Even when you've lived in Houston most of your life, it's easy to drive up and down the same freeways regularly and still completely miss a good restaurant sitting right next to the feeder road. If you don't know about Fernando's, just off of Highway 59 in Sugar Land, you might miss it.
It was a bit of a shocker to pull up to the front of the modest, colonial-looking building that houses it. Inside, it's a huge, fancy place with a separate bar area, a kitchen big enough to serve a country club, multiple private dining rooms and even a tiny dance floor.
More than ten years ago, it was a Ruth's Chris Steak House. Then it closed and the building was acquired by Fernando Echeverria.
Echeverria has a long and storied history in Houston, at times working with some of the biggest names in the business. He started as a server at Ninfa's back in its heyday, when there were still several locations run by the Laurenzo family. Later, he'd work for the Carrabbas. His manager there, Lynette Hawkins, would also become a restaurant owner. (She now runs Giacomo's Cibo e Vino.)
Good timing allowed him to take over Rao's, an Italian restaurant that existed back when the big building on Highway 59 was still Compaq Center. He turned it into his first restaurant, Los Andes. More good timing and a stroke of luck led him to the former Ruth's Chris space.
In part 1 of this Chef Chat, we'll walk with Echeverria through his long history in Houston. When we pick back up with part 2 tomorrow, we'll get more in-depth with Fernando's, what the food is like and what Echeverria's goals are.
EOW: Are you originally from Houston?
FE: I'm from Ecuador. I moved to New York, and then from New York ended up in Houston, Texas.
EOW: How old were you when you went to New York?
FE: I was 13 years old.
EOW: Why did your family move?
FE: My father and mother split up, so they got a divorce. My mother and I went to New York. I went back to Ecuador and I was living with my uncle. I stayed there for a couple of years.
I guess I ran into a little trouble and I didn't want them to find out.
We followed up with Echeverria by email about the trouble he mentioned in the interview. He says, "I had an issue with my teacher and I was told to bring one of my parents, which I never did. Instead, I never went back to school for that semester, but I left the house every day like if I was going to school. I learned a lot on the streets."
One of my aunts flew in from New York actually and she asked me, "Would you like to go to New York?" I said yes.
So, I went to New York. My family never found out what happened. So, I'm here. Two years later, I went to high school and I found a job in a Colombian restaurant. I was a dishwasher for eight months. I learned dishwashing, then I moved to salads, then prep and all of a sudden I was the cook. By 15 years old, I was first a cook, in a way. There were five owners in that restaurant. That was where I got all my ideas. There were two that worked on the floor, two in the kitchen and one worked the bar. They controlled the whole restaurant. There was no waste. That's how I always did it. This is my third restaurant in a way. So all my restaurants have been the same way.
EOW: So, very hands-on as far as the owners go and very much in touch with what's going on with the whole restaurant.
FE: Right. I basically know exactly at any given time what's going on in the bar, the kitchen, everything. Lately, since the bad economy had started affecting everybody, I had to learn accounting. I do my own books, I do my own reconciling and I do my own payroll in order to stay open.
EOW: Did you work at other restaurants in New York?
FE: I worked in an Italian restaurant after I worked in the Colombian restaurant. Two friends of mine opened their own restaurant. They opened up an Italian restaurant. Somehow, they convinced me to go with them. I worked in an Italian restaurant for three years.
EOW: How long ago was that?
FE: This was back in the '70s, '74 until about '80.
EOW: How old were you?
FE: Fourteen to basically 20.
EOW: You were still a very young man.
FE: Oh yeah, I was going to high school and I was working at nights.
EOW: Did you come to Houston after that?
FE: When I was 20, I wanted to leave New York. I wanted to go to Miami because it was a happening place back then. I was 20 years old.
I found out I had a cousin in Dallas. So I rented a truck, went to Dallas, stayed there for two months and didn't like it. I found out some friends that used to work with me in New York were living in Houston. I contacted them and stayed here.
When I came here, they were working at Ninfa's. Ninfa's back then had lines and lines of people to get in. So I ended up working at Ninfa's, and I remember they only let us work six shifts [a week]. That was it. It was enough. My first apartment was a brand-new apartment. I think it was a $175 a month. That was amazing.
EOW: You can't find that now.
FE: It was amazing. Brand-new, parking and everything. In New York, you cannot find parking. Over here, I had my own apartment and my own space. It was amazing.
