Most of us are just starting our careers at age 24, but not Mario Valdez. Having completed culinary school at the age of 18, he's completed an internship, paid his dues and is now the current Chef de Cuisine at The Rainbow Lodge, where he's spicing things up with a youthful kitchen team and modern takes on rustic, American fare.
We sat down for an afternoon chat about how he got started at such a young age.
EOW: How did you get started in the culinary industry?
ML: I was about 15, and both my parents worked long hours -- my mom was a hospice nurse, my dad a graphic designer -- and eventually I got sick of eating cereal all the time. I wanted to do something to have a better meal, so I picked up a cookbook and said, "I'm going to make chicken parmigiana today."
EOW: So you weren't nervous about using raw ingredients?
ML: No, I did the first recipe -- the very first I can remember. Chicken parmigiana. And then the next day I said, "You know, I'm going to make crepes today." They turned out like pancakes. (Laughs.) I started watching the Food Network, sitting in front of the TV and trying to copy how they chopped vegetables. So I was stuck with the bug. As soon as I started, I couldn't stop.
EOW: This was high school. So did you go to college or to culinary school?
ML: I went straight to culinary school, the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin, now Le Cordon Bleu. I graduated in a year; it was a yearlong program.
EOW: Are you from Houston?
ML: No, I'm from the valley, the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, Texas.
EOW: So Texas Culinary Academy. Did you stay in Austin for a while?
ML: No, I went straight from there to my internship here in Houston, and I was lucky enough to get an internship at Mockingbird Bistro with Chef John Sheely and Jose Vela. I stayed there for about two years, and I can attribute most of my culinary knowledge to that place, to Vela. He was just fantastic. From there I went to Bistro Alex because the general manager, Michael English, he knew me from Mockingbird.
EOW: Okay, so tell me about your time at Mockingbird. You said you learned the most from Vela. What was it that he taught you?
ML: Just from the ground up, every single little technique. He drilled in me that to get a brunoise cut on a piece of vegetable, it has to be just so. It's just that he had a very disciplined mind to teach me, and I was hungry. I was really, really hungry just to learn everything I could from him.
EOW: Because in culinary school, you don't really have hands-on, do you?
ML: It's just basic technique. You learn how to make the butter sauces, you learn how to make a little charcuterie, you learn how to cook steak, but you only get to make it once.
EOW: So did he progress you through stations?
ML: I started off just making sides for the grill, then moved over to the grill, stayed there for a good six months and then I moved to pastry. He made me do pastry for while.
EOW: So you're pretty well-rounded. Now, why Mockingbird?
ML: John had come to Austin to do the food and wine festival. I just happened to be on his team of culinary volunteers, and I just asked him straight up if I could do an internship with him.
EOW: So that's a good background for you. How would you describe the food there?
ML: It's French-Americana. A lot of French influence, but with regional twists. We did tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, or steak au poivre with something else. You're going from French to Mediterranean to Texan. It was a good, round balance.
EOW: But then you went to Bistro Alex, and it was more Creole-influenced, right?
ML: And then I went to Bistro Alex under Juan Carlos Gonzales, who is from New Orleans, and it was a lot different. I picked up the Creole/Cajun flavors really fast at Bistro Alex, especially with Chef Juan Carlos [Gonzalez] wanting everything with cane sugar, molasses and caro. The food there was very, very bold.
EOW: So back to your own personal tastes. You have this French-Americana and then some Creole influence. What's your style like, your flavor, what do you gravitate towards?
ML: I would like to say that it's Southern cuisine with a very Texas accent. A little bit of Creole, a little bit of Tex-Mex, occasionally a little bit of Southwestern. I'm not really into Southwestern, though -- you know, the corn salas, red pepper coulis. I have black beans on my brunch menu, but they're more Mexican-style, with a lot of cumin, cilantro and jalapeño.
EOW: And you're Mexican, right?
ML: I'm half Mexican, half Caucasian. My mother was the white half.
EOW: So she wasn't making homemade tortillas and stuff.
ML: Oh, no. We were eating smothered steak, and chicken with mushrooms, and canned green beans, canned peas. I still can't stand canned peas. I'll eat anything, but not that.
EOW: I remember the last time I met you, you were just starting here.
ML: I came in under Mark Schmidt. I knew him from Mockingbird; he did a stint there. He brought me in and then left for Brasserie 19 about two months later, and I was offered the Chef de Cuisine position.
EOW: And how old were you then?
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ML: I was 23. I'm 24 now.
Check back with us tomorrow as we talk more about Valdez's role in shaping the cuisine at The Rainbow Lodge.