Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Amanda McGraw of Brasserie 19

Amanda McGraw not only has work ethic, but loyalty. Over the last year, she's been the woman behind the kitchen of the glitzy, hugely successful Brasserie 19, withstanding early kitchen shake-ups and emerging as the de-facto Chef de Cuisine, where she is responsible for menu development and training. More recently, her role has expanded to include sister restaurant Ibiza, where she currently serves as Sous Chef as well.

It's an amazing feat for the impressive young 26-year-old chef, who took time out from her busy schedule to chat with us last week.

EOW: How did you get started with Brasserie 19?

AM: I was living in Chicago, and I was friends with Michael [Gaspard], and he was like, "Hey Amanda, I'm doing this restaurant, and I'd really like you to come and be my sous chef." So I moved back to Houston to open this restaurant.

EOW: So, you're from Houston?

AW: Yes. I moved to Chicago for about eight months to stage at different restaurants and just learn. I staged at Blackbird, The Publican, Avec -- all three are Paul Kahn restaurants -- one of my favorite chefs.

EOW: So eight months. When you stage, do you make money?

AW: No. We work for free, but it's such a good learning experience. I learned more from staging than from working in all the restaurants I'd worked in before. To make money, I worked as a line cook at Spring and also at theWit Hotel in Downtown Chicago.

EOW: Tell me what you learned.

AW: Just working with different ingredients I'd never worked with before, seeing different restaurants, because every restaurant has different formulas for how they do things. The more restaurants you can actually go into, you see there's more than one way to do something.

EOW: So when you go in and stage, and you're learning, what do they have you do?

AW: The first half of the day you get there, you prep -- cleaning vegetables, mushrooms, chopping things. You're like the prep cook, I guess.

EOW: How long does it take for you to graduate to something substantial?

AW: Usually when you stage and they see you're doing a good job, they'll let you work on the line. At Blackbird, every day when I staged there, I would prep a little bit, work on the line, work as garde manger, do the amuse bouches, kind of help out with everybody.

EOW: Prior to Chicago, how long had you been working in a kitchen?

AW: I've been working since I was 18 in a kitchen. I'm 26 now, so eight years, but more upscale stuff just the last four years. I started out flipping burgers, washing dishes, I worked everywhere in the back of the house.

EOW: What made you decide "I'm going to Chicago," and why Chicago?

AW: Chicago is one of the best food cities in the US. It's right up there with New York, San Francisco, Portland is up-and-coming.

EOW: So you came here and you opened Brasserie 19, and it was crazy. Tell me about the craziness.

AW: It was a crazy opening mainly because it was crazy-busy from the get-go. Our first day, we only opened for dinner, and we did 300 covers. The very next day, we were all worn out, we got here at 7 a.m. after leaving at 1 a.m. to prep because we knew it was going to be the same thing. So it's just like, from the get-go, bam, bam, bam. And it's been busy ever since.

EOW: What do people not realize about opening a place of this scale? What can you tell people that are wanting to open businesses, what are the lessons learned?

AW: Get all your paperwork in line -- all your recipes, all your costing. All the paperwork and computer work takes a long time, and working on it when the restaurant opened was tough. Just have all that stuff in line, costing, inventory, everything.

EOW: What was your role in the menu at Brasserie 19?

AW: Before Brasserie opened, me and Michael would meet and discuss what we wanted on the menu, talked through the dishes, so it was a combination of both of us. And then after he left, we changed it up a bit. Dishes that I was a major part of, we kept them and then we changed some other things. Also, when you're doing that many covers, you have to streamline the food a little bit. You can't do tweezer-tong plating when you're doing 5,600 covers in one day. Me and Michael, we like fine dining and beautiful plating, but it doesn't really fit for a brasserie. Brasserie is more casual. It's getting to know the clients here, seeing what they like and making them happy without sacrificing the integrity of the food.

EOW: So what did the clients want? Finding the right menu, is it a combination of what you want to put out and feedback from the clients, or is it more understanding the client and putting out what you think they want?

AW: It's a combination of both of those things, what you really want to do, but are people going to buy it?

EOW: So what did they not buy?

AW: I love sweetbreads. We started a filet with sweetbreads, and 90 percent of the time, people would ask for no sweetbreads or just pushed it to the side. We got rid of it for a while, but we worked it back into the menu. Right now we have a seared foie gras with sweetbreads.

EOW: Culling from your experiences in Chicago, how do you think staging there changed the way you think about food or the way you approach it? Is it technique-driven thing, or is it just flavors?

AW: It's both. It's technique, yes, like Blackbird does a lot of really cool techniques that you don't really see here, like compressing fruit. You're starting to see it now, but Houston's a little behind on those kind of things. But with the up-and-coming chefs now, I think we're getting to that point, because a lot of the young chefs right now, they have staged and they have traveled. They see how it's done in other cities and we can do it here, but we're easing into it.

Check back with us tomorrow as we talk more about McGraw's style, her role at Brasserie 19 and Ibiza, and what she does in her spare time.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham