Chef John Watt has been part of Houston's restaurant scene for over 30 years--long enough to witness its slow evolution into a nationally-acclaimed dining destination.
In Part 2 of our Chef Chat, Watt notes how times have changed--in expectations for restaurant wine programs, for example--and elaborates on some of the challenges in trying to convert a restaurant from one cuisine to another.
Watt will also discuss neighborhood restaurant Prego that he co-owns with Tracy Vaught, the impressively large Medical Center restaurant named Trevisio and his hopes for a fellow chef he's known for quite some time: Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Caracol.
Be sure to begin with Part 1 of our Chef Chat with John Watt if you have not already read it.
We pick up as he describes the challenges of changing Backstreet Cafe from "kind of a hamburger place" to the New American-focused restaurant we know today.
JW: Early challenges in [changing a] restaurant are: one, you're changing the food in the restaurant and some of the customer base doesn't really like the change, even if you have a small customer base, as we did at that time.
The staff a lot of times doesn't really want to follow along, too. So, you're dealing with--it's like I said, one step backward and two steps forward. As time passes--we had early success [with Prego and Backstreet Café] and got critical acclaim at both restaurants. After two or three years, they started to write about us and write positive things. And then after that, you attract better staff: waiters, people who were more into what we were doing.
EOW: Backstreet has been around for about thirty years and Prego has been around for quite some time. How many years has it been open?
JW: 33 years now and 26 under us, I think.
EOW: Those restaurants are regarded as Houston classics because they've been around, but what about in the early days, when they hadn't been running so long? What was it like to be reviewed?
JW: Well, they weren't bad. I never got a bad one--yet, but you never know. It's a roll of the dice because you believe strongly in what you're doing. Your old people like it, right? But, you can just never tell because great restaurants have bad days. I've eaten in great restaurants that have had bad days--restaurants that were exceptional. You never know, right?
I haven't had any bad reviews yet. We're okay on Yelp and TripAdvisor's real high. We're [in the top] one percent and all those different things, but there are still comments you see there that are just kind of shocking sometimes. Someone will say this or that, you know? I mean, not everything is going to be five-star. Something's going to be two and they didn't like it. It hurts because you're dedicated to what you're doing and I think that's true for so many restaurateurs. The public can be a little fickle.
You have to be careful. Now we're definitely under the microscope because there's so many different social media. You can get caught in any kind of net. It's a micro-net.
EOW: And info travels very, very fast now, too.
JW: Yeah, overnight. One second. You can make a mistake and--well, you just can't make mistakes.
EOW: You've been doing this for a long time. What advice do you have for new chefs--people who are just getting out of culinary school?
JW: I think it's really tough to get out of culinary school. I think that culinary school gives you a promise, right? But then you sort of get out and so you see those images, particularly on a lot of television shows. I don't really consume those--those television shows, Top Chef and all that stuff. And everybody sort of wants to be that, you know? They want to be that thing but you have to put a lot of time into what you do. You have to put a lot of work into it.
I've never worked less than 50 hours a week and for 30 years of my life, probably 70 to 80 hours. Your boots have to be on the ground. Then, later on, maybe if you're successful, you have people working for you that are going to carry that load. But, it's not overnight. You just have to put a lot of effort into it.
I think you can come out [of culinary school] with an arm-full of recipes and all that. It's always funny. A lot of [dishes] aren't marketable. It may seen like a good idea but no one will want to buy it and I have tons of those. I've had so many failures in my time. When I say that, I mean I thought that I had this great idea for a dish and it completely failed. No would would buy it. Then, I'd do something else off the cuff real fast and you sell a jillion.
EOW: Describe Prego for someone who has never been here before. What kind of restaurant is it?
JW: Prego is a real homey-feeling restaurant. I think it feels a little bit like a restaurant in San Francisco or New York or Chicago. It's not huge. It's warm inside. We've got a great wine list. We have good food. We make our ice cream, our bread, our pasta--everything from scratch. Everything. I mean, everything. If we can figure out a way to do it, we do it, right? So there's that.
We use the best quality ingredients to do that with. But the food's simple. It's easy. It's successful. If you get cheese ravioli, it's basically some puréed fresh mozzarella made with some organic flour--organic semolina from Europe, actually--stuffed into a ravioli in a simple vodka tomato sauce. I use Tito's Vodka.
Simple, direct food that I think people can enjoy made with high-quality ingredients in a warm atmosphere. We have a lot of regulars. I think our repeat business is 82-84 percent of all our business.
EOW: That was actually my next question. It seems like in any restaurant like this one you probably have regulars that you see every week.
