Chef Chat, Part 2: Joe Cervantez of Killen's Steakhouse

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chef Joe Cervantez carefully places slices of Ronnie Killen's famous brisket atop a white bean cassoulet.

After four-and-a-half years at Brennan's of Houston, Joe Cervantez made a bold move, accepting an executive chef position at Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland.

Yesterday in Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we talked with him about his very early start in restaurants and what it was like to work in a hotel. In Part 2 we'll find out how that came about, his seasonal focus and one of the advantages of being in Pearland. Also, and perhaps most importantly, we'll discover how he plans to incorporate the seasonal, produce-driven perspective he learned at Brennan's into Killen's popular, meat-centric menu.

EOW: How did you end up coming to Killen's as an executive chef?

JC: I got a phone call one day. I wasn't looking for a job or looking to go anywhere. I was happy learning and continuing to build Brennan's up. I'd just come back from vacation and on my first day back, I get a text message from Ronnie Killen. It said, "Hey, call me when you get a chance." I'm thinking he needed a reservation for somebody, so I called him back and said, "Hey, how are you? What's going on?" He said, "Hey, how are you? I don't know if you've heard, but I have an executive chef position available. I've heard a lot of good things about you. I know you've been at Brennan's for quite some time. You're the man I want to come over and be executive chef. We can sit down and talk about this position I'm offering you." I said, "Absolutely," so we set up a date and time.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Joe Cervantez of Killen's Steakhouse

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
He looks young, but executive chef Joe Cervantez of Killen's Steakhouse has years of culinary experience.
Ronnie Killen has made a big name for himself, not just in Pearland, where his eponymous Killen's Steakhouse is located, but across the Houston area and the United States. He has been a guest chef at the Beard House and, just within this past week, Killen's Steakhouse was on Open Table's Diners' Choice List of the Best Steakhouses in America. Only 100 restaurants across the country made the list.

Killen also has a barbeque restaurant and spends a lot of time traveling and promoting the merits of Houston barbeque. So, when he selected an executive chef to be in charge of operations at the steakhouse, he left some big shoes to fill.

The man who accepted that role is Joe Cervantez. He looks deceptively young but is, in fact, an industry veteran and Pearland native who honed his skills since he was 16-years-old at places like Hilton Americas and Brennan's of Houston.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we'll learn how Cervantez climbed his way up the ladder to helm one of the country's best steakhouses and the daring action his wife took that helped him on his path to success.

EOW: Are you a native Houstonian?

JC: I'm from Pearland.

EOW: You're a Pearlandian?

JC: Pearlandian, right! I grew up in Pearland and graduated from Pearland High school.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

When we left off in Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Samuel Beier, he had just completed a long stint under Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market and Market restaurants in Atlanta. It was his second time to work for the world-renowned French chef. The first time being at the defunct Bank in Hotel Icon here in Houston. (Line & Lariat is currently the restaurant where Bank used to be inside of Hotel Icon.)

A job opportunity for his wife brought the Beiers back to her hometown of Houston. In this Part 2 of our Chef Chat, find out where Beier landed his first executive position, a remarkable physical challenge he has to be mindful of on a daily basis, how Tony Mandola's customers are responding to the chef's efforts to freshen up the menu and his affection--perhaps even obsession--for cookbooks.

EOW: Where did you land when you and your wife returned to Houston?

SB: My first job when we came back was at *17. The hotel got bought out and I was promoted to executive chef. It was quite fun but also very difficult. We did room service, banquets, the bar and *17. It wasn't too stressful, though, because the volume and business had died off.

We got a chance to get stuff back on track. It was going well, but I got to a point where I didn't see eye-to-eye with the management, so that's when I decided to part ways.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Chef Samuel Beier has a tricky mission: update Tony Mandola's cuisine to attract a younger clientele while still satisfying customers who have patronized the family's restaurants for over two decades.

I don't envy him the task, but it is needed. Cuisine inside the 610 Loop isn't what it used to be. Competition is high and the up-and-comers of Generation X who hold the majority of dining dollars and are looking for not only a unique experience but a true story.

