Executive Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez of Bistro Alex is a cool kind of guy. The first time I met him, during the launch of Bistro Bar, he came down from the kitchen decked out in full chef's regalia - complete with a signature chef's toque hat that added at least 12 imposing inches to his stature.
But imposing he is not. At least, not when you get to know him.
The Puerto Rican chef has an understated ebullience to his demeanor. He's animated. He has a smile in his eyes when he talks. He has long-ish wavy black hair. He's one of those guys that you can picture kickin' it with a beer.
About a year and a half ago, he moved to Houston to launch Bistro Alex, but has been commuting to New Orleans every two to three weekends to be with his wife. I caught up with him on a busy Saturday in between preparations for a wedding reception at the restaurant.
EOW: How did you come to be the Executive chef at Bistro Alex?
JCG: I worked my way up with the Brennan's family in New Orleans. I went from prep cook, to line cook, to sous chef, and 10 years later to Executive Chef.
EOW: So being from New Orleans, what do you think of the Houston dining scene?
JCG: It's evolving and growing day by day.
EOW: What's the biggest difference between food in New Orleans and food in Houston?
JCG: The seasoning. I've had to learn the Houston way and cut back on salt and spices.
EOW: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
JCG: When I was a sophomore in college.
EOW: I heard you got an apprenticeship with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York City.
JCG: Yes, I knew I wanted to cook and landed a job with him. I had no culinary experience, and worked under him for a year. He's the one who got me to go to culinary school. He said I had talent and needed to take it further.
EOW: And where did you go to school?
JCG: The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
EOW: So after you got your degree, you moved to New Orleans and you still had to start as a line cook?
EOW: Describe your cooking style now.
JCG: Bold, vibrant, and straightforward.
EOW: What dish best describes your cooking style?
JCG: My shrimp and tasso pinchos
EOW: What dish would you say is a "must try" if someone were to visit Bistro Alex?
JCG: The duck waffle.
EOW: Is the duck waffle available during lunch and dinner?
JCG: No, it's only available on the dinner menu right now. It's also available for Sunday brunch.
EOW: Do you have a favorite ingredient to cook with?
JCG: Cane vinegar. It adds a tanginess to food. You can add a touch of it to soup, or make a great vinaigrette for a salad. You can even reduce it down and make a kickin' simple syrup.
EOW: Have you had a chance to try some of the other restaurants in town?
JCG: Yes. I've been to Haven, Brennan's, Mockingbird Bistro, Ibiza, Soma Sushi...
EOW: And would you say you have a favorite restaurant in town?
JCG: Yes! Mockingbird Bistro.
EOW: Can you tell me what you eat there?
JCG: They never give me the menu. They just tell me to sit down and they make me something.
EOW: If you weren't working at Bistro Alex, or could have a choice for a second job, what would it be?
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JCG: I'd be at a badass sushi place, or in a bakery baking bread and pastries.
Check back with us tomorrow as we get to know some of Gonzalez's favorite things.