Let it never be said that chef Ben McPherson fails to give credit to others. Throughout our chat, the chef frequently said, "That's Wommack's dish," or "Wommack did that."
"Wommack" refers to Matt Wommack, McPherson's cooking partner in their successful but short-lived pop-up venture The Bull & Pearl. It was only short-lived because, after a few noteworthy dinners, McPherson was soon contacted by Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, the dinner club and burlesque showcase that recently moved from The Galleria to the space at 1008 Prairie that once housed the Isis Theatre. Built in 1912, it was the first silent theatre in Houston. More recently, the space used to house The Mercury Room and Boaka Bar.
Prohibition was seeking a chef to create and direct the food program; they ended up with two. The duo went to work on creating elegant, Gulf coast dishes to match the classic marbled interior.
In part 1 of this Chef Chat, learn how McPherson graduated from "the school of hard knocks" after moving from Alabama to Germany and back again, and found the passion for food that put him back on an upward path.
Come back tomorrow for part 2, when we'll hear firsthand how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated a Florida Gulf Coast restaurant community and how McPherson eventually made his way to Houston.
EOW: Where are you from originally?
BM: I was born in Decatur, Alabama and then moved down to Mobile when I was about 10. After that, I ended up going with my dad to Heidelberg, Germany until I was about 14.
EOW: That answers a question for me, because you have a slight German accent.
BM: Yeah. Since I was from Alabama, people picked on me a little bit, so I tried my best not to have the accent. Now everyone picks on me for not having the accent! (laughs)
EOW: You just can't win. It's one of those accents where you can't quite place it. Now, what took your family to Germany?
BM: My dad worked for the civilian side of the Armed Forces and they were closing down the Army bases. When we were over there, on Fridays I'd get out of school and he'd take off early. We'd literally just grab a guidebook and a map, jump in the car and just go. I'd sit there and read the guidebooks and find little towns. One day, we drove to Triburg, a fun town deep in the Black Forest. It was a cuckoo clock town, so everywhere you'd go was lined with cuckoo clocks.
We'd get a hotel, grab dinner and find something on the menu that we had no idea what it was. Sometimes it was good, sometimes we'd think we might have been eating poop. But we'd end up in France and might go to Paris or go four or five days, drive through the Alps and down into Italy. We'd spend time in Florence and go to Naples. That's just the way we lived there.
EOW: Was that your first exposure to real cuisine?
BM: Yeah, I was just a scrawny little kid and that's where I fell in love with food. When we went to Florence, I remember a penne pasta that was just cooked with olive oil, a bit of garlic and tomatoes were lightly melted into it. They were home-canned tomatoes. There was some shaved Parmesano Reggiano on top and it was so simple. To me, that's where good food lies. Now that I've learned a lot more, I like to be whimsical and playful with flavors, but it still comes down to not adding something to the plate that doesn't actually do anything.
EOW: How does one get away with making a dish that is simple and good but not boring?
BM: The secret is the quality of ingredients. Going back to that pasta: if you have San Marzano tomatoes and really great olive oil and the pasta is made with the right flour and local, farm-fresh eggs--and obviously Parmesano Reggiana is awesome anyway--that's why that works. Now, can I take Bertolli pasta, canned Hunt's tomatoes, DaVinci olive oil and Chinese garlic and reproduce it? No. It doesn't work like that.
I have friends in Needville who clipped lettuce [at their farm], put some vinegar, oil, tomatoes, salt and pepper and that was it. It tasted so great because it's from right there. It's a connection. To me, it just makes so much sense.
People are using "farm-to-table" and "farm-to-fork" to drive business, but it should be a philosophy and a way to live. If you're a chef, I hope you're "farm-to-table" because you need to know who's growing your vegetables, who's raising your meat, who's catching your fish. It's called "social responsibility."
EOW: You said something just now that caught my attention. "Chinese garlic?" Is that where most garlic is from?
BM: A lot of the garlic you'll find is from China, yeah.
EOW: So, what's the superior garlic?
BM: Christopher Ranch has better garlic. It's what we use at the restaurant. It's a larger farm in California. It has that garlic flavor. I don't know enough but Chinese garlic tastes like they shoot carbon dioxide or something to preserve it.
EOW: Back to your history: when did you leave Germany?
