Editor's note: Please see response from Robb Walsh later in this post.
When we last left our Chef Chat with Jason Gould, he had just ended up in Houston after a long journey that took him from Seattle to Lake Michigan and then New York at the worst of times.
Once in Houston, he would work at two highly influential restaurants during their heydays: Aries and Gravitas. How does a chef used to working for independent ventures find a career match at a classic Houston Tex-Mex establishment that now has seven locations? And what other high profile restaurant did he intend to work at, but didn't? Find out below.
EOW: So, you ended up in Houston because you have an aunt here.
JG: Yep. When I dropped off my résume at Aries, it had only been open about eight months. Scott [Tycer] saw it, noticed that I had worked for Marco [Pierre White] and said, "Yep, you're in." Not too long later, I was promoted to chef du cuisine.
EOW: That's a fast advancement.
JG: It was such a small kitchen. There were really only four people who worked it. There was the pastry side, salad side, meat and fish.
EOW: I thought Aries was amazing. I'll never forget that giant cheese cart.
JG: Yeah, it was good. We'd have fun there, too. We used to take smelly Taleggio rinds and and put them under the door handles of some of the waiters. So, when they'd go hop into their cars, they'd get Taleggio on them and have to smell it in their car.
EOW: Aries was beloved but seemed to shut down overnight.
JG: No restaurant closings are really overnight. From the inside, you can see the writing on the wall. Fine dining was losing its appeal to the general public. Aries became known as a special occasion restaurant. When you become known as that, how are you going to do that five or six nights a week?
Also, we were trying to use high-end items from all over the country. Through supply and demand, the cost of those items goes up but you can't price yourself out of the market, so the overhead becomes more as well. It just wasn't sustainable.
EOW: Something another chef told me is that when you are in the market for high-end products, if there aren't enough other chefs in Houston looking for the same thing, you just don't have enough volume to get your hands on them.
JG: Houston in particular. If you were in New York, and wanted high-end cheeses, you could go to a store like Artisanal. Everywhere else, it has to be shipped. You were paying a premium for it because it wasn't in demand, so it was really expensive, and then all of sudden it was in demand, so it was hard-to-get and expensive.
That's why a lot of restaurants went more casual and how Gravitas was born. We wanted to continue to do a similar caliber of cuisine to Aries but use more approachable ingredients.
EOW: Did you go immediately from Aries to Gravitas?
JG: My and Scott's plan was to do Gravitas together as a casual bistro doing the same high-end quality of cuisine. We planned to only do about 3,500 square feet. Antoine's [which was formerly in the building Gravitas took over] was 7,800 square feet--twice the size.
EOW: Big enough for two restaurants.[Author's note: The building is now home to The Pass & Provisions; two restaurants in one.]
JG: I took the role of GC [General Contractor]. We worked with a local designer. I oversaw the electrician, the plumbers and made sure everything was right. One of the things I've learned is nothing ever matches the plans.
I based the kitchen on Gramercy Tavern because I liked the way that line was set up. It was a beautiful, prestige unit, custom designed--French flat tops, deep fryer on one side, pasta cooker on the other--an immaculate piece. It cost over $200,000 just for the stoves alone. It was my pride and joy.
EOW: What year did Gravitas open?
JG: 2005. It was 2010 when it closed. I could tell you, because written in concrete at the back door is my name with the date.
EOW: What was opening day like at Gravitas?
JG: Crazy. We did not expect to do the volume we did the first couple of nights. We had to turn people away. At the time, there wasn't much going on in Houston's food scene, so I got reviewed in the first week of opening. That was harsh.
EOW: It wasn't a "first look," as we call them these days?
JG: This was before Twitter, Facebook and the blogs. It was just the press. We got three gos--they came back three times because back then they had the time to do that, but now it's like you've got to review them overnight and do a "first look."
On the first Friday night we were open, Robb Walsh [then the Houston Press food critic] came in. The floor manager recognized him. Knowing he was there was probably worse than not knowing. The panic set in and the pressure went on. He ordered a salad we were out of and on the fly I threw together a Lyonnaise salad out of ingredients we had. Apparently, it was salty, so he wrote that in the review.
The next time he came in, the food had gone out to the table and the waiter had missed Robb's plate.
We didn't order beer and ran out. Robb ordered a beer that we were out of. Scott was brewing his own beer at his house. He sent someone to go get some and sent it to the table. The server said, "Scott would like for you to try this." Robb wrote "I don't know Scott. Why does Scott know me? Why are we on a first name basis?" Alarm bells went off and he realized we knew who he was.
