In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Chef Tim Condon—Owner of Angry Cactus Bar in San Angelo, TX and partner with Escoffier’s Work & Learn program, which gives new and existing restaurant employees a chance to complete an online culinary degree while working in the kitchen.
Since the age of 14, Tim has always immersed himself in the culinary world and launched several successful restaurants, including Lonestar Cheeseburger Company—Voted #1 Food Truck Burger in Texas by Mobilecusine. Now he finds passion in helping other chefs proactively find success—the intersection of opportunity and preparation.
Listen as Tim talks about building his career from working at Burger King to owning a food truck, his plans for building the World’s Largest drive-thru restaurant, and how he improves retention by investing in culinary education for his employees.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Tim Condon, executive chef owner of Angry Cactus Bar & Grill in San Angelo, Texas. By age 14, Tim was already engaged in his first job as a restaurant cook, and by 22 he became executive chef of Paradise Cove, an oceanfront estate in Hawaii. Since then, he has gone on to launch several successful restaurants, including Lonestar Cheeseburger, which was voted the number one food truck burger in Texas by Mobile Cuisine. Tim is currently a partner in Escoffier’s Work and Learn Program, which gives new and existing restaurant employees the chance to complete an online culinary degree while working in the kitchen.
Join me today as I chat with Chef Tim about his development journey as a young chef, multicultural cuisine, and the ways restaurants can improve employee retention.
And there he is. Good morning, Chef. How are you?
Tim Condon: Doing well. How are you?
Kirk Bachmann: I couldn’t be better. I could not be better. I love the background.
Tim Condon: I’m at the Angry Cactus.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re at the Angry Cactus. We need to change the format of this. If you can reach in and holler and have somebody bring us a couple of cocktails, that would be a good start.
Tim Condon: I’ve got my green tea to get me going.
Kirk Bachmann: You’ve got your green tea. I love that. I’ve got a little latte over here. We’re off and running.
It’s really good to chat with you. You’re sitting there in the booming metropolis of San Angelo, Texas. West Texas, right?
Tim Condon: Yep. I’m here in downtown San Angelo, Texas. It’s a nice day, not too hot. I’m here on this amazing patio that we have here at the Angry Cactus. It’s a great day to be in West Texas, that’s for sure.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s right. We may hear some traffic going by. That’s okay. I like it. It adds to the ambiance.
Tim Condon: It’s a busy street.
Kirk Bachmann: It is THE busy street. I love it.
We’ve got so much to talk about today. First and foremost, I appreciate the time.
I’m a big hat guy, so I’ll tell you a funny story of my hat when you tell me the story of your hat.
Tim Condon: Alright. This is a Bogle hat. We’ve got a great relationship with Bogle Vineyards and JD John. They come out every year. I always like to support and show our favorite brands and one of our favorite vineyards and wine selection that we have here at the Angry Cactus.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s cool. Are they out of California?
Tim Condon: They are.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. You do some wine dinners with them?
Tim Condon: We do that. We do a variety of different things. That one’s coming up in the next month or so, so I figured I’d give them some love.
Kirk Bachmann: There you go! Absolutely no charge whatsoever. Lots of love for the vineyard.
I’ve got the KB, which many people just assume is Kirk Bachmann. My little outfit, as my wife calls it, for the podcast. But ironically enough, it’s Kane Brown. It’s a Kane Brown hat. I’m a big country fan, as I think you are.
Tim Condon: Nice.
Kirk Bachmann: I probably have 300 hats at home. I’ve got to protect the cone. Absolutely. I’ve got a story about every one of them.
But today’s about you. Let’s talk about you. You have not always been in West Texas. You grew up in Nebraska, right?
Tim Condon: My hometown is Omaha, Nebraska. I started cooking at a very early age. My home was filled with not so many TV dinners and things of that nature, so when I had to jump in the cupboard and get something to make, it would be a can of clams and some linguine, something of that nature.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow!
Tim Condon: I started something in the back of my mind. Going through high school, I was blessed to have a really good culinary program at my high school. Part of the ProStart program. It really developed my passion for really wanting to do this for a living, and really the art form that it truly is: cooking and sharing your passion, literally, on a plate.
