Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Danny Trace of Brennan's of Houston

Chef Danny Trace didn't initially see Houston at its best. It was not long after Hurricane Ike had devastated the area in and around Houston. The storm sparked a fire that destroyed the original Brennan's Of Houston building and seriously burned employee James Koonce and his daughter.

Trace also was coming in behind popular chef Randy Evans, who left Brennan's of Houston after the fire to start his own place, Haven. Those are big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Trace was more than up to the task. He had been with the Brennan's family for years, starting with Commander's Palace. He also already had experience reopening a restaurant, having worked to reopen Cafe Adelaide in New Orleans.

Even so, Trace discovered "Creole" food in Houston isn't exactly the same as "Creole" in New Orleans. There were cultural lessons to be learned. In the first part of our Chef Chat with Trace, he'll talk about the grandfather who gave him the background and upbringing to be the perfect fit for a truly farm-to-table group of restaurants. We'll also find out he grew not only to learn about Houston's "Texas Creole" culture, but to embrace it.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

DT: I'm not from Houston, but I got here as fast as I could.

EOW: Good answer.

DT: I'm actually from Louisiana. I kind of grew up with the Brennan family. I started at Commander's [Palace] 20 years ago and got my start there. I went to Johnson & Wales. Commander's is where I did my externship, and I kind of stayed with the family ever since. I started in desserts. I went through the ranks -- a.m., p.m., done every station, and then I became saucier, sous chef, executive sous chef, and then [Hurricane] Katrina happened.

I came to Dallas for a while. My mom was living in Dallas. I decided to go back to New Orleans and reopen Cafe Adelaide, which is a sister restaurant in the Loews Hotel. We got to toy around and pair cocktails with food. We had the country's first bar chef table, which was kind of a chef table that we paired cocktails with. There was a lot of trial and error on that. So, the first couple of tables between you and me were -- well, we got the people rather intoxicated. So, we learned how to do it and do it well.

EOW: So, then you had the "Chef's Stay-Over". (laughs)

DT: Yeah, exactly! Spend the night. (smiles) We did the Adelaide thing for a few years. It was a great restaurant. Then they asked me to open a Commander's Palace in Destin, Florida. I did that for a couple of years and while I was there, they asked me to reopen Brennan's of Houston. So here I am, and it's the best decision that I've made so far. I love Houston. I love what it stands for. I love the people, farmers, fishermen -- just everything about it. It's a great city, great chefs, great food and great restaurants. I have a lot of chef friends and they've been very welcoming. We kind of bounce off each other and have a great time in the city.

EOW: You came here after the fire happened and it took awhile to get this place rebuilt. I think everybody agrees that it's even bigger and better than before.

DT: I appreciate that. It was the toughest project that I've ever had. Coming here and not bringing any sous [chefs] with me and nobody to work with. I had Javier here that I'd worked with back at Commander's, but that was umpteen years ago. It was challenging. There was challenges on both sides, because this place is established and the food is different than in New Orleans. Everybody says they want New Orleans food, but they want a blend of cultures. They want heat on the food. Not that Louisiana food isn't well-seasoned, but there is a difference. So we got to learn from each other, which took awhile because I'm a little bull-headed and been doing [a different type of food] for so many years.

EOW: Did you find that there were existing relationships with the farmers that you were able to pick back up on to get the food program restarted?

DT: We use a lot of the same farmers, but farming's a tough business, probably more now than ever. Some have dropped off; we picked up a few. Something about Brennan's is that we can support the farmers pretty well because of our volume. So we've done that. Take Froberg Farms, for a start -- Brennan's of Houston probably put them on the map because we buy volume. We use 12 to 14 flats of berries a week.

We tend to do that. If there's a great product and we believe in it, then we'll heavily support it. There's GH Urban farms with their [microgreens]. We're buying micros every week. Not that we want to use them on everything and anything, but we just want to support them. It's what the Brennan family has been doing through its restaurants forever. Farm-to-table or whatever you want to call it these days, it's kind of what we do. I'll buy a little bit of other stuff here and there because you want to switch things up. But most of our products coming right out of the Gulf or within 100 or 150 miles from the restaurant. Is it more expensive? Yes. But it does make a difference.

EOW: When you were young, how did you know that you wanted to go to culinary school? How did you know you were even interested in cooking?

