Tim Love is sitting alone at the bar. It’s early in the morning, just before 9 a.m., and he’s doing a little work, so the barstools and green marble countertop serve as his makeshift desk.
His back is to me, but I can tell he’s crouched over some papers, coffee cup within reach. He seems busy. We have an interview scheduled, so I would normally just go up and say hi. Yeah, but still, I shouldn’t bother him. He seems really busy. Besides, I’m a few minutes early. Just hang out on the side, get on your phone, and wait for him to notice you.
A few second pass, and we make eye contact.
“Hey, want some doughnuts?”
“You have doughnuts?”
“Oh, yeah. We got doughnuts and coffee right over here,” Love points to the other side of the bar. “Help yourself.”
They’re the fancy kind — in other words, not a box of glazed — and they’re neatly placed on a platter. Probably the nicest display of deep-fried breakfast confections I’ve ever seen. And not knowing my palate, he (or his people) clearly got the doughnut party pack; no two are the same. Straddled with a choice too early in the morning, I nervously grab the one with blue icing and what I think are Oreo crumbles. I don’t know, I never ended up taking a bite out of it.
“You got all of this for us?” I ask half-joking.
He’s dead serious.
“We’re all about hospitality, man. If I know some people are going to be here in the morning, we make sure we got something sweet and savory for everyone.”
It’s a line, but I like it.
General salutations and hi-how-are-yous follow, and he shows me what he’s working on — a revamped menu for Woodshed, his patio eatery on the Trinity. The wheels are turning. I can sense it. He’s thinking hard, and his creative juices are flowing, then a writer comes along and builds a dam around this flow with a bunch of questions. But it’s all good. He’s game and clearly kind enough to grant me an entire day to get to know him for this profile. After all, when you’re opening restaurants at a clip of three a year (he opened Caterina’s, Paloma Suerte, and Tannahill’s all in 2022), creating music festivals (Fort Worth Music Festival), and boutique hotels made from shipping crates (Otto), you’re always working. You’re always ideating, conceptualizing, and ruminating. At this point, for Love, it’s a necessity to survive.
I find a way to steer the conversation toward something that’s fresh on my mind: Iron Chef. Yeah, I watched the episode featuring Love the night before to prepare for the interview.
I start telling him that I used to be an avid watcher of “Iron Chef America” — the cooking show credited with kicking off the chef/food reality show craze of the early- to mid-aughts. Back when the Food Network was a default channel to which I consistently flipped, and chefs became larger-than-life figures. Their concoctions, light years ahead of pan-seared poultry with garlic powder, became primetime television and successfully put the public’s viewing habits under its spell. And Tim Love was, and is, one of those people. A celebrity chef. And, more than that, he was the chef from Fort Worth. The cowboy chef. It might’ve seemed a little shticky, but it also wasn’t a stretch, and Love appeared more than happy to lean into it.
And it all started with a 2007 appearance on “Iron Chef America” when he challenged original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and came out the victor.
I probably remember three episodes of “Iron Chef,” I tell him. I used to watch it all the time, but my recall is strongest with those three. And the one that might stick out the most to me was watching these dudes in Stetsons taking whiskey shots throughout the competition defeating the original Iron Chef.
“We drank a whole bottle before the show,” Love laughs. “[Morimoto’s] restaurant was at the bottom floor of the Chelsea Market, so they’ve got this big home field advantage bringing in shaved ice machines and stuff. Meanwhile, it’s just me and my two guys over here, and we were just trying to have a good time.”
Love goes on to wax lyrical about the famous tuna rib dish he’d prepared for the show and his continued friendship with Mario Batali. And I’m realizing, damn, this is good stuff. The things he’s sharing. What he’s saying. It’s not what I expected. Wait. Has the interview started? I don’t know. My tape recorder’s not running; I start taking notes.
I’m nervous about asking the question. I kind of saw it as the crux of the story, but I worry what his reaction might be. I mean, how would you feel if someone asked why some people don’t like you?
