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Chef John Tesar at the Chefs Club in New York City.
Last Wednesday night, the Chefs Club hosted a special dinner by chef John Tesar. The Parisian-trained chef opened Knife in May 2014 at The Highland Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Tesar made the news recently when his book deal was announced: he will coauthor a cookbook, tentatively titled Knife: Modern Steak and All American Meats, with food writer Josh Ozersky.
About 20 guests tasted a seven-course menu that began with sturgeon chic garron and ended with succulent Korean barbecue-style beef, served on a kimchi pancake.
Tesar’s seven courses showed his versatility in the kitchen, commitment to high-quality ingredients, and diverse flavor profiles. Jerusha Frost, the elegant sommelier of the night, provided carefully selected wine pairings for each course.
The live diver scallops, seated in their beautiful shells, were paired with a dry, crisp glass of Champagne. Guests also enjoyed a magnum bottle of Charles Heidsieck brut reserve from chef Tesar’s personal collection.
The dinner ended with a tribute to Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert’s iconic New York restaurant. David Collier, executive pastry chef at Knife, prepared a caramel mousse that was presented in an espresso cup with sel de guérande. The flavors evoked my memories of candies from Brittany, France.
Chef Tesar concluded the evening by saying "Life is about experimentation," which, for us, perfectly summed up his cooking philosophy.
If You Follow One Chef on Instagram, This Chef-Turned-Illustrator Should Be It
William Brown doesn&rsquot just know how to cook: He knows how to draw each line of marbled fat and glossy sheen of sauce. After launching his Instagram @wbrown34 and his website Culinarian Designs, he&rsquos making a name for himself as a culinary illustrator.
William Brown just does things differently. When he overheard college classmates confusing ribeye and T-bone, rather than explain it, he quickly drew the two cuts of meats on accounting exercise papers to show them the difference. When he was assigned five desserts to make in his advanced plated desserts class at Johnson & Wales, he mapped out his ideas in doodles instead of listing ingredients like the other culinary students. And whenever he clocked in for a shift at restaurants he worked at, he brought sketchbooks and pens along with his knife kit. William Brown is a nose-to-the-grindstone student, head-down kind of cook, but most of all𠅊n artist.
“I know the glossiness of the sauce, the texture of meats, how things plate,” says Brown. “With each dish, I’ll focus on a different technique. My goal is to get better.”
For the last three years, the 22-year-old has filled nearly three notebooks with 150 drawings or so, illustrating dishes that fascinated him, like Massimo Bottura’s famed lemon tart at Osteria Francescana, as well as pure, unadulterated ingredients, life-like roosters, and diagrams of whole hogs. They became his passion projects when he wasn’t working on the line at Dallas restaurants, the fruit of a few hours before he rolled in for dinner service. Grinding colored pencils to paper to mimic an apple’s sheen. Switching out markers to get the right shadows.
Now, he’s finally uploading his work for the public to see with his Instagram account @wbrown34 and the recent launch of his website, Culinarian Designs𠅊nd chefs are already hitting him up for collaborations. Jeremiah Tower emailed him, asking if he had an agent. Local chef John Tesar has messaged him, as well as Next’s Jenner Tomaska. Even Frito-Lay has reached out. His insanely detailed illustrations are not only mesmerizing but give a cook’s insight into the intricacies of the dish.
Brown is slowly but surely become a brand, a name to remember, but first, he was a cook.
Growing up on Long Island, he was surrounded by arts, both culinary and visual. His aunt is a letterpress artist, while his grandmother commanded the free flow of watercolors. As a kid, he hung out at his grandmother’s studio, drawn to very detailed endeavors, like individual grains of rice or wispy tendrils in a feather. “Whereas anyone else would half-ass it, I would draw each individual line,” says Brown. “My grandma thought I would go to art school, but I didn’t.”
Instead, the kitchen called to him. His mother’s job in pastry eventually moved the family to Dallas when Brown was a pre-teen. Though she warned her sons to avoid the food world due to the hard work and long hours, both Brown and his older brother fell in love with cooking. During home-ec classes in high school, Brown could chiffonade, julienne, and whatever else he learned through osmosis from his mom. It made him stand out. It led him to help cook at private events and country clubs in Dallas at the end of his high school years before heading to Providence, Rhode Island. There, he had to choose between art school at RISD and culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Instead, he merged his two passions into one, with those dessert drawings. They eventually caught the attention of the faculty at Johnson & Wales, leading to opportunities to draw dishes for the university president’s dinner events.
After culinary school, Brown staged at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and The Modern in New York City and Bouillon in Dallas. He took careful notes along the way. “I always look for new things, that’s why I keep my notebooks on me all the time,” says Brown. “I’m one of the only people, based on talking to chefs, who asked to stage for free at as many places as I can for no other reason than to see what’s going on.” But he also totes his notebooks along to dinners he goes to, like Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, where he’ll draw a dish he likes and hail down someone to staff so he can show the work to the chef.
“I think chefs appreciate seeing their work on paper through someone else’s eyes. It’s like a mutual appreciation of each other’s work,” he says.
Brown is shy, but he speaks through his drawings. It’s his way of explaining something complex to others. It’s his way of expressing reverence and gratitude to chefs he admires. It’s way to dream of new dishes. It’s his way to connect with others.
He’s left the restaurant kitchen to focus more on his art and grow Culinarian Designs, and he’s taking opportunities as they come up, seeing where they take him next, not sure where exactly they might lead. One thing is for sure, however: “I don’t ever want to completely be out of the kitchen,” says Brown. “I want to have that balance of seeing new trends and being around people doing it to keeps me going.”
‘Top Chef’ Recap: When Barbecue Goes Up in Smoke
Well, it’s the last episode of Top Chef of the year. My guess is the show’s new year’s resolutions for 2016 were more jumpsuits for Padma Lakshmi and to wedge in even more product placement. If that’s the case, they did it. Who knows what 2017 will bring: Maybe they’ll feature more older chefs, or start doing more extreme challenges, or Padma will start wearing more chokers. Anything can happen.
This week, Silvia Barban celebrates her birthday and reminds us all of the birthday curse on the show, where chefs are typically eliminated on or around their birthdays. Is this a Chekhov’s gun, indicating her ultimate elimination, or just a fun little personal tidbit about her? We learn it’s also her 26th birthday, and she is about to own her third restaurant. Twenty-six. Owns three restaurants. I’m 33 and don’t even own my Honda Civic.
Sheldon Simeon is complaining of back and leg pain that could be related to a herniated disc that required surgery years ago. That pain is no joke and completely debilitating. I’ve had three herniated discs and subsequent surgeries (next one on my punch card is free, I think) and it’s impossible to imagine running around a kitchen, carrying giant trays of food, or just bending over to open an oven. I also herniated one of my discs just putting on a bra, so like, maybe my body isn’t made for reality television.
The chefs arrive in the kitchen and it’s dark, there are no producers, and no be-jumpsuited Padma in sight. They are awkwardly guessing and chatting and Katsuji Tanabe does a half-hearted Padma impression. Suddenly a buzzer goes off and a timer begins counting down from 40 minutes as the pantry garage door opens to reveal a table of ingredients with no instructions whatsoever. The chefs rush over to inspect and Sylva Senat smartly determines that based on the flour and buttermilk, they must be making biscuits.
As the chefs scramble, Padma is waiting in the production booth watching them mentally unravel in the face of no explicit challenge. She says, “We should do it this way all the time,” as if her job as host during a Quickfire Challenge is so exhausting. It’s the same thing, she just went from standing to sitting — though standing is pretty awful.
