. Scott and I were walking to Doc's to get a shake, and we happened to pass this house [Dada is a historical landmark built in 1923]. It was meant to be.
So how did the Dada concept come about?
The idea behind the name Dada is based on -- as the name suggests -- Dadaism, an art movement that celebrated everything anti-war and anti-establishment, that whole radical left. So you'll see a lot of the decor inside has a very anti-art theme, and each room has a different ambiance. We took a lot of time to come up with a unique concept that fit this building.
This is a historical home. Were you here for the renovations?
Through all of it. We were here day and night knocking down walls and sanding down the floors. We built this entire place from front to back. But I'll tell you a secret: this place is haunted.
Haunted? Do you have any good ghost stories?
Back around when we first opened I was downstairs in the kitchen and I heard footsteps upstairs in the office. At first I thought it was [another employee], so I went up to see, but no one was there -- but, here's the freaky part, there's this little door in the wall. It was wide open, so I went to close it, and I also locked it. I went back downstairs, and a few minutes later I heard footsteps again. I went back up, and -- no kidding -- the door was open again. It happened two more times, so finally, I just said whatever is here wants this door open, so I left it that way.
Crazy. Anything else?
Yeah, it's not too often, but sometimes weird things will happen. The only other thing that really gave me goosebumps was when we were renovating, and we had our dogs in here. They were drawn to this one wall, and would just stare at it and bark. We ended up tearing it down to see if there was a dead animal or something back there, but nothing. Even after we rebuilt it they would just sit, stare, and growl.
So, tell me about the food at Dada. What do you think makes it so iconic, and what do you think has contributed to your success over the years?
I think part of our success is due to the fact that our team is so unified, and it helps to keep a consistency to the level of quality we produce. I'm here every day, all day, cooking in the kitchen with just a few other guys.
How often do you change the menu?
Not as often as I'd like! Whenever we want to change the menu all of us sit down and have a tasting of the new dishes I'd like to try out. It takes a few tries before we finalize, and we'll do that once every season. I would like to be doing that more frequently, but we're so busy it's hard to focus on changing too much. At least once a season we swap out a few dishes.
Tell us about your style of cooking.
I've spent the past 20 years working hard to perfect my craft. I'm trained in classical French, so a lot of my cooking has that base, but the food here is more contemporary American. [Right now Feingold is experimenting with the sous-vide method of cooking, when food -- typically meats -- are slow-cooked in a plastic bag submersed in a water bath].
What are some house favorites?
Our top seller every day of the week and every month since we opened is our Habanero Salmon. We cook it a little bit different. We prep each filet by trimming off the fat and the skin to guarantee it never has that fishy smell or taste. The glaze itself was a twist off a pecan honey glaze I used to make, but I wanted a bit of heat to go against the sweet. A little bit of toasted coriander and molasses helps to give it a bold, balanced flavor. And, believe it or not, my Tahini dressing.
Do you have any tips or suggestions for cooks at home?
Try toasting your herbs and spices before you add the ingredient to whatever dish or sauce you are making. It helps to really brings out the flavors in a whole new way -- it's a bolder, more intense kick. I toast most of the spices I work with [here at Dada], and it helps to impart a unique flavor profile to my cooking.
Do you plan on doing anything outside or in addition to Dada?
You know, I don't know anything else. At heart, I'm also a workaholic, and I love what I do, so I consider myself very lucky that I get to wake up every morning and do this. I can't see myself anywhere else at the moment.
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