Chef David Coffman Joins Cullen's Upscale American Grille

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Photo courtesy of David Coffman
Before assuming the role as executive chef at Cullen's Upscale American Grille, David Coffman worked at other Houston restaurants, including Katsuya.
Chef David Coffman takes the reins of executive chef at Cullen's Upscale American Grille today, September 2. Coffman has experience at a variety of Houston restaurants, including Goro & Gun, Benjy's on Washington and in Rice Village, and Katsuya.

The decision to bring Coffman on board at Cullen's was made on Thursday, August 28, by the owner Kevin Munz and general manager Ryan Roberts. Cullen's is currently going through a transition to revamp its menu offerings.

"We just recently did a tasting for those guys [Munz and Roberts] and they all thought it would be a huge benefit for me to come on board over there and work for those guys and help bring their restaurant back up to award-winning and where it needs to be," Coffman says. "Kind of liven it up a little bit."

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte & Piqueo

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte and Piqueo restaurants
During our interview, Gerry Sarmiento, the chef-owner of Mezzanotte and Piqueo restaurants, mentioned that he and his wife Adriana wanted to create the kind of place that they would patronize themselves. Part of that job is to create an atmosphere where customers feel recognized and cared about. I personally experienced what that meant a little less than two years ago.

One night, I was on my way from downtown to a group dinner I'd arranged at Piqueo. There aren't that many Peruvian restaurants in Houston, so I invited about eight friends to meet me and my family for a shared culinary adventure.

On the way, I stopped at a gas station and when I came back to my car, it wouldn't start. A kind stranger tried to help me with no luck. It was now time for our dinner reservation and I was still 35 minutes away. It was my idea, I had arranged it and I wasn't even there.

I imagined my friends sitting around waiting for me and my stress, embarrassment and frustration grew. I called my husband to let him know the situation. Of course, he offered to come get me, but I asked him to stay at the restaurant with our kids, be a good host, tell everyone to order dinner and not wait for me. One of our friends attending the dinner came to fetch me, sparing me a $40 cab ride to Cypress.

By the time I walked into the restaurant, I was an hour late.

Gerry had been informed of my situation. Instead of getting upset that a table of 12 people was holding off on ordering their dinners and tying up a big table for an hour, he and his lovely wife gave me a hug and a glass of wine. He said, "We're sorry you got stranded. We sent your friends some wine to the table to keep them calm while they were waiting."

Our group had a great dinner, ordered more wine and that was good, for when I returned to pick up my car... it had been towed. But least I had a nice dinner with people that I cared about before I had that unhappy discovery.

I've always been grateful to Gerry and Adriana for salvaging that evening. I don't know how many restaurants would have done that for its customers. But that's how they are.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte and Piqueo

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo courtesy of Mezzanotte Ristorante
Chef Gerry Sarmiento behind a striking rack of lambchops at Mezzanotte

I admit that I have a soft spot when it comes to Mezzanotte and Piqueo. They are some of the few fine dining establishments in my neck of the woods, Northwest Houston near Cypress. When I'm too tired to drive into town or just want to be treated nicely close to home, I go to one of those two places. I tend to gravitate to Piqueo, because my family loves Peruvian food, but we've had lovely family meals at Mezzanotte on more than one occasion.

It's not easy starting a restaurant from scratch with no experience, becoming a chef with no advance formal training or bringing a restaurant that focuses on a little-known ethnic cuisine to life in the suburbs. Yet Gerry Sarmiento has successfully accomplished all of those things, although there have been a lot of hard knocks along the way.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, find out how the Sarmiento went from would-be restaurant investor to Italian chef, then come back for Part 2 tomorrow when you'll learn more about what his two suburban dining concepts are all about.

EOW: When did you come to the Houston area?

GS: I came with Digital's acquisition by Compaq back in 1998.

EOW: At what point did you decide, "I'm done with the technology industry. What I really want is a restaurant!"

GS: Actually, that moment never came. Where I am today is due to lucky circumstances. I left Compaq when HP bought it in 2002. I played golf for six months trying to figure out what to do. I started an IT company in 2003 and it was a very good business but I didn't enjoy it. I moved to Cypress because my wife and I wanted to have a child, so we were looking for a house with a pool and a backyard and all that.

When we moved here, we started looking for restaurants. We moved from the Galleria area, so we were used to dining out. We couldn't find anything here. There was a little café nearby and that's how we came up with the idea of investing in a restaurant--not working in the restaurant but as an investment. We planned to just come and have wine with our friends and collect our profits at the end of the month. It didn't happen.


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Chef Chat, Part 2: Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Anthony Calleo in front of the Pi Pizza Truck

NEWS UPDATE: at 9:15 am this morning, Anthony Calleo has announced that Sandy Witch, his second food endeavor located inside of Grand Prize Bar, has closed. This closely followed an announcement on their Facebook page of a collaborative brunch with Bernie's Burger Bus. The brunch was to be on August 31st, but it sounds like that's not going to happen now. In this Chef Chat, Calleo relates some of the difficulties associated with Sandy Witch and gives some insight on why it failed.

In Part 1, of our Chef Chat with Anthony Calleo, we learned about how he left social work and a career as a real estate broker to come back to the profession he started in: the pizza business. In Part 2, we talk about giant orders, the pizzas near and dear to Calleo's heart and fans that love Pi Pizza so much that they are willing to get permanent tattoos.

EOW: What's the largest pizza order you've ever gotten?

AC: That was definitely at Papa John's in the Medical Center--175 large pizzas. I delivered all of them in three trips.

EOW: Whaaat? Oh my gosh. That's stacks and stacks of pizzas!

AC: It was so hot in my car that my mirrors kept fogging up with the windows down in August. My trunk, backseat and floorboards were all full.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza Truck

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Anthony Calleo of Pi Pizza makes dough tossing look like magic.

Anthony Calleo is as colorful as the Pi Pizza monster logo on the side of his truck, from his heavily tattooed arms to the words he chooses. He has a reputation for being frank and passionate about his food.

We met Calleo for his interview at the Houston Food Park in EaDo, where Pi Pizza and a few other food trucks corralled the parking lot. There's a steady flow of customers. "Now this is like making pizzas for a living," he said. He grabs a ball of dough and tosses it in the air with his fists until it makes a perfect circle. He makes it look effortless and easy, but it took months of practice to master.

Calleo's customers are so passionate about Pi Pizza that some are willing to get a Pi Pizza tattoo in exchange for one free slice of pizza a day for life. The tattoo day is held once a year, and this year they actually had to turn people away. There was simply no way that artist Gabriel Massey from Scorpion Studios would have had enough time tattoo everyone who wanted it.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll get to know how Calleo developed his affinity for making pizza and the other career he nearly ended up doing for a living.

EOW: How did you decide you wanted to cook for a living?

AC: I wanted to cook since I was a kid. I started cooking for myself and then me and my mom. As a teenager, I had the kind of house where everyone stayed over. I used to cook breakfast for everybody. It's always been something I really enjoyed and had a knack for.

I got my first job in pizza and it's been what I always go back to for extra cash or if we were short on money I'd go back to delivering pizza or cooking pizza.

The world convinced me that cooking pizza for a living wasn't worth my time or my education. When I turned 30, I realized that was bullshit. I promised myself by the time I was 35 I'd have my own pizza place.


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Chef Chat, Part 2: Mark Holley of Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Mark Holley in front of his new restaurant, Holley's Seafood Kitchen & Oyster Bar.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we learned about Mark Holley's extensive experiences at some of the best restaurants in the United States, including Brennan's, Commander's Palace and his prior restaurant, Pesce.

In Part 2, we'll learn more about his latest endeavor, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

MH: I was involved with every step of this project: the furniture, the design, the colors--I was involved in every aspect and learned a lot. The reason why was that I wanted more: more out of my career, more in life and more of a challenge. I wanted to spread my wings and expand. I'm an analytical person, so I liked the idea of designing a restaurant and understanding it. Anytime someone did something, I made them slow down and explain it to me so I understood it, which enabled me to make a better decision.


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Chef Chat, Part 1: Mark Holley of Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Mark Holley in the kitchen of his new Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar
It's almost a misnomer to call this an "interview." When you talk to Chef Mark Holley, it goes like this: ask him a question and then get out of the way. Holley is a whirlwind with deliberate direction. One sees this both when he speaks and as he surveys his new restaurant, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, giving his staff instructions as he winds his way from the dining room to the kitchen and back again.

I am not silly enough to stand in the way of a whirlwind. That's how you get sand in your eyes. So, sit back and listen to Mark Holley, a chef who has been a respected figure in Houston's food scene for more than 30 years, tell his story. Here, we learn how he came to be a cook and then a chef; how he ended up at the forefront of Pesce for over a decade; and finally how he came to start his new, eponymous restaurant.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Chef Chat, where we'll get to learn more about Holley's and find out how the food at this Midtown seafood restaurant is similar to--and different from--the cuisine for which his prior place Pesce was known.

EOW: How did you get involved with food?

My real mom, who I lived with during the summers, was more of a Southern cook, but I'm from Dayton, Ohio, where there's a big German influence. My stepmom, Mary, would make antipasti. I was one of the few kids who ate three or four different types of cold cuts and salamis. She'd make plates of a few different types of soft and hard cheeses and was a big black and green olive fan. There would always be some kind of cracker, too. She'd usually do this around 8 or 9 o'clock at night. I was the youngest so I was always there. The older kids would always be out doing their thing.

We also had sardines and anchovies. I was probably the only kid on my block eating anchovies on my pizza at age 13. My stepmother, Mary, introduced that to me. Around 16 or 17, I challenged myself to cook breakfast, so I had to learn to make eggs, sausage and bacon--all the fundamentals. It was always fun; never work and never hard. I always looked forward to it and planned days to cook for the family.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Adison Lee of KUU

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Adison Lee of KUU. In the background is the computer-controlled, fish made of metal and lights that is a centerpiece of KUU's modern-meets-tradition interior design.

KUU is a Japanese restaurant that marries tradition and technique with modern twists. The high-aiming newcomer, to my mind, at least, falls into the category of Houston restaurants that includes Kata Robata, Uchi and MF Sushi. Now that we know about the chef's experience, this comes as no surprise. We discovered in Part 1 of our interview, chef Adison Lee is a protégé of Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, of the renowned, worldwide Nobu restaurant chain.

In Part 2, we learn more about KUU and find out three dishes that the chef recommends for first-time guests. They're not cheap, but they most certainly are representations of the best that KUU has to offer.

EOW: How do you differentiate yourself from places like Kata Robata and Uchi?

AL: I try to not compete with anyone and come up with my own concepts. I make a lot of traditional recipes but I do modern plating styles. If you come to KUU, you'll have some fish here that you won't find somewhere else.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Adison Lee of KUU

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Adison Lee of KUU

KUU, a fine Japanese restaurant that opened six months ago, is tucked in the back of Memorial City's new "lifestyle center" near Vallone's. I wish it faced the feeder road of I-10, because KUU is putting out cuisine that deserves to be front-and-center.

Although Chef Adison Lee resists comparisons, the refined, modern takes on Japanese food and delicate platings reminds me very much of Uchi without the long wait.

Inside, wood, metal, modern art and glass combine to create an atmosphere that is sophisticated, yet warm.


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Chef Chat, Part 2: How Do You Pronounce Giacomo's, Anyway?

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Lynette Hawkins of Giacomo's Cibo e Vino fusses over a table at lunchtime

In part 1 of our Chef Chat with Lynette Hawkins of Giacomo's, we discussed how it started out being a counter service restaurant. The customers didn't like it, though, and the restaurant is now 100% table service. Why didn't it work, though? We find out here in Part 2.

We also get three recommendations on dishes to try from chef Hawkins and talk about her best friends.

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EOW: There are a couple of Italian places in town that have a counter service model (like Paulie's, for example) and it seems to work. Why didn't it work here?

LH: I think my big mistake was that I put [the names of the dishes on the menu] in Italian. Paulie's is simplified. It's in English and recognizable. Silly me, I have "orecchiette Giorgione" and no one can pronounce it much less figure out what the hell it is. I don't know what I was thinking. I was used to La Mora and forgot that "Oh, gosh. People understood the menu because the waiters were there to translate it for them." They had time to peruse the menu and weren't nervous because they were standing in line and people behind them were urging them to move on! That was a big mistake. Looking back on it, I wonder how I could have been so obtuse!

At the time it didn't even occur to me but now I know that's [the key] to successful counter service places. My menu needed to be explained. People needed to sit, relax and look at the menu at their leisure.

When I first opened, the counter service people were asking for lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza... Pasta Carrabba... (laughs)

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