I wanted to do this story in an attempt to find out why so many people are divided on their opinion of Love. That’s not to say he’s disliked. Far from it. One couldn’t be this successful if they had to routinely live among such vitriol. In fact, I would argue he’s liked. But bring up Tim’s name in passing, and everyone in Fort Worth seems to have an opinion.
Is it because people find him arrogant? Is it because people find him surly? Is it because he’s difficult to work with? Is it because people don’t like his businesses?
Anecdotally, I’ve heard all of the above. On the record? None of the above. So, I should move on. But I want to get Tim’s take. I want to know how he feels about it and how it affects him.
Two things that are universally accepted about Mr. Love: He loves his family, and he’s an incredibly talented chef with a strong creative streak. A streak that began at the turn of the century when Love opened his first restaurant, Lonesome Dove — a fine-dining Western bistro in the Stockyards and the epitome of what one might consider a Fort Worth staple.
Today, Love’s diversified portfolio of experiential brands includes Austin and Knoxville locations of Lonesome Dove, six additional restaurants in Fort Worth, a saloon, a doughnut shop, a steakhouse in Denton, a music venue, and a hotel.
“What Love has figured out, and he did this on his own, is how to build equity in your name — that way, people will follow you from place to place,” Mike Micallef, owner of Reata, where Love once worked as executive chef, says. “The other thing he’s figured out, and this goes along with building equity in your name, is how to make each of his places an experience. A lot of chefs get hung up on the food, and that’s important, but for Love it’s also about the decor, the service, the location, the entire experience from beginning to end. Look at his places — they’re all Instagrammable.”
But not every concept Love touches has turned to gold.
Love’s first attempt at expanding beyond Fort Worth was not a success. In the fall of 2006, he opened a second location of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in New York. The New York media, unforgiving and merciless in criticism, wasted little time picking apart every aspect of the restaurant. Hell, picking apart aspects I didn’t know existed (the front rug?).
But, to give Love a quick defense, not everyone agreed. “Tim’s smartest early move was to open a Lonesome Dove in New York, even if briefly,” Bud Kennedy, food critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, says. “It was a good restaurant and made a great impression on a lot of folks.”
Regardless, the following March, less than a year after it opened, Lonesome Dove NY closed.
And, as is the fate of almost any restaurateur, this wouldn’t be the sole instance of bad press or a restaurant closing. Love also closed a tapas bar called Duce on the west side, on Camp Bowie Boulevard. He also tried to revive one of Fort Worth’s most cherished dive bars, the Oui Lounge on Bluebonnet Circle, in 2012. But his revamp was too polished for regulars, and a year later, it closed. Love Shack, Love’s cleverly named string of burger joints, has had limited success. Locations at the Fort Worth Stockyards and DFW Airport are open while three other North Texas stores closed. Then, there’s the infamous Colonial debacle, where his poorly received catering at the Crowne Plaza Invitational lives in Fort Worth lore.
In August 2022, CultureMap reported that Love had shuttered three Houston restaurants: the Houston locations of Woodshed Smokehouse and Love Shack, plus a Houston location of his doughnut concept, Side Dough, itself an offshoot of his doughnut shop connected to Queenie’s Steakhouse, his steakhouse in Denton. All three Houston concepts opened at the worst time imaginable, on March 12, 2020, as the pandemic held the state in its grip. A week later, Governor Greg Abbott closed Texas restaurants for in-person dining.
So, yeah, Tim Love has had his hits and taken some licks. You have part of the picture now.
Tape recorder clicked on. We start the interview.
Love likes to talk business. He likes to talk ideas. It’s his comfort zone, and he’s damn good at it. Whether he’s chatting about his big, experiential schemes — of which there are many — or the management of his employees, there’s a clarity to his words and an excitement in his voice.
