By Savanah Mandeville • Photo by Amy Howe
Executive Chef Dale Davis wears many hats — literally.
“I have been with Indigo Sky Casino about nine years now, since about four months before it opened, walking around the place with a hard hat on,” he said. “There is nothing more exciting than opening a restaurant; in this case, opening six different food outlets, not including bar food service, room service and banquets. This was the largest opening I had ever been involved in.”
Chef Dale swapped out the hard hat for a chef’s hat, but his responsibilities remain diverse as ever. In short, he leads a team of over 40 people and three sous chefs; keeps a constant check on Shawanoe Restaurant, Creekside Bar & Grill, Sky Grill and the Employee Dining Room; handles all catering and private parties. “Of course, I write different menus, which is what I love most.”
Have you always loved to cook? Please take us through your background as a chef.
Yes, I have always loved to cook, and I have always been artistic and creative, which helps very much in my line of work. I have been cooking for 40 years, an executive chef 30 of those years, a food and beverage director for four years, and sous chef and line cook for about six.
I decided to pursue this back when I was a line cook at the Hilton Hotel in Casper, Wyoming. That is where I moved from line cook to banquet cook and sous chef. The company that I was working for then moved me and my family to the Golden Hills Resort in Lead, South Dakota, for two years where I became executive chef. The same company moved us to the Hilton Hotel in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for three years. Then, I went to John Q. Hammons Holiday Inn Convention Center in Springdale, Arkansas, for two years; then the Holiday Inn & Convention Center in Joplin for seven years; then Twin Hills Golf & Country Club in Joplin for nine years before joining Indigo Sky Casino.
What inspires you to stay motivated and continue to get better at your craft?
I’m inspired because I love this occupation. I get to be creative, it is exciting every day, and every day is different.
You have won some cooking competitions. Please tell us a little bit about those experiences.
First off, I probably wouldn’t have won any of them without a great team to support me. Currently, I am the second-year I Heart Radio KGBX Women’s Expo Celebrity Chef One-On-One Returning Champion, sponsored by the Arkansas Beef Council. Last year, I defeated Chef Maudie Schmitt from Café Rue Orleans in Fayetteville, and the year before that beat Chef Shawn O’Neal, the winner of season seven’s Chef Gordon Ramsey’s Master Chef show. I was the Taste of Grand’s first place Supreme Cuisine winner in 2014 and 2016. In 2016, I also won the people’s choice award. In 2014, I took home first place in the Black Elk BBQ Brisket Burn Out, a local casino chef’s-only smoking competition. I was voted Restaurateur of the Year in both 2004 and 2009 from the Southwest Chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association.
What’s your claim to fame or a specialty dish you’re known for?
This is a really tough question for me because I love so many different dishes and types of cuisine. Here at Indigo Sky Casino at Creekside Bar & Grill, the guests seem to really love the Pimento Cheese Burger with Bacon Jam, the Fry Bread Tacos, and the Salsa Baked Goat Cheese appetizer. In Shawanoe restaurant, some of the favorites are chicken and cheese tortellini with garlic flatbread, the walnut and pear chicken salad with white balsamic, and the Shrimp Shooters appetizer with tequila lime and Bloody Mary cocktail sauces. I believe, though, that I am most well-known for upscale banquet events and wedding receptions and catering. I specialize in 300-pound chainsaw ice sculpting as well as watermelon and fruit carvings, cheese carvings and vegetable carvings.
How has your restaurant dealt with service of food during the COVID-19 outbreak?
It has been a very slow process because we want to be as safe as possible for our guests and our employees. While we were shut down, we did a total deep cleaning and sanitizing of every inch, all the way from the front doors of the restaurants to the back doors of the kitchens, along with the entire casino. When we finally got the go-ahead to open, we started with just Shawanoe and limited hours. We basically moved out every other table to keep them six feet apart and are using disposable paper menus that are discarded after each use. The staff all wear masks at all times and wash hands constantly, and the kitchen is in gloves at all times. We still are not opening any buffets until it is safe. Slowly, as things seemed safer, we opened the newly renovated Three Sister Restaurant area, Creekside Bar & Grill with limited hours and Sky Grill with limited hours. Every restaurant has constant sanitizing and cleaning from the wait staff and is misted with sanitizing guns every night like they do the entire casino. Every employee in the building has to wear masks just to enter and must continue to all day and remain six feet apart. At the employee entrance, security greets them and asks the COVID safe questions and you walk through a large device that takes your temperature. The halls in back and areas are marked for six feet, and I can assure you that the restaurants, bars, casino and hotel are the most clean and sanitized around.
When you’re not cooking, what do you like to do for fun?
I married my wife, Sarah, after finishing high school and a year of college when she was 17 and I was 19. We will celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary shortly. We have two daughters, Stephanie and Monica, both named after princesses. They both have made us the very proud grandparents of three boys: Gabriel, 12; Ryker, 9; and Atticus, 6. For fun, I like to play frisbee with our two-year-old Australian Shepherd. As far as a hobby, I have a small metal shop in the backyard and love making knives and swords. My wife and I also love to travel. We go on a trip every year to beach resorts. We have been to the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Punta Cana, Aruba, Cabo San Lucas, Antigua, Cancun, Cozumel, Barbados, Virgin Islands, and three times to different locations in the Bahamas. We hope to keep going every year. We did not travel this year, though, because of COVID-19.
Quick Tips from Chef Dale:
Eat with Your Eyes. Always consider the plate as a 3-D picture you are painting. Make the colors pop and have a plan of how to make it look its best.
Slice Like a Pro. If you don’t have a mandolin, then you need to get one, and don’t be afraid to use it. You can create gorgeous scalloped potatoes or fry your own chips, make beautiful julienned carrots and carrot gaufrettes.
Punch Up the Flavor. Toast your dry spices quickly in a dry skillet over medium heat. It wakes the spice up and releases their oils, which means your paprika will taste a lot more paprika-y. Use whole spices, watch the pan like a hawk, and stir constantly until the spices are fragrant, then let cool before using.
Never Stop Learning. The best way to learn is hands on. The second-best way is by watching others. There are so many cooking programs on TV, so soak up everything you can and use everything you know.
Safety, Safety, Safety. Keep a damp paper towel under your cutting board so it doesn’t slip around while you’re cutting. A sharper knife is a safer knife. Also, wash your hands over and over between each step when handling all foods.