DT: I've always been interested in cooking. As far as doing it as a profession? No clue. My grandfather was Cajun and I grew up with him hunting and fishing. We'd get crabs and crawfish. He taught me how to do all of these things. And one thing Cajuns do is cook. So, he fried a lot of things. That's probably why he's no longer with us.

He lived in the city. He was from Thibodaux, Louisiana, but he ended up living in Kenner, Louisiana. He had a house right next door to him that was vacant. He used it for storage, and he had a garden. So you imagine how Kenner is. It's kind of a city. It's more urban now. He just did it no matter what -- no matter what the laws were or the codes were. He had chickens. He raised pigs. I guess he felt like he was still in the country somehow.

So I kind of picked up a lot of that seeing how he tilled the land and grew things. He even had a lot back by the airport that he did for a couple of seasons. He grew stuff and farmed. And then we go out there with cane knives and cleaned it up, and he'd bring his old tractor out there. We'd put up peas and make fig preserves. He had a pear tree, and we'd make pear preserves. It was just what we did. My mom didn't cook too much, so I kind of blame it on my grandfather for me being in this position (smiles).

EOW: It sounds like you grew up your whole life being very close to the earth and being close to foods that came straight from nature that never saw a grocery store.

DT: Not so much. Hunting and fishing is what we did. My favorite food that I remember was my grandfather's onion-braised rabbit. We always looked forward to that. It sounds crazy -- white rice, a little onion gravy and braised rabbit. That was the finest thing, or fried croaker, fried red fish, fried sheep's head -- that's the stuff that we grew up eating.

EOW: It's so delicious when it's so fresh.

DT: It really is.

EOW: It can be really simple, but the quality and freshness makes so much difference.

DT: Agreed, totally.

EOW: So you're a perfect match for this restaurant group because you had the same philosophy already before you even came in.

DT: Yeah. I grew up with the family at Commander's Palace. It was kind of right up my alley, this type of food. Even though New Orleans food has a little more finesse with the Creole -- stuff that's learned. But this Texas Creole thing is underestimated. It's a term that was coined here, and it fits very well. There's a lot of Latin influence. A lot of my cooks are Latin and they have unbelievable palates and unbelievable flavors.

EOW: I was very interested in what you said earlier, that the Creole food here is not necessarily the same as in New Orleans. It's got a little more heat.

DT: I don't know about "heat." I may be using the wrong term, but the influence of dry peppers -- anchos, guajillos. It's just that blend. I didn't really know what a soft taco was until we were rebuilding this place. Brother's Tacos is down the street, so the guys go get it and I eat for the first time a real taco. My eyes just opened up and I was like, "Wow."

EOW: Traditional ones, with a little onion, a little cilantro? That sort of thing? That's interesting. DT: It's the way they cook with braises and sautés. We have the best Latin food in America right here cooked in our kitchen [at Brennan's of Houston]. It's not on the menu, but we've got it. I just got married and we had our celebration here.

EOW: Congratulations!

DT: Thank you very much. I knew I wanted to have a fun party, and that's kind of what it was about. So it was kind of a blend of cultures. I'm from Louisiana, but I've been here for a while now. We were married in the Caribbean so I said I want a little bit of Caribbean influence, which kind of ties into the Creole thing.

So we ended up with basically a bunch of street food [at the reception]. I had the ladies make duck tamales. We did pupusas. We had a whole pig. We braised some pork butts and had tacos. We did have gumbo. It was amazing and everybody loved it. It was just odd for me to go and do this, I felt, but it was like true flavor and fun.

EOW: It sounds like perfect reception food.

DT: It was perfect.

EOW: At what point during the rebuilding here were you hired on?

DT: Early in the game. I saw this place as a shell. Randy [Evans] ducked out pretty early.

EOW: I think he was ready. (Author's note: The prior executive chef, Randy Evans, went on to open Haven. Haven is now closed, but he's now working as H-E-B's corporate chef and overseeing the food programs at several in-store restaurants.) About how long did it take to finish the rebuilding process?

DT: I want to say it was like a year and a half.

Don't forget to come back for part two of this Chef Chat tomorrow, where we'll learn about some of the special dishes that just appeared on the spring menu and more about chef Danny Trace!

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook