Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?
One chef from California did seem to "get" Houston: Philippe Veripand, who closed his respected San Diego restaurant to open French restaurant Étoile in the Post Oak area. He came here because he felt that the customer base would appreciate his fine food more than those in San Diego. It's fortunate that he did, as Étoile fills the void left when his friend Philippe Schmit left his eponymous Philippe Restaurant + Lounge (now called TABLE on Post Oak).
One of Étoile's first priorities upon opening? Learning the names of their customers. That is the exactly kind of personalized side dish that Houstonians appreciate with their meals.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography Phillipe Veripand seemed to have a good understanding of Houston's market before relocating here. Serving beautiful dishes doesn't hurt, either.
Some chefs who come here don't do themselves any favors with their bluster. More than one has verbally shot himself in the foot before they even do a day's worth of business. After a tour of Houston's sushi restaurants, including the well-respected Kata Robata, Chef Katsuya Uechi proclaimed in a Culturemap interview that "Honestly, Los Angeles fish is better. In Los Angeles there are more people who eat sushi, more consumers and it's closer to Japan."
Chef Uechi's sexy, sleek restaurant, Katsuya + Stark, opened in March of 2012. It survived a mere 16 months before it closed. Apparently, Houston liked the fish it already had just fine.
Not too long afterward came celebrity chef Bradley Ogden, who, along with son Brian Ogden, currently has two establishments in Houston: Funky Chicken, a fast-casual restaurant, and Bradley's Fine Diner. Before either restaurant had opened, Ogden was quoted in an interview with Eater Las Vegas as saying "They're starving for great places to eat there," Ogden says.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography 2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest finalists Hugo Ortega (far right) and Justin Yu (second from right) with their families/business partners
Wait, what? That interview was published on July 23, 2012, when Houston was still swooning over the debuts of Chris Shepherd's Underbelly and Justin Yu's Oxheart. This year, Shepherd became the first Houston chef to win the Best Chef Southwest James Beard award since Robert Del Grande took it in 1992. (Shepherd himself came to Houston from Oklahoma and worked his way up. Like Mark Holley, he spent his own time in the kitchens at Brennan's of Houston.)
Yu was a finalist this year, as well as Hugo Ortega, who has satisfied Houstonians since 2002 with soul-satisfying Interior Mexican cuisine at Hugo's and vegetable-friendly Backstreet Café. How did he get started? Well, first as a dishwasher and then a busboy. Don't tell me you can't make it here.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Chris Shepherd with his business partners in the Clumsy Butcher group
Here's some advice for the next celebrity chef who decides to try to open a restaurant here: thinly veiled barbs at our long-time Houston chefs is not how one starts on the right foot. Insult one of our local favorites, and Houstonians will collectively cross their arms, step back and say "Oh, really? Let's see if you can do better, big mouth."
Don't get me wrong. It's not that we don't want celebrity chefs to come open places in Houston. It's just that we want them to come here because they recognize that Houston is its own Land of Opportunity; a place where someone can work hard and succeed. If you want us to admire you, you must respect what we already have.