And when you get him going, when he starts riffing, his twangy timbre can resemble Matthew McConaughey. And, similar to his fellow Texan, he occasionally speaks in playful proverbs — “I always say I walk with a hundred-foot circle of fun around me. Get in or get out. I wish you’d get in” — and intersperses these aphorisms with musical references (clearly a love of his), stories (usually about his friends and family), and pithy cooking pointers (“Just throw a damn egg in it,” or “The death of Italian restaurants is salt in the water”). When speaking, Love occupies that vast area between down-to-earth and ostentatious. At times, he teeters on both, but I wouldn’t describe him as either. He has a tendency to casually mention celebrity names — his reputation as an outstanding cook and stints catering music festivals have made him plenty of famous friends — which rattles me into remembering that he too is a celebrity. Regardless, he’s a fun guy to talk to.
His voice changes, however, when the conversation shifts to his wife’s accident in late February of 2019 — a near-fatal injury that almost cost her the use of her legs. His voice gets lower and feels on the edge of trembling or falling off the edge completely.
“My wife (Emilie) is the strongest most phenomenal woman, literally on the planet. I mean, I don’t know if you know about her accident or any of that stuff she went through.”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “I actually wanted to ask you about that.”
“Talk about the darkest days of my life: 2019 to 2021, markedly the two toughest years of my life.”
For a man whose parents got a divorce when he was 11, grew up the youngest of seven in a single-parent’s household, and whose wife was once on weeks of bedrest following the premature birth of twin daughters, this statement, which I don’t suspect has any recency bias, holds a lot of weight. Now, I’m not attempting to paint Love’s life as difficult. I could. But he’ll be the first to tell you otherwise. It’s as though Love speaks in dichotomies. One moment, he’ll tell a story about his family not being able to afford heat, so they burned dining room chairs to stay warm during a cold snap. A few sentences later, he’ll unironically talk about how blessed he’s been throughout his life. And it’s not as though he’s happy-go-lucky. In some ways, it’s simpler: He just doesn’t like to talk about or remember bad things.
When I first asked him how old he was when his parents got a divorce — I did get an answer the second time I posed the question — he filled me in on one of his peculiarities.
“You know, I was thinking about this yesterday, ’cause you had said you wanted to get into my childhood. And I don’t know if it’s a good or bad trait of mine, but anything negative that happens in my life, I just kind of, I just forget about it, really. I mean, I learned from it. And that’s it.”
Eventually, later in the day after we had had a couple drinks, I apologized for my negative string of questions. The way I remember phrasing it: “Sorry. It’s my job to bring up shitty things.”
“That’s fine. Sorry. Listen, that ain’t the first time, you know? And it ain’t gonna be the last time. People love to talk about the negative things that I do. And it’s fine. I prefer to stay on the positive side.”
While Love isn’t a Fort Worth boy in the sense that he was born here, his hometown is still solidly in the North Texas plains. Love was born and raised in Denton. He was the first and only Texas-born kid of his brothers and sisters, and his mom wanted to name him Breckenridge, after the city where he was conceived. His dad was a doctor, “a damn good doctor,” and the family had only recently moved to the Lone Star State from Wilmington, Delaware. As mentioned before, he was the youngest and is, by his own admission, a mistake. “My brothers and sisters go right in a row from 14 down to 7. One every year. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a big gap.”
To say Love is close to his family feels like an understatement. The way he talks about his loved ones (which encompasses not just his immediate family, but his extended one, too) makes the whole brood seem conjoined. Knotted together. But not in an annoying way, rather in a we-want-to-continue-making-great-memories-together way. Love talks frequently and enthusiastically about cooking for everyone. “Is it a lot of work for me? Of course, but I don’t care. I love hosting it.” And he smiles anytime family is brought up in conversation, as though he’s tapping into his memory bank and thinking of something funny.
To get a sense of their importance in his life, you need look no further than the names of his restaurants. While his sometimes-grandiose ideas come straight from his imagination, it’s his family who influences what everyone calls them. The new tavern and music hall, Tannahill’s, is named after his son. The recently opened Caterina’s is named for his sister, Kathleen, who passed away two and half years ago. Gemelle, which means twin in Italian, is named for his twin daughters, Anna and Ella. And Queenie’s is named after his mother.
But, even if he doesn’t like talking about it, his family did have hardships during his formative years.
