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Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?

Katsuya + Stark intended to bring sexy back to Houston, but it didn't work out.
Katsuya + Stark intended to bring sexy back to Houston, but it didn't work out.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

In 2009, a restaurant in The Heights named Bedford closed. It was the latest Houston project of acclaimed chef Robert Gadsby. How significant was this event? Well, Gadsby came to Houston with a star reputation. Five years prior, the Houston Press restaurant critic at the time, Robb Walsh, wrote an article entitled "The Great Gadsby" with the subheading, "One of Hollywood's top cooking stars is moving to Houston."

Gadsby was notable for his fine dining establishment Noé in Los Angeles. He abandoned L.A. for Houston, lamenting that life in L.A. is "shallow and meaningless." (Trust me, he's not the only person that feels that way. I recently had a conversation with a friend who observed that people in L.A. are always trying to impress you with who they know.)

When he arrived in Houston, he replaced the Omni Houston Hotel's stuffy French restaurant, La Reservé, with Houston's own version of Noé. (Accents ensure that diners know that the place is fancy.) A mere four years later, Gadsby left to audition for Food Network's show "Iron Chef America." He competed in 2007 in a mango and mixology themed episode, teaming up with mixologist Bridget Albert against Mario Batali and mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin. Batali won.

(By the way, one of Gadsby's sous chefs was Plinio Sandalio, who just returned to his hometown of Houston to open Pax Americana after a few years in Austin. He's received many accolades over the past several years for his skill and imagination with desserts.)

Bedford would later be replaced with Stella Sola, an effort co-founded by Bill Floyd and Lafayette-born Bryan Caswell, who found his own success story in Houston. Regrettably, that didn't work out, either.
Bedford would later be replaced with Stella Sola, an effort co-founded by Bill Floyd and Lafayette-born Bryan Caswell, who found his own success story in Houston. Regrettably, that didn't work out, either.
Houston Press File Photo

Gadsby was good enough to make it onto Iron Chef. Why couldn't he make a restaurant in Houston succeed? Well, a star reputation really doesn't get you very far here if you come from out-of-state, and it didn't help that Bedford was perceived as inconsistent, by professional reviewers and diners alike.

Success proved elusive for another chef with connections to Food Network. Susie Jimenez was the first runner-up in Season Seven of "Next Food Network Star." Some of her friends in Houston suggested that she open a restaurant here. That was reasonable, based on Houston's diversity and burgeoning food scene. Yet, her restaurant, Trenza, fell on its face. Embarrassingly, this happened almost immediately after declaring to both me and Eric Sandler at Culturemap that her and her investor weren't giving up yet.

The trend of celebrities coming to Houston to capitalize on our dynamic, diverse food scene is nothing new. Wolfgang Puck is noted for being the chef behind the fabulous Oscar awards dinner, but a namesake restaurant in Houston's Carillion Plaza in the mid-2000's was an utter failure. Part of the problem? Puck really had nothing to do with it. Such is what happens when you lose control of your famous name. People start using it to produce utter crap. (Both Puck's and Gadsby's Houston restaurant closings were mentioned in Robb Walsh's article "Top 9 Houston Restaurant Closings of the Decade".

The story of Bank Jean-Georges is a different twist on the relationships (or lack of) between out-of-state celebrities and Houston. While Jean-Georges Vongerichten lent his name and concepts to the menu, it was Bryan Caswell overseeing the execution as chef du cusine. When Caswell left with Bill Floyd to start Reef, Vongerichten opted to end his relationship with the restaurant. Why give up on it? For whatever reason, he decided it was not worth cultivating a following without Caswell at the helm. (Caswell had his own brush with celebrity status, competing on Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" in 2010 against the likes of Ming Tsai and Marc Forgione. He did quite well and wasn't eliminated until the sixth episode.)

Houston doesn't have much regard for imported stars. We prefer to grow our own. There's an exception to that rule--If you come here, start from scratch and work your way up, that's good too.

Shepard Ross was a professional actor when he came to Houston. He jumped into the food and wine scene because his Actor's Guild insurance was literally running out, plus he had experience working in the industry in New York before his acting days. He started out working at the now-defunct Zula, a glitzy downtown restaurant with a Vegas vibe, before opening his first restaurant, Glass Wall. With the additions of Brooklyn Athletic Club at the end of 2012, and the brand-new Pax Americana, he now has ownership in three places that each bring something unique to Houston's food scene. We love success stories, especially if we think we may have had a little something to do with it. It's a great feeling when you bet on the right horse.