Back in 2012 I wrote a post for "Eating... Our Words" called "Stuck In the Past at Tony Mandola's," a recap of what was unfortunately one of the most disappointing meals I'd had that year. Because of that experience, I am probably more appreciative than most to have had the opportunity to talk with Chef Beier and learn of the new focus.

Beier has the right pedigree to get the job done. He is one of the talented group of culinary professionals that emerged from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Bank, the acclaimed restaurant inside of Hotel Icon from 2004 to 2007. Many members of the group, including Bryan Caswell, Jamie Zelko and Vanarin Kuch, went on to open their own restaurants or make otherwise significant contributions to Houston's dining scene.

Beier is gentlemanly, quiet and perhaps a bit shy, which might explain why he's managed to sail mostly under the radar until now. Let's find out how the native Texan went from Bryan/College station, to New York and then back to Houston.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Frédéric Perrier of Aura, Hoggs N Chicks and Coco Pazzo

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Frédéric Perrier of Aura Brasserie, Hoggs N Chicks and Coco Pazzo

When we left off on Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Fréderic Perrier, he'd just relocated Aura from a small, quaint, New England-style shopping center to modern, bustling, trendy Sugar Land Town Square. While all the old favorites menu items are there, the experience is different now--not better or worse than at the old space, just different.

However, he's kept one foot in Aura's old space by way of Coco Pazzo, the Italian restaurant he opened there in its place. In this Part 2 of our chat with him, we'll find out how customers reacted to the change and why he's so attached to his original restaurant space. Finally, Chef Pérriér talks about his big plans that are just about to come to fruition for Coco Pazzo and Hoggs N Chicks.

EOW: It's been two years since you moved Aura to the new space [in Sugar Land Town Square]. How did that go?

FP: It goes. It's a profitable business. We're happy with it. Me personally, I still have a heartache about the old place because it's still where my soul is. I just feel more comfortable and more myself inside the space. It's more me. It's more European. It's a little more home. You can't explain how you feel.

I love our clientele here. They're very good people and our business has been very good. My wife is more into this place because she's more a city girl. I'm more a country person. I'm happier at the other place. I don't know how to explain it.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Frédéric Perrier of Aura Brasserie and Coco Pazzo

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Frédéric Perrier of Aura Brasserie, Hoggs N Chicks and Coco Pazzo

Chef Frédéric Perrier has owned, co-owned and cooked in Houston area restaurants for more than 20 years. He developed a fan base and garnered critical acclaim with his inside-the-Loop restaurants Grille 5515 and Perrier Café. In time, the rigors of driving to his home in Missouri City night after exhausting night of cooking, as well as having a family, made the idea of opening a small neighborhood restaurant start to look real good.

In 2007, that's exactly what Perrier did. His French restaurant Aura started in a quaint, New England-style shopping center off of Murphy Road. It was the beginning of what would grow into multiple restaurants in the Sugar Land area. Soon after Aura came Perrier's spot, Hoggs n Chicks, where he started fulfilling diners' needs for a fast-casual option as well as indulging his own fondness for the Southern food of his adopted city.

Aura is now located in bustling, trendy Sugar Land Town Square. In its place is Coco Pazzo, Perrier's Italian restaurant. You'd think that would be enough work for one chef, but he's still not done. He has two new projects in the works, which we'll cover in Part 2 of this chef chat tomorrow.

Here in Part 1, we'll look at how he got started in the area with Aura and Hoggs N Chicks, which would soon follow. Perrier is also a father and a husband and we'll delve into his thoughts about introducing kids to fine dining. Finally, we find out if reviews really matter to a chef with a restaurant out in the suburbs.

EOW: When did you decide that what you really wanted to do was open a restaurant in Sugar Land?

FP: My wife and children always lived here in Missouri City, right down Highway 6 from Sugar Land. I said, "Well, I want to be closer to home. I don't want to do the drives at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was an easier way to be able to spend some time with my family even though I was in the restaurant industry.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Kevin Naderi of Lillo & Ella and Roost

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Kevin Naderi on the sunny patio of Lillo & Ella
In Part 1 of our chat with Kevin Naderi, he related a fond memory of the special Persian dinners he made at Roost alongside his mom and grandmother. Does cooking run in the family? In Part 2, we find out and along the way delve into some deeper issues that affect many of Houston's independent restaurants. Naderi voices some strong opinions on the support independent restaurants need from Houston's dining public if the scene is to continue to evolve.

