Chef Chat, Part 2: Randy Evans

Randy Evans in the JCI test kitchen with a steak salad concept that he's working on.
Randy Evans in the JCI test kitchen with a steak salad concept that he's working on.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Randy Evans, we explored his struggle with deciding to become a chef instead of a doctor (and how his wife helped), his friendship with chef Chris Shepherd and how he came to be Executive Chef at Brennan's of Houston.

Perhaps, though, the most pressing question for diners is "Why did Haven close?" For most fans of chef Evans, it was surprising and unexpected. You'll get the full story here.

Even though Evans no longer is in a restaurant, he's not sitting on his laurels and is staying quite busy. His new consultancy, Southern Son, has already taken on three high-profile clients and the chef is occasionally doing some catering gigs--when he wants to.

We pick up here where we left off in Part 1, with Evans and Shepherd still at Brennan's of Houston.

RE: So, Chris [Shepherd] left in 2006 [to be executive chef at Catalan] and I wrote a cookbook, The Kitchen Table. It was Alex Brennan's idea. He called a meeting and said, "Bring all your big ideas and we'll sit down and talk about them." My idea was starting to do dry-cured meats. We were already doing bacon, tasso and sausages but it was all wet-cure.

Alex sits down and starts first. His idea is the cookbook, which pretty much put a pin in my balloon for dry curing. It never happened.

EOW: Because the cookbook took all of your time.

RE: I spent six months at a desk, writing. I moved my desk into the old walk-in cooler. It won Best Cookbook in the nation from Independent Publisher [Book Awards]. It was fun. I got to travel all over the United States to food festivals. I cooked in Singapore for two weeks at a resort.

Hurricane Ike rolls in and the next thing you know, I've got to figure out what to do next.

(Author's note: Brennan's caught on fire during Hurricane Ike, forcing it to close for several months.)

I'd already been talking with Rhea Wheeler, who became my partner for Haven. I met him through Charles Clark. Charles, Chris and I all went to school together. Rhea was Charles' original investor for Ibiza. He starts calling me and we start talking, very casually at first.

He bought the land, which was just dirt, where Haven stood. He bought it and had Jim Herd of Collaborative Projects build it. He built a beautiful restaurant.

Rhea came up with the name, "Haven." This was before Twin Peaks [the "breastaurant" that later opened next door] and all this other jazz. That road was very quiet, had giant oak trees hanging over both sides--quite serene. It felt like you were driving into a haven off the traffic of 59 and Kirby. That's where the idea came from.

Haven opened in December of '09. We got a bunch of good press, people liked what we were doing, I was having a blast and had good people like Kevin Naderi, who was a cook for me at Brennan's.

EOW: Oh, I didn't know he worked for you over there, too.

RE: Yeah, he was a cook at Brennan's and then he started helping me with catering after the fire. He kind of forced his way into being the sous chef. I have to give it to him. He was smart about that. He didn't wait around for me to call him. He'd just come work. Didn't ask to get paid. I paid him, but he never asked for anything. He just wanted to come work and learn.

Kevin proved to be strong enough to hang and grew a lot with me. He's grown a lot more since me as well, which is good to see.

I brought Philippe [Gaston] on. He was kind of a nomad chef. He was with me for three years, longer than he's ever been anywhere.

EOW: Where was he before Haven?

RE: Reef, for a small window. He was at Kata [Robata] when it opened for a year-and-a-half, maybe.

EOW: And now he's back there.

RE: Yeah, for the izakaya place. I've watched him grow a lot, not just as a good cook, but a smart chef. That's what I loved about Haven. I got to mentor people. Watch people grow. I got to meet a lot of great customers who became friends.

EOW: At some point, you decided to turn the bar area into Cove [the raw bar restaurant inside of Haven].

RE: Cove came about in the spring of '12. I looked at Philippe and said, "All these places opening up are ceviche bars and there's all these sushi bars opening up everywhere. But there's nowhere you can go for awesome raw seafood. We should do something." The royal "we," meaning Philippe.

EOW: Cove got a lot of good regard.

RE: He was very creative and did some stuff that I would never do. I learned how to cook stuff I'd never cooked before because of him. We learned a lot from each other. Cove got a lot of great press and we did a lot of fun stuff.

Haven changed over the years. I think we should have stayed at the price point we were when it opened. I felt we were in no man's land in pricing. We were $10 higher than the Reef and Ibizas of the world and $10 cheaper than the Brennan's of the world. I think people weren't sure if we were a special occasion restaurant or if we were a restaurant you could come and eat in once a month. You'd hear people say, "Oh, I love going there for my birthday." It's great to celebrate with us, but I didn't want it to be a birthday restaurant. I wanted it to be a "Hey, I love to eat and have a good time" restaurant.

EOW: What was driving the price difference between you and Reef? Why were you $10 higher?

RE: We saw price increases [on ingredients]. The numbers that Rhea wanted--I don't think we were where we needed to be in terms of the dollars. Looking back at it, I think we should have stayed where we were, sucked up the cost of increasing items and just did more volume.

The interview, including what happened to Haven, continues on the next page.


EOW: Who made the decision of selling to the Union Kitchen people? RE: So, that was all Rhea. Back in December 2013, Rhea starts getting sick. He's not feeling well and not happy with his health. He offers me Haven in January for way more money than I ever wanted to spend on anything. He wanted to wash his hands of all business and retire. I said, "I can't afford it. Good luck. We're going to keep operating as though we're open. We're just going to steamroll ahead." He said, "That's what we want to do. If it sells, it sells."

