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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Chef Chat Part 1: Liz Brooks of Canopy

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Liz Brooks of Canopy and Woodbar
Diners probably most closely identify Canopy at 3939 Montrose with chef and restaurateur Claire Smith, who was highly praised for the fresh, inventive fare at Daily Review Café, which opened in 1994. She closed it in 2000, traveled for a few years, then returned to open Shade in The Heights. Her follow-up act was opening Canopy in the Montrose area.

While Canopy strongly reflects Smith's sensibilities, the executive chef responsible for executing that vision is Liz Brooks. Brooks brings her own ideas to the table as well, so the cuisine at Canopy is a reflection of both women. Brooks's newest responsibility is Woodbar, a multipurpose space that serves pastries in the morning and cocktails with an accompanying bar menu in the evening.

In this first part of our Chef Chat with Brooks, we'll find out how an unhappy period ultimately led her to her true calling. We'll also learn about the career progression that ended up bringing her full-circle -- interning at and ultimately coming back to Smith's restaurants.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll talk about Canopy and Woodbar's food, and the challenges of being both a chef and a mom.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: The Pit Masters Trent Brooks of Brooks' Place

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Trent Brooks in front of the Brooks' Place trailer, where he cranks out ribs, brisket, sausage and more daily.

This is the final installment of our three-week "The Pit Masters" segment of Chef Chat. We started with CorkScrew BBQ in Spring, visited Rogels Barbecue Co. off of San Felipe and Voss and are wrapping up with a visit to Trent Brooks of Brooks' Place in Cypress. Thanks to everyone who has kept up with our series on the masters of smoked meats.

On the day of our interview with Brooks' Place owner Trent Brooks, it was 40 degrees outside. A trailer is a particularly unforgiving environment for making barbecue when the weather doesn't cooperate. Rain, sleet, cold -- well, it doesn't matter. The meats must smoke. Business must go on.

In Part One we talked about how Brooks, despite some initial reluctance, got started in the barbecue business. Here in Part Two of our Chef Chat, Brooks talks about the ins and outs of making barbecue, the 15 sides they rotate through their menu and the number one quality a pit master must have.

EOW: Does your whole family help you out here at the trailer?

TB: They have. When I started out, they were helping me out. But once we got to the point where our business really took off and everything, I had to start hiring employees because my mom works and my dad had just retired. So, I had to get my own crew to continue and to get the help that I needed.

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Chef Chat: The Pit Masters Trent Brooks of Brooks' Place

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Trent Brooks of Brooks' Place
It's not easy smoking barbecue in a trailer. Briskets take overnight to cook and have to be minded to make sure the temperature stays consistent and the fires don't die out.

Trent Brooks, however, has been managing for years and it's not like he gets to just run out to his backyard and check the smoker. When he lost his job as a materials specialist for a gas compression company, he turned his side job, cooking barbecue on the weekends, into full-time work. His quality meats and sides have caught the attention of both local and statewide publications, including Texas Monthly. That's not bad for a guy working out of a trailer in a parking lot in Cypress near an Ace Hardware.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll learn how he got into the business and started gaining recognition as one of the best pit masters in the area. Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll learn more about the work that goes into his business and Brooks's methodology of barbecue.

EOW: Tell me how you got into cooking.

TB: Well, cooking's in my background. My dad and my grandfather did it a long time ago. My dad still does it on the north side of town. I hated it, believe it or not, growing up because it just took too much of my time. But I guess it's safe to say that along the way, I must have paid attention to something that he was doing, because I ended up doing it.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: The Pit Masters Russell and Misty Roegels of Roegels Barbecue Co.

Categories: Chef Chat

Why change from an easy-to-pronounce franchise name like "Baker's Ribs" to an independent place called Roegels Barbecue Co.? In the case of Russell and Misty Roegels, it was a desire to connect their name and hard work to the quality barbecue and sides they produce day in and day out.

We pick up where we left off in Part 1, after Russell Roegels explained how to pronounce that Germanic surname (it's "Ray-guls"). Here, he reminds us of the German and Czechoslovakian connections to Texas barbecue heritage. Later, we'll get into some specifics about the many meats Roegels Barbecue Co. is cooking as well as the wide range of sides that go alongside.

RR: Barbecue, traditionally, that's a German and Czech thing. Years ago, they would smoke meat to preserve it, and a lot of those immigrants are German and Czech. That's where my great-grandparents emigrated here from, Germany. My grandparents lived in San Marcos, which has a big German population. So, if I open this in San Marcos, maybe people would know how to pronounce my name. Here in Houston -- not happening. (laughs)

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Chef Chat: The Pit Masters
Russell and Misty Roegels of
Roegels Barbecue Co.

Categories: Chef Chat

Change can be hard, but sometimes it's for the best. Over the past few decades, you may have noticed or even been to the Baker's Ribs location at 2223 South Voss between San Felipe and Westheimer. However, if you've gone by in the past few months, you may have also noticed the sign has changed to Roegels Barbecue Co.

Russell and Misty Roegels worked at Baker's Ribs for years, starting out as employees before buying that franchise location. Russell is the pit master, while Misty makes sure the front-of-house operations run smoothly. The name change marks not only the Roegelses leaving the franchise, but a change in how Russell approaches barbecue. He joins the group of Houston pit masters who have stepped up their game to produce smoked meats that are every bit as good as those found in lauded Central Texas.

In Part One of this Chef Chat, we'll hear how Russell got his start in cooking in Longview and how, he, Misty and their 13-month-old baby ended up in Houston at a time that wasn't exactly ideal. They'll also tell us about one particularly famous visitor who came by during their days as Baker's Ribs.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll talk about how Russell has changed and improved the barbecue, other pit masters he admires and some of the challenges of making longtime customers happy with the changes.

EOW: How did you become interested in cooking?

RR: I've always cooked from the time I was a kid. Not anything fancy, but it was me, my mom and my brother. My mom worked nights and she slept during the day, so we cooked.

As far as cooking barbecue, when I was 15 there was a guy down the road that had a barbecue place called Bodacious up in Longview. I was friends with his babysitter, and he did catering there. So I started doing catering jobs with him. I was 15 years old and not into cooking, but I went there and I poured tea on these catering jobs. When we got back, I got to clean them up.

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