Sheldon has never made biscuits before, so he’s just copying Brooke Williamson’s every move, which seems to be a safe bet most of the time. Despite owning a restaurant in the south, Jamie Lynch doesn’t know much about making biscuits, either.
Padma finally emerges wearing a shirred white button-down with a giant suede belt that I’m assuming was an outfit Paris Hilton almost wore to court in 2007. Somehow, she’s pulling it off. She also introduces the guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge, biscuit master John Currence. The chefs were right to make biscuits, as that was the challenge. But looming larger than the immediate biscuit on the plate, this was a test of how well they do without a lot of direction — aka, a challenge about improvising. Thankfully, they mean improvising in the kitchen, not comedic acting. I never want to see a Top Chef improv troupe. It would probably be called “Cats Have Nine Knives” or “Quickfired Up” or “Tom Colicchio’s scalp moisturizer.”
Sheldon sliced his rather thin biscuits in half and forgot to plate the top half on his buttermilk biscuit with country ham dish, so he’s at the bottom. Shirley Chung is also on the bottom for her dense biscuit with black pepper mascarpone, as is southerner Jim Smith and his cream cheese and butter biscuit with an overly seared scallop.
The best biscuits were Brooke for her salmon biscuit with avocado and creme fraiche, Katsuji’s sweet version with honey butter, and Jamie’s breakfast-style biscuit with a sunny side up egg. Winning the Quickfire, though, is Brooke, who also gets immunity.
Keeping with the very southern theme for this episode, the Elimination Challenge centers on another South Carolina delicacy: barbecue. And the guest judge is none other than barbecue legend Rodney Scott. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs must split up into three teams of four to cook a whole hog and three sides for 150 people, including Darius Rucker. You know, of Hootie and the Blowfish fame. Why wouldn’t he be involved?
Sheldon is super excited to cook a whole pig, but is in so much pain that he skips the meat crawl (a term I’m using to mean “a day where you visit more than one barbecue pit”) to get an MRI. But while Sheldon is lying perfectly still on a table for about 45 minutes, the rest of the competition heads first to Sweatman’s, a barbecue pit that specializes in mustard sauce. There are apparently two sauces used in South Carolina barbecue, one that’s mustard based, and one that’s vinegar based.
For the best version of vinegar-based sauces, everyone heads to Scott’s Bar-B-Que and are all floored by the meat and the flavors. For the challenge, the chefs must choose one sauce style for their hog, but after going to Scott’s it appears everyone wants to try and recreate Rodney’s vinegar magic.
That night, Sheldon returns with a herniated disc and some decent drugs and is ready to take on this endurance challenge. Everyone starts breaking down pigs and burning wood to create smoke and get this 15-hour show on the road. It’s a truly long night, made exponentially longer by John Tesar’s non-stop rambling.
In the morning, John has somehow stopped talking long enough to start the smoked mac and cheese side he’s preparing for his team. For his signature cheesy dish, though, he needs all-purpose flour and somehow didn’t get any at Whole Foods. Now he’s stranded in a field after being up all night cooking and there’s no solution — that is, until Katsuji offers him a trade of some Xanthan gum (which can be used as a substitute) for some pre-peeled garlic.
The green team is taking a lot of risks and veering off the well-trod barbecue road. Sylva’s sauce isn’t the mustard sauce, but it isn’t truly the vinegar-based one either, as he has added hoisin and ketchup. Silvia (honestly, did Sylva and Silvia have to be on the same team?) is doing something she is referring to as potato salad, but it’s really roasted potatoes and vegetables in an Italian salsa verde. It resembles potato salad as much as I resemble the Olsen twins stacked on top of each other. Also Katsuji has added something to his dish to create some seriously funky beans, which sounds like it would be a slang compliment from the mid-‘90s, but it is very much a problem.
Diners — and Darius Rucker — arrive and are ready to eat until there’s no more pig left. Judges Padma, Tom, Rodney, and Gail Simmons get a plate from the yellow team first. It features John’s smoked mac and cheese, Emily Hahn’s braised pinto beans, Brooke’s pineapple slaw and a chile citrus vinegar sauce–coated whole hog prepared by Sheldon and his herniated disc (plus Percocet, I’m thinking). The judges love every item on the plate, though Emily’s beans are undercooked. Not only are all of the components good, they harmonize to create an excellent overall plate of food.
Next up is the red team of Jim, Shirley, Jamie, and Casey Thompson. Everyone is enamored with the trotter and pig head hash with sweet potato, as well as the pickles and the braised cabbage. The sides are excellent, though the judges note that the sauce on the pig just isn’t as vibrant or complex as what the yellow team made.
Last is the green team, which is a plate riddled with problems for diners and judges. Not only does Sylva’s hoisin vinegar sauce not work, Silvia’s potato salad with salsa verde is a huge miss, as are Katsuji’s oddly sour beans. Amanda Baumgarten walked away with the biggest compliment on her kale and apricot slaw, which was Padma calling it “forgettable.”
Everyone has now been awake for about 32 hours, which seems like an excellent time to start doing some harsh critiquing of their life’s work at Judges’ Table. The clear winning team for the day is the yellow team, with John earning his first individual win ever on Top Chef for his smoked mac and cheese.
The losing team was just as clear to Tom and company — the green team. Despite so many missteps by so many people, ultimately, Silvia is sent home for her potato salad. It turns out the birthday curse continues. She’ll be fine, though: She can blow out the 26 candles on her cake at one of her three restaurants.
Dallas Chef John Tesar Lands Meaty Book Deal With Writer Josh Ozersky
Dallas chef and former Top Chef contestant John Tesar has landed a book deal with Macmillan's Flatiron Books division, Eater can exclusively report. The working title of the book is Knife: Modern Steak and All American Meats. While Tesar has been a longtime industry veteran — and even makes an appearance in Anthony Bourdain's game-changing memoir Kitchen Confidential — Knife will be Tesar's first cookbook. "I have an obligation to work hard on this because I've waited so long to do it," Tesar tells Eater, adding that he wants his journey as a chef to come through. "I've grown and matured, and that should be part of the book."
The book's current title refers to Tesar's hit Dallas restaurant Knife, which is known as much for its steaks ( some sold by the inch ) as for being the birthplace of Tesar's now-legendary feud with Dallas restaurant critic Leslie Brenner. Per a press release, Knife "will be a celebration of American steak an exploration into modern, self-sustaining Texas ranching and a trip inside the mind of one of the most distinctive and acclaimed meat chefs in the world." Meat fanatic and longtime food writer Josh Ozersky is on board to write the book with Tesar. Dallas photographer Kevin Marple will be photographing.
" I have an obligation to work hard on this because I've waited so long to do it."
Tesar says that the book will offer a combination of recipes from his restaurant and recipes that have been modified to suit the home cook. Still, he thinks his cooking philosophy will translate well into the home kitchen. "My food is very simple," Tesar says. "I'm a pragmatic chef and I don't fuss food." He also says that the emphasis his restaurant places on sourcing and on solid technique will come through in the book. "The home cook should get something meaningful and valuable out of it. and I want to be able to inspire my peers and future chefs, for them to see something noteworthy." Tesar adds that Ozersky will be helping to translate his voice as a chef into the pages.
It's been something of a whirlwind year for Tesar. Aside from opening Knife and his headline-making spat with Brenner (to whom he will dedicate no words in the book), he's developing a television show he says will be focused on cooking ("we need quality and integrity") and has major expansion plans in Memphis and North Carolina. Just yesterday he landed on the semifinalist list for the 2015 James Beard Awards for Best Chef: Southwest for his work at Knife. He also has plans for additional books: a seafood-focused cookbook he had been working on has been put on the back-burner as he works on Knife. Tesar also hopes to someday write The Life and Times of Jimmy Sears (the name Anthony Bourdain used for him in Kitchen Confidential ), but for now that's just an idea. For now, Tesar is focusing on the task at hand. "I'm just blessed to have this opportunity and I want this to be something special."
