Dallas Walker Peterson: Game on!

Spring has finally sprung and we could all use some much needed fun and fitness, not just for our bodies but for our minds and moods too. Queen & Rook is Philadelphia’s award-winning board game cafe with a full restaurant, a full bar, and a full retail game and puzzle store all rolled into one. They have indoor & outdoor seating and over 1200 games in their game library to enjoy. This week’s Portrait, Dallas Walker Peterson, is the manager and head chef at this fun establishment in South Philadelphia. 

So sir, I believe you are from the great state of Texas.

[Hesitantly] Yes, it’s a little awkward telling people that and then just sitting back and waiting for virtually everyone new to retort, “Wait, you’re from Texas and your name is Dallas! So is your brother named Houston?” It’s ridiculous…. my brother’s name is Austin.  

Ha, I guess I’m slow, I didn’t even make the geographical connection, and what’s funny is that the name Austin figures big in my family. My grandfather and father were Leslie Austins, and my brother is Michael Austin. 

That’s cool, all you need is a Steve! My brother doesn’t go by Austin anymore. And for me it gets worse, my middle name is Walker, so everyone has a good laugh at that too.

It does sound like a name picked by central casting, but I like it. It has a rhythmic flow to it. So tell me a fun memory about growing up in Texas. 

Oh good Lord, well for me, my happiest memories would be… we grew up on a little farm piece of property that my family owned, my dad owned it with his sister. A big yellow farmhouse with two floors and we lived there with my aunt and uncle, their two kids and our grandmother.

You were the Waltons!

Yeah, we had an extended family home and it was a lot of fun. As kids, we didn’t have a lot of direction. Oftentimes you were allowed to just run outside and occupy yourself however you wanted until your parents decided that you’d done the same thing for too long and it was time for you to pick something different. As long as you came back when they hollered at you, you were fine. It was a good time and it impressed upon me something that is now a main fixture of my life, the idea of cooperative living and resisting the standard nuclear style families. It’s something that I find valuable and would love to bring back in the mainstream. Much in the way that members of the gay community have their own journeys of resisting the baked-in script that everyone tries to sell you about who you are and what you need to believe and who you need to be. I don’t know about y’all but I was raised in a strict family and the concept of figuring out who I am and taking those first nearly religious steps to carve out who I actually was, was as important as deciding how I wanted to live. 

And how did you start to step out on that path?

I went to school at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and one of my college chefs got hired to run the Merion Cricket Club. I’d kept in touch with him even after moving back to Texas and he offered me a job. I’d just split with my partner at the time so I just went for it. That was me saying, “I’m going to do something on my own, totally away from everyone else.” I knew it would be tough but I’ve never had a problem figuring out how to get by one way or the other. Especially because as I said, I was raised heavily conservative and it never set well with me. I never acted out against it in any overt sense, but I decided to move away from it and came to Philly. I spent a lot of time on my own but also got involved with new people. I started swing dancing and started getting involved with folks in the gay community and met lots of hippies and all sorts of progressive, forward thinking people that I’d never been exposed to in my life.

Hippies? You’re too young to know hippies!

I say that hyperbolically, but where I’m from they would have been considered hippies. It was great hanging out with different people and learning where they were from and about their different cultures. There’s such an amazing diversity of people here in Philadelphia. 

Though if you started out at the Cricket Club, I don’t imagine there was quite so much diversity there. I moved to the Main Line when I was in grade school and it was culture shock for me, what was it like for you?

How do I even start, you know that stereotype of rich people, how snooty they are, how little they seem to care about the opinions or identity or even the humanity of the people around them? How they demand that everything around them is kept prim and proper and orderly and the slightest deviation from that script will ruffle the feathers of a Waspy 80 year old grandmother enough to get them in such a tither that they have a heart attack? It’s real, those people exist! It’s not a caricature, obviously everyone is not like that, but far too many personify that attitude. That image came from somewhere, and Main Line Ardmore is a good start. 

About when did you come out?

Honestly, I’m not really sure, there are so many parts to it. Is it when you first started thinking about it and then rationalizing things to yourself? When you first start realizing, I’m not straight, or is it when you first act on it? I feel like I kind of acted on it before I rationalized it to myself. The opportunity presented itself and I was in a space that was very open-minded, free of judgement and with respect for different identities. So I was about 25 when I first began to explore my sexual identity. I know that’s pretty late, but different strokes. 

Hey, as long as you get where you want to go. Outside of cooking, what do you like to do? 

Well, a lot of my life does revolve around food. I love exploring different cuisines and trying new things. The world is a very big place with a lot to discover. I like meeting and interacting with people and community building. I like being of service to others, even not food related. I like being an advocate for folks who might not yet have the power to speak for themselves. And of course, running a board game cafe. I’m big into gaming. I think that probably contributed heavily to me getting the position. I had front of the house experience. I’ve worked in kitchens for 10 years and I’m a lifelong gamer. 

What’s your passion, board games, electronic games? 

I think most families grew up with some Milton Bradley type board game experience, Scrabble or dominos. I’d play games with my grandmother, weird games with her Catholic church “stitch and bitch” friends. We played a game that’s called “Sequence” now, but they had their own version they called, “Card Bingo.” It was made from a laminated deck of cards that had been cut in half and they played with poker chips. Personally, I was into electronic games as a kid. 

