Chef Chat, Part 2: Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering

Categories: Chef Chat

Vladimir Smirnov managed to work his way from poor Russian immigrant to a banquet chef position with Rice Epicurean market. After years of work there, he decided it was time to go after the dream of owning his own business. Initially, he thought that would be teaching people how to cook, but what he discovered was that clients were much more interested in him doing the cooking than in doing it themselves.

From that discovery, a catering business was born. Today, Smirnov has his own facility with two kitchens and a large storage area, but with three or four catering gigs a day, he's using every bit of that capacity.

In Part 2 of our Chef Chat with him, learn how he went from a rented kitchen to a larger but dilapidated one that needed a lot of work to the one he has today. We'll also find out what he believes a caterer needs to be most concerned about and the types of catering jobs he does.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering

Categories: Chef Chat

Imagine completely starting your life over in a new country where you don't know many people, have no job prospects and don't know the language at all. This is exactly what Vladimir and his wife had to cope with when they left Moscow for America, the "land of opportunity."

They worked their way up from the bottom of the job ladder, taking cleaning jobs for $2 an hour. In time, Smirnov found a job in a restaurant and soon after a position at Rice Epicurean on Bellaire. He learned English from his customers, became more fluent and ended up staying at Rice Epicurean for 12 years, working his way up to a banquet chef position.

Today, Smirnov runs a very successful private catering firm. He takes all types of jobs, but especially serves the needs of the Russian Jewish community that helped him get a leg up when he arrived in the United States. In part one of our Chef Chat with him, he'll describe what it was like to be an immigrant and how he worked his way up.

Come back for part two of our interview tomorrow, when we'll discuss how he struck out on his own and made the dream of owning his own business come true.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys and 8th Wonder Brewery

Categories: Chef Chat

Things have been good for Eatsie Boys since our last Chef Chat with Matt Marcus in 2012. He won the Houston Culinary Award for Best Up-And-Coming Chef right after that interview. They got a one-star review from Alison Cook (not too bad, truly) and made her Top 100 Restaurants list in both 2013 and 2014. There was also a positive review by Katharine Shilcutt, the restaurant critic for the Houston Press, at the time.

Marcus, along with his business partners, Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis, got 8th Wonder Brewery up and running as well and you can find their beer on tap all over Houston, as well as in Austin and Dallas. Following that came a tasting room at the brewery and a new gold truck to serve food just outside of it.

Yesterday we talked with Marcus about his start and food trucks. In this final part of our Chef Chat with Marcus, he'll talk about the sensitive issue of his friendship with chef Grant Gordon, who passed away last year. We'll also talk about 8th Wonder's beers and what first-timers should dine on at Eatsie Boys cafe.

EOW: The original [Eatsie Boys food] truck has been sold.

MM: It's been sold to some nice gentlemen in Cypress that I think are going to open up some sort of hamburger truck. (Author's note: the purchaser was BYG Burgers and they are indeed in Cypress.)

EOW: And the current [Eatsie Boys] truck, of course, is solid gold.

MM: Yes.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys & 8th Wonder Brewery

Categories: Chef Chat

Back in 2012, the Houston Press did a Chef Chat with Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys, but much has changed since then. At the time, they were still working exclusively from their food truck, mostly in front of Agora coffee shop.

These days, Marcus and his business partners, Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis, have a whole lot more to keep up with. The original Intergalactic Food Truck has been sold, but there's a solid gold one now. You can usually find it parked next to their brewery, 8th Wonder. Fortunately, their primary restaurant is not on wheels. It's now Eatsie Boys cafe at 4100 Montrose.

In Part 1 of our new Chef Chat with Matt Marcus, we dive right into the present and talk about some of the pressing issues of Houston's food scene. Why does it seem to be harder to run a food truck these days? Also, why are so many restaurateurs complaining that they can't find servers or kitchen help these days? We delve into these questions and more.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where Marcus will tell us about a longtime friendship and all about Eatsie Boys' food.

EOW: First, introduce yourself to our Houston Press readers. Who are you and what do you do?

MM: My name is Matt Marcus, born and raised in Houston, Texas. We started Eatsie Boys in 2010 with the little, tiny food trailer, and we blossomed into a brick-and-mortar and multiple food trucks. We've started 8th Wonder Brewery as well. It's our craft brewery in East Downtown. We're in 160 bars and restaurants around town, and we make some of Houston's best beer.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Greg Lowry of Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken

Categories: Chef Chat

To be blunt, chef and longtime Houstonian Greg Lowry has been brought in by Bradley's Fine Diner as a fix-it man -- to build on the good things already in place such as a successful Sunday brunch menu and a gorgeous interior. Lowry's job is to tune up the menu and turn Bradley's into a favorite neighborhood restaurant. He's also overseeing Funky Chicken, and while he's tweaking a few of the recipes there, there was already a solid foundation there that seems to work.

Lowry has been in Houston restaurants for most of his career, but relocated temporarily to Austin to open a Max's Wine Dive there. We pick up from Part 1 of his Chef Chat at the point when he returns to Houston. We'll also cover the ill-fated Rockwood Room (which survived only four months), his relationship with the staff at Triniti, where he worked under chef Ryan Hildebrand for three and a half years, and the new gastropub of which he'll soon also be in charge.

EOW: From Max's, what was your next move?

GL: I went from Max's to Rockwood Room with Michael Dei Maggi. I came back to work with him again and then we shuttered about four months after. It was a mess.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Greg Lowry of Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken

Categories: Chef Chat

In an article last year titled Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?, we cited example after example of a celebrity chef who came to Houston only to be greeted with skepticism and indifference. Such has been the case with Bradley's Fine Diner.

Namesake chef Bradley Ogden got off on the wrong foot when he said in an interview with Eater Las Vegas that Houston was "starving for great places to eat." It was a bit of nonsense that didn't get things off on the right foot. When Bradley's Fine Diner opened, it was greeted with a big yawn. It's a beautiful restaurant, and the dishes were nice but not compelling.

The restaurant ownership recognizes the issue and has brought in a native Houston chef with a long, well-regarded history to fix things. That chef is Greg Lowry, whose résumé includes Tony's, Voice, Max's Wine Dive and Triniti. Even his education was obtained here, at the Art Institute of Houston and Culinary Institute LeNôtre. He started in pastry, making all the pastries for Tony's when many restaurants needed to be supplied. This was before the sale of La Griglia and the two Grotto locations.

Lowry is now in charge of the food at both Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken, which seems to have fared better thanks to its fast-casual concept and unique gluten-free fried chicken. He's extremely enthusiastic about tightening the ship and gearing the food to Houstonians' palates.

In part one of our Chef Chat, we'll find out his long history in Texas restaurants. Come back tomorrow for part two, where we'll find out specifically what he intends to do to bring Bradley's Fine Diner into vogue with Houstonians.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

GL: I'm about as Houstonian as you get. I was born in New York. I lived there for about a year and then we transplanted to Houston. My dad was transferred here. I think he was working with a company called Sales World at the time. They moved the family down from New York.

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Up-and-Coming Houston Chefs: Meet Five of the Youngest at the Center of Their Kitchens

There are no boring chefs. The very nature of the business demands creativity tempered with a heaping spoonful of practicality. Successful chefs don't just learn how to be good cooks. They must also become teachers, managers, leaders, accountants and diplomats.

They also live in a tightly interwoven community. We interviewed five of the Houston area's youngest executive chefs. The oldest is 34 and the youngest two are 28. A pair of old friends traveled along the same path for a time before their roads diverged. Two others started their careers together, with one ending up the executive chef at a restaurant the other had left years before.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Fernando Echeverria of Fernando's

Categories: Chef Chat

"Good help is hard to find," so the adage goes. Fernando Echeverria found this to be true with his self-named restaurant, Fernando's in Sugar Land. Cooks he hired failed to be conscientious in how they used expensive ingredients, so he decided that for profitability and peace of mind, he'd take over the cooking duties himself. It's an unusual move for someone with a server and restaurateur background, but Echeverria is determined to make it work until the 15-year loan on his restaurant is paid off.

In this second installment of our Chef Chat with him, Echeverria talks about how he managed to acquire a former Ruth's Chris Steak House and turn it into a restaurant of his own. He also will share some of his stories from 35 years of working in Houston restaurants. We'll pick up from part one, where Echeverria is informed that the Ruth's Chris building is about to become available.

FE: It was a Tuesday night. The next day, I drove by and I saw [movers at Ruth's Chris] putting stuff in trucks. I said, "Oh my God." And then by Thursday, they're gone.

Two weeks later, my lawyer gave me the phone number and I called the CEO. He told me how much they spent on this restaurant, which I think was almost $6 million, and I said, "Oh my gosh, way too much money."

Anyway, to make a long story short, six months later I called them up and I said, "Okay, this is how much I'm going to give you. You got until Monday at nine o'clock. If you don't call me, I'll just move on."

They called me up Monday and said, "It's yours. Go get financing." Wow. I've been in the restaurant business for so long back then, I thought it was going to be easy. I couldn't get financing. I had to put up my earnest money and do everything that I needed to do, but finally I ended up with a restaurant.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Fernando Echeverria of Fernando's

Categories: Chef Chat

Even when you've lived in Houston most of your life, it's easy to drive up and down the same freeways regularly and still completely miss a good restaurant sitting right next to the feeder road. If you don't know about Fernando's, just off of Highway 59 in Sugar Land, you might miss it.

It was a bit of a shocker to pull up to the front of the modest, colonial-looking building that houses it. Inside, it's a huge, fancy place with a separate bar area, a kitchen big enough to serve a country club, multiple private dining rooms and even a tiny dance floor.

More than ten years ago, it was a Ruth's Chris Steak House. Then it closed and the building was acquired by Fernando Echeverria.

Echeverria has a long and storied history in Houston, at times working with some of the biggest names in the business. He started as a server at Ninfa's back in its heyday, when there were still several locations run by the Laurenzo family. Later, he'd work for the Carrabbas. His manager there, Lynette Hawkins, would also become a restaurant owner. (She now runs Giacomo's Cibo e Vino.)

Good timing allowed him to take over Rao's, an Italian restaurant that existed back when the big building on Highway 59 was still Compaq Center. He turned it into his first restaurant, Los Andes. More good timing and a stroke of luck led him to the former Ruth's Chris space.

In part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll walk with Echeverria through his long history in Houston. When we pick back up with part 2 tomorrow, we'll get more in-depth with Fernando's, what the food is like and what Echeverria's goals are.

EOW: Are you originally from Houston?

FE: I'm from Ecuador. I moved to New York, and then from New York ended up in Houston, Texas.

EOW: How old were you when you went to New York?

FE: I was 13 years old.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Liz Brooks of Canopy and Woodbar

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Liz Brooks of Canopy and Woodbar

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat
with Liz Brooks, we talked about her progression as a chef. In culinary school, she interned at Claire Smith's restaurant Shade. After working various places after culinary school, she ultimately returned to a Claire Smith restaurant. Brooks is now executive chef not only at Canopy, but at newly opened Woodbar as well.

Canopy is a popular neighborhood restaurant and serves hundreds of diners a week. In this second part of our interview, we'll talk about what it's like to be both a parent as well as a chef of a busy restaurant. Brooks will also tell us her favorite cocktail at Woodbar, as well as the must-try items to order if you're visiting Canopy for the first time. We'll also get some details on the restaurant's Sunday brunch.

EOW: You mentioned earlier that [Canopy] is not afraid to embrace international ingredients. What are some of your favorite cuisines?

LB: I really do enjoy eating Indian food and Asian and Mediterranean are some more of my favorites.

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