I just figured really early on that’s what I wanted to do. I really knew that it was going to take a really long period of time to get good at it. I really was focused on trying to stay ahead of the curve and really focusing on what I wanted to do. I was very lucky and blessed to have had those mentors and have the ProStart program there to guide me along this path at the very early beginning stages of my career.
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s back up a little bit. Was there some cooking in the home as well? Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa?
Tim Condon: My mom cooked often. Really what I was interested in doing was, quite frankly, my first job was at Burger King. I didn’t necessarily know exactly where I was going to fit into the field, the industry. I was just fully aware that I loved to cook.
I worked at Burger King very early on for a few years, and really provided a good business structure. At that age, I was probably 15 or 16 at the time. I was really trying to figure out, “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?” Because I’ve always believed that if you can find something you really want to do and it’s a passion of yours, you don’t really work a day in your life. I think throughout my career, I’ve really, truly been a testament to that. I wake up every single day wanting to go to work and excited [about] what the day entails.
I spent the early part of my career really trying to understand, to get the nuance, get the business platform, get the business structure put together and understand, “Okay, if I’m going to make money selling food for a living, I really need to know the nuts and bolts and all the different mechanisms in the industry and all the different checks and balances that are needed to really make it profitable.” That’s really what my focus was early on. I’m very grateful to have had mentors along the way to be able to bring me along that path.
Kirk Bachmann: And now you’re a mentor to others. Let’s stay on that topic just for a second because it’s so important. A lot of students will watch our podcast. This whole idea of being profitable, having a successful restaurant, a lot of that happens going in and out of the back door, right? Could you speak a little bit about the importance of understanding food costs and how that translates into the price that your customers pay?
Tim Condon: Exactly. I was really blessed to have a mathematical brain as a default. I remember getting an early job. My first executive chef position was in Hawaii at Paradise Cove. I was 21 at the time, I believe. The whole thing! I asked them, “Why me?” I was shocked to actually have gotten that job. They were explaining that I was the only one that understood what the product cost formula is. Opening inventory plus purchases minus closing inventory divided by sales. It’s a very simple formula, but really understanding what that means from looking on a shelf to understanding what that metric means to teaching every single one of my sous chefs and my chef de parties in my restaurant what that means, that gets me going.
Being able to understand the metric side of the business, not just being able to cook. I tell my guys all the time, “Everybody that trains under me, they’re going to know the business side just as much as the creative side because you are not a chef until you are able to monetize your field.” In the restaurant industry, you have to be profitable. It’s a very small margin, the smallest margin of most industries. Being able to train people under me how to actually make the nuts and bolts work from a mathematical perspective, that’s really where I shine. That’s really where I try to show the junior chefs, the sous chefs under me where all of that works. That’s truly one of my most proud, teachable things I can really point to and say, “When you’re going to work for me, that’s really what you’re going to get and learn well.”
Kirk Bachmann: I love that, Chef. That’s so poignant, and I appreciate the transparency. I can remember the days – and I’m sure you enjoy it, too – the formula you just recited off the top of your head, it’s like clockwork. I miss those days when you’re in the back, and you’re just working. The fishmonger comes in, and they’re just chatting with you. You don’t even have to look up. You’re just asking price per pound. You know exactly what you can charge in the front of the house. If he’s coming in with $15 per pound whatever it is, that’s going to be a challenge or it’s not.
Tim Condon: Exactly. Really what we try to do here at the Angry Cactus and the model we really try to follow is that we have a core product base. We are focused on providing the best steaks in West Texas. Some of the most classic dishes that we’re known for, like our meatloaf and our chicken fried steak, our chicken fried chicken, things of that nature. But we also have these really amazing five course meals that we do, or paella on the patio dinners that we do, very interactive in nature.
Being able to be the culinary hot spot of West Texas, that’s really what we’re after. We get the best products. We get the best steaks money can buy. We get the highest quality beef. If we’re doing local game or something like that, we really truly know where our animals come from, what they’re fed, what region of Texas they’re coming from. Being able to have people that want that product on a plate provided by our staff and our chefs, it’s a really humbling feeling. That’s what we wake up for every single day.
