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The Missing Ingredient (Part 2)

I ended my last post by asking:

how is it possible that in a city distinguished by it’s rich multi-ethnic cooking traditions much more so than restaurants that push the boundaries of food, a crop of young chefs emerge out of nowhere and manage to ignite such excitement? Where do they get their inspiration, their drive, their training?

Few will disagree that Houston lacks a layer of restaurants that operate at the level of French Laundry, Alinea or Eleven Madison Park. I love to eat in this city for more reasons than I can count and this will always be my home base (unless I am forced to leave), but it would be much less appealing to me if I lacked the ability to get on a plane and visit a city like Copenhagen, where cooking today is reaching stratospheric heights. Restaurants that aim to compete at that level and deliver a mind-melting dining experience simply do not exist in Houston or even in Texas or the Gulf Coast (though New Orleans is starting to show promise). This isn’t a problem in itself – how often does one really need or want to eat like this – but this gap in ambition to compete with the best in the world does have residual effects.

Role of fine dining (I hate the term, but it’s unavoidable in this context) is not limited to fleecing the special occasion crowd or the expense account set. That may be how restaurants make money, but it’s rarely why the best chefs push themselves trying to put out stunning food. Best restaurants in the world almost always have a chef at the helm with something to prove. Food at the highest level requires intense discipline and concentration. Ambition is a key ingredient, because no one gets rich cooking like this, the hours are grueling and pressure is intense.

I am not going to attempt to psychoanalyze people who obsess about their craft and put themselves through this level of pain. My point is that these kitchens generate a stream of superbly talented cooks, who go on to become chefs and retain the lessons they learned their entire careers. They may not open a fine dining establishment of their own (Bryan Caswell is one example), but they do apply what they learned in places as varied as noodle shops, burger joints and casual restaurants that serve outstanding, often innovative food at much lower prices. This trickle down effect is happening all over the world, but it requires restaurants operating on a level Houston lacks today.

Most exciting cooking in Paris today happens far from ultra-haute kitchens that have come to define the city’s culinary tradition. Today, you are more likely to find inspired, flawless cooking in a tiny bistro run by a chef, a cook and a dishwasher for 35 euros, than you are at the high end restaurants that charge ten times as much. But look closely at the backgrounds of these chefs who go tilting at windmills with reckless abandon and you will find considerable time spent in Michelin three star kitchens.

Spot Prawns at Yam’tcha
(Paris, via L’Astrance + various kitchens in Hong Kong)

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Paris. Ask any serious eater or chef to pick a city with most progressive cooking and rapidly evolving culinary identity and you will often hear "Chicago".  What people rarely mention is that it took Charlie Trotter nearly 20 years to prime the city with diners who understood and appreciated high end food and chefs who could execute at his level. Many of the city’s most talented chefs, such as Graham Elliot, Homaru Cantu and numerous others came through his kitchen. Grant Achatz, maybe the most celebrated chef in US today, describes his experience as at Charlie Trotter’s as foundational:

“I had never been exposed to that relentless kind of pursuit of perfection before. I didn’t even know it existed.”

Texas had it’s share of promising chefs on the cusp of brilliance when the Southwestern movement reached it’s peak, but while Charlie Trotter single handedly shaped the dining public and cooks in Chicago, chefs like Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Robert Del Grande have little to show for their legacy. Each is a successful restaurateur, but save for a pseudo-protégé in Bobby Flay and a fast casual chain that inspired an acquisition by Wendy’s, the footprint left by the giants of Southwestern cuisine is best illustrated by this exert from Hannah Raskin’s story:

Fearing and Pyles are mystified why their ideas didn’t catch.

"It’s an interesting question," Fearing says. "Stephan and I have talked about it. Both of our trees of life are huge. But it’s not like other cuisines, where people left Charlie Trotter and kind of did Charlie Trotter in their own style. It’s funny that people would love me and wouldn’t do Southwestern cuisine."

To further underscore the difference between recognition and a restless pursuit of perfection, Fearing continues:

"Stephan and I took it to unbelievable heights," theorizes Fearing, who wonders whether young chefs are paralyzed by their unspoken answer to the question: "Would I ever get it like Dean and Stephan got it?"

It’s hard to ignore the weight of enormous ego in that statement, but hubris isn’t the only reason why Southwestern chefs failed to inspire a generation of young cooks (I’ve never met Robert Del Grande, he could very well be a fantastic guy). Food has to evolve for any chef to continue to be relevant and Southwestern cuisine has been stagnant for years, which does nothing to inspire young cooks. Simply put, you won’t find someone with Charlie Trotter’s impact in Houston and that’s what accounts for the missing ingredient in development of a well rounded food culture in the city.

