Chef Chat, Part 2: Joe Macri of Up Restaurant, On Why He Still Likes to Cook on the Line and Serving Sustainable Food with Minimal Allergens
Photos by Mai Pham Executive Chef Joe Macri of Up Restaurant
This is Part 2 of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.
EOW: What brought you to Up Restaurant?
JM: I wasn't used to a very strict type of cuisine. My creativity just wasn't being fed. The Mandolas were very nice; it was a very nice place to work, but I wanted more. I'd heard about Up Restaurant, and after I looked it up on the Internet, I thought, "Oh, man, this is the type of food and the type of place I want to be." So I came down and met Haidar [Barbouti, the owner of Up], and I interviewed with him for about a half an hour. The next day I came in for a second interview, and in a minute's time, he threw a chef's coat at me, and the first thing he said was, "Make me an omelette." He said, "I know it sounds very simple, but you wouldn't believe how many people can't make an omelette."
EOW: So, what did you make him?
JM: I made him a fine herb and goat cheese omelette, which he loved. Then he said, "Okay, now make me a pasta... Now make me a pizza."
EOW: What else did you make? Tell me specifically; I want to know what you made for him.
JM: I made a pappardelle bolognese, I made a jumbo lump crab cake, I created a pizza in his wood-burning oven, and the omelette -- that was it. And then I said, "What do you want? Do you want a piece of fish, a piece of meat?" And he was like, "All right, that's enough. I know you know how to cook." People are either very comfortable in the kitchen or they're not. And for me, it's a dance back there.
JM: Why that is? I don't know why chefs don't want to cook. I had a client come in two weeks ago, and they called me to the table. It was Saturday night, and they wanted my ear for as long as they could have me, and I said, "You have to excuse me, I have to get back because I'm working the grill." And their eyes almost popped out of their heads and they were like, "You actually cook every day?" And I responded, "Every day." I'm a cook first and foremost. "Chef" is a title that you earn. I never tell people to call me "Chef."
EOW: Really? So, in the kitchen, what do they call you?
JM: They call me "Chef." [smiles] But you have to earn it. The first thing you do is roll your sleeves up and start cleaning with everybody. I mean, you're serving food, it's the most personal thing you can do for somebody. And it's important, and that's the way you get the most out of your team.
EOW: So you've been here for six months. Tell me what the menu was like when you got here, and tell me how you've changed it and what the future brings.
JM: The menu isn't so different than what it is now.
EOW: It's much more seafood-focused, isn't it?
JM: A little bit more seafood. I would say our menu is 75 percent seafood now; it was about 50 percent seafood when I got here. And I think people are just scared of cooking seafood, whether it's technique or shelf life or perishability. It's not like a piece of steak or beef where you can age it and have a bit of shelf life on it, and it's always a struggle. But we have a European mentality in the sense that I'm going to buy what I need for the day, and if I run out of something, we try to come close every day. I'd rather run out of it and have a new delivery in the morning.
EOW: Okay, so tell me some of the specifics of what you're doing here. What are you most proud of? What are the dishes that people have to try? Describe a perfect meal. Your friends are coming to town and you're gonna hook them up.
JM: [long pause, looks pensive] See, something like that is when I'm going to fly by the seat of my pants -- where I'm gonna try to create something with the ingredients I have in house that may not be on the menu.
EOW: Let's say, with whatever you have in the kitchen today.
JM: Right, so we're gonna start with our blue fin crudo with American sturgeon caviar with a yuzu brown butter emulsion sauce. We're sourcing out blue fin tuna from a company called Kazy that deals with a lot of the sushi restaurants in town. And we're doing very little to it -- and this is the "modern" part. I don't like to use "fusion," but I like substituting ingredients that are comparable. For instance, in a dish where people might just use salt, I'll use a salty Pecorino cheese.
EOW: When I tasted your food before, I thought that your grasp on flavors -- I thought that they were simple but elegant. I thought that everything was done well, and you weren't trying too hard....You know, how some places throw the truck at it, and it's just everything under the sun, and you're like, "Oh! You just ruined this beautiful piece of fish."
JM: I think that just comes with time and ease. When I first started, I had sauces with 12 to 15 ingredients, and now my sauces have four ingredients. I think that's what cuisine, what dining's all about. It's about putting something into your mouth, and going through the different steps of flavor before it goes down the hatch. For example, the crudo -- we have this fresh blue fin, and then we have this salty caviar, and then we have this acidic yuzu sauce, but then we have this nutty flavor from the butter that we brown before we put the yuzu in the sauce. And then we have a little bit of honey and a little bit of soy, so you have salty and sweet, and it all comes together.
EOW: Tell me more about your sourcing.
JM: We're always conscious about serving safe food across the board to our clients. We don't fry with any peanut oil -- we don't have peanuts on the property. Our soy sauce is low sodium and gluten free. Our redfish is sustainable redfish. Our shrimp we outsource from a guy where that's all he does -- he's a shrimper, and that's all we use. Our chicken is organic. We buy only [USDA] Prime beef.
What we're trying to do here is cook food that is familiar to people, and just kind of elevate it. We want to take classic food and execute with the most perfect technique possible. As with any chef, my biggest struggle is teaching my team the proper technique. Unlearning stuff that they've already learned, and showing them the right way and taking the mystery out of it. "Make sure the pan is hot, make sure the product is as fresh as can be, make sure it's seasoned all over, cook it to just the right point, get it on the plate and out the door, so people can experience it at its best." We're trying to be innovative in some sense, but I'm not inventing the wheel. I just want to make sure that I can give patrons the best product I can, cooked perfectly, seasoned perfectly, and work with my team in the front of the house so we can match the service with what I'm trying to do in the kitchen.
EOW: So, would you say you're happy with your one week move to Houston?
JM: Houston has been great to me. I'm very happy to be in Houston. All the different cultures and people that are moving here and have moved here make me feel at home. It's nice to see my family, but that's what Skype and Facetime is for -- it's helping me out.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Macri's food.
Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords