Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Omar Pereney On Where It All Began

Pizza is his jam.
Pizza is his jam. Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney
Twenty-three years old and chef Omar Pereney has checked off A LOT of boxes. The Venezuelan's beginnings are nothing short of amazing, all a testament to his curious nature and eagerness for work. For him, it's simple; he just loves to cook. Quick to bat down any reference to being a prodigy, he nonchalantly explains, "I know the things I know because I have been doing them for years."

What started with Post-it heating instructions from his mother, by the time he was 12 he was staging at the best restaurant in Venezuela; chef Sumito Estevez's El Comedor. At 14, he starred on his own cooking show, Yo Cocinero, which aired on El Gourmet, Latin America's equivalent of the Food Network. He shot four seasons, even working with his sister Genesis for a few episodes.

Omar Fever, yes, that's a thing. Sometimes, even here, he encounters girl-fans wanting selfies. I've seen it happen.

At 16, he accepted his first executive chef position at Dalai Restaurant & Lounge and at 18, when most plan on attending college, he was instructing at the Cordon Bleu in Cancun. Pereney is a brand ambassador for a special education foundation called Invedin in Caracas and also served as the "inauguration godfather" for the opening of the culinary school Laurus in Valencia.

Hired to open Peska Seafood Culture in 2015, he enhanced Houston's fish scene by importing bizarre and delicious fish from all over the world. Last February, he left the restaurant and just this spring was successful in winning back the rights to his name from the restaurant group.

These days, chef Pereney has his hands stoking many fires working as a consultant for A'La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group.

The Houston Press, hungry for sardines, texted him that morning to arrange their interview over tapas to which he agreed.

HP: How was your first day teaching at the Cordon Bleu?

OP: When the six kids showed up, found out it wasn't a joke, they left.

HP: They did?

OP: It was the worst thing.

HP: That's rude.

OP: Yeah, it was rude. (Laughs) But they came back and we spent six months together. They turned into best friends.

HP: Can I take your picture?

OP: I'll send you a picture, I have a couple. Are you making a video? You're the worst.

HP: Definitely need one of you eating pizza. You love pizza. Where is your favorite in town?

OP: Luna Pizzeria.

He flips through photos and shows the Houston Press.

OP: I can't believe it, this one.

HP: How did you get to cook for He-he-heston Blumenthal?

OP: He went to Caracas for this huge food show. We cooked Venezuelan food for him and it was decided I was going to be the one bringing the dishes to him. I guess he had a pleasant experience. He had pictures with everybody and autographed my chef coat.

HP: Whoa.

OP: When I was 14. It was very awesome. You know what was huge was that I knew who he was.

HP: Right?

OP: A lot of the cooks were like, "who is this guy?" I'm like DUH. It's the FAT…DUCK.

HP: Love that. (Takes the phone) Is that you ripping off your chef coat? Is that a school polo underneath? Send me that one.

OP: No, you can't have that one.

HP: No mames.

OP: (Laughs.)

HP: How did you get the type of experience to have the opportunity to cook for Heston Blumenthal?

OP: I worked at a super fine dining restaurant. Well first, I used to cook a lot in my house as a kid. My mom was an executive who worked at a software company. She's wonder woman, she did everything, she also left a lot of meals for us to re-heat. There were Post-its everywhere. I started telling my mom I didn't like re-heated food. So, she started putting Post-its by the stove. She was very nervous at this point. (Laughs.)

click to enlarge
So, that happened.
Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney

HP: How old were you?

OP: I don't know, seven, eight? I loved the cooking network, in South America it's called El Gourmet. Like the Food Network, same thing, I'd just sit there and watch super famous chefs. One day, this famous dude, Sumito. Did you ever meet Sumito? He came to Peska for the first-year anniversary and cooked.

HP: I don't think so.

OP: His restaurant, fine dining, but all sorts of crazy stuff. Like a combination of a Tony's and Star Trek. I told my parents I wanted to go meet this chef, so they took me for my birthday. The owner of the restaurant was walking by and sees this 12-year-old kid upset…there are no other kids in the restaurant. He's like, "hey, what's going on?" And I'm like, "where is the chef?" I was pissed. "What do you mean he's not here?" He tried to cheer me up, and showed me his cool wine room, held out this bottle of Gaja and as I go to take it, he drops it. I was terrified. He was just trying to show me the special floor her had installed.

