David Luna helms the kitchen as executive chef at Shade (250 W. 19th St., in the Heights), which was named top New American restaurant in Texas by the Zagat survey.
Who were your cooking inspirations?
Funny you should start with that question. My grandmother's funeral was today and she was definitely a great influence. She lived on a farm in the Valley. She usually had cabbage on the stove. Poached chicken was common. She always made a caldo with whatever ingredients were in season. She sold tamales, so her house always smelled of garlic and chili powder.
So what are your first memories of cooking yourself?
I was also encouraged to read and my favorite books were cookbooks. I joined the Columbia Book Club and ordered ten cookbooks for a penny. The first book that arrived was an L.L. Bean outdoor cookbook; it taught me how to smother a dove in gravy. As a boy, I really wasn't interested in helping to clear out the back forty but I was expected to do some outdoor chore, so I was given a gun and a fishing pole. I learned how to cook fish and game and was in charge of holiday meals.
Was your family pleased about your ambitions?
Not at first. But after two years at Texas A&M in Galveston, it was clear that there was something else in store for me besides college. I was three-fourths of the way through culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston when my family understood cooking would be my life's work.
What was your first job as a cook?
I was a prep cook every Saturday at the Pearland Green Tee Country Club.
What do you find to be the most difficult thing about your job?
I have to keep up with trends and understand what people want. Cooking comes easily; running a business is the hard part.
So what trends do you follow at Shade?
People want healthy food. We prepare chickens that have eaten insects, beef from cows bred on grass. Portions are smaller, flavors brighter. We aren't serving gluttons.
How would you describe the atmosphere at Shade?
The servers are efficient and there's not an overpowering number of them. Fewer people on the floor and the fluidity with which they work offers diners the illusion they are at their own tables at home.
What do you like to eat?
Cured dried meats. Bosque blue cheese. Short ribs at Spanish Flowers. Pizza. Froberg fried pies, especially coconut cream.
Do investors ever approach you to open your own place?
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Sure. They usually don't have any ideas of the type of restaurant they want to open, they leave that to the chef. But I like where I am now. Claire (Smith, Shade's owner) has developed a neighborhood restaurant into a place people from all over the country know about.