Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?

Categories: Market Watch

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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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