Chef Chat, Part 1: Chris Leung of Restaurant conāt

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In many ways, Chris Leung is an idealist. After several starts and stops to figure out what he wanted to do, he took the plunge into the world of pastry so he could do something he'd be passionate about. It paid off.

This past year, Leung was recognized as one of the best pastry chefs in town. While at Bootsie's, he and the Bootsie's team became James Beard Foundation semi-finalists in the Best New Restaurant Category for 2011. In March, Leung was named one of Houston's Rising Star Chefs by Starchefs.com. And three months ago, he competed with some of the best pastry chefs in the country during the Starchefs International Chef's Congress. On top of all that, he and Randy Rucker are now partners in the highly anticipated Restaurant conāt, set to open the first quarter of 2012.

We caught up with Leung for a chat while he was prepping for one of his tasting dinners at Kata Robata earlier this month.

EOW: Are you from Houston originally?

CL: Yes, born and raised in Sugar Land. I went to Clements High School.

EOW: Did you always know what you wanted to do?

CL: No. I had no idea.

EOW: And are you an only child?

CL: I'm the oldest of two. I have a younger brother.

EOW: So there was probably some pressure growing up, right, you being from an Asian family?

CL: Yes. My parents are from Hong Kong. They came over in their twenties. My dad got a college education, got an engineering job. All my uncles are engineers, accountants. So I grew up in that world, like, "You're going to be an engineer, a doctor...someone 'important.'"

EOW: Where did you go to college?

CL: I went to UT for a year. It didn't work out too well 'cause it was a party school. So I came back, went to U of H for almost six years, on and off. I didn't really understand the whole thing about going to college to go into a career that I wouldn't love. If I wanted to, I could do well in the classroom, but I didn't have the passion for it. Growing up my passion was sports -- I played soccer from the time I was five till I left high school. But in college, I went from computer science, to business marketing, to microbiology -- there was pre-pharmacy for a while -- and then chemistry at the end. Chemistry was something I was interested in in high school, but then after a year, I took a semester off just to see what I really wanted to do.

EOW: How old were you when you took a semester off?

CL: I was 25.

EOW: So you'd been in school for a while...

CL: (laughs) Yes, there were times I would take a semester off and go back, just to see if I'd get that passion, you know? So I took the semester off, and started working at a coffee shop by my parents' house, and then I started reading a cookbook -- one of my friends was at the Hotel & Restaurant Management at U of H, and he had the Le Cordon Bleu cookbook. I started to flip through it, thinking I could try making some of the things in it.

EOW: Did you have any interest in cooking/culinary arts before that?

CL: When I started cooking, I realized, looking back, that I enjoyed watching my mom in the kitchen. It piqued my curiosity. I remember one of the first things that intrigued me as a consumer eating was on this cruise I went on for a family vacation. It was a dessert souffle, a trio of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry all in one. And I was amazed, like - how do you do this, what makes it like this? I went online and looked it up and failed. From there, I started looking at culinary schools, but the Art Institute and Le Notre was too expensive. But somehow I found out that HCC had a culinary program, and it would cost me just as much to take a cooking class as it would to take a history class. So I signed up for the first semester, and for some reason, I only signed up for pastry classes.

EOW: Why? What do you mean for some reason? You didn't want to learn sauces, and meats...

CL: I still don't know the reason why. I had an interest in all those. I think, at that time, I didn't see myself working on the line, serving 500 people in three hours. I do that now, anyways, but at that time, I didn't know any better. I went to school and ran into Mark (Gabriel Medina) -- I knew him from U of H -- we caught up and found out we were both in culinary school. He was working at Houston Country Club at the time, and he told me that they were looking for someone in pastry.

EOW: But you were still a student at that time.

CL: I was still a student. I started school in August, and by December I'd started to work at Houston Country Club. And that was four years ago. December 12th will be four years in the kitchen for me.

Check back with us tomorrow as Leung shares insights into his style as a pastry chef, working with partner Randy Rucker, and some of his favorite places in town.

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