It’s a balmy September Wednesday and Virginia Dalbeck is touring the 500-square-foot outdoor patio of Cork & Pig Tavern, one of the finishing touches to the first Fort Worth outpost of her San Angelo- and Odessa-based mini-chain.
“Customers just love a patio,” says Dalbeck with a knowing grin. “[They] are hard to manage. So prone to seasonal things like wind, snow and rain. But with all that, customers still want to sit on your patio.”
If anyone knows a thing or two about managing stormy restaurant situations, it’s Dalbeck.
After a brief stint working in Mario Batali’s Lupa restaurant in New York, she burst onto the culinary scene in 2006 as a contestant on Season 2 of Hell’s Kitchen, featuring tyrannical chef Gordon Ramsay.
She finished as runner-up on the Fox reality show, but endured more than her share of mind games: “They’d wake us up by clanging pots and pans together; they’d make us go through a dumpster at 7 a.m. to account for how much food we had wasted the night before. They basically kept us on edge at all time.” The 25-year-old newlywed even faced accusations she was “hooking up” with the host.
But after surviving, and even excelling, in that cauldron of humiliation and manipulation, Dalbeck now admits with a tinge of bitterness that “I got nothing, really.”
A decade later, Dalbeck — battle-tested and a bit scarred by her real and reality-show cooking experiences — is still chasing her culinary dreams. She has landed in Fort Worth’s own version of Hell’s Kitchen, or better yet Survivor. Dalbeck’s Cork & Pig is located in the heart of the West 7th entertainment district, where nearly every high-profile restaurant that has opened in the last five years has eventually shuttered. American F&B, a farm-to-table spot that Cork & Pig replaced, lasted less than two years.
We aren’t aiming to be that ultra-fine-dining destination, that restaurant you’ll only come to once a month.
So the stakes are high for Dalbeck, who co-owns and collaborates on Cork & Pig’s menus with, of all people, her ex-husband.
She and Felipe Armenta, who has garnered considerable kudos for his trio of Fort Worth restaurants (The Tavern, Pacific Table and Press Café), split up in 2010, but the two have continued to work well together and now seem determined to make Cork & Pig a success in a Bermuda Triangle for restaurants.
“Honestly, I like the challenge,” Dalbeck says. “It really excites me to be in Fort Worth where we are the small fish in the big town.
“And here’s what I do know about us in Fort Worth,” Dalbeck adds, after taking a dramatic breath. “We aren’t aiming to be that ultra-fine-dining destination, that restaurant you’ll only come to once a month. … We are not trying too hard, not trying to foam savory sauces, or reinvent the wheel. For us, our concept is ‘Keeping it simple, stupid,’ which I’ve changed to ‘Keep it simple and sexy.’ ”
Dalbeck was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., but Palm Desert, Calif., was always home. And growing up less than 150 miles from the Hollywood sign, it was all but preordained that Dalbeck would feel the tug of becoming an actress.
But when multiple L.A. auditions yielded nothing — and with Dalbeck’s mother having given up cooking family meals after a memorably disastrous concoction of whole-wheat pasta with tofu marinara — Dalbeck decided to read fewer scripts and spend more time in the kitchen and watching Food Network. It wasn’t long before she became quite handy with a spatula.
“For sure, mine was never a story of being surrounded by a mother and a grandmother who just cooked all the time, filling the house with great smells,” Dalbeck recalls.
Instead, Dalbeck began reinventing her future culinary character. She first followed the conventional route, paved by James Beard scholarships at Santa Barbara City College’s hotel and restaurant program. Then came multiple jobs as everything from bartender to sushi roller in restaurants from Los Angeles’ Houston’s and Gulfstream to Mario Batali’s New York-Romanesque trattoria, Lupa.
I fit the perfect formula for what they were looking for. … Of course, what I would soon discover is that Fox reality programs enjoy seeing you fail. In fact, every single situation was a formula for failure.
Virginia Dalbeck, on competing on ‘Hell’s Kitchen’
Eventually, she found a way to blend her youthful acting ambitions with her budding culinary skills: She auditioned for Hell’s Kitchen.
