Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Martin Weaver on Learning From the Smart Ones

Photo by Kate McLean
Chef Martin Weaver
Editor's note: An earlier headline on this story said that Chef Martin Weaver was at Brennan's. He was, but left that position a few months ago.

Chef Martin Weaver is someone who people like to take under their wing.  But really, he makes himself someone worth mentoring. He's a hard worker who's not afraid to take a few on the chin, while quick to credit those who have helped him along the way. In a business where, often times you hear I did this or I did that, it's kind of refreshing to hear well, actually this person really helped me.

Weaver, who grew up working in his Dad's barbecue restaurants was always a curious eater. He attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin and after graduating in 2009, he beat out eight other contestants to win a Chefs Under Fire! competition judged by chefs David Bull, Kent Rathbun and Tyson Cole. He even secretly helped another contestant perfectly cook pork.

From flipping burgers at the Houston Country Club, to mastering the art of line cooking at Artisans, to honing his passion for Asian technique as chef de cuisine under executive chef Adison Lee at Kuu, to learning essential restaurant operation skills as the executive sous chef at Brennan's, which he left a few months ago.

So what's next around the corner for Weaver?

The Houston Press sat down withWeaver who sipped on a Buffalo Trace neat in the bar at Brennan's while  several people approached him to say hello and wish him well.

Houston Press: You can pick anything out of the fish tank to eat, what is it?

Martin Weaver: Redfish.

HP: Redfish?

MW: Redfish. I love Redfish.

HP: Over snow crab?

MW: Oh, wait, you said fish tank.

HP: You're right I did, but you can have anything...

MW: For me, food is about memories, and my favorite is Alaskan King Crab. Chargrilled, lime.

HP: Yum.

MW: Or Unagi sauce. Or an Uni custard on top.

HP: Yes.

MW: A lot of my favorite foods aren't fancy, for me, they connect with my past. I didn't eat like a normal kid, my dad introduced me to a lot of food early on.

HP: Really, like what?

MW: I was a ten-year-old kid eating borrego, menudo. I had fish head soup when I was 12. I remember the craziest thing I ever ate, I was 11-years old, goat brain tacos.

HP: Did you like it?

MW: It was interesting to me at the time. If I saw something and I didn't know what it was I always wanted to try it.

HP: Have you ever tried Balut?

MW: Yes. Oh wait, Balut, I'm thinking 100-year egg. No, I have never tried Balut, but it's on my list.

HP: They have it at Hong Kong Market.

MW: I know they do.

HP: For like, a dollar.

MW: If I'm trying Balut though, I want to try it in Hong Kong. That's my goal. To go there and try it. I've had what they call 100-year egg. It tasted terrible to me.

HP: What's it like?

MW: It's literally a jelly. When you open it, it's bluish-green, dark black.

HP: Like funky rotten flavor?

MW: "I describe it as… Whenever I lived in San Antonio, I would go jogging. One day on this trail, in the summer, there was a dead animal. And nobody moved the damn thing. It reminds me of that rotting animal flesh. My deal is, if I don't like something the first time, I will try it three times. Because I know, as a chef, sometimes things happen. So, if I don't like something, I try it three times. I've had it three different ways, even John Chow's homemade version. It's funny because my Dad loves it. "

HP: Who is John Chow?

MW: "One of the guys that actually got me into sushi and Asian cuisine, he works at the Houston Country Club. I worked with him once a week, that was my creative time. I was a pantry kid, the hamburger station, but John Chow saw my hard work and would yank me out once a week to do sushi. He introduced me to 100-year eggs, Dim Sum.. ".

Chef Jose Arevalo walks into the bar behind Weaver. He's worked at Brennan's for 36 years and seen it all.

Jose Arevalo: (Says to Weaver) What are you doing here?

HP: No, I got him!

JA: You got him? Let's go to the kitchen come on.

MW: He needs help.

HP: Jose, you need help right now?

JA: Yeah. You ready?

MW: Don't want anyone to show you up, you know?

JA: (Laughs.) I can do it. I can blindfold myself and do it.

MW: I want to see that, let's pause this, do a video where he blindfolds himself and cooks.

JA: After 36 years, I think I can do it.

MW: You been butchering a lot today?

JA: Yeah. Two cases of chickens, I think I finally found the person to do the chickens the way I want them, supposed to be here in the morning and what time did I get them? 11 a.m.

