Chef Ben McPherson, who over the past few years has helped open and run three different downtown Houston eateries — Batanga, Prohibition and Conservatory — has announced he is joining pitmaster John Avila’s El Burro & The Bull to help expand operations. (Updated, 7/12/2016, 10:22 a.m.: McPherson says he is no longer partnering with El Burro & The Bull but is continuing to work towards having his own endeavor.)
During his tenure at Prohibition, the food he created along with his friend and kitchen partner Matt Wommack garnered much acclaim, including from the Houston Press. His most recent accomplishment as culinary director was facilitating the opening of Houston’s first food hall, Conservatory, which is next door to Prohibition.
He’s staying with Prohibition until April 24 to ensure its first brunch service goes smoothly. Afterward, Wommack will take over as chef de cuisine.
It’s not that McPherson hasn’t liked his role or the people he works with. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my tenure with [Prohibition and Conservatory’s owners] Lian Pham and Anh Mai, and will hopefully have the chance to work with them again on another project,” he said. The feeling seems to be mutual, as Mai described McPherson as “a good guy who deserves other opportunities elsewhere.”
Indeed, it seems that El Burro & The Bull has many opportunities for McPherson to work on immediately. It just opened a food counter at the Conservatory and has a catering service. Next up is Hot Bird, a barbecue stop set up in a shipping container at the East End Street Market across the street from the Original Ninfa’s On Navigation. Owner John Avila said, “Having grown up on Harrisburg near the Ship Channel, shipping containers have always been part of my life. It’s an industrial part of town and we’re excited to present it that way.” His wife is an architect, and he says she has approval to develop three blocks in the area.
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Avila is also looking at a possible storefront on the East Side. “I hate to compare it to anything, but I’d lean toward it being something like Down The Street or Around The Corner. It’s something accessible by the people in the neighborhood, but also to the people who are building new in the neighborhood. It’s full of industrial and blue-collar workers, and we want to be able to serve them both in the two locations,” he said.
Avila says McPherson is actively looking at other spaces and projects and has a pretty free rein to follow through on opportunities. “Ben really has what it takes to create something amazing,” said Avila. “We keep talking about Southern food. He’s an Alabama boy, and he keeps talking about Alabama sauces and fish. We hope to incorporate everything he knows with everything I know and see what comes out on the other end.” A take on Alabama-style barbecue would certainly be something seldom seen in the Houston area.
The first chance to witness the new team of Avila and McPherson will be the Houston Barbecue Festival on May 22.
Look for more restaurant news from this team in the coming months.