Myself, starting from the top, all the way down to our dishwashers. They’re here to provide a great experience for every single person who walks through our front door. It costs a lot of money to do that, a lot of time, a lot of staff effort, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears by myself and everyone below me, to execute that vision. We live for it here. That’s kind of what we call the culinary culture around here. Every single person that walks into my kitchen, they must have their own knives. They must be dressed the way that we’re expecting, and must wear that uniform with pride. That’s the old school culinary culture that I was taught, but more importantly it’s what I want to pass along. It’s the reason I sit here with you today, because I was able to go through 25 years of doing that over a period of time. It’s my obligation to pass that forward to the next generation or the next class of people that are coming below me.
Kirk Bachmann: So well said, Chef. Auguste Escoffier would be proud, absolutely proud. I’m curious. Again, lots of students will listen and other listeners will be intrigued. You had a very formal exposure to the culinary arts through the ProStart program in high school, which is phenomenal. The idea that you understood math and understood business and appreciated it. It sounds like you liked your customers. That’s also part of the formula. You have to love your guests. To go right from high school, or thereabouts, to an executive chef job in Hawaii, was that serendipitous? You said you were shocked by it, but was that the original plan? Or did it just kind of fall into your lap? Did you think, “Wow! This is an opportunity that might not come along again. I’m going to jump on it”?
Tim Condon: I think one of my favorite sayings of all time is, What is the definition of success? What I tell my cooks is, it’s the intersection between getting an opportunity and being prepared. There are so many people that get opportunity after opportunity. If you come from a wealthy family, you probably get a lot more opportunities than if you come from a poor family. That’s true. But also, the intersection is being prepared. When opportunity hits, being prepared. There are so many people that get all these opportunities; they’re never prepared. They fail. Or there’s the other version. There are so many people that are always prepared and never get an opportunity.
Really, what it takes is that intersection of being prepared and getting an opportunity. I’ve always really felt it’s extremely important to really be prepared. Do your homework, understand how things work in a culinary setting. Understand what the five mother sauces are, how to make them; what different stocks would be, the different techniques in the kitchen. And understanding what collagen is and why it breaks down at certain temperatures versus what a very real meat would be with no collagen. Things of that nature. Understanding all of that. We’re scientists, but we’re also mathematicians at the same time. If you can understand and be prepared, all you need is one opportunity. That’s all I got. I’m a very self-made person. I started my first food truck. I built it in my garage here in San Angelo over 12 years ago. It made me who I am today.
We’re working on our third and fourth restaurant as we speak. It’s really cool to be prepared, but also get just your first opportunity. I tell my guys in the kitchen that we’re in an industry that’s maybe not the most high-paying at the beginning of your career. If you prepare and you understand what things are, you’re going to get your opportunity and you can run with it and do your own thing and be a success story as well.
Our focus here with the people below me and my sous chefs and my chef de parties is giving them every opportunity to be prepared in our industry, to understand what goes on, to understand the type of culture that you need, the type of mentality that you need. We all know that not everyone can handle the restaurant industry. And understanding all of that and putting it all together. This is like the culinary university. It’s what I call it all the time. This is my culinary university, my culinary complex here at the Angry Cactus. We have 12,000 square feet of awesomeness, and it’s only getting larger as we speak.
Kirk Bachmann: So much great TikTok material already this morning. Totally stealing all of it.
Tim Condon: By the way, I have a new TikTok. Chef Tim Condon, follow me on TikTok.
Kirk Bachmann: I saw that. Appreciate the great advice. A lot of the chat around mise en place is so important. Everything in its place. Being ready. Auguste would be proud.
Let me ask. When you were talking passionately about the Angry Cactus and being there in San Angelo, you mentioned local ingredients, sustainability, the products that you pass along to your customers. How much influence did working in Hawaii have on that? Was that fun? Were local ingredients really cool to work with on the island?