Knife: Modern Steak and All American Meats is slated to hit shelves in spring 2017.
F&B Magazine Q&A with Chef John Tesar of Element Kitchen & Cocktail
Chef John Tesar: Element
Kitchen & Cocktail. To view digital magazine click the cover.
S A STORY. TELL US HOW YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BECOME PART OF THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY…WHAT WAS YOUR “LIGHT BULB” MOMENT?
Growing up in New York, I enjoyed spending time at the beach.I worked at Magic’s Pub a bar at the beach. I fell in love with excitement, energy and all of the social aspects. Then I took a position at Club Pie. While working there, I realized I had potential to become a chef.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO INCORPORATE THE TAGLINE “THE SHARPEST KNIFE IN THE KITCHEN?”
I didn’t come up with that Line. The PR department did, I liked the way is sounded so I went along with it.
IN A FEW WORDS DESCRIBE YOUR ELEMENT KITCHEN AND COCKTAIL?
Great project. Element Hospitality ask me to get involved, I agreed and it’s a pleasure. Denver is an Amazing City with some awesome Chef’s and good food. I’m looking forward to raising the bar and elevating the concept. Better tasting food and ambience. It’s going to put patrons in the mind of an Upscale Sports Bar .
DESCRIBE THE DINING SCENE IN DENVER?
Amazing, the infrastructure is changing rapidly. They are upgrading and opening very nice restaurants that’s serving good food.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SAVORY DISH?
I don’t have favorite, however I do like a variety. I enjoy well thought out food of quality.
Soulful food, full of flavor and that taste good.
HOW IMPORTANT IS PRESENTATION?
New York Style Pizza, greasy, thin slice and orange in color.
WHO WAS YOUR GREATEST COOKING INFLUENCE?
My mother and a French Chef that inspired and taught me how to cook
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INGREDIENT TO COOK WITH?
Salt and White/Black Pepper..
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE WHITE WINE? FAVORITE RED?
WHAT CELEBRITY YOU WOULD LOVE TO COOK DINNER FOR?
OR HAVE COOKED FOR?
George Clooney. I would love to just sit down and talk with his while he enjoy one of my meals.
I was Maria Carey and Tommy Mottola’s personal Chef. I’ve also cooked for several musicians, such as Billy Joel, Barbara Walters and several other Rock Stars.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DESSERT?
CHEF WHOSE STYLE OF COOKING YOU REALLY DIG?
We are now the new modern day Celebrity. We can be very creative, we travel, meet interesting people, as a result we benefit from all the exposure. It’s amazing being a chef, however you must make sure you have good food, but also that it taste good, supporting your creation .
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WITH ASPIRATIONS OF
BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL CHEF?
Be prepared to work hard. Do your research, keep an open mind, stay innovative and always remember” Your Soul must be in it and this is a life style verses a career.
LASTLY, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN RELAXING?
Sleeping on the Beach. I love the Beach!
John Tesar outshines other celebrity chefs on Esquire restaurant show
Coming as no surprise to anyone who lives in Dallas, chef John Tesar steals the show on Restaurant Revolution: 30 Years That Changed American Cuisine, a one-hour Esquire Network special that premiered on November 12.
The show spotlights some of the restaurateurs who made Esquire magazine's 2014 list of best new restaurants, including Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus, owners of Brooklyn tasting-menu restaurant Take Root, and Alexander Smalls and J.J. Johnson, who own Afro-Asian-American brasserie The Cecil in Harlem. But Tesar takes it away.
An underlying theme of the show is the idea of chef as rock star and the roots of the celebrity chef phenomenon, as embodied by famed chef Johnathan Waxman, who recalls the fast cars, beautiful girlfriends and recreational drugs that accompanied his journey from Chez Panisse in San Francisco to Michael's in Los Angeles to Jams in New York.
Jonathan Waxman has nothing on Tesar, whose combination of frankness and self-awareness manages to make even the most scandalous behavior seem palatable.
The careers of Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio are also reviewed, with less salacious details. Other restaurant figures interviewed include Jeremiah Tower and chef Mark Peel.
Tesar is cast in the Waxman mold. His combination of frankness and self-awareness manages to make even the most scandalous behavior seem palatable.
The show catches him in the kitchen at Knife, his restaurant in the Highland Hotel in Dallas, about which Esquire's Josh Ozersky wrote: "In one of the most beef-centric cities, Knife is the steakhouse of the future. The reason why: John Tesar."
Explaining that he tries to put a little "chef-driven verve into the steakhouse," Tesar describes newfangled techniques: dry-aging meat, developing white mold, and crafting "bizarre" combinations such as bone marrow with uni and caviar.
"It's just an angle of being different but bringing real quality," he says. "Because I've been to a lot of steakhouses and the meat was just kind of 'eh.'"
Knife marks Tesar's third appearance on Esquire's list, and the narrator observes that "he follows in the bad-boy footsteps laid down by Waxman." With Tesar flashing a burn mark on his forearm, the narrator calls him "one of the most controversial chefs working today — you don't want this guy as your enemy."
Then it gets into the fun stuff: Tesar's dissatisfaction with the review he received from the Dallas Morning News.
"Knife was reviewed by the Dallas Morning News," he says. "So we have one person with an ax to grind who does a hatchet job on me personally. You don't take things personally as a journalist, right? I mean that's what you do, you write stories, you tell the truth, you're not a fiction writer. You're a [bleep] journalist, right?
"This restaurant's working. It's working because the food's good, the staff's good and people love it."
Cue Tom Colicchio, who says, "You kind of have to admire a guy who doesn't care about who he's going to piss off."
"You kind of have to admire a guy who doesn't care about who he's going to piss off," says Tom Colicchio.
Tesar explains his rabble-rousing roots, saying, "There's a large part of me fighting for what you think is right," he says. "I come out of that New York City-Kennedy Democrat-'70s-Vietnam War-fuck the man shit. That's how I was raised."
Tesar describes his strict upbringing under immigrant parents. "When they finally let me out of the house, it was like letting the Tasmanian devil loose," he says.
He shares an anecdote about going to Studio 54, including one night when he says he was hit on by Andy Warhol.
"It's a nightclub environment, and I'm high on blow out of my mind," he says. "It's the most incredible night, when Andy Warhol hit on me. So I don't even know what to say. Is this one of those things where you get hit on by Andy Warhol? Can I get a painting or something?"
His real party days took place during the Wall Street era of the '80s, when "money was just raining from the sky," he says. "People were dropping quaaludes and snorting cocaine like it was going out of style."
After the bubble burst, restaurants closed and Tesar says he went bankrupt.
"One night, I just said to myself, I can't smoke pot anymore, and I definitely can't do cocaine anymore, and my life changed," he says. "And, sure enough, one day the phone rings. 'How would you like to replace Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek?'
"I had never been to Texas, but I knew who Dean was. He was the godfather of Southwestern food. Dean can burn toast and go to your table, and in 15 minutes you don't even remember you just ate burnt toast."
Tesar details his tenure at the Mansion, when he got the stars back and put the Mansion back on the map. But that was followed by the inevitable turn of events.
"They gave me carte blanche: I was to hang out in the bar, I was allowed to drink, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do," he says. "However, HR and the people that had been there for 25 years resented that quite a bit. People had thrown me under the bus. I got on the cover of D Magazine as the most hated chef in Dallas. They said I threw cutlery, I slept with socialites, I drank while I worked. Hell yeah, I did all those things. I didn't throw the cutlery, though."
Struck by the fickle vagaries of the restaurant business, Tesar packs his bags and reinvents himself one more time, first with seafood restaurant Spoon and then with Knife.
"And now I have two great restaurants, both of which have been on Esquire's best new restaurants list back-to-back," he says. "I don't know who's ever done that. Has Wolfgang done that? I don’t know, maybe."
That Tesar would figure so prominently is less surprising when you consider that the producers of the show are Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth of Magical Elves, the company that produces Top Chef. They know that Tesar gives good TV.
Restaurant Revolution: 30 Years That Changed American Cuisine airs again Friday, November 14, at 6 pm Saturday, November 15, at midnight and 1 pm and Monday, November 17, at 7 pm.
Chef John Tesar Impresses at the Chefs Club in New York City - Recipes
In Henry Van Dyke poem, Trees, he gives his homage to “A pillar of power, a dome of delight,
a shrine of song and a joy of sight”. Just as Van Dyke was inspired to pen those words so many years ago, perhaps it was this affiliation to the large Oak tree outside the bustling restaurant that bears its name that created the inspiration of delight and deliciousness into the very fabric of this innovated and chic Dallas eatery.
Partnering with acclaimed twice nominated James Beard Chef John Tesar, the Apheleia Restaurant Group,
continues to bring innovation and vision to the burgeoning Dallas restaurant scene. Chef de cuisine,
Ross Demers, and executive pastry chef, David Collier are at the helm in creating a menu that is
highly creative using the best available ingredients to ensure freshness and superb taste and
texture on every plate that emerges from the kitchen. On a recent trip to Dallas, we had the opportunity to discover “Oak” and engage in some of the lovely and thoughtful menu items.
The inviting open space is awash in browns and beiges accented with silver-toned lighting that gravitates
the eye to the unique holographic tree that changes color, seasons and foliage throughout the dining experience. The bar area is shrouded with a rendering of a mighty oak etched into the glass wall, sweeping you into the moment. As trees provide shelter from the elements, you have that sense of comfort and tranquility as you
sip on one of the many hand-crafted cocktails. We started with the “Antoinette”, a luscious libation
that really accented the fragrant dark muddled blackberries, impressing us with the freshness of ingredients.
One may want to try the “Mighty Oak”, as it is the namesake and has the refreshing hints of lemon, ginger, and mint all perfectly intermingled with the George Dickle Rye and topped with club soda.
After a few relaxing moments at the bar, we were cordially escorted to our table to be greeted by
our lively waiter, who proceeded to make sure that we are informed on all specials, offering any
answers to questions we may have. We took a look at the well-crafted wine list, and decided to enjoy
a glass of the Lemelson, Thea’s selection, pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. Pinot noir is
usually a good choice in pairing with seafood and some beef dishes, and this seemed to be the best
choice for our dining excursion. We began our meal with the Heirloom tomato salad accented with
refreshing tiny slices of watermelon, olive oil powder and black olive oil. The combination of the unique forms of olive oil gave this salad an elevated kiss of creativity.
We also were immensely impressed with the tiny cones of Hamachi Tartare, with green curry and
wasabi tobeko. Each miniature cone, was filled with the delight of the ocean, as we gleefully
indulged in this playful rendition. The main dish of Alaskan Halibut, studded with woody
chantrelle mushrooms , added brightness of acidity from the cabernet tomato, and accented
with summer truffles and maderia port invoked a chorus of om’s and ahh’s with each forkful.
The moniker of all the dishes rang true of the freshness of the ingredients and the artful
creativities of the Chefs as they brought an abundance of flavors and passion to our plates.
We were not at our fini, although well satiated, when we knew that a master was guiding the delivery
of our desserts. James Beard “Best Pastry Chef” semifinalist, David Collier, is the Executive Pastry Chef
that loves to bring innovation and expertise to the sweet part of the meal.
The Strawberry Pistachio With pistachio sucree, mousseline, sponge cake, and strawberry sorbet was a
spectacular way to end the meal. This take on the familiar strawberry shortcake was incredibly
whimsical and lovely to behold, but better yet the strawberry mousseline gave a delicateness to
the flavor, and played well with the other elements. We walked away beaming with yet another great
find in the Dallas area.
Whether in Dallas on business or pleasure a meal at any the restaurants that Chef Tesar has been
pouring his culinary magic into including Knife, El Bolero, and Oak is a must. He and his partners
continue to come up with more culinary outlets and we are excited to see what is on the horizon as
the leaves of the organization continue to spread.
Chef John Tesar’s Oak Restaurant Continues His Path Across The Dallas Texas Dining Scene.
In Henry Van Dyke poem, Trees, he gives his homage to “A pillar of power, a dome of delight, a shrine of song and a joy of sight”. Just as Van Dyke was inspired to pen those words so many years ago, perhaps it was this affiliation to the large Oak tree outside the bustling restaurant that bears its name that created the inspiration of delight and deliciousness into the very fabric of this innovated and chic Dallas eatery.
Partnering with acclaimed twice nominated James Beard Chef John Tesar, the Apheleia Restaurant Group, continues to bring innovation and vision to the burgeoning Dallas restaurant scene. Chef de cuisine, Ross Demers, and executive pastry chef, David Collier are at the helm in creating a menu that is highly creative using the best available ingredients to ensure freshness and superb taste and texture on every plate that emerges from the kitchen. On a recent trip to Dallas, we had the opportunity to discover “Oak” and engage in some of the lovely and thoughtful menu items.
The inviting open space is awash in browns and beiges accented with silver-toned lighting that gravitates the eye to the unique holographic tree that changes color, seasons and foliage throughout the dining experience. The bar area is shrouded with a rendering of a mighty oak etched into the glass wall, sweeping you into the moment. As trees provide shelter from the elements, you have that sense of comfort and tranquility as you sip on one of the many hand-crafted cocktails. We started with the “Antoinette”, a luscious libation that really accented the fragrant dark muddled blackberries, impressing us with the freshness of ingredients. One may want to try the “Mighty Oak”, as it is the namesake and has the refreshing hints of lemon, ginger, and mint all perfectly intermingled with the George Dickle Rye and topped with club soda.
After a few relaxing moments at the bar, we were cordially escorted to our table to be greeted by our lively waiter, who proceeded to make sure that we are informed on all specials, offering any answers to questions we may have. We took a look at the well-crafted wine list, and decided to enjoy a glass of the Lemelson, Thea’s selection, pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. Pinot noir is usually a good choice in pairing with seafood and some beef dishes, and this seemed to be the best choice for our dining excursion. We began our meal with the Heirloom tomato salad accented with refreshing tiny slices of watermelon, olive oil powder and black olive oil. The combination of the unique forms of olive oil gave this salad an elevated kiss of creativity.
We also were immensely impressed with the tiny cones of Hamachi Tartare, with green curry and wasabi tobeko. Each miniature cone, was filled with the delight of the ocean, as we gleefully indulged in this playful rendition. The main dish of Alaskan Halibut, studded with woody chantrelle mushrooms , added brightness of acidity from the cabernet tomato, and accented with summer truffles and maderia port invoked a chorus of om’s and ahh’s with each forkful. The moniker of all the dishes rang true of the freshness of the ingredients and the artful creativities of the Chefs as they brought an abundance of flavors and passion to our plates.
We were not at our fini, although well satiated, when we knew that a master was guiding the delivery of our desserts. James Beard “Best Pastry Chef” semifinalist, David Collier, is the Executive Pastry Chef that loves to bring innovation and expertise to the sweet part of the meal.
