"You're going to have a great restaurant in your community," Marcus Samuelsson said to a roomful of smiling guests last Thursday afternoon at the Milam House.
The bonafide celebrity chef from New York City -- he of the Michelin starred Aquavit and the President-approved Red Rooster in Harlem -- was slickly dressed in short red pants, black Converse shoes and a black Western shirt embroidered with red roses. It was a shirt he picked up while in Austin the day before, while crossing the country on a book tour. "You have to dress like a Texan while you're here," he joked, looking entirely too European to ever be from Texas.
Samuelsson's latest stop on that book tour for his new memoir, Yes, Chef, brought him to Houston last week. In the book, the Swedish-raised chef candidly discusses his adoption from Ethiopia, where his mother -- dying from tuberculosis -- carried her small children 75 miles barefoot to Addis Ababa to ensure that Samuelsson and his sister would have a chance at life. Samuelsson was three years old when he was adopted; in the first line of the memoir, he pointedly writes: "I have never seen a picture of my mother."
But on this Thursday afternoon, Samuelsson wasn't in town to discuss the long-vanished memories of his short childhood in Africa. Instead, he was there in support of Seth Siegel-Gardner,Terrence Gallivan and The Pass and Provisions -- the two-in-one restaurant the two chefs are currently working to open in the old Antone's space on Taft. Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan met at Maze in London, but both worked under Samuelsson at various points in their New York City-based culinary careers: Siegel-Gardner worked for Samuelsson at Aquavit while Gallivan worked under him at August.
"I've worked with them for seven years," Samuelsson told the crowd of roughly 50 people who'd turned out to taste a preview of Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan's food at the upcoming Pass and Provisions. "There are a lot of people rooting for these boys."
And in a nod to their old chef's roots, the duo had prepared a menu that included a doro wat-poached egg with berbere consomme. It was one of four courses made with recipes from Samuelsson's cookbooks, The Soul of a New Cuisine, New American Table and Aquavit. Intriguingly, a fifth course was from the so-called "Provisions cookbook," with a future publishing date of 2014.
True to their low-key nature, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan stayed in the kitchen most of the time, allowing guests to ask questions of Samuelsson while they served their own dishes.
"If you were a spice, what kind of spice would you be?" asked one lunch guest. Without hesitation, Samuelsson replied: "Berbere." The dark red blend of sun-dried chiles, ginger, garlic, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, coriander and other spices is -- as Samuelsson calls it in Yes, Chef -- the "salt and pepper" of Ethiopian cuisine. In his memoir, Samuelsson describes it thusly:
It was both masculine and feminine, shouting for attention and whispering at me to come closer. In one sniff it was bright and crisp; in the next, earthy and slow.
One could easily describe Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan's food that day with similar contrasting adjectives. Dishes like a toasted caraway pasta with smoked trout roe, creme fraiche, pickled green onions and fresh dill -- the only dish from their own "Provisions cookbook" -- were incredibly complex yet accessible.
The mingling flavors of punchy, aggressive dill and dusky caraway were at once familiar and still exotic. Tart, salty bites of roe and sharply pickled green onion were bright and bombastic against the subtle creme fraiche and soft texture of the finely turned pasta.
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It was a dish that left me even more excited for The Pass and Provisions to finally open. I wonder if Samuelsson's own Nordic and Ethiopian influences will figure into Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan's work -- and, indeed, I hope that they do -- but I'm content merely to see what they come up with in a home of their own.
As Samuelsson said of the pair's cuisine: "It's the kind of food that will make you think." And that's the kind of food we need more of in Houston.