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

Categories: Chef Chat

tony_russo_IMG_2848.jpg
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.

More »

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

Categories: Chef Chat

anthony_russo_IMG_2844.jpg
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.

More »

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

Categories: Chef Chat

ben_stage_560_CMC_8186-2.jpg
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.


More »

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

Categories: Chef Chat

ben_mcpherson_CMC_8515.jpg
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)


More »

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

Categories: Chef Chat

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.

More »

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.

More »

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

Categories: Chef Chat

chef_cervantez_560_CMC_9536.jpg
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.

More »

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.

More »

Chef Chat, Part 2: Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Categories: Chef Chat

sam_beier_IMG_2487.jpg
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

When we left off in Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Samuel Beier, he had just completed a long stint under Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market and Market restaurants in Atlanta. It was his second time to work for the world-renowned French chef. The first time being at the defunct Bank in Hotel Icon here in Houston. (Line & Lariat is currently the restaurant where Bank used to be inside of Hotel Icon.)

A job opportunity for his wife brought the Beiers back to her hometown of Houston. In this Part 2 of our Chef Chat, find out where Beier landed his first executive position, a remarkable physical challenge he has to be mindful of on a daily basis, how Tony Mandola's customers are responding to the chef's efforts to freshen up the menu and his affection--perhaps even obsession--for cookbooks.

EOW: Where did you land when you and your wife returned to Houston?

SB: My first job when we came back was at *17. The hotel got bought out and I was promoted to executive chef. It was quite fun but also very difficult. We did room service, banquets, the bar and *17. It wasn't too stressful, though, because the volume and business had died off.

We got a chance to get stuff back on track. It was going well, but I got to a point where I didn't see eye-to-eye with the management, so that's when I decided to part ways.

More »

Chef Chat, Part 1: Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Categories: Chef Chat

sam_beier_tony_mandolas_IMG_2485.jpg
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

Chef Samuel Beier has a tricky mission: update Tony Mandola's cuisine to attract a younger clientele while still satisfying customers who have patronized the family's restaurants for over two decades.

I don't envy him the task, but it is needed. Cuisine inside the 610 Loop isn't what it used to be. Competition is high and the up-and-comers of Generation X who hold the majority of dining dollars and are looking for not only a unique experience but a true story.

Back in 2012 I wrote a post for "Eating... Our Words" called "Stuck In the Past at Tony Mandola's," a recap of what was unfortunately one of the most disappointing meals I'd had that year. Because of that experience, I am probably more appreciative than most to have had the opportunity to talk with Chef Beier and learn of the new focus.

Beier has the right pedigree to get the job done. He is one of the talented group of culinary professionals that emerged from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Bank, the acclaimed restaurant inside of Hotel Icon from 2004 to 2007. Many members of the group, including Bryan Caswell, Jamie Zelko and Vanarin Kuch, went on to open their own restaurants or make otherwise significant contributions to Houston's dining scene.

Beier is gentlemanly, quiet and perhaps a bit shy, which might explain why he's managed to sail mostly under the radar until now. Let's find out how the native Texan went from Bryan/College station, to New York and then back to Houston.

More »
Loading...