Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Mary Cuclis Of Pondicheri Is A Pro At Filling In The Gaps

Chef Mary Cuclis is calm and collected.
Chef Mary Cuclis is calm and collected. Photo by Kate McLean

Finding the type of employee that will dive to catch the tricky hits is lucky. It's even more rare when they're happy doing so. Mary Cuclis, who serves as Anita Jaisinghani's right hand at Pondicheri, is exactly the kind.

Cuclis helped open the popular Indian eatery seven years ago. Now she oversees it and the colorful Bake Lab + Shop located directly above, especially keeping a watchful eye when Jaisinghani steps to New York.

Cuclis was born in Houston, but grew up partly overseas; in fact her first words were spoken with a British accent.  And as for trying new things, two weeks into her first cooking job she was left in charge of pastry for a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Hong Kong. No pressure, I'm sure.

All things growing interest Cuclis as it seems her Greek grandfather's green thumb was also bestowed upon her. When in town, she tries to hit the Saturday farmers market as well as loves to pick through rows upon rows of heirloom produce growing at her grandfather's garden in Alvin. Not to mention curating her and her husband's impressive home plot.

Masala spice packets and canned house-made Indian pickles are stacked against bright mural walls at the lively Pondicheri Bake Lab + Shop; a creative environment for working or catching up with friends. The Houston Press sat down with chef Mary Cuclis at a communal table; they enjoyed cold sparkling water from shiny metal cups…

HP: What's your title here?

MC: Sometimes I'm the general manager, sometimes I'm the event coordinator, sometimes I'm the sous chef. It just depends on what needs to happen.

HP: Many hats.

MC: Yeah.

HP: How many years have you worked with Anita [Jaisinghani]?

MC: Seven years.

HP: Why Pondicheri?

MC: I didn't have any idea this is where I would be in seven years. I knew I loved food. I graduated with a degree in marketing and art from Trinity [University] in San Antonio. Indika was my favorite restaurant at that time, so I thought maybe I'll try working in a restaurant for six months, see how it goes. I applied and Anita didn't need anyone at Indika, but she was opening Pondicheri soon and offered me the chance to be a part of that. I started two weeks before we opened. I worked on the line, well… whatever needed to happen that's where I worked.

HP: Had you worked in a kitchen before?

MC: A little bit. I had worked the summer before at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

HP: A Michelin 3-star restaurant. Kind of an intense summer job…

MC: (Laughs.) It was so intense. And (laughs, again) I feel like there aren't really any laws on labor in Hong Kong. I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day for the whole summer.

HP: You just did it.

MC: Well yeah, that's what everyone else was doing there. So, that made me good for the opening of Pondicheri.

HP: What kind of jobs did they give you at Bo Innovation?

MC: They actually started me out in pastry. I trained for a week and the pastry chef was like, "oh, I'm going on vacation… you're in charge."

HP: Shut up.

MC: (laughs) Then they were like oh, by the way, the Michelin star guy is in town too…

HP: Shut upppp.

MC: (Laughs.) I was like, um, really? I don't… okay. I don't know if he ended up coming in, but it was frightening.

HP: That's pretty badass.

MC: Then I did some prep in the back kitchen and a little bit of the hot cooking as well, like plating. It was fun.

HP: Crash course.

MC: It was.

HP: Do you speak Mandarin?

MC: I know a handful of words.

HP: Did they speak English in the kitchen?

MC: There were two people who spoke some English. The owner was actually from Canada, so he spoke English, but everyone else did not.

HP: That's intense.

MC: Yeah.

HP: What did your parents do that you moved around so much?

MC: My dad is an international lawyer, so he would do mergers between companies.

HP: What can you remember about growing up in London and Moscow?

MC: I moved to London when I was two-and-a-half. We lived in Chelsea. I remembered walking to school every day with my dad. I guess I was there during formative language years because I had a British accent.

HP: Really?

MC: Back in Houston a lot of people would be like, who is this girl you have? What are you doing with this little British girl? That faded of course.

Then I moved to Moscow when I was four and lived there until I was eight. I mostly remember the traffic and my German Shepherd. There was a little restaurant that the guards of the community would always feed her borscht from. I remember she would get sick and throw it up.

