Editor’s Introduction: Dame’s Chicken And Waffles in Durham, North Carolina is another example of an overnight success that was years in the making. In this two-part exclusive interview with Damion Moore, the prime mover of Dame’s Chicken & Waffles, Heck Of A Guy readers are treated to the back story of the restaurant and the proprietor and, more significantly, to Damion’s thoughtful, focused approach to his business. Those who have already visited Dame’s Chicken & Waffles may find a number of surprises (for example, that especially friendly guy you thought was a waiter may well have been one of the owners), but regardless of one’s distance from Durham or feelings about poultry-topped waffles, the perspective described in this piece should prove interesting, inspirational, and instructive.
A Man, A Plan, A Durham Chicken & Waffles Joint1
By Duchess of Durham2
One can sometimes glean surprisingly significant insight into an individual with his answer to a simple question.
For example, the response of Damion Moore, the managing partner and chef of Dame’s Chicken & Waffles, to one query revealed that his true métier is not his considerable culinary skill or his business acumen but his mindfulness.
But we’ll get to all that in a moment.
A few words of explanation here at the start may be helpful. After my initial visit to Dame’s two weeks ago, my companions and I were so taken with the food and the setting that I decided to inscribe a panegyric in the guise of a review of the food. A cursory search, unfortunately, revealed that this notion fell squarely within the “Been there; Done that” category. 3
The briefest of calculations was sufficient to demonstrate that the potential gratification from scribbling the 873rd adulation of Dame’s Chicken & Waffles offered too little reward to warrant the effort. Rather than dissuading me from the project, however, the realization I was not the first to discover this foodie gem prompted me to look at other perspectives and, finally, to grasp that the real story was not the delightful, delicious chicken & waffle dishes but the tale of how the eatery serving those chicken and waffles has become, in its eight months of existence in downtown Durham, a dining phenomenon capable of evoking that plethora of positive reviews – along with an aura of nearly mythological proportions.
Which is how I came to spend an hour after Dame’s closed last Sunday talking with Damion Moore on the sidewalk in front of his eponymous restaurant, learning what makes him and his business tick.
I Discover Who Doesn’t Like Chicken & Waffles – And What Damion Moore Intends To Do About It
Indeed, it was the multitude of worshipful reviews that sparked the first question I put to Damion:
Given all the positive reviews, is there anyone who doesn’t like Dame’s Chicken & Waffles?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that in asking this, I half-expected him to answer with a quip or a flat “no” that I could at least use for a quote in this story. Instead, Damion responds, without hesitation,”Vegetarians.”
As will prove true of many such issues, Damion Moore has thought about this point already.
He goes on to explain not only that this population segment has voiced complaints but also how he plans to deal with their concerns. After experimentation, Damion has, in fact, developed a vegan waffle that may well have been introduced by the time this article is posted. He is also working with an Asian vendor to develop a tofu chicken substitute; with hopes of adding this to the menu this Spring.
Ones immediate reaction to vegan waffles and tofu chicken notwithstanding, this type of thoughtful response proves to be fundamental to how Damion Moore’ operates.
Growing Up Damion
How do you become a chef-owner of a successful restaurant without the classic culinary training widely believed to be a necessity?
Well, if you’re Damion Moore, you follow your own path, but you choose that path purposively.
Growing up in a home with a single, working mom, Damion’s options are (1) learn to prepare his own meals or (2) wait with an empty stomach until his mother returned home. Possessed of a hearty appetite exacerbated by his participation in sports, the choice is a no-brainer. It is the learning methodology Damion adopts that is striking.
Now, when asked where he trained to become a chef, Damion answers with a straight face that as a child he matriculated at the Food Network. But, in addition to watching cooking shows and winning a well-deserved reputation as a fearless trial-and-error cook, Damion, from his adolescence onward, proves an especially attentive observer of food preparation and restaurant operations.
Perhaps most importantly, Damion becomes – and to his wife’s chagrin, continues to be – an interrogator with a tenacity, energy, and intensity rarely seen outside the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition or certain secret prisons maintained by the CIA.4
Only the incompetent or mediocre restaurants escape his line of questioning that ranges from the mechanics of cleaning a diner to the presentation of a meal to the technique the chef employs to braise the chicken thighs. And, despite his spouse’s embarrassment, Damion persists in this practice to this day, radiating sufficient charm to overwhelm objections and win him audiences with typically reticent restaurant owners and chefs who share otherwise well-guarded information, provide guided tours of the kitchen, and suggest other contacts.
While working at restaurants and learning to run food services and to cook nights, weekends, and holidays, Damion earns a degree in Business and Marketing at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While a UNCG student, Damion also strikes up a friendship with a fraternity brother, Randy Wadsworth, who, a decade or two later, becomes Damion’s business partner.
His degree in hand, Damion takes a job with a telecom company that leads to a two year tour of duty headquartered in Hong Kong with responsibility for a territory that includes Japan, Seoul, Singapore, and all of central Asia.
The alert reader will not be surprised to find that Damion views this stint as an overseas extension of his autodidactic program to learn the restaurant business as well as a way to earn a living. Every trip to a restaurant includes not only making notes on how the dining room was run but visiting the kitchen and speaking with the chef about how the food was prepared. (One specific result of Damion’s assignment to Asia is The Frizzled Fowl, the only one of the ten dishes on the Chicken & Waffles menu that is distinctly Asian, employing a panko crusted chicken with plum sauce and almonds.)
It is at this point that Damion Moore gets his big break. He, along with his entire division of the company, is laid off.
As a result …
But more about that later – in Part 2.
Part 2 – Putting Dame, Durham, Chicken, And Waffles Together
Of course, education, however successfully pursued, and preparation, however extensive in scope and intense in focus, represents only potential. Unless that potential is converted into reality, the efforts expended are little more than a way to pass the time.
The final installment of the Exclusive Interview With Damion Moore will reveal Damion Moore’s Chicken & Waffles blitzkrieg strategy, the trials of opening a restaurant in a pre-renaissance downtown Durham that was dirty, depressing, and dangerous, and the legacy of Blue Mountain Catering.
Update: Part II of this interview posted 28 March 2011 at Exclusive Interview With Damion Moore Part 2 – The Chicken And Waffles Blitzkrieg Strategy
- Yes, I know it’s not a palindrome; it’s a title [↩]
- Duchess of Durham lives in her blogonymic namesake municipality, works in one of the more ambiguously arcane estuaries of the financial world, reads novels and poetry voraciously, and watches schlock TV. Having recently discovered the songs and poems of Leonard Cohen, she has subsequently become an enthusiastic admirer of the Canadian singer-songwriter-icon. On occasion, she contributes, directly or indirectly, to the Heck Of A Guy blog. [↩]
- Readers in search of a plethora of glowing reports on the Chicken & Waffles dishes at Dame’s can fulfill this quest at Carpe Durham, MasalaWala, UrbanSpoon, IndyWeek, Yelp, That”s No Bull, and, as far as I can determine, any site that reviews restaurants in Durham, NC. [↩]
- There is, however, no hard evidence to support those rumors about Damion using thumbscrews and water boarding. [↩]