The Strawberry Pistachio With pistachio sucree, mousseline, sponge cake, and strawberry sorbet was a spectacular way to end the meal. This take on the familiar strawberry shortcake was incredibly whimsical and lovely to behold, but better yet the strawberry mousseline gave a delicateness to the flavor, and played well with the other elements. We walked away beaming with yet another great find in the Dallas area.
Whether in Dallas on business or pleasure a meal at any the restaurants that Chef Tesar has been pouring his culinary magic into including Knife, El Bolero, and Oak is a must. He and his partners continue to come up with more culinary outlets and we are excited to see what is on the horizon as the leaves of the organization continue to spread.
Up-and-Coming Houston Chefs: Meet Five of the Youngest at the Center of Their Kitchens
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There are no boring chefs. The very nature of the business demands creativity tempered with a heaping spoonful of practicality. Successful chefs don't just learn how to be good cooks. They must also become teachers, managers, leaders, accountants and diplomats.
They also live in a tightly interwoven community. We interviewed five of the Houston area's youngest executive chefs. The oldest is 34 and the youngest two are 28. A pair of old friends traveled along the same path for a time before their roads diverged. Two others started their careers together, with one ending up the executive chef at a restaurant the other had left years before.
These young people are not the only generation of chefs currently driving Houston's culinary scene. Their stories incorporate bits of their mentors' tales, too -- influential people like Tony Vallone, Philippe Schmit, Charles Clark, Chris Shepherd, Ronnie Killen, Dean Fearing, Mark Cox and even controversial Dallas chef John Tesar.
What's the hardest thing for a young executive chef to learn? It's how to manage work relationships. For some, it's about learning how to train employees in a constructive way. For others, earning respect from restaurant employees who have worked there longer can be a challenge.
Developing people skills can be difficult in any professional environment, but it's especially tricky in a busy, hot restaurant kitchen. Let's meet five of the area's culinary stars who are responsible not only for managing these kitchens, but for making hundreds of diners happy every single week.
Austin Simmons, Age 28 Hubbell & Hudson Bistro 24 Waterway Avenue #125, The Woodlands and Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen 4526 Research Forest, The Woodlands
When native Texan Austin Simmons was eight years old, his mom worked two jobs. She came home between shifts, and he helped her make dinner before she went to work again in the evening. That introduction to cooking established a stabilizing foundation for Simmons that he'd return to as he grew older and sought his career path.
"I was kind of a train wreck in high school," Simmons confesses. "My dad was always around, but my mom worked two jobs to keep me in a house. I really enjoyed cooking. I didn't know that I wanted to do it professionally until I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after high school."
Right after graduation, Simmons began pursuing a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, which made most of his family happy, though his father was dubious. "I have two stepparents, and it was divided. My mom and my stepfather were ecstatic that I was doing something constructive. My stepmom's a foodie, so she was very happy, too. My dad was like, 'You want to do what? You don't want to go to college? You want to go to culinary school?' He was very skeptical, but they're all immensely proud now."
He graduated hoping to work at Michelin-starred Mansion On Turtle Creek in Dallas under James Beard-winning chef Dean Fearing. It was a ridiculously high aspiration for a guy who'd just gotten out of culinary school, but Simmons didn't give up. "I showed up three Fridays in a row to get the job. They didn't want to hire me because I had no experience."
Persistence paid off. Simmons was finally offered an internship. In time, he was elevated to working the chef's table. He did that for three and a half years, initially under Fearing and later under Fearing's successor, John Tesar.
(If Tesar's name sounds familiar, it's because he's perpetually creating controversy, inspiring articles like one in a 2011 issue of D Magazine titled "John Tesar: The Most Hated Chef in Dallas." Last year, his diatribe about a middling review by Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner -- and his subsequent banning of her from his restaurants -- made national news.)
Simmons left Mansion On Turtle Creek to work the management side of the restaurant business at BlackFinn in Dallas, but his path would soon cross Tesar's again. In 2009, Tesar asked Simmons to work at the eponymous Tesar's Modern Steak & Seafood in The Woodlands.
Tesar abruptly left after a mere 11 months.
Simmons acknowledges his former mentor's tendency to be a hothead but also gives Tesar enormous credit for his own career. "He took me from not having any restaurant experience to lead line cook in the Chef's Room [at Mansion On Turtle Creek] in 13 months. I learned more from him in a year in the Chef's Room than most learn in five years hopping from restaurant to restaurant."
What about that famed temper? "He is a perfectionist about food and gets fiery quickly. He breaks you down and then builds you up to do things his way. It's a little rough at times. It was the greatest thing for me. I was such a hardhead that I needed that stern hand."
Simmons and fellow Mansion On Turtle Creek alum Jeramie Robison were promoted to co-executive chefs at Tesars in his wake. The arrangement didn't last long. Simmons says the restaurant was severely undercapitalized. Bills weren't being paid and checks weren't being covered.
Three months later, the two young chefs left. Robison took a chef de cuisine position with Uchi, and Simmons went to Hubbell & Hudson to be a sous chef.
Another executive chef's departure -- this time that of Edelberto Gonçalves, who is now at Fielding's Wood Grill -- turned into the biggest break yet for Simmons. In 2012, Simmons was promoted to executive chef at Hubbell & Hudson at the tender age of 25.
What's it like being in charge of a restaurant kitchen at an age when others are just getting out of college and starting careers? "It's scary," Simmons admits. "This is a big operation. [The bistro] is the commissary for the other restaurant down the street [Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen]. At the time, the [Hubbell & Hudson Market] was still open, so we were doing catering, the chef's case, a sandwich bar. I was terrified, but I just kept my head down, worked hard and studied what I didn't know. I didn't even know what a P&L looked like at the time, and now I can read one frontwards and backwards."
In addition to learning how to juggle several responsibilities, figuring out how best to manage workers has been a challenge, too. "This business is very high-paced. Your adrenaline is rushing during service every day. Kitchens tend to be warm, so you tend to get heated and heavy and yell a little bit. The one thing I've tried to curb is reacting on emotion."
His advice to other young chefs is this: "Stay humble. Work hard. Try to never sacrifice the integrity of the final product that's on the plate. You can be successful and make money in this business with really nice food. If you always do the right thing and have integrity, the people who matter will notice."
Jordan Asher, Age 29 Dosi, 2802 South Shepherd
Jordan Asher is both a self-described introvert and a free spirit, which explains the journeys he's made when he's found himself between jobs. Sometimes he'd go on road trips, and on some of those road trips he'd stage in some of the best restaurant kitchens in the country. They've included Spice Market in New York, Mercat in Chicago, Canlis in Seattle, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island and Oxheart right here in Houston.
Over the course of his career, Asher has worked almost every possible restaurant position. He's been a busboy, dishwasher, server, server trainer, prep chef, line cook, sommelier and, eventually, executive chef. Developing the Korean-influenced menu at his current restaurant, Dosi, was just another thing to learn.
Everyone in Asher's Italian family is enthusiastic about food. "My mom, my dad, my grandfather -- everybody just really loved cooking. My dad and grandfather both had really nice gardens." His father taught him respect for fresh produce, preferring to cook vegetables like green beans only to al dente, while his grandmother did something increasingly rare. She made three home-cooked meals every day.
"It was unfair for her to have to do all of that, but she loved it," muses Asher. "It was true passion. I definitely picked up on that and was making full meals by the time I was 13 or 14."
He started his restaurant career as a busboy at Pappas Seafood House off I-10 East. He worked his way up the ladder there for four and a half years.
