Chef Chat, Part 1: Kevin Naderi of Roost and Lillo & Ella
Kevin Naderi relaxes in a booth upholstered in cheerful orange at Lillo & Ella
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Kevin Naderi has the daunting task of running not one, but two independent restaurants that each have a unique identity. Roost has been a mainstay of the Montrose neighborhood for almost three years and has scored national recognition on more than one occasion. He's dad to a new "baby" now, too. Lillo & Ella is the fledgling that has only been open for about six months.
In this first part of our chat with Naderi, we'll talk about his native Houstonian roots and how becoming a chef helped turn the former bad boy into a grounded chef and business owner.
EOW: Are you a native Houstonian?
KN: Yes. I was born and raised here. I went to Bunker Hill Elementary, Memorial Middle School and Memorial High School. I went to The Art Institute [of Houston], too.
EOW: A lot of chefs in town went to The Art Institute. Are there any chefs here that went there at the same time that you did?
KN: Joe Cervantes, Chris Wolff and Andrea Weir. I think they are the only ones still doing a significant amount of work. Joe's is now at Killen's [Steakhouse] as the executive sous. Andrea did all the photography for our walls here. She does photography on the side and is also at Coltivare. Chris is out in Galveston at [Number] 13. So, yeah, everybody's kind of doing their thing. It's good.
Roast Duck Eggrolls with water chestnuts, plum sauce and sesame wilted spinach at Lillo & Ella
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: How did you know that you wanted to be in the culinary industry?
KN: I really didn't. I was really a bad kid. I'd gotten kicked out of school. My parents sent me to military school for the summer. When I came back from military school, I ended up taking a bunch of blow-off classes. I figured, Home Ec, I'll meet girls and eat and do whatever. I ended up really liking it. I was really good at it. So, I just stuck with it and ended up working at a hotel, the Doubletree on Post Oak. Then, I worked my way up the ladder from restaurant to restaurant.
The celebrity chef thing was hitting off like, what, 10 years ago? I figured, hey, you can make a living at it. It's pretty cool. Girls like a guy who can cook.
EOW: Were your parents happy about your career path?
KN: My parents have always been supportive regardless, but the fact that I was such a little pain in the ass--they were happy that I found something as a job that I was good at. They knew I wasn't going to do the whole doctor or lawyer route. They were happy just to see me happy. It worked out well.
EOW: So you were at the Doubletree. Were you a line cook there?
KN: I was a banquet cook. I spent about a year there and left to go to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in upstate New York. I was there a short while. I wasn't a big fan of the town and came back [to Houston]. It was too quiet and serene for me. I missed the hustle and bustle of Houston and being around family. That's when I went to The Art Institute and got my degree.
EOW: Where did you go after that?
KN: Ooof. After the Art Institute, I think my first main job was Brennan's! I was doing both--going to school and working at the same time. I started at salads, worked up to hot apps and then I got into it with Jose Arevalo. I didn't go back. Randy [Evans] asked me, "Hey, your job is here if you want to come back. I know you guys had an exchange of words." I was like, "I'm good, man, I'm just going to pursue something different."
He and I didn't see each other for a couple of years and then I hooked up with Randy again at Haven.
Cocktails at Lillo & Ella from left to right: Jack Rose with five spice, Pisco Punch with a bit of cinnamon and a cheekily named one called "What can we get for $9? Everything!!! (All of the house cocktails are, in fact, $9)"
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: What did you do in between Brennan's and Haven?
KN: In between, I did this stupid thing of jumping from restaurant to restaurant. I figured the more restaurants you work at, the better experience you're going to get. That's definitely not true. I think it's more about the longer you spend at one place, the better off you're going to be.
EOW: Because you get to work your way up the kitchen hierarchy?
KN: Yeah, and at the same time you get to see more techniques and how things are done instead of like short spurts of this or that. At Brennan's, I learned about everything from sauces made from scratch and a million different techniques. I think that's the biggest kitchen I've ever worked in. Everything was made from scratch, there was charcuterie going on, there was Thanksgiving and everyone was butchering turkeys, making our own ham, bacon, using wild game, local produce, fresh baked breads...
It was crazy, whereas working at a hotel you get a lot of stuff pre-made. You've got to get a lot of things to make your life easier when there's a party for 500 to 1,000 people. It's not as easy. I definitely learned a lot.
After all of that, I spent a year at Houston City Club and that's when Randy reached out to me. Haven was in the works and he was doing private events on the side to build up a name and test recipes. He asked me to come help him. I had weekends off. [Houston City Club] was such a cush job that I was working 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. I had full benefits and good pay. It was pretty cool. But they were starting to standardize all their recipes and the clubs were becoming the same.
My old boss, Jon Hebert, who was Randy's sous chef from Brennan's, was the executive chef and I was just helping him. He was leaving to go to Sysco. We left pretty much at the same time. I went to Haven, Randy offered me the sous chef job and I took it. After that, it was great. I learned as much as I could. The good part is that it was a lot of trial and error. With Randy, it's like being thrown into the fire. "We need to make bacon. Here's the recipe. Go for it." It's not like, "I'm going to teach you how to do it hands-on," which I think is a good way because that's how you learn.
I remember the first time I made country ham. I threw away two or three different batches. [Randy] gave me a bunch of ugly looks, but at the same time, we had to get it right. I learned a lot and that's what catapulted me into doing what I'm doing now.
Crispy calamari salad at Lillo & Ella with crushed cashews, pineapple, miso dressing and crispy noodles
Photo by Paula Murphy
EOW: We did a chef chat with Randy Evans, and he basically said you worked so hard on the catering that you earned the sous chef position.
KN: I still give him a hard time. We're really close friends. I was actually on the phone with him earlier today. I like to call him "Hollywood" or "The Cheeser Smile" because Randy is really good at working the camera and being the Hollywood chef.
I always like to give him crap for not working much, but he's one of the hardest workers you'll ever see. When we were working the events and stuff he would like to talk and socialize while I'm in the back chopping everything and cooking and sautéing. "Help me out here, you know?" But he's a great guy. He instills that you promote from within and like the whole, huge, old school Brennan's motto of teaching people what you know and passing that tradition on.
I think a lot of chefs are too busying being Hollywood and important and don't really care.
EOW: At some point when you were at Haven, you must have had an opportunity or desire to open your own place. How did Roost come about?
KN: The funny thing was that I was actually looking into a taco truck. I got tired of working at so many different places and not being my own boss. I was kind like, "You know what? Maybe I can try something on my own." So, I was in the works of building a taco truck. I was designing it and talking to a couple of different builders and whatnot. At the same time, I was looking for an apartment. I wanted to move out of my parents' house and be in the Montrose area. It just so happened that the Roost building was for sale. I bought that and became a landlord and restaurateur all in the same purchase.
I figured I'd start small. Roost was really manageable. It's only 50 seats. So, that's kind of what happened. I opened, we were slow for eight or nine days and then after that it was just crazy. There was a line down the block constantly. Still, the thing that blows my mind is coming on three years in December, we're still just as busy. We still go on waits almost every night. We have a ton of regulars. People are really supportive of what we do. Granted, we don't always hit a home run, but they're there to tell us, "Tweak this. Fix that." They help make us better and that what I look at as a chef. I've never said I'm the best at what I do. I've never said I'm perfect at what I put out. The moment that you think you are "all that," then you need to change fields because you don't know what you're talking about.
EOW: What were some of your best moments at Roost? You know, really awesome memories that you have from running this place for three years now?
KN: Definitely one of the coolest memories was that I started doing a Persian night with my mom and grandma. We did it last fall or the fall before. I was like, "Hey, there's no Middle Eastern food inside the Loop. Nothing notable." My mom was like, "You know what? I don't want to do Persian food. People are going to get confused and I don't think people are ready for Persian food. They think it's something crazy and exotic."
I just kept telling her, "Let's try it. Let's just do it one Sunday and see what happens." It was packed. My mom had this huge glow on her face. She couldn't believe how much people loved her food. She was peeking through the window and all these people were saying, "Thank you," and shaking her hand. She never got the way that a kitchen runs. "How are we going to do this stuff from scratch and still have it maintain? It's going to be really tough." I told her, "Listen, I'm going to take care of that part. You just come with the recipes. We're going to work together."
Come back for Part 2, where we'll talk about Naderi's new restaurant, Lillo & Ella, and hear some of his thoughts about what restaurants need from customers in order to succeed.
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