Bonding Over the Table
While researching the July story on Houston’s “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, Senior Editor Lori Moffatt enjoyed the opportunity to visit with some of the city’s big names on the national culinary scene—James Beard award-winners, chefs lauded by Bon Appetit and Food and Wine magazines, and other innovative kitchen alchemists.
“Houston has a great restaurant scene,” says Marcus Davis, the chef of The Breakfast Klub, a joint that draws raves for its chicken-and-waffles combos and other twists on classic soul food. “And there’s a definite bond between the chefs in the city. We like to feed off of one another—literally at times. There are so many great places to go, and it’s always fun to look on someone else’s menu and see different versions of what you make in your own restaurant.
“Foodies have an appreciation for good food, period,” Davis continues. “Personally, I look for something authentic to the region or concept. Someplace that’s nice and cozy, and serves great food. I don’t have to have the other bells and whistles. I look for a good welcoming spirit, and I like trying different spots and being able to introduce it to someone else. It’s a great compliment to whoever is in the kitchen doing all the hard work.”
"I love to listen to people talk about what they ate as children, what they ate growing up. It brings people together."
Says Chef Randy Evans of the award-winning restaurant Haven, “Houston has so much diversity, food-wise. And nationally, there’s been more interest in what the chefs are about as personalities, and more of an interest in how we come up with ideas. For example, right now I have a peanut-crusted, soft-shell crab dish on my menu that is definitely influenced by meals I’ve enjoyed at mom-and-pop Vietnamese places.
“I never grew up eating Vietnamese,” he continues. “I was born and raised in the Houston area; we lived in Willis. “My family was agrarian, blue-collar; when we ate fancy, we were eating fried oysters. I grew up with the gallon of milk on the table, the loaf of white bread. But when I discovered Vietnamese cuisine, wow. First of all, a lot of the restaurants are open late at night—a plus for chefs! And the flavors are clean and bright—it’s always about fresh herbs.
“In general, the chefs in this city get along. If we find a great farmer, we pass along a name. It’s all because we want to see the city improve its reputation as a food town. Houston is a hidden gem.”
“I think people are afraid to get out of their comfort zones,” says Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan. “But you never know; if it’s great, it’s great. If it sucks, well, then it’s a new experience. Houston is a port city; there are so many different cultures. When I’m not at work, I want to experience the heart and soul of food. I want to eat something I can’t do myself. I don’t really go to the high-end places; it’s not my style.”
“Foodies have an appreciation for good food, period."
“Chefs have fun cooking together,” says Monica Pope of T’afia. (Pope competed—but did not win—in a springtime episode of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters.) “It seems like the community of chefs here in Houston has grown tighter in the past 10 years. Sites like Chowhound have done a good job getting people more interested in food, gathering people for throw-downs and other fun community-oriented things.”
Chef Mark Holley, the former Chef of Brennan’s who now oversees the kitchen at Houston’s Pesce, notes, “When you train classically, you spend most of your time learning Continental cuisines. You don’t spend a lot of time grilling, or cooking on a barbecue pit. But I grew up eating American soul food, southern food. Soul food is a whole different level of perfection.
“People sometimes ask me where I go eat when I eat out. They expect me to do a chef-driven restaurant. But what I like most is building a conversation, talking about the food. I get really comfortable when I’m around good company and good southern cooking. It becomes more of an experience, more of an opportunity to share childhood stories and culinary history. I love to listen to people talk about what they ate as children, what they ate growing up. It brings people together. For example, I grew up in Ohio, and we always had great Northern beans. Here in the South, we eat red beans. With Andouille sausage. Different, but similar.”
“I’m from Puebla, Mexico,” says Chef Hugo Ortega of the interior-Mexican restaurant Hugo’s. “In Puebla, there is a strong culinary tradition. We grew up making mole, making chocolate. It’s a way of living over there. When you want to eat a chicken, you chase a chicken, you catch the chicken, you kill the chicken, and then you eat chicken. Everything in Mexico is around the kitchen. Because of cooking I know places I never dreamed to know.”