"I stopped short of getting into management," he says. "When people get into management, they don't leave for a long time." Asher realized the opportunity he really wanted was the chance to learn about different cuisines.
He pursued formal culinary training while still employed at Pappas, opting to attend San Jacinto College's culinary arts program. "I didn't have the funds to go to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] or The Art Institute. I could have done that, but I didn't think that was necessary. A local school worked well for me and I learned a lot there."
He left Pappas and went on hiatus for a few months in Montana, where one of his best friends lived. It wouldn't be the first time Asher went on sabbatical while planning his next move. "I've always been a free spirit. I don't like constraint too much. I just wanted to go see some places."
A fledgling plan to open a barbecue restaurant with his friend fizzled out, so Asher returned to Houston. A former instructor at San Jacinto College was the executive sous chef at The Briar Club and helped Asher get a foot in the door. He stayed there for eight months, then moved to the sophisticated, high-tech kitchen at Cullen's. "That was the first true, classic, formal-style kitchen I'd worked in," he says. "Cullen's is a huge restaurant. There are so many toys in the kitchen and so much high-tech equipment."
Despite the surroundings, it wasn't a good fit. He left only two months later after having problems with what he calls "micromanagement." "I had a hard time with it," he admits. "There were so many chefs in the kitchen and a lot of egos involved. I struggled with it, but I learned a lot."
Back to the wilderness he went, taking a road trip to think about things. He returned to Houston, this time landing a position at chef Charles Clark's Spanish restaurant, Ibiza. Not only was that position more successful and longer-lived, but it also allowed him to broaden his experience. No kitchen positions were available, so he signed on as a wine steward and barista. "It was very different, and I definitely felt the urge to be in the kitchen, but it was cool. I learned so much about wine and classic coffee beverages, and I was still crafting something." (In the kitchen, though, was one of our other subjects, chef Travis Lenig, now at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette. The two would become friends.)
Clark led Asher to his next opportunity. A regular customer at Ibiza owned a hunting and fishing ranch in Colorado and was looking for a head chef. It was Asher's chance to get back in the kitchen and become an executive chef, at age 24.
Before he left Houston, Asher spent a month staging with chef Chris Shepherd at another Clark concept, Catalan, to learn more about charcuterie. (Shepherd later went on to open Underbelly and became the first Houston chef to win a James Beard award since 1992.)
Asher remained at High Lonesome Ranch in Colorado for four years, initially serving farm-to-table cuisine with a heavy Western influence. There was a greenhouse for fruits and vegetables and an ample supply of cattle and sheep from the ranch. Along with the position came a lesson. "I screwed up a lot as far as managing goes. I pissed off people. I'm a lot more relaxed now. I try to stay more positive and don't lose my cool. I express disappointment but don't get angry. I see mistakes more as learning experiences now rather than disasters."
Business was slow in the winters, and Asher would take those opportunities to hit the road again, staging at notable restaurants around the country.
Over time, he found his heart turning toward Houston again. "I was facing a crossroad. Was I going to be in Colorado forever, or did I need to go back home? It was a tough decision. I enjoyed the serenity and beauty of Colorado -- the easy life. No traffic, no commotion and it was just gorgeous. But I needed to do what was best for my family and girlfriend [in Houston]. "
What Asher wasn't willing to do was come back without a good opportunity already lined up. After passing on a few positions, he accepted an offer to work as chef de cuisine with chef Mark Cox at Mark's American Cuisine. (His former coworker Lenig from Ibiza was finishing up a three-year stint there and let him know about the opportunity.)
Asher admires Cox and considers him a mentor. "The guy is the most professional chef I've ever been around. He's straight business, always about the craft, always about getting better, looking to learn, looking to do something new. Even at his age, he's still in the kitchen every day, filleting fish and coming up with new recipes."
Considering all of Asher's professional connections, the opportunity to be the executive chef at Dosi came about in a strange way -- through a -Craigslist ad. "I was just scoping out the scene to see what was going on in town, and this caught my eye. I went and talked with An [Dosi's owner] about what his vision was. We both started seeing eye to eye. It was a natural fit."
Asher resists labeling Dosi as "Korean fusion." "It's New American with a Korean undertone. 'Fusion' sounds outdated. Now [cuisine] is about being very genuine, focused and precise. Fusion is the opposite. It's like being scattered around, taking all sorts of stuff from everywhere. It's fine if you want to do that. It's just two different worlds."
"The hardest thing in this business," says Asher, "is the commitment to losing most of your personal life. I'm very independent, and it might be harder for people who have big social circles and families."
Travis Lenig, Executive Chef, Age 34 Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, 4224 San Felipe
While there was no kitchen position available at Ibiza for Asher, Lenig was already there. The two would also work at separate times under Cox. Both have been chefs at resort ranches. While Asher worked at one in Colorado, Lenig spent time at one in Utah.
Lenig came to the food service scene very young. His mother owned a catering company, and he started helping her with it when he was only ten years old. Like Asher's grandmother, Lenig's mom also made breakfast, lunch and dinner for him and his siblings. "She would cook for her clients, send it out and then she'd have us kids the rest of the day," he reminisces.
It wasn't until much later that he considered cooking as a career possibility. "In high school, I really thought I was going to play for the Boston Red Sox. I loved baseball, but then you get older and realize that things don't always work out." It left him in a bit of an existential conundrum. So he turned to something he already knew -- the food industry -- and started with a friend who's a big name in Houston restaurants: Dominic Mandola of Ragin Cajun.
Lenig didn't start out as a cook, though. His first job was a cashier position, but it wasn't long before he made it to the kitchen. "I watched how he cooked and saw how he loved it and really had a lot of fun, so I asked him one day, 'Hey, can I jump in the kitchen?'"
Mandola said yes, and from that a career started to take root. Lenig's father, though, wasn't so sure about it. He was skeptical and said, "You know, this isn't going to be where you're there for six months and then say, 'Nah, I don't want to do this anymore.'"
"Culinary school is a lot of money," Lenig explains, "and he wasn't really willing to do that unless I was really passionate about it."
The younger Lenig persisted, though, and soon started checking out culinary schools. It was an easy decision. The Art Institute of Houston was very close by and he found the classes useful. "Just learning the basics was a really big, beneficial thing." Initially, he had an affinity for the most scientific kind of cooking -- baking, where success depends on exact ingredients and measurements.
He spent his free time bartending at John Marion Carrabba's restaurant, Piatto. Once he graduated, his first jobs were as pastry chef for Rainbow Lodge and Massa's. The love affair with baking wasn't built to last, though.
"I got really burned out by it. I really wanted to be a chef and have the creativity of doing stuff à la minute. Pastry is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. The outcome is glamorous and beautiful, but it's just so time-consuming!" Lenig exclaims.
A position as a line cook at Philippe Schmit's Bistro Moderne suited Lenig much better. "I learned a lot of technique from him and Manuel Pucha, who's now at Table." (Schmit is currently minding the kitchen at Drexel House.)
It was after this that he went off to be an -executive sous chef at Sorrel River Ranch -Resort & Spa in Utah. "I'd never lived outside of Houston, so I wanted to try something new. Going from a restaurant to a resort was a huge change."
He made "laid-back ranch cuisine" to reflect the area he now lived and worked in -- the beautiful but landlocked southeastern corner of Moab that bordered Colorado. The nearest town was an hour away, so Lenig learned to order for a few days at a time and made resort-worthy food from ingredients that weren't highly perishable. Beef and pork were easy to come by, and the resort had its own gardens, making farm-to-table cuisine possible.