“We literally ate mustard and cheese sandwiches every day. Yeah, my dad was a doctor, but when you have seven kids and your parents get divorced, it’s just rough. I mean, my dad did all the right things. He never missed a payment of child support. But my mom was stuck with this big house and seven kids. My mom cries every time I tell these stories, but it’s, like, ‘Mom, it’s not that big of a deal. We’re all still here.”
We’ve now clocked a few hours at our first spot, Tannahill’s — Love’s new music venue/tavern/social club/fill-in-the-blank — and we get antsy for a change of scenery. He now has six brick-and-mortar spots in the Stockyards, an area of town that’s bustling, expanding, and synonymous with the chef. So, it’s not as if we’re racking our brains trying to think of a joint to hit up next.
There’s no denying Love’s impact on the way the Stockyards have taken shape. When Love opened Lonesome Dove in 2000, you likely had one of either two popular reactions: a yawn or a sneer. Today, it’s one of the hottest pieces of real estate in all of Texas.
“Years ago, if you wanted to go look for a fight, if you wanted to smart off to someone and get in a fistfight, you could very easily find that at the Stockyards,” Micallef says. “But Tim’s concepts and the development of Mule Alley have brought back an important element to the Stockyards. He’s been instrumental in turning that area into a destination.”
His prophesying Mule Alley or Hotel Drover the moment he spotted the run-down building that would soon house Lonesome Dove is highly unlikely. At that moment, he was only focused on his small restaurant succeeding. He had no choice. He and his wife put everything they had into it.
Love recalls, in the days leading up to the opening of Lonesome Dove, a time when he ran into Fort Worth Star-Telegram food critic Bud Kennedy at the local Milano’s Pizza. Love, then an unknown to Mr. Kennedy, introduced himself and told him about his plans to open a fine-dining restaurant in the Stockyards. According to Love, Kennedy replied, “You know three or four people have already done that, right? You can’t do fine dining in the Stockyards. No one can do fine dining in the Stockyards.”
“Ask Kennedy about that, and he’ll tell you the same thing.” We did, and Kennedy told us a similar story.
Love’s animosity for the media is well documented — making the shoes I currently occupy a little scary. But he’s also taken a beating — some fair, some not — so I understand his skepticism. Regardless, I sensed he likes to wear his refute of Kennedy as a badge of honor.
We decide to head across the street to his new Italian spot, Caterina’s, that caused a stir thanks to a no-cell-phone policy. For some, this is where Love’s obsession with atmosphere and experience crossed a line. Detractors cried such havoc that one could’ve mistaken their mobile devices for one of life’s most precious and essential commodities — it was like snatching formula from a baby. Granted, others found the policy inspired.
Inside the dimly lit restaurant, I started quizzing Love on why he wanted to become a chef.
“Well, to pay for college.”
Love had worked since he was 12 when he did his neighborhood paper route and even flexed his business acumen by letting the Denton Record-Chronicle in on a little secret: It makes more sense to bill first and deliver later.
His father got a farm in Cookeville, Tennessee, where Love spent his summers and would eventually enroll in the nearby University of Tennessee. Once there, he applied at Knoxville restaurant, Kotsi’s Grill and Spirits, to be a bartender, server, or host because he wanted “to meet chicks.” Curtailing Love’s libido, the owner offered him a job making salads for $5.23 an hour.
As one might say, the rest is history.
“I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the competition of it. It’s like war back there — people yelling at me the whole time, telling me how terrible I am. And I was like, ‘To hell with that; I’m not gonna be terrible, I’m gonna be great.’”
A year later, Love was running the kitchen.
From there, Love did some restaurant hopping in Knoxville and transitioned to running a hotel. Yes, running a hotel. Oh, and this was all in a three-year span; he hasn’t even graduated college, where, by the way, he was involved in crew.
Hell, it even baffles him.
“Sometimes, when I’m telling stories, I feel like I’m telling tall tales. Like, when I look back on it, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Not sure why he’s saying it at this moment. There’s more to come.
