Chef Chat, Part 1: Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at JW Marriott

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at the brand-new JW Marriott hotel in downtown Houston

Erin Smith is one of only a handful of female executive chefs in Houston. She first caught attention for the menu that was tailored for the extensive wine focus at Plonk! Bistro. She made headlines when she joined Clumsy Butcher group to conceptualize the initial menu for the newly opened Blacksmith coffee shop, then went on to revamp the menus at Anvil and The Hay Merchant.

Now she's in charge of a much bigger beast: the kitchen operations for the new and sophisticated JW Marriott hotel that just opened downtown. This includes the restaurant Main Kitchen, room service, banquets and the numerous other special events and meetings that happen every day in a luxury hotel.

In Part 1 of our interview, Smith discusses her surprising initial focus during college and why she instead turned to cooking. You'll also learn about how native Houstonian Smith earned her stripes at some of New York's top restaurants before returning home to head up Plonk! Bistro.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 where Smith discusses her food focus at Main Kitchen, as well as how she manages to pull off running a large hotel food operation.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

ES: I am from Houston. I grew up here, moved away for college, was gone for 10 years and came back in 2010.

EOW: Where did you go to college?

ES: Texas Tech. Get your guns up! (makes finger guns) I love doing that because we've got a lot of Longhorns here so there's this fierce rivalry thing happening.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Randy Evans

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Randy Evans in the JCI test kitchen with a steak salad concept that he's working on.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Randy Evans, we explored his struggle with deciding to become a chef instead of a doctor (and how his wife helped), his friendship with chef Chris Shepherd and how he came to be Executive Chef at Brennan's of Houston.

Perhaps, though, the most pressing question for diners is "Why did Haven close?" For most fans of chef Evans, it was surprising and unexpected. You'll get the full story here.

Even though Evans no longer is in a restaurant, he's not sitting on his laurels and is staying quite busy. His new consultancy, Southern Son, has already taken on three high-profile clients and the chef is occasionally doing some catering gigs--when he wants to.

We pick up here where we left off in Part 1, with Evans and Shepherd still at Brennan's of Houston.

RE: So, Chris [Shepherd] left in 2006 [to be executive chef at Catalan] and I wrote a cookbook, The Kitchen Table. It was Alex Brennan's idea. He called a meeting and said, "Bring all your big ideas and we'll sit down and talk about them." My idea was starting to do dry-cured meats. We were already doing bacon, tasso and sausages but it was all wet-cure.

Alex sits down and starts first. His idea is the cookbook, which pretty much put a pin in my balloon for dry curing. It never happened.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Randy Evans

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Randy Evans in the JCI (formerly James Coney Island) test kitchen

After last week's Chef Chat with Chris Shepherd, the next person that we wanted to talk to was Chef Randy Evans. As best friends who met on the first day of culinary school and went on to work for years together at Brennan's of Houston, the two are part of each other's stories.

Evans was the former executive chef at Brennan's and later co-owned Haven, which closed at the end of last July. His dad was a machinist who made oil tools. His mother was raised on a farm, and her dad--Evans' grandfather--was an avid gardener. With that ancestry, one might think that it is of no surprise that Evans helped lead the farm-to-table movement in Houston. However, thanks to an aptitude in math and the sciences, there was a time when he seriously considered becoming a doctor. He majored in biology in college.

He also has bolstered the careers of others who have worked for him, such as Kevin Naderi (of Roost and Lillo & Ella) and Jean-Philippe Gaston (soon to be the executive chef at Kata Robata's future izakaya in Midtown).

Now that Haven has closed, Evans has made some interesting career choices. Find out what it means to go from having your own restaurant to serving multiple clients as a consulting chef. Come back tomorrow for part 2 when we'll discuss exactly why Haven closed, which places Evans is developing new menus for, when his next restaurant might happen and where he'd like it to be located.

EOW: How did you become interested in cooking?

RE: When I was in college at Baylor. That's when I knew I wanted to do it more than just cooking at home. I was cooking for my roommates and my girlfriend, Melanie, (who is now my wife). The big time, though, when I was cooking at my sister's new house. It was brand new, with a big, fancy kitchen. I'd visit my nieces and nephews on the weekend and just cook.

