Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?

Categories: Market Watch

katsuya_IMG_0155_2.jpg
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Katsuya + Stark intended to bring sexy back to Houston, but it didn't work out.

In 2009, a restaurant in The Heights named Bedford closed. It was the latest Houston project of acclaimed chef Robert Gadsby. How significant was this event? Well, Gadsby came to Houston with a star reputation. Five years prior, the Houston Press restaurant critic at the time, Robb Walsh, wrote an article entitled "The Great Gadsby" with the subheading, "One of Hollywood's top cooking stars is moving to Houston."

Gadsby was notable for his fine dining establishment Noé in Los Angeles. He abandoned L.A. for Houston, lamenting that life in L.A. is "shallow and meaningless." (Trust me, he's not the only person that feels that way. I recently had a conversation with a friend who observed that people in L.A. are always trying to impress you with who they know.)

When he arrived in Houston, he replaced the Omni Houston Hotel's stuffy French restaurant, La Reservé, with Houston's own version of Noé. (Accents ensure that diners know that the place is fancy.) A mere four years later, Gadsby left to audition for Food Network's show "Iron Chef America." He competed in 2007 in a mango and mixology themed episode, teaming up with mixologist Bridget Albert against Mario Batali and mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin. Batali won.

(By the way, one of Gadsby's sous chefs was Plinio Sandalio, who just returned to his hometown of Houston to open Pax Americana after a few years in Austin. He's received many accolades over the past several years for his skill and imagination with desserts.)

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Houston Press File Photo
Bedford would later be replaced with Stella Sola, an effort co-founded by Bill Floyd and Lafayette-born Bryan Caswell, who found his own success story in Houston. Regrettably, that didn't work out, either.

Gadsby was good enough to make it onto Iron Chef. Why couldn't he make a restaurant in Houston succeed? Well, a star reputation really doesn't get you very far here if you come from out-of-state, and it didn't help that Bedford was perceived as inconsistent, by professional reviewers and diners alike.

Success proved elusive for another chef with connections to Food Network. Susie Jimenez was the first runner-up in Season Seven of "Next Food Network Star." Some of her friends in Houston suggested that she open a restaurant here. That was reasonable, based on Houston's diversity and burgeoning food scene. Yet, her restaurant, Trenza, fell on its face. Embarrassingly, this happened almost immediately after declaring to both me and Eric Sandler at Culturemap that her and her investor weren't giving up yet.

The trend of celebrities coming to Houston to capitalize on our dynamic, diverse food scene is nothing new. Wolfgang Puck is noted for being the chef behind the fabulous Oscar awards dinner, but a namesake restaurant in Houston's Carillion Plaza in the mid-2000's was an utter failure. Part of the problem? Puck really had nothing to do with it. Such is what happens when you lose control of your famous name. People start using it to produce utter crap. (Both Puck's and Gadsby's Houston restaurant closings were mentioned in Robb Walsh's article "Top 9 Houston Restaurant Closings of the Decade".

The story of Bank Jean-Georges is a different twist on the relationships (or lack of) between out-of-state celebrities and Houston. While Jean-Georges Vongerichten lent his name and concepts to the menu, it was Bryan Caswell overseeing the execution as chef du cusine. When Caswell left with Bill Floyd to start Reef, Vongerichten opted to end his relationship with the restaurant. Why give up on it? For whatever reason, he decided it was not worth cultivating a following without Caswell at the helm. (Caswell had his own brush with celebrity status, competing on Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" in 2010 against the likes of Ming Tsai and Marc Forgione. He did quite well and wasn't eliminated until the sixth episode.)

Houston doesn't have much regard for imported stars. We prefer to grow our own. There's an exception to that rule--If you come here, start from scratch and work your way up, that's good too.

Shepard Ross was a professional actor when he came to Houston. He jumped into the food and wine scene because his Actor's Guild insurance was literally running out, plus he had experience working in the industry in New York before his acting days. He started out working at the now-defunct Zula, a glitzy downtown restaurant with a Vegas vibe, before opening his first restaurant, Glass Wall. With the additions of Brooklyn Athletic Club at the end of 2012, and the brand-new Pax Americana, he now has ownership in three places that each bring something unique to Houston's food scene. We love success stories, especially if we think we may have had a little something to do with it. It's a great feeling when you bet on the right horse.

Other talented cooks have come to Houston, worked their tails off, moved up through kitchen hierarchies and succeeded with their own restaurants. Kaiser Lashkari started in a tiny, counter service restaurant on the Southwest side of town before moving into the bigger space in Little India where Himalaya is today. Anita Jaisinghani spent two years at Café Annie before starting first Indika and, later, Pondicheri. Mark Holley worked his way up at various restaurants, including Brennan's of Houston and Commander's Palace in New Orleans before landing his own restaurant, running Pesce for 10 years before it closed. You can now find him melding his French classical training with his Southern roots in his own place, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

Houston doesn't trust Hollywood. Actually, anyone who comes here claiming they're a "star chef" is going to be met with suspicion. We're not xenophobic, per se, but we don't trust that outsiders know what they're talking about. If you're from California, do you really understand what Houstonians want to eat? How could you if you haven't taken the time to learn about us? Practical-minded Houston cares less about glamor than values like friendliness, reliability and a good work ethic. Of course, we care about food, too, so we want places where we can get the whole package. But don't try to fool us with glitz and tiny portion sizes.

This story continues on the next page.



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26 comments
freddykrugerface
freddykrugerface

Have you noticed the high closure rate of restaurants in this city? It is terrible. Many nice restaurants open and close within a few years. Are they all celebrity chefs? From the "outside"?


Writing about how this city doesn’t take well to celebrity chefs, only reveals a personal distain for others. Insecurity. Hate, really. 

Robyn Rhea
Robyn Rhea

yeah right....there are considerably more 1% here for sure but the majority of my friends are in the other 99% which are broke or living from paycheck to paycheck...lol and we like the "hole in the wall" places

George Zoes
George Zoes

I have been going to the same restaurant in Houston for almost 2 years, great menu, great food. I recently went back and knew something was different. The new chef mucked up most of the menu, brought in some fancy plates that looked like I was back in geometry class again. He also came along with a little attitude which was seen from where I was eating. Needless to say I won't Ho back any time soon or until he is replaced.

George Zoes
George Zoes

I don't want some chef telling me how I should eat my food, especially when they put my steak on top of mashed potatoes, add some veggies, cover it with gravy and finish it off with some green stuff then charge me $50.00 If I wanted my food thrown together on a plate I would go to KFC and get a $5.00 bowl. No egos needed in a kitchen.

Anse
Anse

Ate at Bradley's Fine Diner for HRW. Underwhelming and way overpriced for what it was. I guess if the place fails he'll think we're just not sophisticated enough or something.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

I only dislike Bruce Molzan; as he's a crook.

wildeyes
wildeyes

Maybe Houstonians are smarter and don't buy into this celebrity crap, especially for someone who cooks food for a living. 

On the other hand, Cluturemap started in this city and is entirely devoted to celebrity culture wherever, and in whatever minuscule quantities, it can be coaxed and teased out of the rock.

Chris Glazier
Chris Glazier

No we don't, just fake ass poser papers like yourself

htxfoodlover
htxfoodlover

The problem that many import chefs don't understand is that Houstonians are willing to drive to go to a better restaurant. There's such a huge abundance of restaurants in Houston that name recognition does not matter at all, consistency and a unique atmosphere does. Just plopping a pretty/trendy restaurant does not mean it will succeed (looking at you Katsuya). 

Florida63
Florida63

Since when does winning "Next Food Network Star" make you a celebrity chef unless just being on TV makes you a celebrity?? Also, who opens a restaurant with an unproven concept in one of the highest rent areas of the city? Even Robert Del Grande (an actual established chef) couldn't make a run there.

tortilla4me
tortilla4me

dont forget the terrible Carlos Mencia joints 

BigTX
BigTX

I know one reason we're not in love with celebrity chefs. Take the case of star chef Susie Jimenez. She came to town, rented a giant high-profile space on Kirby with the backing of Sandeep "Sonny" Sachdeva, went to town molesting the press and racking up bills. Then she and Sonny just walked away, refusing to pay vendors what they were owed.

verghese3
verghese3

Old line, big spending Houston diners want to be fawned over; THEY are the star of the show, not so much the chef. Or if the chef is, he better be self-deprecating and pay special attention to his guests. Chris Shepherd does this well, as do some others. 


