The Goode Son

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The Goodes often employ whole families: A mother may work as a "bean lady" at Barbeque, while her daughter makes pies at the commissary and her son manages Burgers. To Jim, that kind of nepotism only makes sense: If you get a job because you're somebody's cousin or brother, you feel a little extra responsibility to prove yourself, to uphold your family honor.

Jim felt close to his restaurant family -- in some ways, closer to them than he was to his flesh-and-blood children. After Levi left for military school, Jim hardly noticed he was gone.

Jim thinks about that now. "I got friends whose kids are going to college," he says. "These people spent their whole lives with their kids, went to every baseball game, and now it's like they're in mourning."

He takes a hit from his cigar, then exhales smoke. "I envy that," he says.

Like his dad, Levi grew up surrounded by serious cooking, but Levi's childhood food was the stuff of a different place and time. Besides pecan pies and enchiladas, Levi ate Cajun gumbo and boiled crawfish in Delcambre, and also Sicilian red sauces cooked by his New Orleans grandmother. And though Levi grew up partly in the Lone Star State, Texas food had changed since his dad was a kid: Houston now offered Vietnamese crabs, South American steaks and Indian curries. In the combination office/test kitchen that Jim and Levi share, it's hard to tell what belongs to whom; they both use the pots, the cookbooks, the table and even the phone number. But the shelf of Asian ingredients -- sambal, fish sauce, hoisin -- is clearly Levi's. If Levi represents the next generation of Texas cooking, then Texas seems a bit less mythical, a bit more like every other place in the modem-shrunk global economy: a place where people shop at the Gap and IKEA, where sport-utility vehicles log more miles on freeways than on farm roads, where the rodeo's main attraction is Garth Brooks, not livestock or cowboying.

Levi looks modern, too. Everything about him announces that he's a Serious Young Business Guy: his slicked-back hair, his button-down shirt, black Dell laptop and tiny black cell phone. Except for his shiny, pointy-toed boots, he could pass for one of those baby-faced software-company executives who populate California. He looks like he'd enjoy chatting about IPOs and stock options.

Jim always looks distinctly Texan, though not always the same kind of Texan. In October he and some buddies posed for the Goode Co. Hall of Flame catalog dressed in 1890s cowboy gear. Jim had his beard then, and looked perfectly comfortable in knee-high boots and a tall, round-domed hat. He appears equally comfortable clean-shaven and outfitted like a retired millionaire fisherman, in a white-white shirt, baggy shorts and new-looking Nike sandals; or in jeans, a cowboy hat and a 1940s-style Western shirt. It's hard, though, to picture him dressed like Levi, in nondescript business casualwear, or toting a laptop or cell phone.

Jim and Levi sound different, too. Jim tells long, funny stories and talks about "loyalty" and "responsibility"; Levi is more theoretical and hurried, and uses words like "proactive." Still, their points are often the same. They both brag, for instance, that Goode Co.'s staff doesn't tolerate fools or slow learners: "If someone's not carrying their own weight, we don't have to fire them," says Levi. "The kitchen runs 'em off." The business might be a family, but it's not one that nurtures low achievers.

If Levi feels pressure to prove himself, he doesn't show it; he makes his position in life sound only natural. He describes the new Seafood as a milestone for the company, not for himself. He's gratified, but not surprised, that his crab stuffing is selling well. When he talks about "taking Goode Co. into the next millennium," it sounds like a kind of noblesse oblige, the hereditary obligation of a privileged family. Of course he wanted to go into restaurants, he says. "It's a natural tendency to want to do what your dad does, if he's successful."

But the fact is, Levi's position as heir apparent only recently began to seem obvious. After military school Levi went to Texas A&M and majored in agricultural economics. He left in '97 without graduating. According to Jim, he "had too much fun."

But back in Houston, Levi found his work ethic. He waited tables at Seafood and used the money to put himself through culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He learned the theory behind cooking, the professional approach. Once, his dad had been intimidated by the huge pots, pans and spoons of a restaurant kitchen; now, to Levi, a home kitchen's tools looked dinky.

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Lisa Gray