Anyway, he gives me his business card and told me I could come cook anytime. His name is Carlos Cesar Avilar. This dude is responsible for everything. I called him many times, poor guy, until he was like "ahh, whatever, okay come on Friday." I was so excited. They sent me to pastry.

HP: (Laughs) Like every intern…

OP: (Laughs) Yeah. I guess I wasn't too in the way because at the end of the shift, I asked them, "can I come tomorrow?" They said sure. And I never stopped.

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First day staging at El Comedor.
Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney
HP: Wow.

OP: The thing is, I started with the No. 1 guy in the country. After I worked with Sumito for a little bit, he would take me to events. Everybody was like, "what is this?" All the chefs started asking him, "hey, Sumito, can I borrow the kid?" He was like (growls.) "Okay, you can take him, but I want him on the weekends." I staged with Italian chefs, French chefs, Spanish chefs…

HP: How did that lead to you getting a TV show, was that at 15?

OP: TV was when I was 14. Somewhere between 13 and 14, my dad would say, "I think you should do a TV show." And I was like, "dad. I am a cook, not an actor." It probably took him like six months. I woke up one day and said, "you know, if it makes you happy, okay." He emailed like five TV networks, and 48 hours later, after they called Sumito to see if I was for real, they drafted contracts. I was freaking out. 
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Omar fever.
Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney

HP: Want to split a glass of red wine?

OP: Sure. My parents signed the contracts and we went to Buenos Aires for training. I remember walking around the studio with all these famous chefs, and being like, "what!!!" One of them, her name is Narda Lepes, told me, "One thing you gotta remember… the people watching you are not your chefs, your coworkers, don't think about them. Think about your grandmother, people that are at home, in hospitals, and the only thing they have to entertain them is you." She was great.

HP: Were you going to school at the time?

OP: Yeah. Each season we shot all at once. Nothing changed, I continued to stage in Caracas and then a little over a year later some investors approached me. They owned two of the biggest clubs in town. They decided to close them down and turn it into a fine dining Thai/Japanese restaurant and lounge. They wanted me to be their executive chef. Fake it till you make it.

HP: There is really something to that. You were 16.

OP: Yes, I was executive chef and I did all of my food cost, I ordered all my small wares myself, I designed the kitchen.
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Executive chef at 16.
Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney

HP: And you still went to school?!

OP: School was from seven to noon. I had two really solid sous chefs who would take care of lunch service for me. (Laughs) The idea was to have two really solid sous chefs. After school, I was at the restaurant till about midnight, which is when the lounge started getting busy. (Pauses) It was a lot of fun. My girlfriend at the time was 23.

HP: How did you have time for a girlfriend?

OP: (Smiles.)

HP: (Laughs.) That's incredible. Tell us about the time you picked up Joan Roca under the I-610 underpass at the Galleria.

OP: Wow. So, I think they were staying at the Royal Sonesta, but anyways, we knew the Rocas were coming to town. Somehow, a couple servers from El Celler de Can Roca ended up at Peska. We put a lot of seafood in front of them, became friends, and next thing you know we're going out for drinks.

We were driving to Anvil, and it's 12:30, and he's walking under the bridge, I guess he had trouble sleeping. And one of the servers is like, "Chef!!!" "That's Joan!!" I pull over right next to him, and he jumps in…I'm like shaking, I'm so nervous. He gets in the back seat, we go to Anvil, we drink and talk about food. We all hung out for the next couple of days.

HP: A great story. So, how do we get Venezuela out of this mess?

OP: By talking about it. Being aware, nowadays people know what Venezuela is, not only because of Altuve and arepas, but because they know something is wrong. The second thing is, being good citizens wherever we go in the world. (Sighs.) It's a tough question, a tough question. I know I want to be part of the solution. I know when there is no longer a regime in my country I want to be there to rebuild it back up, but right now there are still bullets to be shot.

HP: You will be. Want this last shrimp? What are you up to tomorrow?

OP: I have a tasting at four and a meeting at 11, well it's networking. Is that a meeting? You can have it.

HP: Yeah, you can call it a meeting.

OP: Wait, really?

HP: Yes, totally. Anything marked in your calendar you can refer to as a "meeting."

OP: Are you sure?

HP: Absolutely.

OP: Are you working out a lot?