BM: In 1993. I was 14. We moved back to the United States. I was in eighth grade. My life took a downside. I was a bad kid. I got into drugs and did some jail time. That's actually how I got to where I am. It's not so much that I chose the food world--it's that the restaurant life chose me. I was a punk kid who'd rather smoke pot and be rebellious. I didn't care about college. I felt like an outcast after moving from Germany to Alabama. I got picked on, pushed around and I despised it.
I got a dishwasher job at a Ruby Tuesday's and then at a Tex-Mex restaurant, which I laugh at, knowing what I know now.
EOW: Was it Chi-Chi's? (laughs)
BM: No, it wasn't a chain, it was a mom and pop in a town called Fairhope of 30,000 to 40,000 people across the bay from Mobile. It's really quaint. There are flowers up and down the sidewalk. They change them every week. Everything's perfect. There are lots of old people.
The guys in the kitchen were like, "You need to learn how to cook." So, they taught me how to cook. I worked really fast. It was 1996 and Food Network had just started. Emeril [Lagasse] was just down the street. My grandparents would tell me stories about dining with Chef Paul [Prudhomme] back when he was at Commander's [Palace]. They just loved him.
When I was 16 or 17, I'd gotten out of that bad stage and had gotten some help. I decided I wanted to do something with my life and dropped out of high school. I got my GED, did considerably well on the test and started at the local community college when I was 17. I got all of my beginning classes done before my high school class even graduated, so that was kind of nice!
I was in the culinary school there and went to a Marriott resort in Birmingham. The chef there (who now owns several restaurants there) was like, "You've got to get out of here. Go to California. Go to New York. I see something in you." I was like, "Wow, cool." I went home and told my mom I wanted to go to college. She started crying. She was so happy. My sisters and brothers did really well and I was like a little reject.
EOW: You were the one your parents worried about.
BM: I still get teary-eyed when I think about it. I'm from a great family. I just got caught with the wrong crowd. I applied to both CIA and Johnson & Wales [culinary schools] and got accepted to both within a month. I weighed the pros and cons between the two and Johnson & Wales just looked better. I enrolled and moved to Charleston.
There was a show called "Great Chefs" on Discovery Channel. There was this guy who was on there, Donald Barickman. Sean Brock [of Husk restaurant in Charleston] calls him "The Godfather of Shrimp and Grits." He's the guy who made it fashionable to put on the table. Sean and I were in the same class, as was Jeremy Fox [who won Best New Chef while at Ubuntu and is now at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica].
Anyway, I went to go work for Barickman at Magnolia's. Being from the South, I wanted to cook Southern. After I graduated culinary school, I stuck around Charleston for six months and said, "I've got to get out of here." I moved to Atlanta the end of '99 right when it hit the big [restaurant] boom and worked at a place called Pricci. There were four or five of us on the line and we're all doing great things now.
Then, I went to be a sous chef at Corner Café and Buckhead Bread Company. We were mainly breakfast and lunch but we did volume. We could do 400 covers on a Saturday or Sunday for brunch. It was insane.
EOW: How did you do that?
BM: In Atlanta, it's a "see and be seen" kind of thing. People like to wait. Everybody gets their mimosas and their Bloody Marys and hangs out all day. It turns into a hang-out affair.
EOW: Unlike Houston, where everyone wants to get seated in five minutes.
BM: Yeah, nobody wants to wait and then they'll destroy us on Yelp. (laughs)
EOW: Right? And then you'll get a bad review...
BM: Yeah! (laughs) I mean, but we also opened at 6 a.m. and served until 3. We'd go on wait at 8 a.m. and go off of wait at 2, and that was for French toast and Eggs Benedict. Across the street was a place called Buckhead Diner and I met a young guy named Eli Kirshtein. He later went on Top Chef. By this time, I was a sous chef at Eclipse de Luna and doing Latin American/Spanish cuisine. I became the executive chef there in 2007 and was there until 2009.
Brian Fasthoff was a partner in a place called Loca Luna's and that's how I met him. That was six years before we opened Batanga [in Houston].
Come back for Part 2, where we'll learn how eventually Fasthoff and McPherson would join forces to open Batanga, a tapas restaurant in downtown Houston and how eventually McPherson would make his way to Prohibition.