Tim Condon: Hawaii was so much different from what I truly expected, being born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Raised in the suburbs of the Midwest. You don’t really understand what Hawaii is until you get there, live there for a few years. I was always thinking things like tropical fruits and different things of that nature. Really, what it turns out to be is it’s a hodgepodge of the whole Pacific Rim, basically. You’ve got a lot of Japanese influence, you’ve got a lot of local Hawaiian influence, a lot of Polynesians influence, a little bit of Chinese influence. All of these different cultures – Filipino. It’s amazing. It gave me a lot of first-hand education on foods from around the world.
I think it also planted a really amazing foundation for what we do here at the Angry Cactus, which is basically a fusion. Angry Cactus is a West Texas bar and grill, but if you really boil it down, we have a lot of Mexican influence. We have a lot of German influence. A lot of the original settlers here were German, so you’ve got the traditional German schnitzel. If you really think about it, it’s kind of chicken fried steak, right? There’s all these different blendings of things, and we try to create this harmony here at the Angry Cactus that showcases what West Texas cuisine is. But really, I want to personally put a stamp on What is West Texas food? What does that fusion look like? One of our most popular items is our meatloaf, and it’s a perfect example of what West Texas fusion is. Everyone says, “Meatloaf.” You think of your grandma’s meatloaf with the ketchup on top. That’s not my style, let me tell you. Our meatloaf has chorizo in it, corn, cheddar cheese, and it’s wrapped in a corn husk and smoked over mesquite for four hours to give it that final finish. The beauty of corn husk is you can let the smoke permeate to that meatloaf, get a nice smoke ring, but none of the moisture escapes. It’s almost like a smoked tamale in a certain way.
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
Tim Condon: Beautiful dish. A perfect metaphor, a perfect description for what our restaurant stands for, and that’s taking what’s around us here in West Texas and creating something that is unique to our part of Texas. That’s what we do that I’m the most proud of here at the Angry Cactus, really showcasing what West Texas cuisine is all about. It doesn’t get as much love as what southeast Texas or north Texas, and things of that nature. We really want to showcase what we have to offer on a culinary platform.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. That reminds me. I was going to ask you right off the bat. Being where you are, West Texas – I don’t know if you’re a college football fan, but are you following UT or are you A&M fans?
Tim Condon: UT. I’m a Cornhusker. I don’t know what UT is. I’m a Nebraska Cornhusker all the way!
Kirk Bachmann: Oh! Ouch!
Tim Condon: I’m sure some folks that eat here enjoy UT, but I’m not in that club.
Kirk Bachmann: Hey, they’re on a little bit of a roll. They needed a change at the leadership there in Nebraska. I love Scott. I’m a University of Oregon guy, and he was our offensive coordinator for a while. It just didn’t come together, but they look like they’re figuring it out. They’re on a little bit of a roll.
Tim Condon: We’ll see. We’ll see.
Kirk Bachmann: We’ll see.
Before we got into the Angry Cactus, Lonestar Cheeseburger. You built the food truck in your garage. Let’s talk about that a little bit, where the motivation and the inspiration for that concept came from.
Tim Condon: Being in Honolulu for quite a few years, we had over 800 food trucks on the island of Oahu alone. It was something that was not foreign to me in any way. Anybody that wants to be successful and you’re going to move to a new market and open a new business, this and that, you really want to look and scout out that market. When I came to San Angelo for the first time, I realized that there were no other food trucks. This was back in 2010. I figured Lonestar Cheeseburger would be the perfect way.
I was 26 years old at the time, and I was saying, “Okay, if I’m going to open a business, I have not very much money.” I had managed to save up five or ten thousand dollars. I went to the bank and got a loan and built this food truck right in my driveway. We opened on May 1 of 2010. It’s been quite a journey. We’ve been open for 12 years now. We’re opening our second location. We’re taking it out of a food truck, and we’re going to be opening the world’s largest drive-through restaurant here in San Angelo, Texas. We’re going to have seven lanes. Guinness Book of World Records. As you know, everything is bigger here in Texas. Our fast food restaurant is no different.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the way you described the meatloaf. Talk to me about one of the items on the menu at the food truck.
Tim Condon: Our food truck is a very unique type of burger. We make our own buns from scratch every single morning. We’ve got this amazing french fry. We make our own mayonnaise. We make our own mustard. We have our product that is a chef-driven fast food product. My goal was to get people in and out, and really give them a piece of craft experience.
The goal was really to compete in the fast food space, but also be able to compete in the fine dining space like you see here at Angry Cactus. Really, during 2020, being diversified was an amazing technique and an amazing strategy to help us get through that time.
Kirk Bachmann: What is the cuisine of West Texas, or have you redefined it, at least in your own mind?
Tim Condon: That’s a really good question. That’s truly what the inspiration of the restaurant behind me is: to lay the groundwork, to lay the foundation and claim what we truly have here, which is beautiful, West Texas cuisine. Things from lamb. San Angelo has more lamb within 120 miles than anywhere else in the world. We’ve got more sheep than anywhere else in the world. Here in West Texas, not a lot of the farmers think it’s something that you eat. It’s a processable animal. I beg to differ. I think that goat is an amazing animal. I think that sheep and lamb, things of that nature, they’re all amazing animals and they can be cooked in amazing ways. That’s what we’re after here at the Angry Cactus, to fundamentally box in what West Texas is all about.
If you look at our chicken fried chicken, for instance, we present it in three small chicken fried chickens on a rectangular plate, individually portioned with some fried onions and beautiful little baby radishes that we usually put over the top. That’s the perfect way to describe something that’s from West Texas, but it’s reinvented through my eyes, through the chef’s eyes. That’s really where our claim to fame is. That’s really where that culinary culture that I talk about comes from. My whole passion for myself and my team behind me is to really develop that.
That speaks to the success of what we’ve done here at Angry Cactus. We’ve been open here since 2016. It seems like it was just yesterday. We’ve really been able to develop that with the leadership inside of my kitchen. We’re hitting on all cylinders and it’s really amazing to have a packed house here and see people waiting on the weekends for an hour or so just to get in. It’s a really prideful thing for my team, for myself, to be able to showcase what West Texas cuisine is all about. We put our heart and soul on every plate here.
Kirk Bachmann: How is the community? Was it initially a little difficult, or was it immediately welcoming? You mentioned German roots. There’s Mexican roots. There’s Native roots, and they’re used to their cuisine in a certain way. You’ve reinterpreted that, presented it very respectfully. Obviously, the success speaks for itself, but what was it like initially? Was it like, “Wow! That’s not the chicken fried steak I grew up with!”
Tim Condon: It’s funny you say that. We did have to teach the market a little bit what our style was. One of the big things I talk about when it comes to conversations about being a restaurateur, you really have to listen to what the people want. In our case, we want to be the pole setter. We want to be the pacemaker for what happens and what people eat. We want to be the trendsetter. In order to do that, you have to be able to establish some sort of legitimacy.
After having Lonestar Cheeseburger open for five or six years here in this market, we were able to develop legitimacy. Then we got a much better shot at taking our game to the next level here at Angry Cactus and moving it up to a different level of dining. Even though it was a struggle, we had nachos on the menu that were deconstructed at the beginning. I had people, farm folks from an hour away coming in here and trying to tell me, “That’s not nachos.” They didn’t understand. This is art on a plate. This is what we’re trying to do. Needless to say, those nachos are no longer on our menu.
But we replaced them with things that are a little bit more palatable, but at the same time, going back to the pace-setting route, the trendsetting route. We want things that are unique, things that are unique to us, things that are unique to this region of the world, the country. Give a snapshot to folks passing through West Texas, “This is what we’re all about” from a culinary perspective.
It was a challenge at the beginning to teach people that, but once it started rolling. It took a few months, and people started saying, “Hey, this was good.” Now, we’re one of the busiest restaurants here in San Angelo.
Kirk Bachmann: People have come to expect a certain type of cuisine from you. It reminds me a little bit of the story: Years ago, my family and I had a restaurant up in the mountains here in Colorado. German roots. We were really careful. We billed it as a German/American restaurant. To your point, we kept the local favorites on the menu, but over here in the corner we had 8-10 items that were very classic from the schnitzel in a variety of ways.