I saw pictures of you on Facebook at what looked like different Comic-con events, is that the kind of thing you enjoy?

Absolutely, I’ve had the opportunity to go to a handful of them and really enjoyed it, though frankly, my dedication to my culinary career didn’t allow me to do as many things as I’d like. Being in the kitchen for 10 years prohibited me from doing much of anything else, but I was very dedicated to it. 

So were you the boy always hanging around the kitchen with mom and grandma, stirring pots?

No, I didn’t get into the food business until later. When I was younger, I had no direction, I was young and stupid and didn’t have a lot of guidance. The folks wanted me to get a good education but they didn’t fundamentally understand what that meant. Personally, I think those conversations should be about finding what kids are good at and what’s available to them. For me, I knew that I didn’t want to be at a desk all day, that I wanted to be active and creative. 

Looks like it’s worked!

Oh yeah, and I’ve worked for some great people and had some great adventures in the trade. 

How have you guys fared with the pandemic over at Rook & Queen?

We got the news that the city was going to start restrictions on indoor dining a year ago last week. We all got laid off, but fortunately we were all able to immediately get on unemployment assistance. It was absolutely the right decision and in fact, I wish that we’d had the clout and political will to do more. You look at other places in the world who immediately shut everything down and people adhered to the rules, masks, social distancing etc. and now they have opened back up and are having public concerts and everything. And here we are still stuck in this crap with half a million people dead. So back to us, our owner held the fort by himself along with his business partner for about 3 months and then started to work people back in. They started offering hours to people who for whatever reasons, weren’t able to get unemployment and then started trickling in the rest of the staff as business picked up. The saving grace was the retail side of the business. 

Tell me what I’d experience at Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe.

It’s a cool hybrid concept. It’s a restaurant, it’s a bar. We have a gaming area where you can play a ton of games from our library for a nominal fee, so we make a little off of there. We have a retail business where we sell all kinds of games and over the holidays that was our saving grace. We actually did really well which along with various funds from the government and grants from the private sector and different organizations kept us afloat, so thanks to all those people. It looks like we’re going to make it through and recover fully. I know that we’ve lost a lot of businesses in the city, but fortunately, people still like to eat. 

What kind of menu?

It’s a vegetarian menu. We have great vegetarian and vegan burgers, and other main dishes like our Salvadorean sea fry, delicious sides and desserts. Our 4 flavored wings were just mentioned in the Inquirer last week! We also have a fun selection of signature and wizarding cocktails like our Queen’s Gambit, the Patronus, which is made with Bluecoat Elderflower Gin, and we even serve Butterbeer. 

Tell me a little bit more about the gaming side of it.

It’s cool because we’re in a bit of a renaissance of board gaming. People are really returning to it, and our place is nice because you can try out games before you buy them. Say you like chess but want to try something new, you can check it out here. Pretty much everyone who works here is into gaming, but we also have specific people on staff who are trained to know the games and can give you suggestions or help explain the rules and guide you through playing. 

Ha! I need that. My brother and I almost came to blows over the proper way to play Uno over the holidays, and don’t get me started on Exploding Kittens! [Laughing] We definitely need professional help. 

Well, we have that for you. 

What are some of the hot items this year?

Trading cards are big because of the online component. There are Youtube and streaming videos of people opening their packs in real time. There’s the excitement of rolling the dice to see if they get a dud, or a card worth thousands of dollars. A hot board game right now is called Wingspan, it’s a strategy game about birdwatching and has become wildly popular. 

I read an article about it! The illustrations on the cards are supposed to be works of art. I was thinking of getting it for my mother’s birthday in May.

Yes, it’s beautiful and has all sorts of expansion cards for birds in different regions of the world. Good luck getting it though, it’s super backlogged. But you can come here and play it! 

That’s a deal. Okay, random questions. Have you ever been birdwatching?

Yeah, a couple of handful of times. I had a friend growing up and his mom was into birdwatching. I was in the Boy Scouts, and she was one of the group mothers so she took us on one or two birdwatching trips. And I’ve also gone a couple of times with friends here in Philadelphia. It’s a fun time. 

Who taught you how to drive?

My dad did… when I was 7. It was in a very irresponsible fashion too.

Woah!

Yeah, he basically put me onto his knee and took me to a twisty, windy country road, floored it and said, “Okay, don’t kill us.” 

Okay then. Other than Boy Scouts, what things were you into? Did you play any organized sports?

Yeah, I played YMCA type sports, a little bit of everything but I never stuck with anything. By the time I got to high school I got more into things like band and the debate club.

What instrument did you play?

Trumpet. 

What the most lost you’ve ever been?

When I was in the scouts, we took a trip to New Mexico to some property that the Boy Scouts owned for this high adventure excursion. High altitude, very strenuous and every day we would take turns with the map being the navigator. One day we had this kid who interpreted a fork in the road with us going one way, literally every other scout agreed that we were supposed to be going the other way, but the leaders insisted that we had to follow what the designated map person told us. I guess they were trying to teach us some kind of lesson, but the result was us hiking 4 hours in the rain in the wrong direction. 

What’s something you would do if there was no fear involved, and don’t say skydiving or bungee cord jumping! 

Aww, okay. I don’t know, how about beekeeping. 

Good one. Past or present, who would be your 3 ideal dinner guests?

My two grandmothers and Anthony Bourdain.