What we thought would be 60 days of due diligence and 15 days to close ended up being a phone call that we're closed. I had a clipboard in my hand at 12 o'clock on the last day of July ordering for Houston Restaurant Weeks. I'm ordering food. I've got menus. I'd already called Cleverley [Stone, founder of Houston Restaurant Weeks] at 9 a.m. and said, "We're on!"

I get a text: "Hold off on ordering." By 1:30, that's it. They're closing the deal at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, which means it's our last night.

Someone let it go to the press. The whole idea was that it wasn't supposed to go out for many other reasons than I had no control over. But it did, and I'm so glad it did because we had a great night. It was a great going-away party. Customers got to come and do their farewells. We sold out of fried chicken and sold so many shrimp corndogs. The best part of us closing was that every employee who wanted a job the next day had a job. Literally, they took the weekend off and by that Monday, they had jobs.

EOW: I didn't realize that Paul's Kitchen [the new restaurant that replaced Haven] retained so many employees.

RE: He interviewed everybody and some went there. At the same time, my phone was blowing up. "I need cooks." "I need waiters." "I need managers." "I need a wine guy." "Bartenders." So, we put together a list of contacts. [Haven's employees] went out and got picked up by Holley's, Reef, Lillo & Ella, Kata. They went all over the city and had jobs.

EOW: What a great position to be in. RE: For good people, there's a demand and they're always going to get a job. We had a great staff. Hard-working, dedicated, good people.

By Friday, I was in New Orleans. I was cooking for the Great American Seafood Cookoff opening night event. I won that in 2005, two weeks before [Hurricane] Katrina, so they brought me back in. It was a good retreat from everything that happened.

I thought, "Oh, I'll just take six months off and then get a restaurant started." I started talking to this guy about a building in Garden Oaks. I wanted a fried chicken joint--fried chicken and other Southern staples.

Two days later, Darrin with James Coney Island--JCI--calls me. I'm like, "Let me get through September and all my non-competes and we can talk." I started researching what chef consultants do and what they charge. I've got ideas and opinions, and that's basically what you are. You're an opinion guy. You give them your opinion and then you cook for them.

EOW: What is your mission for JCI?

RE: Number one, the name kind of says it. JCI Grill, not James Coney Island. It's not your grandfather's James Coney Island any more. There's still the legacy menu of the coneys, the cheese coney, the Frito pie, the chili, the tamale pie--all those things that you grew up eating.

But they needed to do more than that. Their demographic has changed. Well, it hasn't changed, it's just aged. They've got the same guy they had in '95 but they don't have his kids. That was the goal: to bring in another generation of JCI fans and not get passed up. If you're not growing, then you're not moving. You're just dying.

I want to bring cool salads to the menu. I can't eat two cheese coneys and a Frito pie once a month. I can eat it once every six weeks, maybe. I shouldn't, but I do! But I can have an awesome steak salad and my kids can enjoy the history of going to James Coney Island like I enjoyed it with my parents.

That's what JCI wants to be; a place where you can get your favorite coney and your favorite salad as well. That's why they hired me and where a chef comes in.

EOW: And now you have an additional client. You're going to be developing dishes for an H-E-B restaurant.

RE: Yeah, that sounds weird to say. An H-E-B restaurant!

EOW: In a way, it makes great sense. They already have ingredients!

RE: They have the groceries. They certainly have cut their teeth with Central Market knowing what quality is and how to source it--how to bring in great produce.

We're looking at beer and wine for this store. There's going to be a great patio and a stage for live music. There's going to be an area for the kids to play so you can sit and have a glass of wine, have some bites and have your kids have a good time before you go shopping.

I'm also working on a restaurant concept in Galveston that opens in December: Ocean Grill & Beach Bar and that's with Randall Pettit with Club 21. Bryan Davis, my old manager who was our wine buyer--he's their operating partner and managing, so he's moving to Galveston. He helped open Haven. He went through the struggles of opening a restaurant once, so he gets to do it again and I get to do it along with him.

EOW: You've also got regular catering gigs.

RE: It's limited based on if I like you. I decided I was only going to cater for people who are nice. I did some catering for not-very-nice people after the fire and said, "You know what? Life's too short."

EOW: Isn't it nice to be able to pick and choose what you do?

RE: You don't really think you have that opportunity when you see your restaurant sell. There's a whole new road that's been put before me. I could go left or right. Right now I'm going left. We'll see if it veers back to the right. I want this to be a sustainable business for me.

EOW: The big question on everyone's mind is whether you're going to open another restaurant.

RE: Right now, that's on hold. If something falls into my lap that's a great location at the right price... I want something in Garden Oaks. I really do. It's an underserviced area. It's a lot of bars with a few restaurants.

I want to grow some more people. I'm not done with that. I want to see guys that worked for me come back as a chef du cuisine, a manager.

Is it going to come? Yeah. Is it going to come this year? Probably not. My plate's full through April, so I want to have fun with my family, take Thanksgiving off and have some Christmas time. It will be good.

EOW: Is there anything else you would like people to know? RE: People should go to restaurants and enjoy themselves. If you don't enjoy yourself, let someone there know. People who work in restaurants bust their asses and deserve to know when they are not doing what they should. If you care enough about the restaurant, voice your concerns and come back. Everyone makes mistakes, but we all need to learn from them and do better.

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