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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Chef Chat -- The Pit Masters
Part 2: Will & Nichole Buckman of
CorkScrew BBQ

Categories: Chef Chat

As we learned in Part 1 of our Chef Chat yesterday, It takes time to build a barbecue operation. CorkScrew BBQ consists of two trailers. The original is nicknamed "Baby" and the big, shiny, black metal one with the hot pink CorkScrew logo is called "Mama." There's a smokehouse as well, from which briskets with a deep brown crust and spiced racks of ribs the color of mahogany emerge.

CorkScrew has become so popular over the past four years that owners Will and Nichole Buckman have maxed out production. Every morning, except Sundays and Mondays when they're closed, customers gather at the picnic benches outside sometimes hours before the place opens at 11 a.m.

In this part of our Chef Chat with the Buckmans, we get down to the nitty gritty of making barbecue as well as that all-important question: what time do people have to arrive in order to have a shot at all of the meats?

EOW: Do you have any trade secrets?

WB: Not really, I mean we're pretty much an open book. We do our thing. I don't really have any secrets. We barbecue and that's pretty much how it is. We do have our own recipes that we won't divulge all the ingredients of them. But as far as secrets are concerned, I don't have any.

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Chef Chat -- The Pit Masters
Part 1: Will & Nichole Buckman of
CorkScrew BBQ

Categories: Chef Chat

It's February, the time of year when Houstonian thoughts turn to barbecue. The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo World's Championship Bar-B-Que is just around the corner. April will bring the Third Annual Houston Barbecue Festival. (Hopefully, April won't also bring showers during the festival like it did last year.)

With that in mind, this is the first of a three-week series where Chef Chat will focus on just a few of Houston's talented pit masters. It's not glamorous work. It involves working with raw meat, smelling like wood smoke all the time and staying up all night to mind the pits (or finding a night owl who's willing to mind the fires for you). The results, though, are well worth it and greatly appreciated by barbecue fans (as evidenced by the long lines of customers).

Will and Nichole Buckman are high school sweethearts who had a dream of running their own business. Will's first restaurant job just happened to be at a barbecue place, so it was perhaps a stroke of fate that life would lead him away from a job at AT&T, and both he and Nichole into a place of their very own: CorkScrew BBQ in Spring, Texas.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, Will and Nichole will talk about how they got started, some of the challenges they faced in finding an acceptable a piece of land for their barbecue business and why beef prices are so high right now.

Come back for Part 2 tomorrow, when Will and Nichole will talk about managing the ebbs and flows of the meat business, the best days and times to visit to get to try all the different meats and their "top secret marinating technique."

EOW: Are either or both of you native Houstonians, or "Springlandians," or...

NB: We're both from Spring, born and raised.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: John Watt of Prego and Trevisio

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Paula Murphy
Chef John Watt of Prego and Trevisio

Chef John Watt has been part of Houston's restaurant scene for over 30 years--long enough to witness its slow evolution into a nationally-acclaimed dining destination.

In Part 2 of our Chef Chat, Watt notes how times have changed--in expectations for restaurant wine programs, for example--and elaborates on some of the challenges in trying to convert a restaurant from one cuisine to another.

Watt will also discuss neighborhood restaurant Prego that he co-owns with Tracy Vaught, the impressively large Medical Center restaurant named Trevisio and his hopes for a fellow chef he's known for quite some time: Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Caracol.

Be sure to begin with Part 1 of our Chef Chat with John Watt if you have not already read it.

We pick up as he describes the challenges of changing Backstreet Cafe from "kind of a hamburger place" to the New American-focused restaurant we know today.

JW: Early challenges in [changing a] restaurant are: one, you're changing the food in the restaurant and some of the customer base doesn't really like the change, even if you have a small customer base, as we did at that time.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: John Watt of Prego and Trevisio

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Paula Murphy
Chef John Watt has a history of cooking in the Houston-Galveston area that spans more than 30 years.

Many people probably don't know that James Beard-nominated Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, Backstreet Café and Caracol, is not Tracy Vaught's only partner in the restaurant industry, nor was he the original executive chef at Backstreet.

Chef John Watt, who also co-owns Prego and co-operates Trevisio with Vaught, was the first to aim Backstreet Café's focus toward the New American cuisine that it still has to this day. Watt was there when Ortega was hired on initially as a dishwasher and watched his ascent to being a James Beard-nominated chef and owner of multiple acclaimed restaurants.

Watt himself did not become a chef in a traditional matter. He started cooking in the kitchen of a club during the 1970s. Let's learn how Watt came to have such a prominent spot in Houston restaurant history.

EOW: Did you grow up in Houston?

JW: No. I was born in Superior, Wisconsin and I lived there for [about 11] years of my life. My father passed away when I was around 10 years old and [a year later] we moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I lived there, I went to school there, I went to the University of Tulsa and in my early history, I was a musician. I was teaching guitar. I was one of the people who ran the City Arts Center. After a while, I knew a lot of people and I sort of got in the club business and found a lot of success.

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Bakery Shocker: Roy Shvartzapel Is Leaving Common Bond -- and Houston

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chef Roy Shvartzapel at Common Bond bakery
After finding great success locally, notable baker Roy Shvartzapel is leaving his native home of Houston and moving to The Big Apple. His experience gained all over the world helped put Common Bond on the map for its outstanding baked goods.

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