I’ll never forget: we started pushing this amazing smoked pork loin on the bone, which we started serving with a braised cabbage. Something they were familiar with. They loved the smoked pork, but we added the cabbage. Before you know it, they started asking for that. It took a while. Smoked pork is a little pink. People were like, “Is that cooked?” I can appreciate that.
Tim Condon: I always look at things in a three, five, ten-year span. I’m looking at Angry Cactus and saying, “Alright. In three, five, ten years, where are we going to be? What do we want to do?” Those objectives that we want in three, five, ten years are going to be met with a determination, with understanding exactly where we go. We’re going to be remodeling soon. We’re going to be adding on new spaces. We’re going to be adding on a kitchen for the culinary program. All these kinds of things.
We’re really looking at the three, five, ten year marks. Where can we really maximize the culinary industry here in West Texas? We’re in a huge vacuum of folks that want to be in our industry, but more importantly, a huge vacuum of passion for our industry. Not a lot of people are raised and grown up in this area and think, “Oh, I want to be a chef.” My job is to show them that this is an amazing lifestyle. This is an amazing career path. This is an amazing industry. I wake up every single day excited to go to work. It’s my job to show some folks that can also be them.
Kirk Bachmann: It totally shows. I love the passion and the commitment. Let’s take that and segue. In spite of how busy you are with the restaurant and the other concepts, you engage as well as anyone I’ve ever seen in this concept. I’ll put the umbrella of an apprenticeship-type program. At Escoffier, we call it Work and Learn, this idea of bringing employees in, helping them understand and work their way up in the restaurant industry – in your restaurant – while going to school online, which affords them the opportunity to work, take care of their personal life, their family. You allow them the time to keep up with their studies. They’re getting that formal education, that degree from Escoffier while providing value to you and your customers. It’s just absolutely incredible, the way that you have adopted this model. Could you speak a little bit about what unique opportunities this type of training model gives to restaurant employees? This idea of formal training with education with real world experience.
Tim Condon: When I came across the program for the first time, it was exactly what I was looking for for my staff and for the people that were under me. I firmly know from experience that there are really two ways you have to look at the culinary industry. First, you have to understand the technical parts, formal education, understanding the five mother sauces, understanding French cuisine. Everything about Escoffier, everything to do with those kinds of things, understanding how to make Hollandaise. The structure, all of that.
But more importantly, you have to be able to understand how to work the day-to-day operations of a restaurant or a catering facility or whatever part of the industry you want to be in. Really, what the Work and Learn program has done for us at the Angry Cactus is really giving that formal structure that I’m always wanting people to know and understand. Also, I’m able to provide them a real-world life working experience.
My whole goal in this is I want to get people to be able to go to school for free. What we do here at the Angry Cactus is we pay for half of your culinary program. We also have some scholarships to offer. We work with the restaurant association here locally to develop scholarships. My goal is that anyone who comes here does a culinary program with our Work and Learn program that, by the end when it’s all said and done, it’ll be 100 percent paid for.
We do fundraising events to help that process go. We’re building a kitchen that can house up to twelve students here at the Angry Cactus, currently. Additional dining space to be able to do additional fundraising and things of that nature.
It’s really cool to be able to see people. I’ve got my first student graduating very soon here. His name is Terry and he’s been working for me for about two-and-a-half years. He’s gone through the culinary program with Escoffier. He’s been with me and he’s worked his way up. Now he’s working on being a chef de partie here at the Angry Cactus. But more importantly, what it’s done is it’s given him the ability to be able to understand when I’m talking about collagen and breaking down a chicken thigh and braising it a little longer, or short ribs. He understands the science behind that now, thanks to the Escoffier program. And then he also sees the stuff that I pound down his throat, which is opening inventory plus purchases minus closing inventory divided by sales. The product cost formula. And understanding that. My job is to be able to develop these people so that they’re the next generation of my business, of our industry. I can focus on growing my company, and I can let the pieces that I develop play within the business.