“I fit the perfect formula for what they were looking for,” Dalbeck now recalls. “I was very passionate about cooking, yet I lacked a lot of cooking experience. Of course, what I would soon discover is that Fox reality programs enjoy seeing you fail. In fact, every single situation was a formula for failure.”
In addition to being the occasional target of the tantrum-throwing Ramsay (“He was very intimidating”), she also came to understand Hell’s Kitchen’s patented formula for mind control.
“They would throw you in and say go, and just exhaust you because you’d probably had zero hours of sleep by that point,” says Dalbeck. “They would also make sure you were working with and around people that you didn’t get along with. You were being set up to fail. Sad but true.”
Then Dalbeck had to deal with an implied seductiveness that hovered over her like eau de cologne.
“They never told me once to play up my sex appeal — not even in the confessional interviews where they could have insisted I was flirting with Ramsay to get to the top,” says Dalbeck. “Of course, the other contestants thought that me and Gordon were hooking up — so absurd because a casting producer was always watching us. Besides which, I was a newlywed and I was not at all interested.
“It just shows how dumb everybody was. Sure, I was flirty, for fun, but that’s part of my personality. For the record: Gordon never came on to me, but all those accusations were very hurtful.”
Hell’s Kitchen turned out to be a great collapsed soufflé of recrimination and disappointment.
“When I ended up getting second place, that only made more people mad,” Dalbeck says. “In the end, nobody liked me.”
Even worse, “nobody” at the top of the Hell’s Kitchen food chain offered to leverage her second-place finish into anything more than a pat on the back.
“Nothing professional ever happened from Hell’s Kitchen,” Dalbeck says. “Nothing was ever offered — no cooking position, not another show, no Gordon Ramsay endorsements or recommendations. In fact, after the show ended, I never once talked with him again. I just went back to cooking and living my life, trying to fulfill my dream of opening up my own place.”
2008 The year Dalbeck and then-husband Felipe Armenta moved to San Angelo to open The Grill. The restaurant is still open.
And helping Dalbeck attain that dream would be her ex-husband, promising young chef Felipe Armenta.
The two met in 2002 in Los Angeles, while Dalbeck bartended at the Brentwood Restaurant and Lounge and Armenta, in Casablanca-like fashion, wandered into her “gin joint.”
A whirlwind romance and eventual marriage ensued, set against the backdrop of a nomadic restaurant life that had Dalbeck and Armenta living in cramped quarters in New York, Florida and California.
By 2008, Armenta felt the tug of his native San Angelo — where his parents ran Mexican restaurants — and moved there with Dalbeck. The couple leased a 2,000-square-foot space and after six months, and $75,000 over the reconstruction budget, they opened The Grill.
Eight years later, it’s still thriving as the first showcase for Armenta and Dalbeck’s devotion to wood-fired grill cooking.
By 2010, they opened their first Cork & Pig Tavern in San Angelo. “Our goal was to do homemade American food that would be nothing too crazy for San Angelo diners,” says Dalbeck. “We were perfecting simplicity.”
But the biggest casualty of Dalbeck and Armenta’s blossoming mini-empire was their marriage, which collapsed in 2010.
“I don’t really know what happened,” says Dalbeck, searching for an easy explanation. “We just worked together and lived together and our friendship and partnership evolved into something that just wasn’t that fulfilling anymore.”
Working with your ex in Texas
On this mid-week September day at Fort Worth’s Cork & Pig, any of the emotional tumult from Dalbeck’s divorce seems as far away as a dusty West Texas prairie.
In fact, Dalbeck — now a 36-year-old mother of a 2 1/2 -year-old daughter with the hippie-sounding name of Lively Clover — proudly speaks of her amicable, all-business partnership with her ex-husband.
“We have established boundaries and ground rules,” says Dalbeck. “We keep it very professional, civil, fair and honest, with lots of communication.”
There is also a specific division of labor: Armenta focuses on the food, Dalbeck on the drinks (an extensive wine and a craft cocktail list), plus the front of the house, and the day-to-day management of the busy new restaurant.
“They have been consummate professionals,” says John Nestor, vice president of Cork & Pig Tavern’s holding company, Chef Driven Restaurant Inc. “It all came down to the huge amount of mutual respect they had for each other, with the business always coming first for them.”
