Chef Chat, Part 2: Kevin Naderi of Lillo & Ella and Roost
Chef Kevin Naderi on the sunny patio of Lillo & Ella
Photo by Phaedra Cook
In Part 1 of our chat with Kevin Naderi, he related a fond memory of the special Persian dinners he made at Roost alongside his mom and grandmother. Does cooking run in the family? In Part 2, we find out and along the way delve into some deeper issues that affect many of Houston's independent restaurants. Naderi voices some strong opinions on the support independent restaurants need from Houston's dining public if the scene is to continue to evolve.
Additionally, we talk about the ambitious cocktail program that some veteran Houston bartenders created for Lillo & Ella, the food at both of Naderi's restaurants and how the dark, fun and funky former home of El Big Bad became the light, colorful and airy Lillo & Ella.
EOW: Did anyone in your family ever cook professionally?
KN: No, not at all, but when my dad came from Iran originally about 40 years ago, he worked at Rotisserie For Beef & Bird back in the day. My uncle Barry, who's a partner with me on [Lillo & Ella], used to work at countless restaurants and he's a walking encyclopedia. He knows where everybody came from, who the manager was, who the chef was, signature dishes from back in the day--it blows my mind. Customers will come in and say, "Oh, down the street there used to be this restaurant that I remember and he'll jump in and be like, "Oh, I know exactly who owned it."
It's important to remember history. Houston, as fast as we're growing, we're really like letting go of a lot of history. We're not keeping a lot of historical buildings and all these restaurants, as good as they are or were back then--they're just shutting down. It's really sad to see.
The one thing that really bothers me is when a restaurant closes or they're about to close and that announcement comes out and then people flock [to it]. It's like, where have you been? These people are putting everything they have into this business. You don't understand how stressful this is--what we sacrifice every single day for you to have a good meal or experience.
It's tough and I think that's my biggest pet peeve. We haven't been as busy as I wanted here [at Lillo & Ella]. Granted, we're new and still working out a couple of kinks. We're in an area that is still changing, but at the same time it really bothers me that people are scared to try new things. Every single day, between two and three different tables walk in, look at the menu and walk out. They say they don't get it or they feel like it's two or three dollars above what they usually pay. It leaves me speechless.
EOW: I don't know what's not to "get" here. I've eaten here. The menu is not difficult.
KN: Yeah! Strategically, I didn't want to come in and reinvent the wheel and do all this crazy stuff. That's what upsets me. We put so much into this and our waiters try so hard. They have bills to pay. They're here every single day and these people don't even give us a chance. It's like, "Ah, we don't get it. We're outta here."
The bar is so solid. I know you personally are really good friends with Aaron Lara [formerly of Bad News Bar and The Pass & Provisions] and Sebastian [Nahapetian, also formerly of The Pass & Provisions and Cottonwood]. Sebastian is still here. They've set it up for success. It really bothers me that people won't even come in and have a cocktail. It's not your Jack and Coke or margarita that you've had for years. It's like, you need to start developing a new palate and step out of the box a little bit. You know what I mean?
Toasted Cumin Chicken with braised onions, butternut squash and rice wine-butter sauce
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: So, a couple of important messages here are, number one: if you do love something, you need to go occasionally. Go once a month. And the second thing is: try new things. Open your horizons.
KN: Yeah, it's a little bit of balance on both ends. Don't forget about the classics, but at the same time, open your mind to new things.
EOW: Absolutely. I know of many places that start out doing a particular type of cuisine, then feel like they need to dial it back because someone didn't get it.
KN: And that really upsets me, because you don't go to an artist or a painter and go, "Hey, I don't get your painting. Draw me a stick figure." You know what I mean? That's just not how it works. It's like, let them interpret what they're doing and then try it. If you don't like it, tell us or try something different. There's always a way around it but don't off-the-bat come in and go, "Hey, I just don't get it. I'm not even willing to try it."
EOW: Life's too short. You've got to have an adventure.
KN: Exactly. You know, we give you a better quality item here. We don't use crappy ingredients. We don't dumb down service. If you want to go somewhere else and spend two or three dollars less, by all means. I guarantee that's going to reflect what you're getting. It's reflective of how you live your life.
EOW: Let's talk about some of your dishes, starting with Roost. How often does your menu change there?
KN: At Roost, we change your menu every five to six weeks, except for the cauliflower and the doughnut holes that we're known for.
EOW: That's the cauliflower with the bonito flakes on top.
KN: Yes, and the miso dressing, pine nuts and scallions. Our doughnut holes are like cinnamon and nutmeg beignets, if you will. They have a bit of dulce de leche, honey syrup and coffee ice cream. It's our play on coffee and doughnuts.
EOW: Why did you decide you were ready for a second restaurant?
KN: I was the landlord for El Gran Malo a little over a year. I bought the property when I saw it pop up online, not knowing what the circumstances were with the previous owner. I jumped on it. It turned out to be great. I got a really good deal on the property. I knew it was going to need a lot of improvements, which we did, obviously. It's completely different building now. I knew the guys [at El Gran Malo] were talking about going to a bigger space. So, I did this and they went to a bigger location.