Seafood was tricky. "I'd try to bring in seafood when I could from Hawaii," says Lenig, "but I had to plan that based on what type of guests we'd have. I'd always get a list of all our guests who were going to be there -- where they were from and what type of diet restrictions they had. I ordered it on Fridays because I knew I'd sell out over the weekend."
Lenig got married, and his bride wanted to return to college to finish her master's degree in Houston and they both wanted to be near family. Lenig was introduced to Shawn Virene and Charles Clark, who agreed to hire him for the kitchen at Ibiza, where he'd work for three years. (Not too much later, Jordan Asher would be hired as a wine steward and barista.)
"I learned a lot -- and I mean a lot -- from those guys and have a lot of thanks to them," reflects Lenig. "They really boosted my career. I learned a tremendous amount about wine, food and how to deal with customers."
Lenig then worked for three years for Cox. "He is a fantastic chef," Lenig says. "Coming from Ibiza, which was super-turn-and-burn, and going to Mark's, which might have 15 to 20 items in a dish, it was a lot of hands-on. There was a lot of teamwork. I got to really work with ingredients I'd never worked with before. If there was something we wanted, Mark would say, 'Okay, let's get it, but we've got to make sure we use it. Make sure it will go inside our menu, and let's get it out.' He was always pushing towards the next level. That was his big thing. A lot of chefs in Houston have gone through that kitchen and went on to be successful."
Lenig lived across the street from the first Liberty Kitchen and watched it being built. He wanted to be close to home and family, and there was no chance of climbing higher in the ranks at Mark's. The next step up was the executive chef's position.
He met with Lance Fegen of the F.E.E.D. TX group (which owns Liberty Kitchen, BRC and other Houston restaurants). They walked around the Heights together for an hour and a half and chatted. An hour later, Fegen called Lenig and gave him the job. That was in February 2012, and he's been with F.E.E.D. TX ever since.
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette opened in October 2013, and he moved to that kitchen and hasn't left. In October 2014, just shy of its one-year anniversary, he and the restaurant won three Houston Culinary Awards -- Up-And-Coming Chef, Best New Restaurant and Best Interior Design. "Especially with the company I was up against [which included two other subjects of this article, Kate McLean and Austin Simmons], to get that award was unbelievable. I really didn't think I was going to get it at all.
"There's so much in this art that we do that [being a chef is] a constant learning position. If you feel like you've learned everything, then get out of cooking because you should always be learning."
Kate McLean, Age 30 Tony's, 3755 Richmond
Tony's, one of the oldest and most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in Houston, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Restaurateur Tony Vallone has proven that the word "institution" does not have to equal "boring" and more than once has brought vibrant young chefs into the kitchen.
The executive chef these days is Kate McLean. She was the first female sous chef and became the first female executive chef as well when Grant Gordon left to head the kitchen at restaurant Vallone's in the Memorial City area.
(Gordon later left Vallone's, and announced in 2014 that he was opening a new restaurant with Paul Petronella of Paulie's and David Keck of Camerata at Paulie's. Soon afterward, he committed suicide after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It's still a deeply felt, painful loss for everyone who knew the bright young star. McLean declined to discuss her time working with him.)
McLean says her relationship with food goes all the way back to when she was a toddler. "I remember being left in my high chair in a dark kitchen with a nanny with peanut butter and honey Ritz crackers. She'd left a little cottage cheese on one of them and I was pissed. I think that's my farthest-back food memory."
As an adult, McLean still has a strong relationship with food and high expectations for what a meal should be like. "I love getting hungry. I'd rather skip a meal if I can't sit down and really enjoy it. It's hard for me to just walk around and eat."
It wasn't until she was pursuing a marketing degree at the University of Colorado that she considered cooking as a career choice. The summer between her sophomore and junior years, she worked in a kitchen at a lodge. "I had so much fun with the people I was working with. I loved the work. I like hard work, and I like stress." McLean realized she'd discovered her true vocation.
Upon returning to school for her junior year, she got a job flipping burgers. She worked at that for nine months, finished college and then moved to Seattle. There she got a job at Dahlia Bakery making sandwiches. It shared a kitchen with fine-dining establishment Dahlia Lounge next door. McLean started moving up the chain, from line cook at lunch service to the hot line at dinnertime.
She moved to Hawaii to join friends there, and got a job at a fish restaurant called Postcards Cafe on the island of Kauai. She stayed for two years. Developing dinner specials turned out to be enjoyable, creative work. Working in south France, though, may have been the most beneficial in helping McLean hone her culinary skills.
"My godmother buys antiques from France, and she stayed at a family-owned bed and breakfast [near Avignon] that had a kitchen. They needed help. I applied, and I was in France a month later working for this English family." The chef's father was a Michelin-starred chef and had trained him in the same manner. McLean learned a lot. "It really made me step up my fine-dining game, and I realized that I really love fine dining -- the precision and the beauty of it."
Five months later, McLean returned to Houston and an industry executive arranged for her to have coffee with Tony Vallone. McLean's vivacious, energetic personality and work experience proved appealing, for she was asked to create a tasting menu for him and other higher-ups at Tony's the next day. She says, "They told me, 'Everything needed more salt and pepper, but do you want the job?'" The answer, of course, was yes. At age 26, McLean became a sous chef at one of the most respected restaurants in the United States.
She worked under Grant Gordon for three and a half years and, at age 29, was promoted to executive chef. "I feel very blessed," she says. "Mr. Vallone is the coolest guy I've ever met. I feel very lucky to have him as a mentor. He has a cool way of talking with people. He's very charming but to the point. I've learned how to be nice but get what we want and not settle for less quality. He's also very generous, and it seems like he's always helping somebody."
One of McLean's more difficult lessons has been learning to swallow her pride. "In the beginning, about half of the chefs were hard to work for," she explains. "I knew if I just put my head down and did whatever they said -- even if it made me mad or seemed to not be right -- it would be worth it."
Another challenge for her was winning over employees who had worked at Tony's much longer than she had. "It was hard coming up here. I was constantly trying to prove myself. It feels so good now to have done it and be someone they respect."
Interestingly, McLean sees being a woman in the industry as an advantage, not a disadvantage, and isn't afraid to use her femininity as a tool to get the job done. "I think we have a lot of power. It's not that big of an issue. It's about how hard you work and your personality. Being a woman is empowering. If I need to get something done, I just smile the right way and it gets done. I use that."
McLean has advice for other young chefs who also want to move up through the ranks. "You just have to work hard. Never give up. There are times you'll want to give up and say, 'Oh my God, why am I doing this?' but don't settle for that. Those moments will always pass, and you'll be much happier for it."
Chris Loftis, Age 28 Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, 7809 Broadway, Galveston
Chef Chris Loftis was born in Germany, but he didn't get to stay very long. His parents moved to the United States while he was still a young child, but he did get to experience the cuisine of his country of birth since he has a grandmother who, in his words, "makes awesome German food."
After seeing the way he gravitated toward cooking as a teenager, his parents gave him a nudge in the direction of culinary school. Loftis says, "I guess it's that [parental] duty to say, 'You need to figure out what you want to do with your life.' All through high school, on weekends I'd want to barbecue or be outside and just do something with food. I don't know why, but it was fun to me."
Loftis and his good friend Joe Cervantez, both Pearland natives, decided to attend the Art Institute of Houston. They even started their careers at the same restaurant, taking advantage of an opportunity to work at the now defunct Skyline on the top floor of the Hilton Americas downtown. When it closed, their career paths split but would again parallel in later years.
Cervantez stayed at Hilton Americas to run the restaurant downstairs. Loftis decided to look for a job near home. He asked Ronnie Killen, who was opening a new restaurant called Killen's Steakhouse, for a job. Killen agreed to hire the young man as a cook.