On the third and final trip, he had someone else come in and sit at a different table. He reviewed the restaurant, not Robb, and they compared notes at the end. I don't know what that guy's food background was, but I recall he ordered a medium-well hanger steak. Those don't hold up when you cook them medium-well. They get really strong in flavor. He was critical of that.
The review Robb did was more about the value of anonymity to a food reviewer. He called it "Spy vs Spy." It won a national award. I was like, "Great. The review of my restaurant is out for everybody to see." [Update 10:57 a.m. 09-26-14. Robb Walsh says that while he went into the restaurant the first week it opened, he did not review it until two months later. And that while he compared notes with the other writer, Walsh himself wrote the review]
EOW: Why did you leave Gravitas?
JG: When Scott and I started it, there was an understanding that we were partners. Because of my visa status, I couldn't sign any legal documents. I couldn't take on any of the equity so it looked like it was all Scott's. Once I married my wife, Rebekah, I said "OK, time for me to sign the documents. Let's make this legitimate."
EOW: Ah, since you married a U.S. citizen, you were a citizen too at that point.
JG: Yes. I got my green card and was good to go. Scott said, "I don't think I want to do that anymore." I think that was a way out for him. Gravitas had been successful in ways. It won awards the first year it was open for Texas Monthly's Best New Restaurant. I won Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year. I won Chef of the Year. It had a good reputation but was not doing well financially.
He wanted me to buy him out. I put together a group that was happy to take over all the debt and wipe the slate clean. He could walk away, but he wanted additional money. It just didn't work out so I left and they kept it.
EOW: What was your next move?
JG: Stella Sola. As upsetting as leaving Gravitas was, because I had built it from the ground up and it was my baby, I could see there were other opportunities out there.
Stella Sola didn't work out. When there are two high caliber chefs working in the same kitchen, there can be difficulties. The day before they opened, they said "It's not going to work."
That was a bigger blow to me than Gravitas. With Gravitas, I had something else. With this I had nothing and didn't know what I was going to do. Fortunately, Cyclone Anaya's came along.
EOW: Did you ever imagine you'd be working with Tex-Mex?
JG: If you'd asked me back at Aries and Gravitas, no, although at Gravitas I started bringing in Asian, Southwest and Tex-Mex flavors. It was something I was interested in.
I can't take credit for Cyclone Anaya's food. There are things I have added and I've tweaked the quality of the product coming in, but Tex-Mex is a religion in Houston. You can't mess with a cheese enchilada. You can't mess with fajitas. I just tweaked a few things. We added a happy hour menu, a lunch menu and added a few items. It's been more about overseeing the operations.
EOW: What do you think the most important thing is that you bring to Cyclone Anaya's?
JG: Consistency. What I've had to do is for every recipe break down exactly how much salt works with certain increments. One pound of meat equals this much, two pounds equals this much, etcetera. So, the product is the same whether you go to Cyclone at Citycentre, Cyclone at Midtown or Cyclone in Virginia.
When one store marinates for 24 hours and another marinates for 12 hours, there's going to be a difference there. So, I worked with a couple of purveyors to develop a product using our marinade so it's consistent across the board.
EOW: What's your favorite thing about your job?
JG: It's both good and bad. I wake up each day not knowing what I'm doing. My day changes constantly. I may get called to do construction, I may get called to Citycentre because there's a piece of equipment down, I may have to do a tasting. That keeps me on my toes.
Watching it grow is really cool. When I came on, there were four locations. Now, there are seven. It's growing constantly.
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Cyclone Anaya's started in 1966 and has been in town as long as Ninfa's and all those other places but it doesn't have the same reputation. When you consider Tex-Mex, Ninfa's and El Tiempo get that. People are starting to recognize Cyclone a bit more. It's elevating Tex-Mex to a certain degree. You're not in a cantina eating food that's just been slopped on a plate.
EOW: Is there anything else you want readers to know?
JG: When I got to Houston, I thought I was the only Aussie. I had no idea about all the oil and gas companies and now there's an Aussie-rules football team. There's a real community and we're always doing events. I do a gala with them each year and we focus on Australian cuisine. I'll use indigenous herbs and spices that the Aboriginals have used for centuries.
I've got plans to bring a little Australian cuisine to Houston, so, fingers crossed that will happen.