Lots of snow in Moscow. We were there during the coup against Gorbachev, so 91' I believe? My memory of this was, on the way to school, I passed by what they call, "the white house." It's an administrative, legislative building and it's all white. I asked my mom, "why is the white house black?" Turns out it had been bombed. There were tanks going down the street. It was a pretty crazy place to live during that time.

HP: What are some important things you've learned from Anita?

MC: Let me think, I mean so much. I've learned how to be confident, how to be a leader, how to not be pushed around. (Laughs.) I mean, how to cook Indian food. Really thinking about balance in foods. She's always like, "where's the sweet?" Or… "the sour?" In a lot of Indian cuisine you want to have a balance of sour, sweet, and spicy. We think about every little element. Doing that has really improved my palate and the ability to taste something and know what it needs.

click to enlarge To die for spice packets, pickles and a little inspiration from the walls. - PHOTO BY KATE MCLEAN
To die for spice packets, pickles and a little inspiration from the walls.
Photo by Kate McLean

HP: Do you get to create a lot?

MC: Yeah, a fair amount. Of course, Anita is the powerhouse of ideas and is amazing at generating [them], but we collaborate a lot. Like just now when I was eating lunch, we were tasting some of the new menu items and looking at what could make [them] better. We feed off each other.

HP: That's nice to have in a mentor.

MC: Yeah, totally. She's been so supportive. With me having a baby, now I have a few constraints with my time. She's been super flexible.

HP: How's Owen?

MC: He's good.

HP: How old is he now?

MC: He's almost 10 months.

HP: What was it like being pregnant and managing a kitchen?

MC: Um. I mean at first it wasn't any different. I had an easy pregnancy so that was nice. Towards the end of course I got a little bigger, so I wasn't on the line or anything. I was doing more management and planning for events. Not as much hands on for the last three months.

HP: How long did you get to be with him before you came back?

MC: I originally told Anita I wanted four months, but after about six weeks I was going kind of crazy. I can't do only baby all the time. I started doing some stuff from home, like answering emails. After four months I worked part-time and for the past three months I've been full time.

HP: He is so cute.

MC: (laughs.)

HP: I was kinda hoping he'd be here…

MC: (laughs) Sorry.

HP: Tell me about your garden.

MC: I'm really excited about it. My husband built five raised-bed gardens in our back yard. We have one bed with broccoli and herbs. The broccoli is on the top tier. We have a persimmon tree. Another bed has a bunch of peppers on the top. All the bottom tiers are herbs, that's the idea. And then we have a fig tree… we have kale, we have zucchini, we have mustard greens. A Meyer lemon tree. A Cara Cara orange tree.

HP: Whoa…

MC: Two apple trees. A bunch of blueberry bushes. Brussel sprouts too, cabbage…

HP: Did you guys buy them or were they already there?

MC: My grandfather is a master gardener in Alvin, TX. He had a big sale last September so we bought all the trees [from him.]  He has like 30 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes too. They are beautiful. He's so sweet, he'll come to the restaurant, Papou, and say, "I have too many things, can y'all use these?"

HP: You call him Papou?

MC: It's grandfather in Greek.

HP: Is Scotty Greek too?

MC: No, he's Scottish.

HP: How did you guys meet?

MC: We met in high school. I went to Lamar and he went to St. John's so we like to say we saw each other through the fence. (Laughs) But we didn't, we had mutual friends who introduced us.

HP: Can you clear the wake when wakeboarding?

MC: Yes.

HP: That's badass.

MC: (Says quietly) I do it all the time.

HP: Really.

MC: Before life took over and I could wakeboard all the time I was almost flipping. I could rotate and land. My board would hit correctly, but I couldn't stick it.

HP: Have you ever been to one of those parks?

MC: (nods.) The Texas Ski Ranch. Yes.

HP: What's it like going off a ramp in the water.

MC: It's fun. I prefer it behind the boat.

HP: I feel like the fin would make you slip on the ramp?

MC: Yeah, you have to have a different board. I mean you can do it with fins, but it's better without. Some of the boards are now made with a fin, but it's not huge.

HP: If you could own a zoo animal which one would you pick?

MC: Probably a giraffe or an elephant?

HP: If you could be a zoo animal which one would you be?

MC: Maybe the giraffe.

HP: Why?

MC: Apparently it's my spirit animal.

HP: What do giraffes signify?

MC: (laughs) They're tall and normally very nice but if you mess with them they might kick you.

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