This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. Check back with us tomorrow to read Part 2.
If things had gone slightly different, Susie Jimenez might not have opened her Mexican/Latin American/Indian fusion restaurant, Trenza, in Houston. Jimenez came very close to having her own Food Network cooking show. She was the runner-up in season 7 of the reality competition series Food Network Star, losing only to Jeff Mauro, the "Sandwich King."
Instead, the woman who (mostly) wowed Food Network luminaries Bobby Flay, Giada DeLaurentis, Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson headed back to her successful catering business in Colorado. It wasn't too long afterward that friends in Houston asked her to come check out the burgeoning food scene. Soon, Jimenez fell in love with Houston and decided to open Trenza here.
Trenza has been the subject of substantial controversy lately. Eric Sandler, food writer at CultureMap and even the Houston Press's own restaurant critic, Kaitlin Steinberg, have both indicated they don't expect the restaurant to survive.
A negative review by Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle didn't help matters. On the other hand, that was in February and a whole lot can happen in a few months. (A personal opinion: I've been to Trenza three times in the past month, and I actually like the food, the concept and the space a great deal and think it just needed some time to get rolling.)
In part 1 of this Chef Chat, we ask the vivacious, petite chef about her Food Network Star experiences, her thoughts on Houston food media, how she got into cooking and what brought her to Houston.
EOW: How did you get into cooking in the first place?
SJ: My mom and dad both have a lot of brothers and sisters and there are lots of cousins. We have a huge family so when we had events like barbeques there were always things to do. It wasn't like "Oh, Susie go play," it was "Susie, go roll some tortillas." I embraced being in the kitchen.
I went to culinary school because a friend started teaching me about dishes like risotto and Clams Casino and I thought "Whoa, there's a whole 'nother world out there!" My friend said "You're getting it just like that! You need to go to culinary school." I was so scared. My traditional role would have been to be a wife, cook and clean for a husband. I didn't want to do that so I packed my bags and went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
EOW: What did you do after culinary school?
SJ: I got an opportunity to go to Aspen and work at a restaurant called Renaissance under Charles Dale. [Author's note: Renaissance has since closed.] They started me on salads and I was like "Whaaa? OK, fine I'll do it," and then they moved me up to hot appetizers. I kept working my way up. I was a line cook and worked on menus for about two years. Then I got a job at the cooking school in Aspen and realized how much I loved interacting with people and teaching them how to cook.
There's something about being on the line going crazy and "Fire this!" and "Fire that!" but there's also something intimate about being able to talk to someone. A catering business came to mind as a way to be able to do that. I had only one client for about a year and I thought "I am going to be so broke," but then it started to take off. One client would tell another and then another, and 12 years later I had a very successful catering business.
EOW: What made you apply to Food Network Star?
SJ: You know that saying "What are the chances of me making it?" I thought that and my husband and I said "Let's give it a try. What are they going to do? They're going to look at the application and interview you for five minutes and say yea or nay." Luckily they said "yea" and I went to the next round. There were five rounds and after the fifth, they said "yea." I thought, "Wow, this is crazy." I started to get excited, but I didn't want to get too excited and then be disappointed."
Finally they brought me to New York to do a 25 minute "show." Six weeks later they called and said "We're really sorry to inform you..." and I said "Awww!" They went on to say " that you're going to have to leave your husband for three months [during filming of Food Network Star]" Talk about "what are the chances?!" I was an ordinary girl who grew up picking cherries and then went to culinary school. People just need to go for it. What are you going to lose?
EOW: Why do you think you lost to Jeff Mauro? What was the deciding factor?
SJ: I wasn't sure at the time because they don't tell you why. Since then, I'd talked with Giada [DeLaurentis] and Bobby [Flay] at food and wine events. I'm not under contract anymore so hopefully it was okay for them to talk with me about it and I'm not getting them in trouble. They were behind me 100%. They're the chefs and for them, it was all about the food.
However, Bob Tuschman and Suzie Fogelson are more about the advertising and PR aspect of it and there was a marketing advantage to the Sandwich King concept. He's got bread, mustard, meats... and there was already the "Mexican Made Easy" show. They already had Latin cooks.
Since then, we've had some viewing parties for Sarah Penrod [from Galveston] since she's currently competing on Season 10. She said that she's been told that if I'd been on any season--besides Season 4 when Guy Fieri was--I would have gotten it. I just wasn't the right person for advertising at the time and that sucks.
But you know, a lot of people got sent home because they didn't know how to present on camera. Their food was amazing but as soon as they got on camera, they were like "Uhhh..." [The judges] weren't going to wait for you to say "Hi, how are you? My name is...?" A lot of those people should have had shows because they could have taught me so much, but at the end of the day if they can't translate it in front of the camera... you've got to have both.
The story continues on the next page.
EOW: What made you choose Houston for your restaurant?
SJ: My business partner has lived here for 18 years. I did some catering for him and we became really good friends. He said "Why don't you come to Houston? There's a whole foodie scene." I said "Houston? You're crazy, dude." I'd never been here before. I came for 10 days and me, him and his wife went crazy. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate our way through Houston. I couldn't believe this [food scene] exists. I knew about places like San Francisco, Santa Monica and even Austin, but I didn't know about Houston.
I considered opening in Aspen but there's a seasonal tourist aspect to it. You don't really know what's going to happen sometimes. My business partner said, "Why don't you take a chance and come to Houston?"
I wanted a small, intimate restaurant, like a 45-seater. He and his wife said said "No, West Ave is the #1 space." This is a huge space to fill! My investor said "I'd rather go big or not go at all."
Last Sunday, there was a fashion show and we had about 100 people at brunch. All these ladies were carrying around shoes and jewelry.
EOW: When you were eating your way through Houston, what were your favorite restaurants?
SJ: You know, I eat at Liberty Kitchen in The Heights a lot. I love their setup. It's very casual and I can go in, order a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and six oysters of every kind they have. My husband likes it when he visits, too. I like this place [points at Pondicheri] too, but it's just too close to [my workplace].
I also like Danton's and their peel-and-eat shrimp. I love their margarita with olive juice. Their owner comes out and talks and I feel very welcome.
Besides that, I love Hugo's. I don't get to go a lot. We don't have the same cuisine but we do have many of the same flavors and I try to stay away from Latin as much as I possibly can. I do love going to Beck's Prime on a lunch break for a beer and a burger and just going to town. They grill to order, and it's so delicious!
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Susie Jimenez.