Robyn Rhea
Robyn Rhea

not haters...just can't afford them

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

@freddykrugerface Quite the opposite, actually. 

I've been pondering this issue since Trenza closed. I was a late-comer to Trenza and by the time I started checking it out, two things had happened:

1) The ownership/chef had made a course-correction based on their feedback. 
2) All of the "early adopters" had already been and decided they weren't coming back.

By the time Trenza changed, it was too late. 

Then I started thinking about the long list of restaurants with a celebrity name attached to them that didn't make it and started researching some history. There were a variety of reasons but the upshot was that none of them seemed to have great chances. 

It's simply a topic that interested me. It has nothing to do with love/hate, although, as I said in my article, I don't think chefs do themselves any favors to not recognize those who have been here and been successful already. At the very least, there's no need to be insulting. 

I wouldn't mind seeing a few "hot" names attached to restaurants, but as I mentioned, Houston seems to prefer to grow their own celebs. 

gibbon
gibbon

@itstooeasy 

Well, duh, yes other restaurants close too. But the point is, celebrity chefs have a leg up on the competition from the start. They have followers. Then they have  celebrity-loving-publicists who push 'news pieces' to celebrity-loving-writers who gush and fawn, and start word of mouth and keep the ball rolling for a while. And then, despite all this burst of love, attention and goodwill, they still manage to close in short order. 

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

Whether you consider a contestant on Food Network Star to be a celebrity or not, she certainly was presented as a star chef to Houston's market.

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

I had totally forgotten about him. Thanks for the reminder? :-)

kagan34
kagan34

@tortilla4me ...on the other hand, looks like Mexican celeb chef Aquiles Chavez is doing ok at La Fisheria. Good food and drink; and he had the backbone to ban little kids from the dining room during adult hours.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah
Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah topcommenter

@BigTX I would like to see more follow up on this issue by the HP...

kagan34
kagan34

@verghese3 

yeah, to illustrate, it's an interesting dynamic between the old Tony's that was clueless about the intracacies of food and drink--see Robb Walsh's HP review---but paid the utmost attention to satisfying their guests every whim.....versus the new Tony's where food and drink is paramount, along with the staff's knowledge about provenance, cooking styles etc. They excel on both the food and service fronts.

freddykrugerface
freddykrugerface

@gibbon 


Some truth?

Many nice restaurants in this city don’t last because after the novelty wears off, the people stop coming. They don’t want to constantly spend the money to be regulars. Doesn’t matter if they’re celebrity, local or not.

The main problem is price point. But, this is because many of the people in this city eat and spend too much at the food court or fast food during the day (work). Every area I’ve worked at in this city, it’s the same. People spend over $25 a day at work. These aren’t execs. You would have a lot more money to spend at these nice places if you saved. Many restaurants just can’t survive off the so-called “1%” and “foodies”. Landlords are vicious in this city. And also local politics.

Katsuya’s food was fantastic initially, but the quality dropped off the cliff. Local management changed the food product for margin and lower cost. People complained it was expensive and it showed. Owner took notice and decided to close because he didn’t want to compromise the food and brand name.  

So, stop the blame game and romanticizing why a few outside chefs weren’t successful. Ya’ll are doing it to yourselves. And ya’ll eat out at lunch every day!

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

That's a great example of someone who came here from outside of Texas and made it. One of the first things he did was feature Houston in his reality show. I wonder if that made a difference?

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

@freddykrugerface I think you bring up an excellent point in this and it's one I myself have said: no restaurant can survive off of their social media fans (who are, of course, "foodies"). You have to appeal to your neighborhood. They are the people who will help you survive. 

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