Chef Chat, Part 2: Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch with his special friend, "Michael." He let the first children who visited name the taxidermy chicken.

When we finished part 1 of our Chef Chat with Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch, he was describing the collaborative environment at Soma Sushi that allowed him and the other team members to improve the menu and bar offerings. How did he get from there to co-owning The Chicken Ranch? It required three stops: Kata Robata, The Modular food truck and Goro & Gun. Martinez owns The Modular and it still goes out for gigs to this day.

When Martinez started running The Modular, a chef came along and offered to help. That person was Lyle Bento (of the forthcoming Southern Goods restaurant). The duo would form a friendship that survived even after they parted ways to pursue separate career paths.

In Part 2 of this Chef Chat, we pick up just as Martinez is leaving Soma Sushi to take a general manager position at a well-known Houston Japanese restaurant. We'll also learn more about The Modular, why Goro & Gun didn't survive and why Martinez decided to open a fried chicken place.

JM: The time came where they needed a general manager at Kata Robata and I said, "Sure, why not?" They were bringing in Seth Siegel-Gardner [now chef and co-owner of The Pass & Provisions]. It was to be a short stint, but it was substantial enough for me to want to join. I already knew his pedigree and I was like, "Yeah, I want to work with this guy."

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch with a portrait of the reporter who busted the original brothel, Marvin Zindler.
Joshua Martinez has already had as many lives as a cat, at least in the culinary sense. He's known as the owner of The Modular, one of the first gourmet food trucks to hit the streets of Houston. He later went on to co-helm the ill-fated izakaya Goro & Gun.

These days, you can find him at the divey new fried chicken place in The Heights, The Chicken Ranch.

When I met Josh, though, he was not in an apron. He was in a suit and tie. At the time, he was a friendly "front of the house" face at Kata Robata. I still remember the day that he excitedly told me about his forthcoming food truck venture. Not too long after that, that he shucked his suit and tie in favor of a T-shirt and baseball cap.

The Modular was timely. It was on the leading edge of the gourmet food truck trend. Soon, it started attracting national attention, thanks not only to the good timing but also because of Martinez' successful partnership with chef Lyle Bento, formerly of Feast.

In time, Bento left to help Chris Shepherd start Underbelly, not too long before Martinez turned his attention to Goro & Gun.

Let's catch up with Martinez and take a look at the long path he's taken through nearly every facet of the restaurant industry.

EOW: Tell me where you're from originally.

JM: Mexico City.

EOW: When did you come to the United States?

JM: When I was very young: about five years old.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Anthony Russo of Russo's New York Pizzeria

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Anthony Russo of Russo's New York Pizzeria
One of the things Tony Russo is most proud of is establishing a franchise operation that still manages to provide quality and consistency across all of their stores. That hasn't been an easy road. Russo started out as many restaurateurs do: in a tiny little eight-seat restaurant preparing his family's recipes as we learned in part one of our chef chat. .

The difference between Russo and most restaurant owners, though, is that he developed his concepts and products into something that, with the right training and support, is repeatable by other restaurant owners.

The effort paid off. Russo's New York Pizzeria has gone international, with locations as far away as Dubai. In part 2 of our chef chat, we'll learn about Russo's strong preferences when it comes to Italian ingredients and how the company has evolved to provide a complete support system to franchisees.

EOW: So, Russo's makes its own dough in-house?

AR: We make our own dough in-house, the salad dressings, the pastas-- all made in-house.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Anthony Russo of Russo's New York Pizzeria

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Anthony Russo of Russo's New York Pizzeria
No matter how you slice it, Anthony Russo is a success story. He developed one of the first New York-style pizzeria concepts in Houston. After perfecting his family's recipes for his own restaurants, he took the concept and started franchising it. That concept was Russo's New York Pizzeria.

Today, you can find Russo's New York Pizzeria all across Houston and in every major suburb: Katy, The Woodlands and League City, among others. Yet, it is no typical franchise. No matter which location it is, almost everything is made in-house, from the pizza dough to the gnocchi.

Russo is the story of a chef who made it: someone who was able to take a successful concept and package it in a way that, in the hands of the right people, can be replicated over and over again.

In part one of this Chef Chat, learn how he got his start, grew his business from one restaurant to four and then started franchising his concept to others. Come back for part two tomorrow, where Russo will talk about the food NY Pizzeria has to offer, how it's continued to grow and what else is on the horizon.

EOW: So, tell me how you became interested in cooking.