MW: (Laughs.) I went and saw my Dad this weekend, do you know what he did to me?

JA: What.

MW: "Apparently one of the fishermen asked him if he wanted 40 crappie. He's like, 'yeah, I'll give them to my boy.' Only problem was I had to clean every damn crappie myself. So basically, he wanted me to clean crappie.

JA: (Laughs.)

MW: "I didn't have any of my knives, so he gave me an electric knife, you know the old school way the fish guys do it, knock it out like that."

Arevalo pats him on the back.

click to enlarge Surprise! - PHOTO BY KATE MCLEAN
Photo by Kate McLean
HP: What pushed you to the next level in your cooking career?

MW: "Artisans. I went to Artisans and applied for a job I wasn't ready for. Every single one of those guys was above me. You had Jake Nelson, Larry who is over at [Hotel] Zaza now, Russell was the sous chef, and Oliver who ended up being one of my very good friends. Right away Jake could tell I didn't know what the hell I was doing over there. Do you know Jake Nelson?

HP: I don't?

MW: "Oh my goodness he was such an asshole.  It's just how he was to everyone, but me wanting to learn, I just dealt with it. 'You don't know what the fuck you're doing, do you?' Straight-up talk shit to me on the line. I ended up getting kicked off the station, they put me on salads. Then I worked my way from salads, to vegetable station, back over to seafood. Whenever I was on the salad station I would always go back and try and work with Jake. He was such a dick, but because I took it from him and he saw how I worked, he ended up taking me under his wing and we became friends. He taught me how to sear a fish, how to sear a scallop and he got me to where, on busy nights, normally a two-man station, I could work it on my own."

HP: Nice.

MW: "And when I overcooked shit, he would still jump my ass, and be like, 'What the fuck?!' The reason I moved up so quickly was because Larry had left, Oliver couldn't work nights on the weekends anymore, so Jake and Russell really took me under their wings. Russell taught me pasta, French cooking, risottos. Jake taught me technique. I credit those two guys for me getting ahead in the culinary scene. Before that I was like any other line cook, I'd go out and drink and spend all my money on that. They really kind of straightened me out. Well. food passion wise. (Laughs.)"

HP: From Artisans you went to Kuu?

MW: I was 25.

HP: And they made you chef de cuisine?

MW: "Yes. Adison [Lee] had been watching me and how I worked with the Artisans team. I got really fast. In a way, it's not fair because I had Oliver on my side. Oliver knew if I worked before, he was fully set up and I knew if he worked before I was fully set up. And if we worked together. We would just split shit up and knock it out together. If something happened and I was getting behind, he would go the extra mile to take on more to let me catch up and he knew if that happened to him, I would do the same. It got to a point that after two years, me and him, no matter how many covers, we were just gliding through the line. Like clockwork.

"I got a random phone call from Adison. I thought I could really learn from him. I love Japanese cuisine and saw it as a good step for me. So I was asked to be the head chef without really knowing much about the cuisine.  Adison taught me a lot. He's Chinese and so was one of the cooks there, Richard, so I also learned about that world too. I pushed myself, reading books, working, experimenting. We ended up doing pretty well."

HP: How many years were you at Kuu?

MW: A little over two years, and then I came here (Brennan's).

HP: And that was two years ago? Time flies.

MW: Yeah, I started here January 23, 2016. I wanted to open my own restaurant after KUU, but what stopped me was one of my friends saying, "well, do you know anything about labor cost?" That's another reason that brought me to Brennan's. I thought, what's a place that probably has all their formulas down to where I can learn the paperwork side of things.

HP: Smart.

MW: I got to learn every single thing I wanted to. I worked with our corporate accountant in New Orleans, I learned how to develop charts for food and labor, inventory. At Kuu, my job was solely food, and then I came here and got to learn the paperwork side of things. It helped me open my eyes.  Slow down, and think about what you need to know and what you don't know. Surround yourself with people who are better than you. That's what Danny Meyer says. If you're the smartest person in the room, you need to leave the room. There is always someone better than you, so if you can find those people, get advice from them, learn from them, it can make you that much better. 

HP: That's a great head you have on your shoulders there.

MW: (Laughs.) Thank you. That's why I have some of the friends I have, because they are better than me in some aspects. One thing I always tell people, I hope I never become that chef that is so arrogant. My Dad always says, never think you're the best at something, the day you think you're the best at something you need to give up your job. There's always something you can learn. Keep an open mind.