Houston is known as a multicultural city—a true melting pot of people and cuisines from around the world. This begins a series where we take a look at the chefs responsible for creating authentic dishes from several different nations right here in Houston.
Chef Luis Roger came from Spain to fulfill his dream of having his own restaurant. He start at just any restaurant in Spain, though. His internship was at El Bulli. From there, he went on to spend a decade at the ritzy resort, Mas Anglada. That was here he met future business partner Ignacio Torras, who was vacationing there and they discovered a common desire to open a restaurant in Houston.
Family responsibilities and illness would delay Roger from pursuing his dream for years, but eventually, he persevered. Now, he is at the helm of BCN Taste and Tradition, a traditional Spanish restaurant in a Mediterranean home off of Montrose. It was lauded as one of the best new restaurant openings of 2014 and has already been embraced by the surrounding neighborhood, as well as by those seeking true, traditional Spanish cuisine.
In Part 1 of this Chef Chat, we’ll learn about his career in Spain, why he finally visited Houston and how BCN Taste and Tradition very nearly ended up being a Greek restaurant.
Houston Press: Were you born in Spain?
HP: How did you first become interested in cooking?
LR: Since I was little, I always liked to help my grandma and my grandpa. When I was 16 or 17 we’d usually go for a weekend to some of my friends' parents' houses. We went for a nightcap or whatever. But, when we came back we would be hungry and someone has to cook. I was not in charge, but I always said, "It's okay. I can do it. I like it." And then I started cooking. Obviously, I had some knowledge because I saw my mom, I saw my grandma and my grandpa [cooking]. I’d just do it but I never felt why I’d do it for [myself]. It happened later.
HP: Did you ever think you were going to do anything else as a career?
LR: I love numbers, I love math. I was a bad student because I'm not that patient. Now, I'm patient, but when I was young I was not patient so I could not spend more than half an hour studying at the table. Forget it. In this, career that you have to study a lot.
HP: Did you go to culinary school?
HP: Where did you go?
LR: I went to Barcelona and went to the Hofmann Culinary School. I had to do the military [first], which was mandatory seven years ago. I don't know about nowadays. Before going to the army I went to the school, checked the program and then went to the army for nine months. After that, I had a goal on the horizon so I could be enthusiastic about something when I finished the army.
HP: When you were in culinary school did you have to do internships?
LR: Oh yes.
HP: Where did you go?
LR: El Bulli.
HP: How long were you able to stay at El Bulli?
LR: The first internship I had was in 1998. That was almost one month. It was my location because I was just starting. The second internship took me about almost six months. That was when I finished culinary school. I finished culinary school in December and then I went to El Bulli in March. They were usually open from March to September. They were open lunch and dinner.
HP: Where you there when El Bulli closed? Were you still part of that when it closed or had you moved on elsewhere?
LR: I had moved on already. I had still contacts and knew people there. I met with them all the time, the chef, the customers, the people that were still working there. So that was in 1998 and 1999. I remember I met [Oriol Castro, one of the chefs de cuisine at El Bulli] and Mateu [Casañas, another El Bulli chef de cuisine]. They opened Compartir in Cadaqués. It's a small restaurant and I sent people over there.
HP: What were the names of the other restaurants that you ended up working at in Spain?
LR: Before I came to BCN? Mas Anglada. It was not a restaurant. We call it a hotel or resort. You can check online and see what that was all about.
(Author’s note: We did, and here’s what BCN’s web site says about it: “Prior to coming to Houston, Roger was most recently executive chef at the private resort, Mas Anglada, in the Amporda near the Costa Brava, where he embraced the culinary rich of the area while focusing on the fantastic quality of the regional products from the farm, the sea and the land. While at Mas Anglada, he did double duty as a Professor at the local culinary school, Aula Gastronómica de l’Emporda.”)
HP: How long were you there?
LR: 10 years.
HP: That’s long time. Going back to El Bulli for a minute, what do you think was important that you learned there?
LR: Obviously, I went there because I was so motivated and excited to be part [of that]. It was the time I started growing. Basically, everything has a “why” and a “how.” The very important thing that I learned from there is that you have to work a lot and show dedication and passion. I think passion is dedication.
HP: What was the food like at Mas Anglada?