We all work and we all gain from that. That’s really what we’re after, but more importantly, that’s what the Work and Learn program does for us here at the Angry Cactus. It gives us a great amount of retention. Everybody that’s been in the program sticks around. They’re bought in. They understand that this is where their career path is. They’re passionate about it just like I am about this career. It really is contagious. We’ve got our next two to three students starting next month, and we’ve got a couple following who are going to be part of the program. It really creates a great opportunity to come work in my kitchen. They do the work, the classwork, the labs – everything – here in our kitchen. I watch over it. I give them suggestions. They get graded by the Escoffier staff. It’s just a really nice marriage of being able to create a formal education, but also getting real work experience. That’s really what we’re after.
I think in the past, a lot of time, culinary degrees have been able to be given out to almost anyone. But when you get into this Work and Learn situation, you get to work hands-on, one-on-one with your hands with these students. I’m able to put my stamp on their careers and be able to influence them that way. They also get the great formal education that Escoffier provides.
Kirk Bachmann: You brought up an incredibly important concept, this idea of retention. Keeping your staff. That’s tremendous. You’re a numbers guy, so the ROI is very evident to you. You’re investing in someone that is going to stay with you for a while. Any other advice for entrepreneurs to allow this model to work for them? Clearly, you have the passion. You’re seeing it work in action. If I’m opening a restaurant concept, what do I need to understand to make that sort of model work for me?
Tim Condon: Luckily I’ve been able to work in some really great kitchens with some really great culinary cultures. I think that’s the big key word that I like to use, culinary culture. During the pandemic and during everything that’s gone on the last couple of years, we’ve never had a problem retaining our staff. Most importantly, the reason for that is that we create this culinary culture, truly webbed together by passion. Every single person that works for me at the Angry Cactus, they either have to be passionate or they’re probably not going to be around very much longer. We really, really want people that want this industry, love this industry, and have the same passion that we do.
It’s not a job for us. This is a career path. This is a passion for us. We don’t look at it as an employment situation. We look at it more as a development, a culinary education you’re going to receive. All of my guys that work for me, I have definitions. Mise en place is plastered all over my kitchen a hundred places. We talk about having everything in its place. We talk about mise en place as a metaphor for life. Being prepared and having everything in a row. Getting your credit right before opening a restaurant. That’s part of having mise en place. Getting the proper education. That’s part of having mise en place. All of these different things and how they affect us in our day-to-day lives and our day-to-day operations, that’s really where the rubber meets the road.
If we can provide that here at the Angry Cactus, then there’s nowhere else you want to go. That’s really the basic part of it. Really creating that culinary culture. Making sure we really live this brigade system. Making sure that everyone understands the chain of command. Making sure everyone has a standard. They show up with sharp knives every single day. They’re in uniform every single day because we’re going to get to work and we’re going to produce some of the best food you can get within four to five hours from here. That’s a big obligation, and that’s a big opportunity at the same time.
That’s really what the culinary culture is all about: creating people that want to do that for a living. When you wake up every day loving what you do, it’s not a day of work. I can give a full on testament to that.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. You mentioned a couple of times you’re going to build a dedicated educational kitchen. This area where your folks that are in the Work and Learn program can literally step aside from the rail or the pass for a minute and exercise their assignments and that sort of thing. That is a huge commitment. I absolutely love it. How’s that working?
Tim Condon: It’s great. We’re lucky that we have 12,000 square feet to expand here at the Angry Cactus. 3500 of it is going to be dedicated to the new facility. The way we work here at the Angry Cactus is on Mondays and Wednesday, our prep team has two days off. On Mondays, we use that for Escoffier. It’s almost a dual-purpose, where we can have a full restaurant going on, but in the back we have up to 12 students working on their culinary program, working on the Escoffier online piece. Being able to do that – and I refer to this place as my culinary compound, it’s amazing. Being able to have all of these different elements going on under one roof and being able to show even some agriculture pieces. I’m out here on my patio and we’ve got jalapenos and all of these beautiful things out here.
Kirk Bachmann: Just gorgeous. Wow.
Tim Condon: It’s just an amazing facility to be able to showcase every piece and every portion. Of course, 30 minutes away at my home we have a fully-functional farm with chickens and all kinds of stuff out there. Having these things where we can grow our own vegetables and show how to pickle and can and ferment. Or we butcher a pig. We get to learn how to use every single element of that pig. All of that can be taught in a book, but you can’t ever do it in real life unless you work at a place like Angry Cactus where there are really no rules. That’s a huge opportunity.