Dr Pepper Braised Short Ribs, Mashed Potatoes, Onion Rings at Fearing’s (Dallas)

So where do Houston cooks turn for inspiration and training at the highest level? More and more turn to cities with a wider spectrum of restaurants than Houston. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact I hope to see more of it. If you dig one level deeper into backgrounds of great chefs, you’ll find impact of not one definitive mentor, but many chefs in many kitchens in numerous countries. The simple reason is that to learn from the best, you have to go beyond your locale in any field. Great food comes from experience cooking and experiencing food around the world and chefs that capture our attention in Houston have already began along this path. The real problem is that Houston lacks the infrastructure to support and encourage them along the way.

Bryan Caswell, who spent much of his early career in high end restaurants under Jean Georges. Caswell purposely walked away from fine dining and chose to develop much more casual restaurant concepts, but the foundation he build over those early years is instrumental to his success today. Here’s Bryan on the support he received when he expressed his desire to work beyond Jean Georges kitchens:

I started spitting out names of big name chefs like Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat; when I was done, he (Jean Goerges) softly said, “OK.” Whoa, I thought. “But Chef,” I said, “where would you have me go?” I wanted his input, his advice. That’s when his eyes lit up and he began to talk about technique. “You’ve already worked in Europe,” he said, “and the last five years you’ve studied at school and trained with me all things based in French technique. Go to Asia and every day a new and foreign technique will reveal itself.” After five months in Hong Kong and Bangkok, I completely understood what Jean-Georges meant.

Unfortunately, such conversations rarely (if ever) happen in Houston and cooks who want to learn beyond our city have to forge their own path, which doesn’t always lead them back home. A few years ago I had a conversation with Randy Rucker, who has a well documented frustration with lack of ambition in Houston. When I asked him who in Houston he thinks has the most potential he said "the best cook I know in Houston isn’t even in Houston". He was talking about Seth Siegel-Gardner (see: Just August), who at the time was working his way through kitchens in Chicago after some time under Marcus Samuelsson, and later went on to stage at ViaJante in London and Fat Duck in Bray. Today Seth is one of the most promising young chefs in Houston and was recently named a Rising Star by Star Chefs. Seth has made Kata Robata the most exciting restaurant in Houston, but will restaurateurs reach out to him and give him how own place where he can really work to his full potential? I hope they do, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Foie Gras and Sea Eel at Kata Robata

You are likely to find experience gained around the world among people with strong foundation in pastry and baking, as well. Rebecca Mason developed her strong foundation through work in New York and later Paris, at what is now a Michelin 3 star Le Bristol (check out the photos of the bread service). More recently, Karen Man returned from time spent at Bouchon Bakery, French Laundry and numerous kitchens in Belgium and Denmark. The level of obsession she has developed in her field is approaching pathological – exactly the quality you want in someone who can finally bring great bread to Houston. Here’s Karen on her time as a stage at the French Laundry (and more here):

At the time I started my 3 month stage at The French Laundry, I could not realize the impact the experience would have on my career.  I had some previous experience in bakeries and restaurants, but I consider this to be the “beginning.” With the discipline and attention to detail, there could not have been a better way to mold me.

Bread by Karen Mann, Cheese by Houston Diarymaids at
Wood Duck Farms (Houston)

This drive to perform not only on the local, but national and worldwide stage is something missing in Houston restaurants today, but it is often found among the renegade chefs who take their professional development into their own hands. Examples of this are abound. When LJ Wiley left Yelapa in November of last year, he soon turned up staging at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Marea in NYC. Justin Basye, the talent behind the success of Stella Sola, also came through the kitchens of Blue Hill as well as Restaurant August in New Orleans. Fine down influence extends as far down the casual spectrum as mobile kitchens – the celebrated taco truck by the Eatsy Boys is manned cook who spent time at Cyrus in Healdsburg and Fat Duck in Bray, among others. 

The impact of what these chefs have learned in their travels is already felt in Houston. In the same year when I had amazing meals at places like Noma, Le Chateaubriand and The Sportsman, one of the my favorite dishes was the poached Gulf shrimp prepared by Justin Yu at the Just8 dinner.

Gulf Shrimp, Onion, Sunflower Bottoms, Ash Yogurt at Just8

Will his three months staging in  Belgium and Denmark and eating through France and England take his cooking to yet another level? That’s what I hope to see at the Belgian beer dinner this weekend, which sold out less than an hour after being announced. I suspect the answer is yes. Considering that before leaving Houston Justin was turning out burgers and hot dogs at the Lake House at Discovery Green (you can read more about his experiences along the way here), watching him evolve his cooking has been incredible. I hope to see more and more cooks in Houston take the same path.

More and more Houston chefs are making the decision to go beyond Texas to gain experience and I hope they continue to do so. The full natural bounty of the Gulf Coast region is still largely untapped and Houston is unique in it’s position as a major metropolitan and international hub with a set of characteristics that could pave the way for our emerging as a truly great food city. All that we’re missing is that one key ingredient. Restaurants with ambition to be the best on the world stage.

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