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Among the smiling faces on the cover of July's Food & Wine magazine is Houston's Scott Tycer, executive chef and owner of Aries restaurant. Tycer and nine other young chefs were chosen by the magazine as "America's Best New Chefs 2003."
The award is a big honor, and all budding young culinary geniuses set their sights on it. Asked if he cried like a beauty pageant winner when he got the fateful phone call, Tycer swears he didn't. "I was really thinking about all those chefs out in California that I used to compete with. And I decided I wouldn't say a word about it until they saw my face on the cover of the magazine."
Has he gotten any calls? "Yeah, one of my old buddies out there called up and asked me how much I paid them."
It's been a long dry spell for Houston in this "best new chef" horse race. Monica Pope was the last Houstonian to win the award, way back in 1996. Why has it taken so long?
"I got the impression that they hadn't been coming to Houston in previous years," Tycer says. "I guess they didn't think we had anything going on. I think Monica Pope recommended they try Aries."
After the magazine's editors visited the restaurant anonymously, they reported back to Tycer that what he was doing at Aries was part of the same movement they saw going on in New York, Chicago and elsewhere: chef-run restaurants with a dedication to fine ingredients and craftsmanship. "It made me realize we are on the right track," Tycer says.
I've heard some negative reports about Aries lately, I frankly told Tycer. People complain that the restaurant just isn't as good when the head chef isn't there. "There have been some hiccups," Tycer admits. Jason Gould, Tycer's chef de cuisine, is a veteran of Mirabelle, a Michelin one-star restaurant in London. He brought strict European discipline to the kitchen, Tycer says. He also drove away a lot of the kitchen staff.
"Aries is a killing field for chefs," says Tycer. "Lots of people have come through here and have decided that they don't want this kind of structure. I don't have a freezer. Everything is made from scratch every morning -- ice cream, bread, everything. My pastry chef starts at seven, my chef de cuisine starts at eight, six days a week. Not a lot of people want to work those hours. It takes massive dedication.
"And so we've had a lot of turnover. And it's twice as hard to work with new people. So basically that's been our problem. But now, we have a staff that's been there for a year, so I think we've turned a corner."
"There is also a knock on me around town for being rigid," he says. Tycer tells the story of a customer who came in at the beginning of spring and requested a tomato salad. The chef sent the waiter out to say no. "All I had were non-organic Romas -- there was no way to do anything good with these stewing tomatoes," Tycer says. But the customer persisted -- and Tycer kept saying no. Finally the guest got so outraged that Tycer relented. He sent out a big platter covered with more slices of Roma tomatoes than any sane person could eat. "The guest thought this was over the top. And I guess it was -- that got out around town -- one of my many indiscretions," Tycer chuckles.
Of course, compared to the attitude found at small chef-owned restaurants in other cities, Tycer's antics are downright tame. Try telling Mario Batali to make you a tomato salad out of season -- you'll be lucky to get out of New York alive. But Houston's fine dining scene is still stuck in the old "customer is always right" school of thinking. The Vallone Group has always set the tone; they had the best rooms, the best-paid staff, they defined the Houston restaurant scene, Tycer says.
Mark Cox, of Mark's American Cuisine, first bucked the outdated fine dining trend in Houston. "He deserves a lot of credit. He had the balls to go open a restaurant across the street from a tattoo parlor in Montrose. Nobody had done anything like that in Houston before. He inspired me and a whole lot of other people to take a chance. And we've all discovered that there's a huge audience in Houston who really want to go to a restaurant and just let the chef cook for them."
So what does that mean for the future of Houston fine dining? "I'm hearing about a lot of Texas chefs working in other markets who want to come home," says Tycer. "And there is room for all of them. There is room for hundreds of Aries in Houston. For chef-driven restaurants with a high level of craftsmanship, Houston is a completely untapped market."