Born in San Antonio and raised in Houston, Chris Olbekson studied cooking in the Art Institute of Houston's Culinary Program and graduated with the school's first class in 1994. He worked at the Redwood Grill, Anthony's and Tony's before becoming the executive chef at Ouisie's Table (3939 San Felipe, 713-528-2264). We asked him about Ouisie's trademark upscale comfort food and the latest culinary trends.
Q. Did you ever imagine that after years of French classical training and work experience at Tony's, you'd end up cooking chicken-fried steaks for a living?
A. No. But, hey, if you cook in Texas, you've got to know how to make chicken-fried steak.
Q. You do some other lowbrow Southern classics at Ouisie's Table too, don't you?
A. Yeah, we do an awesome version of shrimp grits.
Q. Do you cook the shrimp in the grits?
A. No. First we get fresh grits from Anson Mills in Carolina. They have to airfreight the stuff to us, and we keep it in the freezer. We cook them with water and a little milk and butter. You want the grits plain because the shrimp is really spicy. You sauté the shrimp with bacon and butter and scallions and mushrooms with lots of Tabasco sauce. Then you pour it over the grits.
Q. That sounds great. What kind of wine do you recommend with shrimp grits?
A. Um, probably a Viognier or maybe a sauvignon blanc, something crisp.
Q. What's new on the menu this winter?
A. Game birds. We're getting in lots of squab from California.
Q. Squab? In River Oaks? Do you think your customers have any idea that squab means pigeon?
A. I don't know. Anyway, I think it's a different species of pigeon. It's smaller.
Q. Isn't a squab a baby pigeon? Are you sure it's a different species?
A. No. Maybe it is the same kind that flies around wild, but I know they raise it on a farm.
Q. You mean they're not just netting pigeons under the freeways in L.A. and selling it to us as "California squab"?
A. I don't think so. [laughing]
Q. Because I've got some "610 squab" I could sell you, fresh from the Stella Link overpass
A. No thanks. I think I'll stick with the California Squab Producers product. I don't know about the species, but I know it tastes great. We serve it pan-seared with wild rice and a port wine glaze.
Q. What kind of wine goes with pigeon?
A. Pinot noir.
Q. What's the hot new vegetable going to be this spring?
A. Fava beans.
Q. How do you fix those?
A. You peel the beans out of the big green husk, and then you sauté them in butter with parsley.
Q. Do they taste like lima beans?
A. No, lima beans are bitter. Fava beans are kind of sweet.
Q. What else are people eating now?
A. Lots of comfort food: steaks, roasts, salmon
Q. Don't you get bored cooking that stuff all the time?
A. No, it's making people happy. It's enjoyable to do a good job with simple ingredients.
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Q. Where do you eat on your day off?
A. I go to Coco's Yakitori for sushi [see "Texas Sushi? Hai," by Robb Walsh, October 5, 2000]. It's a laid-back atmosphere and a cool young crowd, and the owner is always right there making your sushi personally. I love the place.
Q. Do you watch the Food Channel when you get home at night?
A. No. I find the cooking shows boring. But I like Iron Chef. It's a cross between the WWF and the Food Channel.