My mother-in-law bought me a cookbook from the California Culinary Academy on Italian [cuisine] for Christmas in '94. That was my first real [professional] cookbook. It wasn't Paul Prudhomme or something we knew growing up.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly looks thoughtful as we take a trip down memory lane

There are very few chefs in the United States who can describe what it's like to win a James Beard award. As we discussed yesterday, Chris Shepherd is one of them, but success doesn't seem to have spoiled him yet. Most of the time, he's where he's always been for the last few years: at Underbelly meeting with his staff, cooking in the kitchen, receiving orders from fishmongers and cattle purveyors and minding the pass.

In part two of this Chef Chat, Shepherd talks about how Underbelly came about, why you never see old favorite dishes from Catalan on the menu and the impish side of his best friend and former Haven chef and owner Randy Evans, who is currently consulting for restaurants in both Houston and Galveston.

EOW: I've never seen the pork belly lollipops [a bestseller at Catalan] here at Underbelly.

CS: No. Won't do it. You have to evolve and change. I get that question all the time. I put it on the happy hour menu for a week. I didn't really say anything. I took a picture, and put it on Twitter, just to see it happen. All my old employees came and ate it. That was about it. It made me realize you have to evolve and change all the time, whether it's through business or food or whatever, those things have to happen.

I get asked to do the foie gras bon bons all the time, too. When I opened Underbelly, I said I'd never do any of those dishes here. I just can't, because then I'm resting on my laurels and not pushing harder than we did before. [Those dishes] were successful and delicious and people loved them, but we have to find our next thing and it's that (points at an order of Underbelly Korean Braised Goat & Dumplings). I can't get away from it.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chris Shepherd of Underbelly
Chris Shepherd won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest earlier this year. He is the first Houston chef to do so since Robert del Grande won in 1992, and has helped thrust our culinary scene into the national spotlight.

Shepherd's story is of a chef who has taken the journeyman's path. He has literally worked his way from dishwasher to owning his own restaurant.

He was born in Nebraska. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was only a year old and he started his culinary journey at a Japanese restaurant in Tulsa. At age 23, he made it to Houston, where he would begin his ascent in earnest.

In this first part of our Chef Chat, we'll learn about the first steps of his path as well as about how he and chef Randy Evans (formerly of Brennan's and Haven) became best friends. We'll also look at how Catalan, the restaurant where he held his first executive chef position, started out as a Spanish concept and somehow evolved into one that showcased Shepherd's comfort food -- and a signature dish that was the product of a happy accident.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation, when Shepherd talks about what it's like to win a Beard award and how Underbelly came to exist.

EOW: You were in Oklahoma until you were 23. Did you go to college there?

CS: No, I did all the dumb things that you're supposed to do as a kid. I didn't pay attention to what I wanted to do, and then decided I'd start cooking.

EOW: Where did you start cooking?

CS: Originally at a place called Fuji [Japanese & Sushi], a sushi bar in Tulsa. I started as a dishwasher. All of my friends worked there, so it was easy to get a job with those guys and go have fun.

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UPDATED Chef Chat, Part 2: Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chef Jason Gould on the patio of the Cyclone Anaya's on Durham.

Editor's note: Please see response from Robb Walsh later in this post.

When we last left our Chef Chat with Jason Gould, he had just ended up in Houston after a long journey that took him from Seattle to Lake Michigan and then New York at the worst of times.

Once in Houston, he would work at two highly influential restaurants during their heydays: Aries and Gravitas. How does a chef used to working for independent ventures find a career match at a classic Houston Tex-Mex establishment that now has seven locations? And what other high profile restaurant did he intend to work at, but didn't? Find out below.

EOW: So, you ended up in Houston because you have an aunt here.

JG: Yep. When I dropped off my résume at Aries, it had only been open about eight months. Scott [Tycer] saw it, noticed that I had worked for Marco [Pierre White] and said, "Yep, you're in." Not too long later, I was promoted to chef du cuisine.

EOW: That's a fast advancement.

JG: It was such a small kitchen. There were really only four people who worked it. There was the pastry side, salad side, meat and fish.

EOW: I thought Aries was amazing. I'll never forget that giant cheese cart.

JG: Yeah, it was good. We'd have fun there, too. We used to take smelly Taleggio rinds and and put them under the door handles of some of the waiters. So, when they'd go hop into their cars, they'd get Taleggio on them and have to smell it in their car.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's
One of the joys of interviewing chefs is finding that very few are boring. They are often dynamic, adventurous people with amazing stories. Chef Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's is no exception.