He was working at the Radisson when he graduated with a double major in finance and marketing from Tennessee. It’s a job he summarily left after he graduated to go hike the Appalachian Trail by himself. Following this 2,200-mile hike through the mountains, he took a job washing dishes in Breckenridge, Colorado, because, well, he wanted to ski. Or, snowboard, really. “I was a skater, and snowboarding was the cool thing and shit.” He would teach handicapped kids how to ski to earn his lift pass, and he would end up snowboarding professionally for a company called Nerve. “They’d pay me, like, 20 grand a year, and I’d use all their gear.”
But once restaurateurs discovered Love could cook, and cook well, his dish-washing days were over. He would hop around a little bit, taking over a kitchen and then partnering with someone to open his own kitchen (still in Colorado), but neither panned out. He’d ultimately find a home at Uptown Bistro, the owners of which also owned Blue River Bistro, where Emilie was a manager.
For Love, who had grown his hair past his shoulders — down near his lumbar — it was love at first sight. But young love, in all of its turbulence, is often unrequited.
“I’d say it was love at second glance,” Emilie says. “We worked together, and then we became such good friends. I do remember he had long hair, and that just wasn’t my thing. Yeah, I didn’t even think much of anything until he cut his, and then I was like, ‘Oh, wait, who’s that?’”
According to Emilie, things moved pretty quickly. The next thing she knew they were living together and doing laundry. They would date for about 18 months before the pair moved to Fort Worth in May of ’98.
Love would famously get a gig at Reata in 1999, becoming their head chef and quickly making a name for himself, and Emilie started working at Del Frisco’s. When the 2000 tornado struck Fort Worth, the funnel seemed to zero-in on Bank One Tower (now The Tower), where Reata occupied the top space. The tornado happened on a Tuesday. Reata is closed on Tuesdays, but Love was in the restaurant doing finances in the kitchen. He didn’t recognize the twister was coming until he saw a yard umbrella hit the restaurant window, 488 feet above the ground.
Love admits that he used the tornado to leave Reata, where he felt restricted and unable to flex his culinary skills. So, at the age of 28, and having been in Fort Worth for only two years, Love opened a fine-dining establishment in the Stockyards.
Emilie, meanwhile, kept working at Del Frisco’s. After all, she was the safety net. She was the safeguard. If anything happened to Tim, she could hold them up. This is what made her accident in 2019 so devastating, because she’s the one who fell.
“So, what exactly happened?” I ask.
I can tell, once the story of the 2019 incident kicks off, how demanding it is for either of them (I interviewed Tim and Emilie separately) to tell it.
Love was in Knoxville doing a charity event on the same weekend Emilie was running the Cowtown Half-Marathon. “She had gotten the best time she’s ever had,” Love says. “It wasn’t anything crazy, but it was the best time she had ever had.” The two planned on meeting in Nashville following the race, where Love was presenting an award to the Kings of Leon, who he happens to be good friends with (like, really good friends. Like, godfather-of-one-of-their-children good friends). Of course, the way Emilie puts it, “He had driven to Nashville, where we had some meetings, and he was giving an award and yada yada.”
When Emilie’s plane lands in Nashville, she’s “texting him, ‘Hey, landed, getting an Uber.’ So, my Uber comes, and I’m putting my little carryon in, and the car behind me never stopped, and it pens me between the two car bumpers.
“So, my knees to my ankles, my legs, are crushed.”
As Love puts it, her legs are dangling from the skin, and all of her bones are broken. It’s a multiple bilateral fracture.
“I thought someone had pushed me to try to steal my purse,” Emilie says. “Like, I didn’t even know what was happening. But when I looked at my legs, they were literally zig-zagged everywhere.”
Once Love gets the news via a number he didn’t recognize, he races to the Vanderbilt Center for Trauma and, actually, beats her there. After a wait, the first person he sees is a social worker.
“Well, the social worker coming out in the hospital means whoever you’re concerned about, he or she is dead. That’s the only reason a social worker comes out and not the doc. So, I tell her, I’m not talking to you. I wanna talk to the doctor. But the reason the ER doctor didn’t want to talk to me was because he didn’t know what to tell me. He had never seen anything like it.”