EOW: That was like luxury living.
FE: Oh yeah! I remember we did five years. It was a group of friends. We worked at Ninfa's. We had three and a half days off. We played everything. We used to go out everywhere. We had the same schedule and everything. It was fun.
EOW: Was this the original Ninfa's location or one of the franchise locations?
FE: I ended up working in the one on Echo Lane first, and then I moved to the one on Bissonnet. I ended up in the one on Westheimer.
EOW: Okay. Those were run by other people, not necessarily Mama Ninfa?
FE: No, it was Mama Ninfa's place.
EOW: Oh wow, so you actually knew her.
FE: I got stories about her, but I cannot say them.
EOW: Okay. We won't get you in any trouble here. How many years did you work for Ninfa's?
FE: I think it was like two years. Two to three years. Then I moved to a restaurant by the name of Paesano's, which is an Italian restaurant. It was another restaurant that was real "going on" back then. I worked in Paesano's three to four years.
EOW: Who was the chef over there?
FE: He was French, actually. It was a French chef and the sous chef was an Italian guy. I don't remember the names. It was awhile back.
EOW: I was just curious. What was your role at Paesano's?
FE: I was a server. I've always been a server. I like to interact with people. Right now [at Fernando's] I'm in the kitchen going crazy. But I still come out. When I finish cooking, I come out and talk to people. I've learned so much in the last two years since I've been running the kitchen that I think I'm ready. I'm ready to come out and change everything.
EOW: After Paesano's, what happened?
FE: After Paesano's, I ended up going to Carrabba's.
EOW: So, Johnny Carrabba's [place]?
FE: Johnny Carrabba, Mama Rose. Back then it was, the general manager was Lynette Hawkins.
EOW: Oh yes, of course! She's over at Giacomo's now! We've had a Chef Chat with Lynette.
FE: I worked for her at Carrabba's, and then she open La Mora, so I went to work with her [there] for a while, too. Then I ended up Rao's [Italian Restaurant, now closed]. Rao's was right behind the Compaq Center. It was there for a while.
EOW: What kind of a place was Rao's?
EOW: It was Italian, also. You have a lot of Italian in your background.
FE: If you notice, in Houston, Italian is basically the Mandolas. Damian's -- so many Mandolas. There's Frank, they have D'Amico's, they split it up, the Carrabbas, and you have the ones on West Gray. [That's Tony Mandola's.]
EOW:So, Rao's was another Italian place.
FE: It was right behind the Compaq Center where they had all of the basketball games, all of the concerts--
EOW: Which is now, of course, Lakewood Church.
FE: I worked for Rao's for, let's say, two years and a half. One day out of the blue, a year later, a friend of mine called me and he says, "Fernando, you know that Tony is having an argument with the investors. The investors say they're going to give this restaurant away." I made two phone calls. I ended up with a restaurant.
EOW: My goodness.
FE: Just like that. So that's when I had Los Andes. Los Andes took the place of Rao's; I was there for 15 years.
EOW: When you say Tony --
FE: Tony Rao. He's a nice guy. I think he's working at La Griglia.
EOW: You ended up at that point with your own restaurant.
FE: It's three times the same story. The first was a little deli, the second one was Rao's and the third one is this one [Fernando's]. No experience running a restaurant and I ended up with Rao's. The only thing that helped me was I knew the basketball players. I knew Rudy [Tomjanovich], who was the coach.
The first thing I did when I found out -- when I totally got my foot in the restaurant -- was I had a meeting with Rudy. He says, "You know what we're going to do? After the games, we're going to go over there." That's what happened. But then Lakewood Church came in. Then, [the Houston Rockets games] moved and everything went downhill.
EOW: It all changed. How long did you run Rao's?
FE: Well, I was there for 14 years, since '93 until 2005, when [Fernando's] came in.
EOW: You were telling me earlier that Fernando's used to be a Ruth's Chris Steak House. How did that come about? It's no longer that, obviously, as it's been Fernando's for ten years.
FE: I lived over here in First Colony. I used to drive from First Colony all the way to Greenway Plaza for 15 years. I wanted a restaurant close to home, in a way. One came up about a block away. I was doing all the deals and I was talking with my real estate agent. He says, "Fernando, why are you going to spend so much money on this little restaurant when you can probably get Ruth's Chris, which is going to close tomorrow?"