Chef Chat, Part 1: Amalia Pferd of Good Dog Houston

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Houstonians have raved about Good Dog Houston's gourmet hot dogs ever since they started serving them from their baby blue food truck a few years ago. In time, the owners, Daniel Caballero and Amalia Pferd, were able to secure a storefront location in The Heights which now serves as their home base.

The truck is still around. It usually adorns the restaurant's parking lot, but it's still taken out for events and catering.

Recently, Pferd was honored as a finalist for Up-and-Coming chef for the 2014 Houston Culinary Awards. You might think that's unexpected for someone who specializes in gourmet hot dogs, but there's more to Pferd's background than you might know.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where Pferd will talk about the challenges she and Caballero had in transitioning from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar with strong neighborhood ties, their new retail program and her top picks for what menu items you absolutely must try at Good Dog Houston.

EOW: How long have you been in Houston?

AP: I've been in Houston since I was nine years old. I moved from Orange County, California. My dad got a job here. I did, however, go to college in Colorado. I returned to Houston in 2005.

EOW: When you went to college, did you expect that you were going to become a chef?

AP: I went to college for psychology. I realized in my senior year that was not what I was going to do, but finished up anyway. I tried the whole "real job" nine-to-five thing. I didn't really fit in or feel comfortable or excited about it so I decided to go to culinary school. I went to [Culinary Institute] LeNôtre and finished that in 2007. I was working at Houston Country Club during that time. I worked under Chef Charles [Carroll]. That was great and I learned quite a bit.

EOW: When you were working a nine-to-five job, what were you doing?

AP: I probably picked the worst job. I was a paralegal. I learned quite a bit and worked with great people, but it just wasn't for me. I like more of an active, hands-on job, so I had to find something that would do that for me.

EOW: Culinary Institute LeNôtre has different learning tracks you can take. Which one did you follow?

AP: I ended up doing both pastry and culinary. I learned about bread, sugars, chocolate--but my main deal was the culinary aspect.

EOW: So, I guess you knew both Alain and Marie LeNôtre [the owners].

AP: Yeah, they're there all the time. They're very interactive with their students. They're great people doing a very cool thing. They have the (culinary) history with their family but they were excited to open a school and teach. (Author's note: Alain is the son of Gaston LeNôtre, a renowned French pastry chef.) I think that really [transfers] to the students.

EOW: What was your first job after culinary school?

AP: I stayed at Houston Country Club for two years and then went to Reef with Bryan Caswell. My goal was to learn more fine dining and be in a more fast-paced kitchen environment. I wanted to really push myself and be in a good kitchen. I told Bryan I wanted to work in New York and that's why I wanted to work for him--so I could fit in there. Of course, I never went to New York. I think everybody talks about it, but only certain people do it.

EOW: Did you know [your partner] Daniel by then?

AP: Yes. When I first returned to Houston I was waiting tables. Danny then moved to Houston and we were waiting tables together. That's how we met. When I told him the crazy idea of me going to culinary school he was very supportive. He's been with me through it all and it's been a great experience.

EOW: Where were you waiting tables?

AP: Chatter's Cafe on Heights Boulevard. It's a small, privately owned place.

EOW: What was your position at Reef?

AP: I was on the hot apps station, which is pretty intense. It was a great learning experience. I learned how to prep and get food out like crazy--and there was a high amount of food going out.

EOW: Did you go from working at Reef to starting the Good Dog Hot Dog truck? (Author's note: Good Dog Houston went by Good Dog Hot Dog until a Colorado hot dog cart owner claimed that he had trademark rights to the name.)

AP: No, I made contact with Brothers Produce. I wanted to learn more of the back end of buying and sales. I did that for six months before I again felt that I needed to get hands-on with food and cooking. So, that was a great learning experience and I met a lot of people. It actually helps me today because now I know the ins and outs of that aspect. Some people don't see that. You haul [the produce in] but there are a lot of little things that happen in between.