Other talented cooks have come to Houston, worked their tails off, moved up through kitchen hierarchies and succeeded with their own restaurants. Kaiser Lashkari started in a tiny, counter service restaurant on the Southwest side of town before moving into the bigger space in Little India where Himalaya is today. Anita Jaisinghani spent two years at Café Annie before starting first Indika and, later, Pondicheri. Mark Holley worked his way up at various restaurants, including Brennan's of Houston and Commander's Palace in New Orleans before landing his own restaurant, running Pesce for 10 years before it closed. You can now find him melding his French classical training with his Southern roots in his own place, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

Houston doesn't trust Hollywood. Actually, anyone who comes here claiming they're a "star chef" is going to be met with suspicion. We're not xenophobic, per se, but we don't trust that outsiders know what they're talking about. If you're from California, do you really understand what Houstonians want to eat? How could you if you haven't taken the time to learn about us? Practical-minded Houston cares less about glamor than values like friendliness, reliability and a good work ethic. Of course, we care about food, too, so we want places where we can get the whole package. But don't try to fool us with glitz and tiny portion sizes. This story continues on the next page.  

One chef from California did seem to "get" Houston: Philippe Veripand, who closed his respected San Diego restaurant to open French restaurant Étoile in the Post Oak area. He came here because he felt that the customer base would appreciate his fine food more than those in San Diego. It's fortunate that he did, as Étoile fills the void left when his friend Philippe Schmit left his eponymous Philippe Restaurant + Lounge (now called TABLE on Post Oak).

One of Étoile's first priorities upon opening? Learning the names of their customers. That is the exactly kind of personalized side dish that Houstonians appreciate with their meals.

Phillipe Veripand seemed to have a good understanding of Houston's market before relocating here. Serving beautiful dishes doesn't hurt, either.
Phillipe Veripand seemed to have a good understanding of Houston's market before relocating here. Serving beautiful dishes doesn't hurt, either.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Some chefs who come here don't do themselves any favors with their bluster. More than one has verbally shot himself in the foot before they even do a day's worth of business. After a tour of Houston's sushi restaurants, including the well-respected Kata Robata, Chef Katsuya Uechi proclaimed in a Culturemap interview that "Honestly, Los Angeles fish is better. In Los Angeles there are more people who eat sushi, more consumers and it's closer to Japan."

Chef Uechi's sexy, sleek restaurant, Katsuya + Stark, opened in March of 2012. It survived a mere 16 months before it closed. Apparently, Houston liked the fish it already had just fine.

Not too long afterward came celebrity chef Bradley Ogden, who, along with son Brian Ogden, currently has two establishments in Houston: Funky Chicken, a fast-casual restaurant, and Bradley's Fine Diner. Before either restaurant had opened, Ogden was quoted in an interview with Eater Las Vegas as saying "They're starving for great places to eat there," Ogden says.

2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest finalists Hugo Ortega (far right) and Justin Yu (second from right) with their families/business partners
2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest finalists Hugo Ortega (far right) and Justin Yu (second from right) with their families/business partners
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Wait, what? That interview was published on July 23, 2012, when Houston was still swooning over the debuts of Chris Shepherd's Underbelly and Justin Yu's Oxheart. This year, Shepherd became the first Houston chef to win the Best Chef Southwest James Beard award since Robert Del Grande took it in 1992. (Shepherd himself came to Houston from Oklahoma and worked his way up. Like Mark Holley, he spent his own time in the kitchens at Brennan's of Houston.)

Yu was a finalist this year, as well as Hugo Ortega, who has satisfied Houstonians since 2002 with soul-satisfying Interior Mexican cuisine at Hugo's and vegetable-friendly Backstreet Café. How did he get started? Well, first as a dishwasher and then a busboy. Don't tell me you can't make it here.

James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Chris Shepherd with his business partners in the Clumsy Butcher group
James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Chris Shepherd with his business partners in the Clumsy Butcher group
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Here's some advice for the next celebrity chef who decides to try to open a restaurant here: thinly veiled barbs at our long-time Houston chefs is not how one starts on the right foot. Insult one of our local favorites, and Houstonians will collectively cross their arms, step back and say "Oh, really? Let's see if you can do better, big mouth."

Don't get me wrong. It's not that we don't want celebrity chefs to come open places in Houston. It's just that we want them to come here because they recognize that Houston is its own Land of Opportunity; a place where someone can work hard and succeed. If you want us to admire you, you must respect what we already have.


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