JW: Maybe even every other day. It's a great neighborhood restaurant and that's how it turned out. In the beginning, I wasn't sure what I had when I started with it, but it evolved into that. A lot of it has got to do with the staff. I've got a lot of long-term people who have worked for me for years and years and years. I think the average tenure here in the restaurants is 12 to 15 years. In the kitchen, I have people who I inherited when I took it over like 26 years ago who have worked the whole course for 32 years. It's the same on the floor, too.
EOW: Let's talk about Trevisio, because the flavor of Trevisio is very different from here.
JW: Oh yeah, it's completely different. We weren't involved in the initial construction at Trevisio. Tracy [Vaught] and I were brought in after a couple of years. The people who were originally involved with it--I guess they were pushed out and [the owners] hired us. We've been running it ever since then.
Trevisio is a conference center, so we do a lot of large events there. It's a restaurant as well. When I designed the menu for Trevisio, I wanted to make it different than Prego. I thought that I'd make it as authentic as I could at the time. That worked for us up there. Now, over the course of time, there's been some requests for different kinds of dishes and things like that. That comes from different members in the community--the medical community that want this or that.
There are a couple of things that are from Prego that are there on the menu. They weren't initially on the menu there. Over the course of time, that's changed. It was a little larger space but now the Texas Medical Center has moved some of their offices into the area that was once some of the banquet area. It's been good for us because we get a lot of events from them. It's all good.
Treviso is just different. It's huge, you know? Even when they cut the space and put the offices in there, it's still like a 14,000 square foot restaurants. It's a big restaurant and a huge kitchen. The kitchen is as big as the dining room here [at Prego].
JW: Mmm-hmm. State of the art.
EOW: I've only seen the front of restaurant and like you said, it's huge, but it's beautiful.
JW: They're fixing to remodel it, too. I think they're going to do some on it and update it a little bit because they changed their offices. We're contractors for Texas Medical Center. We've been under contract with them for two years and our contract still goes on for a while. We operate it for them and Tracy and I are partners there. I think it's a good thing for us that Trevisio is part of the group, which consists of Trevisio, Prego and that's connected with Caracol, Hugo's and Backstreet. So, there you go. It's some of the great restaurants in the city, right?
EOW: You were at Backstreet Cafe when you hired a young dishwasher named Hugo [Ortega].
JW:He was here [at Prego] with me, really.
EOW: Oh, he was here at Prego?
JW: Well, he was there, then he came here and worked with me. After he was with me for a while, he went back there [to Backstreet] to take over running the kitchen. Hugo is just a great guy, you know? As time passed, my involvement became less and Hugo did more there, but Hugo and I worked together for years. He's a great guy. Tracy and Hugo--you know, working with Tracy, she sees ahead. She's always thinking ahead and that's how we were.
The best story is--well, there were so many food stories, but one time we were really trying to build our wine list in the restaurants. I think at that point we didn't have much sparkling wine on our list. Our rep--a rep I've known a long time named Manny Guerra--said, "Well, it just doesn't sell. You just don't have any on your list." I was talking with Tracy on the phone and we said, "We'll each put eight different kinds on there, primarily French and some California. And then it was like, "Oh, man, we sold all of those."
That was a long time ago--early in the history of the restaurants. But it's just kind of interesting how fast you can change things and make it work.
EOW: And of course, now wine lists are such a huge deal, and having somms is a big deal.
JW: Yeah, I have four somms on staff.
EOW: You have four somms on staff here? My goodness.
JW: Well, three of the managers are somms. Two of them are second-tier somms. Of course, at Trevisio, Sean [Beck] was with us for a while there. Now Rafael [Espinal] and David Cook--they're both second-tier somms--they're there and help us here.
I think initially building the wine program probably came from me and Tracy. It's funny, because it probably doesn't mean that much to people now, but I was in California in 1998 and we'd flown out there for a wine event. It was with Tracy and Hugo, too. They were smoking cigars at the end and I just left them because I can't stand cigar smoke. I sat on the patio and [some people asked] "Hey, dude, what restaurant are you with again?" and I was like, "Prego," and he says, "You won a Wine Spectator award." It's was a little rarer thing to happened back then. We've won them ever since.
I had been building the wine list for a couple of years and was really trying to find some success with it. That was it a validation. Now, there's so many different kinds of wine awards. That probably is a sort of old guard award, but still.
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EOW: It's still an honor.
JW: It's still kind of a hallmark, right?
EOW: Absolutely. So, you were there for the beginning of Hugo's career. How did you feel when he got the Beard nominations?
JW: Well, I hope he wins! He and I have been to James Beard twice to cook there. I've known him since he was a kid. I hope he wins. He's bound to win eventually.