EOW: I'm sure most people don't know that aspect of the business.

AP: I found it very interesting. There's Produce Row, as it's called, this crazy part of Houston that not many people see and that's where all of the produce comes in and is dispersed [to restaurants]. It's crazy to see. It's the food of Houston!

EOW: What did you do after that?

AP: I helped open Zelko Bistro. I ended up being the sous chef before I left. That was a great experience to learn the demands of opening a place--what goes wrong, what goes great, all of that. That was also where the brainchild of the food truck started. After I left there in December of(laughs) 2011, we opened Good Dog the following March.

EOW: You're very Heights-centric.

AP: That's very true. I hate a commute.

EOW: So, you're close to home.

AP: Exactly. I live in The Heights, so I don't have to drive far to get to work. It's very nice. EOW: What made you and Daniel decide, "What we want is a gourmet hot dog truck." You went to Culinary Institute LeNôtre and worked at Reef. How did we get from Point A to Point B?

AP: That's a very good question. We saw a need for better hot dogs in Houston. My family is from New York, so I obviously have fond memories of hot dogs after traveling to New York City with your family and remember how great that whole experience is. Also, my grandmother was an avid pickler, so I have really great recipes that launched the idea of making condiments from scratch. The whole crazy idea evolved from that--taking high-quality ingredients, including the highest quality hot dogs and buns we could find.

EOW: The truck was really well-received. Didn't you first park it at Antidote?

AP: Antidote was the spot we always wanted. We were excited when we started parking there. Our only actual spot when we first opened was Buchanan's [Native Plants]. We were well received because the timing was right. The food truck scene was up-and-coming. It was amazing that we were able to get in during that time. I think our concept was safe because it's very food truck friendly. It's grab-and-go.

After people saw the product we had, we'd get spots like Antidote, Black Hole and Inversion--all of these great spots that helped us build a fan base.

EOW: Did you end up making friends with other food truck owners? It seems like you're a pretty tight-knit community.

AP: It's very tight. It was just the timing. Everybody was trying to the same thing, but do it his or her own way. It just all clicked because it is crazy to put your entire business in a truck and sell it on the streets. Insane. We can all relate because you deal with the ups and downs, the problems, and the weather. They're also all great people. It's really cool to have such great friends that you met doing what you love. It was cool.

EOW: Tell me about food truck life, which is not always the easiest.

AP: Food truck life is hard. It's wearing many hats. It's always trying to get the right spots, the right catering [gigs], the right products, making sure you have propane and that you're stocked up for the day. Then, also hoping that nothing will break down or that [your truck] will have a leak or any of the millions of things that can happen. Yeah, it's very crazy, not to mention that you're in this incredible heat at times. You really have to dig down and find a way to keep it going. You have to really love it. The customers are what help. They're happy to see you, you're happy to seem and it's great. But it's really hard.

EOW: We talked with Anthony Callero of Pi Pizza Truck a few weeks ago and he had a great analogy about the difference between food trucks and restaurants. He said, "Imagine walking up to the door of your restaurant one day, putting the key in the front door and it just won't turn."

AP: (laughs) Yeah, it is true.

EOW: Let's talk about mechanical difficulties, because it happens to every food truck owner. What did you go through?

AP: Well, we have--knock on wood--we have it working now, but we've replaced everything on our truck except the engine. So, we've replaced the fuel injector twice, brakes, suspension, tires--I mean everything. The electrical was all wonky. The lights wouldn't turn on or the windshield wipers wouldn't work. We have a 1991 diesel GMC truck that had many lives before it was a food truck. It's just like any other old car. It's going to break down all the time. You have to always maintain it. We've been fortunate in that there hasn't been anything major lately but it does happen all the time. You're always afraid of running back into it.

EOW: Do you still take the truck out?

AP: We sure do. We take it out for private events and catering. We do festivals and other big events that happen in Houston. We definitely have more of a catering aspect with the truck, which is great because we can take it out to birthday parties, wedding rehearsals--all of that.

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