Six decades in the kitchen at Highland Park Cafeteria

A numbered shirt representing the year Ernest Bowens started working at Highland Park Cafeteria. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Mr. B’s rough and calloused hands are a stark contrast to his soft blue eyes, which crinkle with joy when he speaks about his favorite subject: his faith.

“I just trust in the Lord,” he says proudly and often. “The Lord is taking care of me and I could never turn my back on him.”

His real name is Ernest Bowens, but absolutely no one calls him that. “Why’d you even want to put that in?” he questions when asked the spelling of his name. “Everyone, even customers, call me Mr. B.”

You may not recognize his name, or even his smiling face (although once you see it, you won’t forget it), but if you’ve lived in East Dallas for any meaningful amount of time, you have most likely eaten his food. Mr. B has been working the kitchen at Highland Park Cafeteria since 1956 and today, at 84 years old, he is still cooking as the head of the popular restaurant’s kitchen. He’s seen the business through multiple locations, owners and dozens of employees over the years, but he doesn’t have any plans to hang up his apron — retirement is not for Mr. B.

“Work is good for you, it is,” he insists.

It’s a mantra he’s clearly lived by his entire life. Mr. B was born in 1931, the third of 12 children just as the Depression sunk the country into economic despair. His father was a share-cropper in Pilot Point, Texas, and the children were expected to pitch in.

“My daddy, he took me to the fields to pick corn, but I didn’t have any gloves,” he remembers. “My hands got so cut up. I never forgot gloves again.”

Although he came from humble beginnings, Mr. B never really noticed because the family always had what they needed. They lived on the type of diet hipsters foodies spend a fortune coveting today: organic, home-grown produce and humanely raised livestock.

“We ate whatever was put on the table,” he smiles. “There was no, ‘I don’t like this, I’m not eating it’ in our house.”

Mr. B says in his childhood days he was more of a nuisance in the kitchen than the skilled practitioner he is today. He remembers driving his mother crazy, whooping and running under foot one day when she was trying to make biscuits.

“She just took that biscuit dough and smashed it right into my face,” he says, his laugh warm like his memory of his Daddy’s sweet potato pie.

It was a family built on love and faith. Before every meal, all 12 children were required to recite a Bible verse, a practice he still believes in today.

“Everything I have is thanks to the Lord,” he says. He has an easy way of relating every topic back to his faith in that way that makes him come off like a street preacher.

Mr. B’s path to a professional kitchen was more practical than passion-driven. After graduating high school, he needed a job. World War II had just ended, and employment pickings were slim as the market flooded with vets returning from war. He got work cooking for students at Texas Women’s University in Denton, and found his niche.

“I got to liking it,” he says.

The Korean War briefly interrupted his career in the kitchen, when in 1951 he was drafted into the 45th artillery of the U.S. Army, where he spotted enemy planes for gunners to shoot down.

“I wasn’t the gunner, I couldn’t stand that, it was too loud,” he says.

After his service ended, it was 1956 and he was looking for work. A friend recommended him for a busser position at Highland Park Cafeteria, which Carolyn Goodman opened on Knox Street in 1925. Goodman herself hired Mr. B, and on his very first day, he knew he’d fit right in.

“We started each day with a five minute devotion,” Mr. B says, explaining how it helped him to begin the day in a grateful place. “That always helped us out, to think about how the Lord brought us all together.”

Like he had been taught from childhood, he worked his way up, from collecting dirty dishes to manning the drink station to carving meat. Eventually he ended up in the kitchen, where his willingness to do the work, whatever it was, came in handy.

“One night we ran out of meringue pies,” he remembers from his early days. The pastry chef had left for the night, but Mr. B had watched plenty of meringue pies being made, so he offered to give it a try. Despite his lack of experience, he expertly whipped the egg whites into the stiff peaks needed for fluffy meringue, a task novice bakers often struggle with. Mr. B’s turned out perfect.

“That was my very first meringue pie,” he beams proudly.

That’s just Mr. B. No matter the job, he wanted to learn it, perfect it and, eventually, teach it to others.

“Everything I learned here, I learned from Mr. B,” says Travis Brown, his voice thick with reverence for his longtime mentor. Brown manages the kitchen these days but he says Mr. B is still the heart of the kitchen, as well as the keeper of the restaurant’s “hold backs,” those little secret ingredients that good home-cooked recipes demand. Mr. B calls them his “come backs.”

“It’s what keeps people coming back,” he smiles.

Current owner Jeff Snoyer once compared the workers whirling around the kitchen to fish in an aquarium. “They’re always moving and they never bump into each other,” he marvels.

It’s an apt description, and Mr. B is definitely the stately elder koi fish that flows along seamlessly through the back-of-the-house chaos. He is unflappable, keeping an eye on multiple pots, pans and baking dishes while manning the stove, his hands quickly flitting from stirring to sautéing to slicing. He can prep and cook 14 of the restaurant’s vegetable side dishes in three hours.

“He really is an inspiration for others in the kitchen,” Snoyer says. “When a 20-something is complaining about being on their feet all day, it shuts them up when they look over at Mr. B.”

Mr. B just smiles and reiterates, “Work is good, it really is.”

Everything about Mr. B is reminiscent of a bygone era, and like a walking time capsule, he has seen the times change as the years flew by. When he began at the restaurant the New York Times dubbed “America’s Cafeteria,” the kitchen staff was entirely black, while most of the front-of-the-house was white. Over time that changed, although Mr. B can’t remember exactly when that was. While racial tensions boiled all across the south during desegregation, Mr. B says it was not an issue at Highland Park Cafeteria.

“We had no problems, we always loved each other,” Mr. B insists. It’s how the kitchen has always been, close-knit and hard working, he says.
“The crew we have, they may not be the best but they stand up against the rest,” Mr. B gushes. “This is a family here.”