Chef Chat

A Chat With Chef John Watt

Tulsa-bred Chef John Watt has long toiled in the kitchens of Houston. He helped found Trevisio (6550 Bertner Street) and Prego (2520 Amherst), both recipients of Wine Enthusiast accolades, among many other culinary plaudits. Trevisio was named one of 2002's best new restaurants by My Table Magazine, while Prego is listed as one of America's best Italian restaurants in the latest Zagat guide. Eating...Our Words recently spoke with Watt via phone as he got in a little exercise on the treadmill.

So, how did you get started in the food trade?
Even as a kid, I always cooked my own breakfast. I worked many jobs in restaurants in the early '70s, including McDonald's and McCallum's Steakhouse on Route 66, when it was a major highway. I earned extra money bartending and eventually worked as a restaurant manager at the Boston Avenue Market. I was always doing a few things at once. These were all what I'd call working-class positions. I eventually was hired as a corporate chef for Sheraton.

Did you go to culinary school?
No, I studied music at the University of Tulsa, played all kinds of music, worked as a guitar teacher...I was a member of the Gap Band. As far as cooking goes, I learned by doing. There were gaps in my knowledge, but the jobs I got were challenging enough, so I kept learning.

How did you end up in Texas?
I was hired as corporate chef for the Tremont House in Galveston. Finer restaurants in America had been trapped in a cooking style I'd call Corny Continental. It was the beginning of the trend toward organic food and regional staples, food that had a clean but more intense flavor.

What are your favorite things to eat?
(Much hemming and hawing...) Well, I really like blackberry tart with ice cream. Roasted pheasant. Rapini with a simple pasta, wild mushrooms and sea salt. Watercress. Heirloom tomatoes. And roasted snapper.

Are you considering any new ventures?
Not in this economy. I do watch the stock market now, but my mind is more toward art.

Are chefs artists?
Well, I think of myself as an artisan. I'm not Miles Davis or Ernest Hemingway.

Okay, since you have a background in music and food, if you had to compare a restaurant to a type of music, what type is Trevisio and what type is Prego?
Trevisio is Frank Sinatra. Prego is more down-home. Prego is Chet Baker.

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E. Ting