The Eating...Our Words 100: Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation
Who he is:
Alex Padilla is the executive chef at venerable Houston institution The Original Ninfa's on Navigation.
Alex's history with Ninfa's goes back many years -- his mother worked in their kitchen when he was a teenager. His journey to executive chef saw him start from the ground up -- from dishwashing to sous chef to heading up the team at Ninfa's.
"When I left Houston, I was like any other teenager. I wanted to see the country. I ended up in California, with Nancy Oakes -- she's kind of my mentor. She's one of the first big female chefs, and a James Beard award winner. I started from the bottom, and ended up executive sous chef," Padilla says. He came back to Houston to be near his family.
"I wanted to be near my mom, my sister. Houston is my home."
What he does:
"It was a challenge for me to take this job. I was doing very high-end, French-California -- or New American cuisine, whatever you want to call it. This is more Mexican and Tex-Mex, but everything is made from scratch. Every day is a new challenge, but every day when someone walks out the door and says, 'We will come back!' that feeds my ego! When they want to come back before they have even left yet."
Day-to-day, Padilla oversees everything -- including the line cooks and expediting. "This is a family-style restaurant, that's the ambience; I want people to enjoy being themselves," explains Padilla, in reference to both the customers and his staff.
What inspires him:
Travel is part of what Padilla points to as inspiration; travel served as his education for learning about wine, for example, and how to pair food and drink. He also cites his mother -- and her cooking -- as a source of inspiration.
"I remember [when I was a kid] she would cook a chicken and it would go a long way," says Padilla. "My mom has a cooking background, too, and I learned how to cook at home first." He also points back to his time with mentor Nancy Oakes, "It was a small place, and just a few of us were doing everything. I'm very happy and very blessed that I met Nancy."
In Houston, Padilla has found inspiration in other restaurants as well.
"I love the concept at Uchi -- I think they are executing things really well. Mark's has always been one of my favorites since I moved back to Houston. Underbelly is new -- kind of American rustic, using-everything-from-the-cow kind of thing -- I think it's great. Houston is coming up, and part of that is because people are moving to Houston. Houston is not the same Houston as 10, 20 years back; the food and the wine are so much better."
If not here, then where?
"I love Houston, I want to be here!" Padilla says. The abundance of opportunity and jobs are part of what makes Houston such an exciting place to be, economically, proclaims Padilla. "I'm so proud of Houston; it's much better here -- your money works a lot harder here!"
He continues: "But I would love to bring this country to Europe and I think maybe someplace like Germany, that would be great."
"I'm always thinking about what's next in terms of the season and the flavors. I want to find a way to put the coming season's flavors on the menu," says Padilla. "If it's pumpkins I want pumpkins on the menu; if it's crawfish, I want to find a way to put crawfish on there. I want to "Go Texas!" as much as possible, using more and more local ingredients."
"Next for me is keeping [Ninfa's] at the level it is now, in consistency and quality, and eventually I would like to open my own little restaurant with French-Californian or New American cuisine. I think Houston needs it."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
Kevin Strickland, Kevin Strickland of gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's
Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery
Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger
Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer and Educator at Spec's
Sam Ray of Republic National
Server Thai Van of Kata Robata
Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers
Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile
Benjy Mason of Down House
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2704 Navigation, Houston, TX