It’s kind of our claim to fame here, to be able to have no rules when it comes to culinary opportunities. If we want to shut down and throw a murder mystery dinner and do entertainment and acting and things with a nice three or four course meal, we can do that. If we want to do a tequila tasting with five different courses, or we want to do paella on the patio out here cooked over open coals, we can do that. So we do it very often, and we do it all the time. it’s just a really cool thing to be able to practice our craft every single day and do things that we’ve never done before, learn, and all of that. It creates this amazing culinary culture that I keep talking about. That’s really the secret sauce, the secret to our success here at the Angry Cactus.
Kirk Bachmann: Just brilliant. Practice your craft and respect the craft. Absolutely perfect.
I can’t believe I’m even going to ask this with as much as you have going on, what’s the next mountain to climb? What are you interested in beyond what you’re building there?
Tim Condon: I’ve been 100 percent owner of my company since I founded it. I’ve got my first culinary intern from 12 years ago here at the local high school; he’s been working for me for 12 years now. Him and another person on my staff, we’re going to be giving them ownership in our company, and they’re going to be growing Lonestar Cheeseburger Company, the world’s largest drive-through restaurant. They’re going to be doing that.
Me personally, I’m really getting into the sustainability aspect of farming and things of that nature. We’re working on doing a farm and homesteading and having a self-sustainable farm that can produce beautiful chickens and donkeys – not donkeys. We don’t cook donkeys. But goats and pigs and things of that nature.
Kirk Bachmann: No more drinks, staff. No more drinks.
Tim Condon: That’s something. Really being able to bring people into my home and cook for 10 to 12 people in my home with products that I’ve personally grown, or pickled, or raised, or fed from birth, and harvested. All those different things. The one thing I can always tell anyone that is going into the culinary field is there will always be a need for somebody to eat, and somebody to cook that food. That’s never going to go away. Being flexible and being able to sell food in a fast food setting, in a fine dining setting, in a catering setting, or just being able to provide a homestead that is sustainable and being able to bring people into your home and have a five-course meal made of just things that are grown on the farm.
There’s always going to be a need for somebody to cook. I think that’s why our industry is such a safe bet. There’s always going to be a need for chefs. There’s always going to be a need for cooks, because there are always going to be people that need to eat. That’s not going away.
Kirk Bachmann: I just can’t even believe what a fun conversation this has been this morning. Your passion is infectious. One of the things that keeps going through my mind as we’re talking here – you probably know this already – for our online students who are in every state of the nation, several times a year we come together in farm to table events in different locations from Vermont to Ohio to Austin, Texas, to Boulder, Colorado. I’m calling you to see if we can get some people to come hang out with you and check out the donkeys on your farm. And the chickens. That’s a whole other conversation.
But Chef, before I let you go, the name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. I think you’ve already gone over a lot of it, but in your mind, what is that one ultimate dish that always stays with you?
Tim Condon: Absolutely. I go back to the number one item at the very top of our menu here at the Angry Cactus. It’s called the Not-Your-Grandma’s Meatloaf, because it’s this amazing blend of chorizo and ground beef, a little bit of corn, some cheddar cheese and poblanos, wrapped in a corn husk, smoked with local mesquite in our pit right out back. Then we finish it in the oven and grill it to order. It’s a beautiful dish, finished with a nice little barbecue sauce that has fusion elements in it, sweet chili and things of that nature, from my Hawaiian days.
Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant.
Tim Condon: It’s just a beautiful fusion of home-style food and everything.
Kirk Bachmann: With the train in the background. It could not be more perfect.
Tim Condon: The bustling metropolis of downtown San Angelo, Texas.
Kirk Bachmann: San Angelo. I absolutely love it.
Hey, thanks so much, Chef, for the time. Our best to your students behind that door. We’re going to have to get you on again, because there’s a lot more to talk about. Thanks for joining us today.
Tim Condon: Absolutely.
Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.