Chef Chat, Part 1: Mary Bass of Haak Winery

Categories: Chef Chat

Haak Winery is located in the little town of Santa Fe. It's closer to Galveston than Houston, but when you pull up to the tall brick mission-style building, you'll think it's worth the drive. Out front is an old wagon wheel amid a garden of roses and greenery, and even in the middle of January, it looks like springtime.

It's an ideal venue for many events, including weddings and receptions. There's a full kitchen on-site and running that kitchen is chef Mary Bass. She is a Galveston native -- the fourth generation of her family who can claim rights to that label.

In part one of this Chef Chat, we'll learn how Bass went from culinary school to running her own wildly successful baking business, Viva la Cake Balls. She'll explain why she gave it up and talk about her initial introduction to Haak Winery.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which Bass will talk about the type of food she loves to cook and how working at a winery influences her dishes.

EOW: Tell me how you became interested in cooking

MB: So I started cooking when I was seven. I grew up in a family where food was at every single event. My grandmother used to feed between 20 and 80 people every Sunday. They'd just show up and eat, so she would cook something different. I learned at her feet and my mom was really at it good, too, so it just came naturally.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen in front of a water wall at the restaurant.

Is it tough to start something new in a space that was previously a well-known restaurant with a beloved chef? Sure it is, but Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen seems to have the right ideas on how to pick up the ball and run with it. Yesterday we talked with Lewis about growing up in England. Today we'll look at how his career developed here.

Paul's Kitchen and Haven actually have more in common than just a building. Lewis's culinary perspective on the menu has a heavy emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients. Fishmongers and farmers come to the back door to let him know what they have available for the day. Excess is picked, preserved and canned, a skill he learned not in the restaurant industry, but from his family in England. The garden of Randy Evans' Haven still blooms around back, although it will surely do even better when spring rolls around again.

In Part 2, we'll take a look at how Lewis developed his career as a chef in Houston, starting with Deville at Four Seasons and building up to multiple executive chef positions, including at Paul's Kitchen.

PL: I joined Four Seasons in Houston first, back in the fall of 1998. I had been dating a young lady that transferred over here and I thought it would be great to transfer with her. Unfortunately, that didn't work out too well, as those things perhaps sometimes do, but it worked out well for me. I started great career at Four Seasons. I met my wife, who was working here in Houston and I ended up staying with the Four Seasons for close to 10 years.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen

Paul's Kitchen is the new concept from restaurateur Paul Miller, who also grew Union Kitchen to three locations. The name of the new place really works, especially since the chef is also named Paul--in this case, Paul Lewis.

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll get to know about Lewis, his upbringing in England, his family's close connections to the land and farm-raised food. We'll also get a great deal of insight in how culinary apprenticeship and training worked in that country when Lewis was going to school at the same time as he was working to become a chef.

Come back for part 2 tomorrow, where we'll pick back up at the point where Lewis arrives in Houston to work at the Deville restaurant at Four Seasons. (In time, it was revamped and became what we now know as Quattro.)

EOW: Where were you born?

PL: I was born in a small town west of London called Reading. My folks lived about 30 minutes away in the countryside.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Arnaldo Richards of Picos

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Arnaldo Richards of Picos

This past December, I found myself standing in line at the tortilla trailer in the parking lot of Arnaldo Richards's Picos. It was about noon, there was a line and there were more people parking and getting out of their cars to join the throng. It was only a few more moments before the Picos trailer sold out of all its savory tamales. That's how much Houstonians love the food there.

It took time for chef Arnaldo Richards to work his way up. His first place, El Granero, failed due to problems with the partnership he had entered into with a friend. In time, Richards was able to open the first Picos restaurant in Bellaire. The restaurant that has became a beloved reliable outpost of Mexican cuisine finally moved closer to the center of Houston. It now resides in the old Ninfa's location on Kirby at Richmond.

Yesterday we discussed Richards's start in the restaurant field and how one of his ventures that looked promising ultimately didn't work out.. In Part 2 of this Chef Chat, learn how Richards and his wife, Janice, picked up the pieces, made a new start and built the first Picos.

AR: We literally went inside, picked up our menus, grabbed the painting my mother gave me that's still over there hanging -- (points at a wall in the current Picos) and we took off.

EOW: That had to be super-painful to just walk away.

AR: And we were making some good money.


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Chef Chat, Part 1: Arnaldo Richards of Picos

Categories: Chef Chat

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Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Arnaldo Richards of Picos

Our first Chef Chat for 2015 is with Arnaldo Richards of Picos. It used to be called Picos Mex-Mex when it was still in the Bellaire area. About eight months ago, though, the restaurant relocated to the former Ninfa's spot on Kirby at Richmond, and this November it changed its name to Arnaldo Richards' Picos. It gained a tagline, too: Seven Regions of Mexican Cuisine. This was to better highlight that Picos is serving authentic dishes from all across Mexico.

Richards has been cooking in professional kitchens since he was 14 years old and the original Pico's location existed for 30 years before the move. In Part One of this chef chat, we'll find out how Richards's culinary journey led him to open one of Houston's most beloved Mexican restaurants.

EOW: Where were you born?

AR: I was born in Mexico.

EOW: At what age did you come to the United States?

AR: I was 18.

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

Categories: Chef Chat

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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