AR: My parents moved in 1978 from New Jersey to Galveston and I grew up in the restaurant business. They opened a place called Russo's Italian restaurant on Seawall. I was 12 years old at the time, so after school my homework was cooking in the kitchen. I followed in my dad's footsteps and we would cook with chefs from all over Italy. Mom is from Sicily and Dad is from Naples. So every summer, we would have chefs from Bologna, Naples and Sicily stay with us. They would work through the summer time, so that's how I learned how to cook all of this different Italian cuisine. It was fine dining.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Ben McPherson of Prohibition Supperclub & Bar

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chefs usually work behind the scenes. We thought it would be fun to put McPherson on the Prohibition stage for a change.

Ben McPherson has been up and down the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to Houston. As a kid, he faced down the challenge of moving from Alabama to Germany and back again, being bullied for his accent in two different countries. As we discussed in Part 1 yesterday, after spending some time as a troubled youth, kitchen life chose him and set him back on a positive path.

As you'll see in part 2 of our chef chat, his biggest challenge was still yet to come. As chef du cuisine, he'd face the devastating effects of a manmade disaster on the beautiful coastal restaurant that he worked for, as well as on other restaurants and businesses for miles around.

Today, McPherson is in a much happier spot as the executive chef at Prohibition Supperclub. There, his love for Gulf Coast cuisine is at the forefront. It's a good match for the elegant atmosphere. He's also found a creative work partnership and kinship with chef Matt Wommack, who joined him in the kitchen at Prohibition.

BM: I wasn't happy [in Atlanta] and wanted to move. I moved to Pensacola Beach, Florida where a big seafood restaurant [The Grand Marlin] was being built. It was gorgeous--a $10-million buildout. It had its own harbor. We had a temperature controlled meat-cutting room and opened with a staff of 110. I was chef du cuisine. I got to town a week before they opened the restaurant and they'd already been training two months before I got there. The whole staff goes, "Wait, who's this guy?" They automatically didn't like me.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Ben McPherson of Prohibition Supperclub & Bar

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Ben McPherson inhales the delectable scent of freshly-roasted duck at Prohibition Supperclub & Bar

Let it never be said that chef Ben McPherson fails to give credit to others. Throughout our chat, the chef frequently said, "That's Wommack's dish," or "Wommack did that."

"Wommack" refers to Matt Wommack, McPherson's cooking partner in their successful but short-lived pop-up venture The Bull & Pearl. It was only short-lived because, after a few noteworthy dinners, McPherson was soon contacted by Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, the dinner club and burlesque showcase that recently moved from The Galleria to the space at 1008 Prairie that once housed the Isis Theatre. Built in 1912, it was the first silent theatre in Houston. More recently, the space used to house The Mercury Room and Boaka Bar.

Prohibition was seeking a chef to create and direct the food program; they ended up with two. The duo went to work on creating elegant, Gulf coast dishes to match the classic marbled interior.

In part 1 of this Chef Chat, learn how McPherson graduated from "the school of hard knocks" after moving from Alabama to Germany and back again, and found the passion for food that put him back on an upward path.

Come back tomorrow for part 2, when we'll hear firsthand how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated a Florida Gulf Coast restaurant community and how McPherson eventually made his way to Houston.

EOW: Where are you from originally?

BM: I was born in Decatur, Alabama and then moved down to Mobile when I was about 10. After that, I ended up going with my dad to Heidelberg, Germany until I was about 14.

EOW: That answers a question for me, because you have a slight German accent.

BM: Yeah. Since I was from Alabama, people picked on me a little bit, so I tried my best not to have the accent. Now everyone picks on me for not having the accent! (laughs)

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Chef Chat, Part 2: How to Make Chex Mix With Crickets

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Who among us doesn't have some sour cream and onion crickets sitting in our pantry that we don't know what to do with?

OK, so the odds of you actually having any crickets, let alone those of the sour cream and onion variety, in your pantry (or anywhere else in your kitchen) are probably pretty slim, but watching the above video makes a pretty good case for why maybe you should.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Melissa Hudnall, Bug Chef at HMNS

Categories: Chef Chat

"I think it's a good idea to cook with bugs because they're so plentiful so you might as well bite back," says Melissa Hudnall of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Now sure, as the Bug Chef for the HMNS she's probably a bit biased toward the idea of eating bugs, but she does have a point: bugs are everywhere and putting them in their place isn't the worst idea in the world.

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

Categories: Chef Chat

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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