I wanted to do Asian because I felt like the area could really use something different. There are a couple of small Asian places in the area, like Hughie's is really good for Vietnamese, just quick and casual, and then Asia Market. Those are both really good but at the same time I wanted something where you could go in a big group or you can have really good cocktails with it. You can even come dressed up a little bit. We kind of meet in the middle.
We're bright and inviting. We have a big patio. We have a great bar. We have ample parking now. We do valet on the weekends, so a lot of cool aspects. At the same time, it's just food that I like to eat. Food that I think is hearty, filling and shareplate-style. That's what we've stuck to. Our menu has about 22 items for dinner and lunch is about 14 or so items. We have specials--about one or two a night. The punch changes every day. We always do a classic cocktail of the day. There's always something new and different to check out.
We do a 1-2-3 happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m, where it's $1 off our bar bites, $2 off a lot of the shared bites and $3 off our skewers. Cocktails about about $3 off as well. These are things I've never done before at Roost. It doesn't have a bar. Over there, wine or beer is 50-percent off. It's great, but for something in this area I wanted somewhere where you can have a good quality cocktail and relax.
EOW: This place [Lillo & Ella] is lovely. It's so light and airy. Who did your interior design?
KN: I did! I just came up with a bunch of different ideas. What's really cool is that all the tables are from Feast restaurant [which closed last year]. This big bench that we have for large parties is handmade in Austin by Jeremiah Bench Company. All the shelves are made by Re Coop Designs across the street. They're woodworking brothers. They make shelves, furniture, lamps and whatnot.
EOW: There are turquoise, orange and green colors [in the restaurant design]. They're very floral. Is there anything that inspired those particular colors?
KN: I based them on Asian food carts, the little stalls you'd see throughout Asia. They're big on bright colors to attract people. It was so dark and dim before that I wanted a bunch of bright stuff to liven it up. There's a lot of natural light coming in now. We opened up the garage doors, opened up a window on the patio, changed out the windows at the bar so they weren't tinted anymore and put a little bit of white in there just to know that it's new.
EOW: What's next on the horizon?
KN: I'm just sitting tight. I've never been one to spread myself thin. I want to make sure that this place gets as good and well-run as Roost. Even at Roost, we're still coming up with new things and trying to improve. At the same time, coming up on three years, we've really hit our stride and are doing well.
EOW: How do you balance things with two restaurants?
KN: It's tough. I'm 28 years old. I opened Roost when I'd just turned 25. It's stressful. I just put everything I have into it. I want to work hard while I'm young so I can relax and take it easy later. At the same time, this is my purpose. What else would I be doing? I don't want to work at a restaurant for 15 hours a day and not be able to call something my own.
I believe you need to take chances. I hate when people become complacent, stay where they're at and talk about how much they hate their jobs, but they won't leave because they need this or need that. Life is short. You've got to really go for it and hope for the best. Worst comes to worst, what would happen if [Lillo] or Roost didn't take off? I would scrap it, go on with life and try something different.
There are always other options. If did something new after this--maybe a cool bar. Once I saw how much detail and attention goes into bars--Aaron and [the other bartenders] taught me a lot. It's cool. It's not as much headache as building a food menu and doing a restaurant, but at the same time just as much care, skill and craft goes into what they do.
I watched Aaron for nights on end wracking his brain and tweaking recipes. We had this avocado and coconut drink for a long time on the menu. We just switched it up for fall. A lot of people think it's weird but Aaron was like, "I want to do this. I have to do this. This is what we're going to do."
EOW: I had that. It was really good.
KN: Yeah, it is really good, but the first couple of times we made it, it was like "Ugh, this is bitter!" or "Ugh, this has too much alcohol!" Aaron is very animated and he'd be yelling, "Dammit!" and breaking stuff. Finally, he got it and I remember hip hop music going at the highest level volume on the radio and him dancing around for an hour because he finally got this cocktail. It's stuff like that that really makes you enjoy what you're doing. It's a cool feeling.
EOW: Is there anything else you want people to know about you? KN: I put a lot into these restaurants. All chefs in general--people think what we do is easy and don't understand how much goes into what we do. It's not the same as for these big corporations that can just scrap something and go somewhere else. For us, we put everything into this, especially these guys you're seeing now who went from taco truck and riding it out in that heat to make money and then dumping it into a brick and mortar. It's tough. You need to support these guys. With so many dining options, I know it's tough but at the same time, Houston goes out to eat an average of 4.5 days a week. So, there's always a new option. Stop going to the same place you always go to, ordering the same freaking dish and get out there. Try something different.
I told diners at Roost to come out this way and you'd think it was the other end of the world. "Oh, we never go to that side." Really? It's like five minutes down Shepherd!
KN: "I don't have any more frequent flyer miles!" "I could only take one piece of luggage!"
As much as Houston has grown and as great of a food city as we're becoming, we could be so much more if we just opened our minds.
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