Love managed to see Emilie while she was in the trauma unit. “Her legs were in these plastic troughs, and there’s blood all over the floor, and they couldn’t give her any pain meds because her blood pressure was so low because she’s bleeding profusely.”
It’s difficult to use the word “fortunate” in such a situation. But being at the Vanderbilt Trauma Center, which happens at one of the best trauma units in the world was, at least as Love puts it, lucky.
Following a great deal of commotion, Dr. Alex Jahangir, an orthopedic surgeon and executive medical director of Vanderbilt Center for Trauma, assured Love that, “though she may never walk again, I’m going to put her back together.’ And that’s all I need to know,” Love says. “I love a good cocky doctor. And I said to him, if you put her back together, she’ll walk.
“And that whole thing, man. Everything that happened after is like a 10-episode series.”
He’s not lying. Emilie’s had 11 surgeries, and she’s nearly lost her legs multiple times over the last three years. While she has proven Tim’s lofty assertion in the hospital correct — she’s walking again — the incident has been life-altering.
“When your wife can’t walk for six months, and she almost loses her legs three times, and she can’t even sleep in her own bed — she’s sleeping in a freaking dining room. And you gotta change her toilet every day. It changes your life. It’ll mess you up.”
Emilie continues to make progress. She’s playing pickleball, going on walks, and can even lightly jog. But it’s clear the whole thing is, to put it bluntly, something that shook them. Something that, in an instant, flipped their world upside down. But the world appears to be tilting right-side up again.
We’re back at Tannahill’s. This time we’re on the Tavern side. We’ve had a plate of grilled oysters and two cocktails. The stories are getting longer and the voices hoarser.
I’m still contemplating the question I want to ask. Whether I want to ask it anymore and whether I should ask it.
I manage to bring it up in the natural flow of the conversation; we’re talking about how people used Caterina’s no-phone policy to attack Love personally. “So why?” I ask. “Why do they make it about you. Why do you think many people feel you are so polarizing?”
“It’s funny ’cause what I do is not about me. Although people seem to wanna make it about me. My job, in my opinion, is to create wonderful experiences that create memories for wonderful people. And that’s not just the guest, but it’s the employees’ team and the management team. I’m the luckiest person on the planet. I think I make a lot of my own luck, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m lucky. Right?
“I mean, amazing family. Badass wife and mom. Cool little dog. Three kids who love me — at least, I think. I mean, I could name all of these things that people dream about. I’m humbled. I’m humbled by all of them, frankly.”
Love begins talking about his moral compass and how we’re all humans who make mistakes. He then says he probably shouldn’t bring the following up, but he does anyway.
“You mentioned Colonial,” Love says. “There’s 700 reasons I could give you to explain what happened. The No. 1, I’ll give you: It didn’t work out. It’s only one person’s fault. It’s mine. So, I can blame anybody I want to. That’s easy. But who does that? Shoot me. Don’t shoot my team. It’s still lonely at the top sometimes.
“Only person I got to answer to is God. Right? And he’s pretty hefty.”
“Are you a faithful person?” I ask.
“You know, I’m not a really church-going person, but I am a very faithful person. I have my own ways. I mean, if you don’t have anybody to answer to, you’re never gonna do anything.”
The interview ends with a shot of tequila and an immediate rumination over our seven-hour conversation. And I begin to wonder: Am I attempting to make Tim Love a tragic and misunderstood figure when, perhaps, there’s no “there there?” He clearly has things figured out and is content with who he is, where he is, and what he’s doing. Is that arrogance? Perhaps, but it’s likely just confidence. Has he changed? I didn’t know him before; I only know the way people perceive him. Is my perception being tainted? But by who? As Tim told me, none of those people know him, anyway. And, really, neither do I.
That said, I’ll leave you with Mr. Bud Kennedy’s measured approach.
“Readers complain all the time that I write too much about Tim. But a lot of his negative reputation is outdated and undeserved. He’s grown up and so have his restaurants, and I’m excited to see what he does next.”
*Additional reporting provided by Malcolm Mayhew