By Chris Lane
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"My mom, bless her heart, was an awful cook," drawls Larry Perdido. His parents emigrated from the Philippines to Houston in the '50s, and his mom, a nurse, soon learned to mangle American dishes as thoroughly as she wrecked those of the Southeast Asian islands. Out of self-defense, seven-year-old Larry taught himself to cook by following the directions on the mac 'n' cheese box.
PBS urged him to aim higher. He admired Julia Child's French technique, and he laughed at Justin Wilson's Cajun wildness. And then there was Martin Yan, of Yan Can Cook, who mixed Asian recipes with American flamboyance. The combination must have held special appeal to Larry, a brown-skinned, dark-haired kid who talks like John Wayne.
But Larry couldn't afford to see Yan as a role model. Yan was like Evel Knievel: a cool guy who existed mainly on TV. Kids like Larry didn't aspire to be Evel Knievel.
Larry was supposed to be a doctor, and he almost became one. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in biology and chemistry, applied to med school, and made it onto UTMB-Galveston's waiting list. He knew he was supposed to want to be accepted.
But while he was waiting, he heard a radio ad for the new Culinary Institute of America. Cooking! he said to his fiancÈe. That's what I want to study. They U-turned on U.S. 59 and drove straight to the school. Larry enrolled that day, and told the medical school to forget him.
His parents were horrified, but in the last few years, they've come around. Larry and his partner, Chuck Smith, made such a success of their first restaurant, Saba Blue Water Cafe in Austin, that they opened a second Saba in downtown Houston. The menu is complicated and California-ish, American fish and produce cooked with an Asian inflection.
In June, Larry even got to cook beside his childhood hero. Martin Yan was doing a star turn at Central Market, and Larry signed up to assist with the class. They hit it off, and that evening Yan ate dinner at Saba. Larry stayed in the kitchen, sending out little bites of his best dishes.
But Yan was hardly alone at the table. Foodies mobbed him, mostly people who, like Larry, knew him from TV. Somebody asked for an autograph; somebody else took a photo. Yan was gracious. And in the kitchen, Larry was ecstatic. In a weird way, he'd exceeded his childhood dreams. He hadn't grown up to be Martin Yan. But he had grown up to cook for him.