This native Australian worked early in his career for one of the original "celebrity chefs" at a restaurant that, at the time, was among the most prestigious. After a period of extensive traveling, he made his own mark on Houston's culinary scene, first at Aries and then Gravitas. These days, he oversees all locations of the growing Cyclone Anaya's chain that has roots as deep in Houston as our other revered Tex-Mex restaurants.

Those things, you might know, but you probably don't know that he extensively traveled Europe, hitchhiked through part of the United States and volunteered his services during the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Read on for all the details.

EOW: How did you first become interested in cooking?

JG: I have being doing it for 28 years. It was just fate. I remember going at a very young age with my dad to the local pub. He had a golf club he was involved in and we'd go hang out the kitchen. I think I just got accustomed to being back there.

In year nine or ten at school, there were two weeks that were vocation weeks. I went in and cooked in a local pub and loved it. I got led into a false sense of security because they overpaid me. When you did vocation, it was supposed to be three dollars a day. They paid me five dollars an hour, so I came out after two weeks with $300 and everyone else was getting $30 a week. I was thinking "This is great! This is it!"

The chef after two weeks said, "Come back and we'll do an apprenticeship." In Australia, it's four years of apprenticeship. Most of time, you are actually working and you go to school part-time.

By the time my school year finished, that chef had moved on. When I went back to the pub expecting an apprenticeship, there was a new chef there who wasn't as willing. He was a tool.

I worked at McDonald's for a little while. Eventually, I landed an apprenticeship and it went from there.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Rebecca Masson of
Fluff Bake Bar

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Rebecca Masson inside of the shop that will become Fluff Bake Bar

In Part 1, we learned about Rebecca Masson's journey that would take her from the slopes of Breckenridge, to one of the finest culinary schools in the world and, eventually, to Houston.

Here in Part 2, we'll find out how she became a contestant on "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and sought crowd-funding to take Fluff Bake Bar from a rented kitchen space to a storefront bakery on Gray Street.

By the way, Masson has been a long-time supporter of the dog rescue organization Lucky Dog and has hosted several dinners along with other volunteer chefs to benefit the organization. The tenth (and final) of these dinners is on October 26th. Keep a watch on the Fluff Bake Bar Twitter feed for the announcement that they're going on sale. If you've never been to one of these, they are always an amazing, multi-course experience.

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Chef Chat, Part 1: Rebecca Masson of
Fluff Bake Bar

Categories: Chef Chat
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Rebecca Masson inside of the shop that will become Fluff Bake Bar
We haven't had a Chef Chat with Becky Masson since 2010 and a whole heck of a lot has happened since then. Here are just a few highlights. 

In 2011, she competed on "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and represented Houston admirably, despite not winning. Not too much later, for the first time Fluff Bake Bar found permanent retail placement for its desserts at Revival Market and Inversion. In 2013, the Kickstarter intended to fund Fluff Bake Bar looked for weeks like it wasn't going to succeed and ended up getting the last big chunk of cash needed on the very last day. 

With any luck, Fluff Bake Bar may even be open in time for Thansgiving. Cross your fingers that the City of Houston approvals and permitting go through quickly so we can all order pies. 

In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we get some in-depth information about Masson's roots: how she went from being a Colorado snowboard bum to the Cordon Bleu and then to Michelin-starred restaurants in France and New York. How did she get to Houston? Read on and find out, then come back for Part 2 tomorrow to find out how Houston almost lost her again. 

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JohnMichael Lynch Named Executive Chef of Hotel Granduca

Photo by Mai Pham
JohnMichael Lynch is the new executive chef of Ristorante Cavour at the Hotel Granduca.

After a nationwide, year-long search, the Hotel Granduca has finally named a new executive chef: JohnMichael Lynch. Since taking the reins approximately five weeks ago, the classically trained 31-year-old -- who is responsible for all aspects of hotel dining, from banquets, to pool and bar, in-room dining and the flagship restaurant, Ristorante Cavour --has been working seven days a week (which coincided in part with Houston Restaurant Weeks) just to get situated.

Lynch started cooking while in high school. When he realized he wanted to become a chef, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. He spent his early years in New Jersey and the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked under Jeffrey Buben (a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Winner in 1999) at Bistro Bis, before joining the Cherokee Town Club in Atlanta for seven years. In 2013, Lynch was named American Culinary Federation (ACF) Southeast Region Chef of the year while a chef de cuisine at Cherokee. He later did a short stint Chevy Chase Club in Maryland before joining the Hotel Granduca.

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