HP: Um, I went running four days ago. What about you?

OP: That's great. I do 20 pushups in the morning and then if I feel like going back to bed, I go back to bed.

HP: Are you still doing the no alarm thing?

OP: (Pauses) No. I thought that was going to be a good trend but it didn't work out. In this country the opposite of being busy is being broke. I have to stay busy, what about you, are you waking up in the mornings or not?

HP: I'm like 70/30, and I'm not going to say which is which.

OP: (Laughs.) I like that. I feel like when I have something important going on I wake up naturally, you know?

HP: It is nice to have a lot going on.

OP: But definitely this is the most culinary job I've ever had.

HP: You're all over the place, aren't you?

OP: I'm cooking a lot. I need my mind to be like water, emotion wise. You walk into a restaurant that's just opened, right, and you're running stations making sure the ticket times are fine, tasting everything, and then you clock out and go to another tasting for another restaurant concept. You throw a rock in water and it splashes, but a little later it goes back to being right again. I feel like I'm getting better at that.

HP: You're collecting so many skills.

OP: I've discovered that most cooks cannot sharpen their knives. I'm not going to say any names.

HP: Can you just teach them?

OP: I do! I do, I do. The other great thing about consulting is that the culinary part is catered to the "guest." Chefs normally just cook stuff they want too, what we think is cool and edgy, or something we want to learn. It's always about us. All the places I consult for, none of those things are about me. It's a humbling experience. I have to really learn, train and focus on how to make the best version on something that is really not about me.

HP: You'll have so many tools in your toolbox when you open your own restaurant.

OP: Should I open a restaurant?

HP: I think so.

OP: Yeah.

HP: Where though?

OP: I love Houston.

HP: Let's go somewhere else.

OP: Are you going to come with me? If you're going to come we can go somewhere else, but if not, I'm going to stay in Houston.

HP: What about…Iceland?

OP: You want to go to Iceland?

HP: Not really.

OP: I want to cook, I really want to cook. Food is amazing because, at this job, your food speaks for you before you ever meet the guest. An example, with this very special person, or any other person I cook for, you stay in your little corner, do your thing, put love into your craft and they start liking you before they even meet you. It's really cool, I don't want that to go away.

HP: It won't.

OP: No, it won't.

HP: So, what's the most important cocktail you've ever made?

OP: A Manhattan. Definitely, a Manhattan.

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His favorite picture ever, meeting the children at Invedin.
Photo courtesy of Omar Pereney
HP: Let's play the fish game!

OP: What's the fish game…ohhh, the fish game.

HP: What's the winner get?

OP: Pizza, the loser has to make pizza.

HP: (Long pause) All right.

OP: (Laughs) YES.

HP: I'll start. Amberjack (laughs.)

OP: White Anchovy.

HP: Sardine.

OP: Halibut.

HP: Turbot.

OP: Sole.

HP: Lemon Sole.

OP: Triggerfish
HP: Trout.

OP: Louvar.

HP: Mahi-Mahi.

OP: Opah.

HP: Walu.

OP: Kingfish.

HP: Ono.

OP: Snapper.

HP: Branzino.

OP: Baramundi.

HP: Reddddd Mullet.

OP: Grouper.

HP: John Dory. Ahhh.

OP: (laughs) Ahhh. Did you say Mahi-Mahi already?

HP: Yeah (laughs), you got this.

OP: Aww, can I keep going?

HP: You can keep going.

OP: Kanpachi.

HP: B-liner.

OP: Hamachi.

HP: Red snapper.

OP: Tuna.

HP: Grouper.

OP: Salmon.

HP: Ahhh. Marlin.

OP: Mackerel.

HP: Flounder.

OP: Can I say Horse Mackerel?

HP: Sure! Umm, Cod.

OP: Patagonian toothfish.

HP: Ehh, Blowfish.

OP: Sablefish.

HP: Damn. Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock. Allright, I lose. Pizza's.

I'm so glad we're friends.

OP: Me too, the friend zone is my favorite place in the universe.

HP: (laughs) I mean it.

OP: Do you remember the day I met you?

HP: Of course, on your 21st birthday, at your restaurant.

OP: Yes.

HP: Sorry for the flip-flops, we spur of the moment decided to come and it's all I had.

OP: I didn't mind. My manager minded, but I didn't mind.
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