Loftis worked on and off there for two and a half years. It was a period of growth and soul-searching. Loftis says, "I still didn't have the experience that I needed for a [steakhouse] like that, but luckily Ronnie was patient with me." To this day, he regards Killen as one of his mentors.
Loftis would work at a few more places before landing the job that would ultimately propel him to an executive chef's position. A stint at Strata in Vintage Park in far northwest Houston was a good fit. However, it was a hellacious drive from Pearland -- especially for a man about to become a father, which Loftis was at that point.
Then came The Barbed Rose steakhouse in Alvin. He accepted a sous chef position there. The commute was much shorter, but there were a number of factors working against the restaurant's success, too, not the least of which were the habits and expectations of Alvin diners. Loftis explains, "[Places like] Joe's Barbecue have been there for over 40 or 50 years. It's hard to compete with those kinds of restaurants that have been there forever because the parents grew up eating it and their kids grew up eating it." Others complained about "high prices."
He left, but the string of bad luck wasn't quite over. The next place he worked was Brazilian restaurant Samba Grille in downtown Houston. He arrived just as it was gasping its last breaths. It closed two weeks after he started. The only bright side was that he hadn't worked there long enough to get attached.
He'd find stability at Sweetwater Country Club for about a year, but it wasn't quite the right fit. "It was totally different than what I thought," says Loftis. "I never worked in a country club before. Not that I'm knocking country clubs, but it was very demanding because it was in Sugar Land and these people are paying a lot of money and, you know, they want what they want."
The right opportunity was, thankfully, just around the corner. Loftis interviewed with The RK Group, which owns Radio Milano as well as Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, which had not been built yet. It took them six months to call him, but when they did, they offered him the sous chef job at Number 13. The only catch was that it still wasn't quite open, so he bided his time helping chef Jose Hernandez at Radio Milano.
In August 2013, Loftis started working in another steakhouse -- Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood. However, he'd end up running this one.
As was the case with up-and-coming chef Austin Simmons, Loftis's chance for a promotion came when his executive chef left. Jason Hanin left Houston to go run the kitchen of a restaurant called Gladstones on the sunny Malibu coast.
The promotion came with its share of challenges, the hardest of which was maintaining good relationships with the staff. "I wanted them to know I was still the person they could come to with culinary problems. I didn't want them to think that just because I was the exec chef that I thought I was better. I'm still the same person. I just have a lot more work now." He is, in fact, proud of being someone who listens to and takes advice from both employees and customers. "I'm not a 'my way or the highway' person. I listen to people's concerns and I care. I've worked with people where if it's not their idea, it's a bad idea. That's just not the way I work. I know I'm not going to please -everyone, but everyone likes being listened to and considered."
Loftis has occasionally had to learn things the hard way, so he has this advice for young cooks who want to move up: "Listen to your chef. When I was 17, I thought I was a hot shot and knew everything. Ten years ago, I got yelled at. In my head, I thought, 'Man, this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.' Now I see kids doing the same thing with me. It may not show immediately, but I guarantee there will be a time where you'll say, 'That guy was right.' No matter how crazy or farfetched, take it with a grain of salt, because he's probably right."
He also emphasizes the importance of a good work ethic. "Come in early, stay late. People who give it 50 percent in this business won't last long."
What happened to Loftis's childhood friend, Joe Cervantez? Well, he's a dad and an executive chef, too -- at Loftis's former workplace, Killen's Steakhouse.
The world of Houston chefs is a very small one indeed.
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Sugar Hooker recruits all-star lineup of chefs for pop-up dinners
When it comes to hosting pop-ups with out of town chefs, no restaurant in Houston does a better job than Fluff Bake Bar’s “Dinner With My Friends” series. After a strong first year that featured mostly Texas-based chefs like Philip Speer (the upcoming Bonhomie in Austin) and Matt McCallister (FT33 in Dallas), chef-owner Rebecca Masson, affectionately known as the Sugar Hooker, has stepped things up for year two by recruiting all-star roster of chefs from New York City, New Orleans, and other places beyond the Red River.
The six-course meals always occur on a Monday night when Fluff is closed. Unlike the first year when Masson had a personal connection to every chef, this year she enlisted some help from Charleston-based publicist Angel Postell to broaden her reach and recruit a couple of chefs she hasn’t met yet.
“I put together a list of the people I knew I wanted to invite, and then (Postell) reached out to people in her network and put together a list of possibilities,” Masson tells CultureMap. “We would go back and look at them, check them out. Some of them I knew their names right off the bat. Some I didn’t know their names, but I would read their bios and be like ‘this person looks really interesting. Let’s invite them.’”
Year two also features a charitable component, as 10 percent of proceeds will benefit Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry program. Masson serves as pastry chair for the Houston edition of the nationwide fundraiser, which raised almost $100,000 locally in 2016.
The series kicked off with San Francisco chef Richie Nakano in January and continues Monday with Reef chef-owner Bryan Caswell and his wife Jennifer. Two of Texas’ recently-announced James Beard award semifinalists, Steve McHugh (Cured in San Antonio) and John Tesar (Knife in Dallas), will also participate in the series, but Masson cites Jimmy Bradley from The Red Cat in New York City as the one she’s the most excited about.
“That’s my old boss and probably my favorite person I’ve ever worked for,” Masson says. “That’s the most near and dear to my heart, because I get to show him what I’ve made. He helped me several times by talking to me about business.”
Other participants include James Beard award winner Ryan Prewitt (Peche in New Orleans), James Beard Best Chef: Midwest semifinalist nominee Kevin Nashan (Sidney Street Cafe, St. Louis), and Top Chef veteran Grayson Schmitz. The meals typically cost about $100 per person, plus tax, tip, and pairings.
Sommeliers Cat Nguyen (Republic National) and William Meznarich (Victory Wine Group) will take turns creating wine pairings for each meal. If a chef expresses an interest in beer pairings instead of wine, Masson says she hopes to cajole Joshua Justice of The Flying Saucer downtown into making the selections.
Of course, the dinner pop-ups don't mean an end to Masson's Saturday morning bake sales. Recently, Masson has branched out from pastry chefs by inviting more savory chefs (Roost’s Kevin Naderi), restaurateurs (Lee Ellis of Cherry Pie Hospitality), and members of the culinary community (Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farm) to contribute ideas. She’s even threatening to rope a food writer or two into the mix.
Keep an eye on the Fluff Bake Bar website for upcoming bake sales participants and on-sale dates for tickets to the remaining Dinner With My Friends meals.
Dallas’ New Swanky Late-Night Cocktail Lounge Inspired By World’s Boldest Bars
S everal swanky night spots inspired Richard and Tiffanee Ellman’s new late-night cocktail lounge. Quill is its name, and it’s nestled in the Dallas Design District.
“I love the lush velvets and the vinyl-spinning DJ at Rose Bar in New York City, and my wife was drawn to the malachite greens of the London Edition,” says Richard Ellman, who also co-owns Design District haunts Pakpao, Oak and El Bolero, under the Apheleia Restaurant Group umbrella.
Inside Quill, plush emerald-green seating and gold fixtures create a moody vibe in this restaurant/club/bar hybrid, where chefs John Tesar and Joel Harrington’s small-plate menu offerings — kim chi fried rice, ceviche, mini Cuban sandwiches and burger sliders — go hand-in-hand with inventive cocktails courtesy of James Slater.
In another collaboration, the new cocktail lounge’s secluded Ink Room offers custom dinners catered by Quill, Oak or Joe Palladino’s Nick and Sam’s. Quill, 1628 Oak Lawn Ave., 214.484.8702.