LR: After El Bulli, I realized that if I wanted to do something like that, I needed 40 people around me. That is not profitable or whatever. I love traditional food. That's what really makes me wake up and move because that is that kind of food is involving my family and my friends. Everything is surrounded by traditional food. We are are a very traditional family. My grandpa was an excellent cook as well as my grandma. Traditional food. Many chefs try to use the same recipe of my grandpa or grandma but improve and enhance it. We try to make it look nicer. We use other techniques, as long as we improve it with our skills.
HP: How did the opportunity to come to Houston to open BCN [Taste & Tradition] come about?
LR: I was working at Mas Anglada. I arrived around 2004. A gentleman rented the property for a week — Ignacio Torras. It was 2008 or 2009. I was working during the day. I'm very passionate for food and he liked a lot and we connected. When he left after one week, he said, “Luis, if you ever want a restaurant, go to Houston. I'm sure we can do something greater.”
At that time I talked to my wife about going to Houston. My wife is very traditional. We had just married and she was pregnant with our first son. So she said, “No.”
I kept in my mind, “Maybe we can try after a few years.” After two years Mr. Torras called me and said, "Hey, something might be possible here. We found something.” I think by then [my wife and I] already had our second son.
I asked my wife [if we could move to Houston]. The mother of my wife was diagnosed with cancer. My wife told me, “With my mom sick, we are not going anywhere.”
At the time, I thought, “It's gone. The train comes once and is gone forever, even though it was my dream.”
I always liked the American life, the possibilities, and was hard-working. Even so, Ignacio kept going. It was in August 2012 when the mother of my wife passed away. My best friend who lives in Panama called me, "Hey, Luis, I’m getting married. I would love for you to come. If you have a chance, I would love it.”
I got very excited. He was my best friend. I planned it. It was on November 8. Then in October I was working for a university, doing some cooking class. I met a nephew's relative — his brother's wife. I met her and we started talking about things. Suddenly, I saw Panama and then I saw Houston. At that time, I was very excited to open my own place. I started writing business plans. I saw it and went back to my wife. I asked her, “Would you be able to go now?” and she said, “Oh yes. Now, better than ever.”
I was already going to Panama, so we spent a little more money. Why don't I stop by Houston? It cost 400 Euros to change the plane tickets. That was November 2012. I went to Panama and then on my way back to Spain, I smoked my last cigarette. I had smoked since I was 15. In the airport of Panama, I smoked my last cigarette and I took the risk. “We have to make it. You cannot stop me.” That was it.
HP: Because you were starting a new life.
LR: Yeah. It was nothing for sure, but it might be a possibility. I just quit it. I have a very strong will. I made a decision. I stopped here [in Houston]. [Ignacio and I] went to Uchi, we went to Da Marco. We went all over the place and we talked. We agreed on the concept, and we decided to go and try.
HP: Uchi and Da Marco were two of the restaurants you toured while you were here?
LR: Yes. I was so full on the flight [back to Spain]!
HP: So, you and Ignacio met and toured the restaurants here. Did you give him your business plan at that time?
LR: We did not have anything. I had some numbers and some ideas. We talked about what kind [of restaurant]. We always wanted it in a house. We knew that we had to bring ingredients from Spain; otherwise, we can never give a real Spanish experience. It wasn't easy. You have to go that way.
HP: After you went back to Spain, how long was it before you came back to relocate here in Houston?
LR: That was November 30. In February, I came back with my wife on holiday. Because starting anything, we were thinking through this.
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HP: And that was February of 2013. How long did it take you to find this beautiful Mediterranean home to open a restaurant in?
LR: From Spain, we started working [long distance] with some friends. We had information about houses, shopping malls and other spaces for our restaurant. We looked at Taft, Westheimer, Shepherd — a lot of places, but most of them were too-small houses with no parking lot, or too huge. Finally, a friend of Ignacio's wife, who is the wife of the owner of the [adjacent] gas station, car wash and this house — a Greek gentleman — they had bought this house and wanted to do a Greek restaurant. It was his dream. He comes from the island of Helios. He loves seafood.
We met and we saw [the house]. It is very bad — the gas station, Shell [right behind the house]. But despite that, we saw the opportunities.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where Roger will discuss the authentic Spanish cuisine of BCN Taste & Tradition.