Additionally, we talk about the ambitious cocktail program that some veteran Houston bartenders created for Lillo & Ella, the food at both of Naderi's restaurants and how the dark, fun and funky former home of El Big Bad became the light, colorful and airy Lillo & Ella.

EOW: Did anyone in your family ever cook professionally?

KN: No, not at all, but when my dad came from Iran originally about 40 years ago, he worked at Rotisserie For Beef & Bird back in the day. My uncle Barry, who's a partner with me on [Lillo & Ella], used to work at countless restaurants and he's a walking encyclopedia. He knows where everybody came from, who the manager was, who the chef was, signature dishes from back in the day--it blows my mind. Customers will come in and say, "Oh, down the street there used to be this restaurant that I remember and he'll jump in and be like, "Oh, I know exactly who owned it."

It's important to remember history. Houston, as fast as we're growing, we're really like letting go of a lot of history. We're not keeping a lot of historical buildings and all these restaurants, as good as they are or were back then--they're just shutting down. It's really sad to see.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Kevin Naderi of Roost and Lillo & Ella

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Kevin Naderi relaxes in a booth upholstered in cheerful orange at Lillo & Ella

Kevin Naderi has the daunting task of running not one, but two independent restaurants that each have a unique identity. Roost has been a mainstay of the Montrose neighborhood for almost three years and has scored national recognition on more than one occasion. He's dad to a new "baby" now, too. Lillo & Ella is the fledgling that has only been open for about six months.

In this first part of our chat with Naderi, we'll talk about his native Houstonian roots and how becoming a chef helped turn the former bad boy into a grounded chef and business owner.

EOW: Are you a native Houstonian?

KN: Yes. I was born and raised here. I went to Bunker Hill Elementary, Memorial Middle School and Memorial High School. I went to The Art Institute [of Houston], too.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at JW Marriott

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at the new JW Marriott hotel in downtown Houston
Yesterday we did the first part of our interview with Erin Smith of Main Street Kitchen.

EOW: Why did you end up leaving Plonk?

ES: Plonk was the first restaurant I worked at when I moved back to Houston and I had no idea what the food scene was going to be like. Not having lived here for 10 years, my memory was Pappasito's and Chili's. Plonk stumbled into my lap and I was appreciative of it, but in the two-and-a-half years I was there I realized that there was a lot of stuff happening in the food scene. It was really exciting and I just wanted to see what else was out there and stretch my wings a little bit more.

I reached out to people like Justin Yu [of Oxheart] quite a bit. I went and staged there for a day. I just wanted to experience other kitchens. It's like you're in these walls every day and you want to see what it's like in the other walls.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at JW Marriott

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at the brand-new JW Marriott hotel in downtown Houston

Erin Smith is one of only a handful of female executive chefs in Houston. She first caught attention for the menu that was tailored for the extensive wine focus at Plonk! Bistro. She made headlines when she joined Clumsy Butcher group to conceptualize the initial menu for the newly opened Blacksmith coffee shop, then went on to revamp the menus at Anvil and The Hay Merchant.

Now she's in charge of a much bigger beast: the kitchen operations for the new and sophisticated JW Marriott hotel that just opened downtown. This includes the restaurant Main Kitchen, room service, banquets and the numerous other special events and meetings that happen every day in a luxury hotel.

In Part 1 of our interview, Smith discusses her surprising initial focus during college and why she instead turned to cooking. You'll also learn about how native Houstonian Smith earned her stripes at some of New York's top restaurants before returning home to head up Plonk! Bistro.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 where Smith discusses her food focus at Main Kitchen, as well as how she manages to pull off running a large hotel food operation.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

ES: I am from Houston. I grew up here, moved away for college, was gone for 10 years and came back in 2010.

EOW: Where did you go to college?

ES: Texas Tech. Get your guns up! (makes finger guns) I love doing that because we've got a lot of Longhorns here so there's this fierce rivalry thing happening.


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