Chef Chat

Prometheus Unbound: Young Chefs Set Their Sights on Houston as the New Culinary Frontier

The living room at Seth and Hannah Siegel-Gardner's tidy blue house in the Heights is packed: two chefs and their wives, a journalist, three dogs, a massive cookbook collection and a flat-screen TV that sits atop a vintage stove. The dogs -- Catfish, Barbecue and Janie -- are eying us expectantly as we finish patty melts that Seth and Hannah whipped up while Terrence Gallivan talked about the new partnership between the two men.

While most diners may be familiar with the currently running Pilot Light series of dinners that sold out in less than 30 minutes last weekend, Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner have much more in mind for their future -- and for Houston's -- than just this trio of dinners. The two men were responsible for last summer's wildly successful Just August project, a pop-up restaurant that operated for 31 straight, scorching days in August. And between Just August and their new Pilot Light partnership they hope to parlay their success into a full-blown restaurant.

After all, Gallivan and his wife didn't pack up all of their earthly possessions and move from a beloved apartment on the Upper East Side to a strange, mostly unknown city in Texas for nothing.

"Why should you have to go to New York to eat amazing food?" Gallivan asks, twisting in his chair with barely contained energy. "Houston is a great food community. It's just a matter of convincing people to try something new."

Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner together are aiming not only to leave a legacy of their own with a restaurant that's the culmination of years spent cooking in culinary temples like Aquavit, C-House, the Fat Duck, the Modern, August and Gordon Ramsay but also to cultivate Houston's own dining scene, which they feel is fertile ground for young, talented chefs with progressive ideas.

This past Saturday evening, Revival Market was transformed from a grocery store into a dining room. The intimate space was filled with 20 people lucky enough to grab tickets after waiting in line for hours the weekend prior. There's no telling exactly when they'll be able to eat the men's food again; plans for their eventual restaurant are still up in the air while they get through this dinner series.

Hannah Siegel-Gardner and Annalea Elwell, Gallivan's wife, served and bussed tables that night. The wine bottle-wielding attendees were a mixture of acolytes from last summer's Just August project and Siegel-Gardner's recent stint as sous chef at Kata Robata, where he picked up a feel for modern Japanese techniques and flavors from its venerated chef, Manabu Horiuchi.

"I never worked at a Japanese restaurant," Gallivan says of Siegel-Gardner's time at Kata Robata. "So I'm learning things from him all the time."

The two chefs are a study in contrasts: Gallivan, with thick, dark hair and an equally thick beard, has the demeanor of a live wire sending out shocks and bolts of untamed energy. He talks quickly, as if spoken words aren't broadcasting his tumble of thoughts quickly enough. Siegel-Gardner, with a shaved head, earnest glasses and colorful tattoos covering his thick arms, is reserved, quieter and much more contemplative with his words. He speaks deliberately and assuredly, but the two seem to share one mind.

For his part, Gallivan -- who was most recently the executive chef at Alto in New York -- brings an extensive fine dining background to their partnership, which is clearly one of equals. The Pilot Light dinners are an expression of that collaboration, and hopefully the first step to opening a restaurant where there is no "Chef," just two passionate individuals making food they love.

"The idea is that we're constantly conversing and hashing ideas out," he says. "With what these dinners are doing, there's no underlying theme. We just want to cook some good food and making sure that we're constantly developing our ideas."

He points to one of the dishes from Saturday night's dinner: onion bread toast that had been slicked with bone marrow. Gallivan had wanted to do a bread dish for this, the fourth course. Siegel-Gardner wanted to do a marrow dish.

"They started out as two completely different dishes," Gallivan says."But they ended up as one dish. We're constantly pushing and pulling each other; that's the whole point of working with a partner."

It's a partnership that goes back to their first encounter, as new chefs at orientation, green yet excited about working for Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York City. Both entered the restaurant industry at a young age: Siegel-Gardner started rolling silverware at Tony Mandola's at 13 years old, while Gallivan was washing dishes at 15. And both were keenly passionate about pursuing more modern cuisine as opposed to the staid, white-tablecloth fine dining that was more prevalent at the time.

They ended up working together at Maze, the smaller of the two Gordon Ramsay restaurants at the London. Both were drawn to what they refer to as its "more progressive" cuisine.

"It was a little bit more inventive and interesting food as opposed to what was going on in the main dining room," said Siegel-Gardner.