Armenta, for his part, declined to comment for this story, suggesting Dalbeck deserved the spotlight on this one.
“If the customer thinks of Cork & Pig and they think of Virginia — as her public image helps the company — well, that works for me,” says Nestor. “But the key for us to avoid being a flash in the pan is that the dynamic of the business partnership has to grow over time. Everyone knows that the hardest part of any restaurant business is managing the egos and the human element.”
The cocktail inspired by Virginia Dalbeck is made with honey, lemon juice and melon vodka, plus champagne, for ‘more fun.’
And maybe because Dalbeck was exposed to the fire-breathing, micromanaging Ramsay early on in her career, she now tries to give her employees a bit more freedom to create.
Bar manager Chas Taipale, a 17-year veteran of the Texas restaurant scene, has crafted a cocktail menu for Cork & Pig in Fort Worth with very little editing from Dalbeck.
He even named one of his cocktails, the Melody, in honor of her.
“She’s got such a cool rock ’n’ roll personality,” says Taipale. “So I thought I would name this cocktail after Virginia. It has honey, lemon juice, melon vodka and some champagne. The bubbles make it more fun, which is so right for Virginia.”
Amber Davis, maybe the quintessential Dalbeck recruit, started out as a server before being groomed for her current position of general manager at Odessa’s Cork & Pig and Red Oak Kitchen.
“Virginia gives me the freedom and the trust to operate this restaurant,” Davis says. “And if someone is missing from the kitchen, and the food is taking too long to get out, she will jump right in on that line, making pizzas right next to the regular pizza guy. It is so exciting seeing the owner put on an apron and make pizzas.”
Ice, ice baby
If Dalbeck’s aura reminds some of rock ’n’ roll, then her Wednesday-afternoon dress code suggests simple, laid-back smooth jazz: Neiman Marcus suede ankle boots, stone-washed Mother Jeans, a sleeveless black blouse and a gold leaf pendant necklace from the nearby Flirt Boutique. The discreet diamond stud earrings were a gift from her boyfriend, the father of her daughter.
Dalbeck effortlessly navigates Cork & Pig, past the wood-burning pizza oven, blasting out pies with its searing 600-degree heat, and the rotisseries, primed to rotate poultry to pork shoulders.
But behind Dalbeck’s congenial manner are steely eyes focused on anything that might be less than first-rate.
I hate to see ice on the ground. It’s not only a safety concern but it’s wasteful. And don’t get me started on sugar packets on the ground.
“My rule is that if I wouldn’t serve it to my daughter, then I certainly won’t serve it to my customers or if the president happened to stop in for a meal,” Dalbeck says.
As she lays out those stringent ground rules, she pries open cabinets and utensil drawers, strolls into the walk-in freezer, the beer cooler filled with kegs and the dry-storage area.
“I do look everywhere,” Dalbeck says without apology. “And, boy, do I hate to see ice on the ground. It’s not only a safety concern but it’s wasteful. And don’t get me started on sugar packets on the ground.”
Hours before, Dalbeck conducted her “taste plate” where the day’s signature pork chop, burger, pizza and dessert — all conceived by Armenta — must run her taste buds’ gauntlet.
She rhapsodizes about the double-cut pork chop’s wet brine of peppercorns, bay leaves and cloves before becoming poetic about its dry-rub, melding herbes de Provence and lavender.
All this quality control has clearly paid off.
Cork & Pig has earned rave reviews and Dalbeck is already making her mark in Fort Worth.
“I would love to be the face of this restaurant and the other children that our partnership has created,” says Dalbeck. “I’d love to do food demonstrations, private chefing, along with charity and fundraisers, and of course as much television to publicize us. I’m actually seeking an agent right now.”
In other words, even though she’s been to Hell and back, Dalbeck is ready to face the fire again.
But first, she’s determined to reverse the restaurant curse on Fort Worth’s Crockett Street.
“Honestly, we like the challenge of breaking the stereotype of the restaurant that comes here and eventually leaves,” Dalbeck says. “We’ll succeed here because Cork & Pig Tavern is American food done simply and done well. There won’t be the frills of making our own ketchup or mayonnaise.
“Though we do make our own bread and, of course, our own ice — and as long as I’m around, it won’t end up on the floor.”