Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: David Grossman of Branch Water Tavern on Faking It Till You Make It, His Time at CIA in New York, and an Externship in San Francisco

Branch Water Tavern 510 Shepherd 713-863-7777

This is Part 1 of a three-part chef chat series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

Driving north on Shepherd Drive towards Washington Boulevard, it's hard to miss the sleek wooden lines of the building that houses Chef David Grossman's Branch Water Tavern. Open now for three years, BWT came bursting onto the scene with items like duck fat popcorn and chicken-fried oysters, turning food that is familiar into food that is a little bit more decadent -- a new American cuisine, if you will. We sat down with the chef himself to see where that sensibility came from, and to hear what he's trying to do with his menu at BWT.

EOW: I don't know anything about you, chef! Give me your 30-second spiel.

DG: Sure! I'm from Houston, graduated from Bellaire High School, went to UT, studied Government there. While I was there, I got a job cooking, and cooked in Austin at a couple of places for three or four years, until I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school.

EOW: What kind of cooking?

DG: Well, I worked at a fancy country club in this sort of New American restaurant.

EOW: Is there some sort of requirement or experience you need to have to get that type of role?

DG: Well, when I got my first job, I'd worked in restaurants -- waiter, busboy -- whatever odd jobs you get when you're in college. And I was always interested in what was going on behind the kitchen. So, I saw an ad at a country club for pantry cook -- which is salads and desserts and things like that, and I decided to apply. I mean, I definitely...kind of...over...embellished my experience a little bit (laughs).

EOW: What kind of experience did you tell them that you had?

DG: I told them I had experience in the kitchen.

EOW: And they didn't check references, did they?

DG: No, they didn't. But I figured that hey, if I survived two or three days, I'm probably fine. And I was.

EOW: So it's your first day on the job, you didn't have any experience. How did you fudge it?

DG: It was very easy. You're talking taking salad out of a bag, cutting iceberg wedges and ladling dressing over it.

EOW: So no heavy lifting. DG: The hardest thing they had me do was dice onions, and if they asked me to dice onions, it would take me an hour to do a quart of onions. And they would be like, "David, what took you so long?" It didn't matter because that wasn't my core job; it was to put the salad on the plate as the orders came in.

EOW: So you became a pantry cook, and this led to aspirations to leave government?

DG: Well, I had worked in the law firm, and I decided that being a lawyer wasn't for me. I'd be doing my work and falling asleep -- I couldn't stand it. But I'd always wanted to see what things were like in the kitchen. When I did the pantry thing, I said, "Hey, Chef, can I work on the hot line?" and they let me do that. And eventually I got another job, worked as a commercial for about a year, mostly doing breads -- like a Kraftmen or Slow Dough here in Houston. That was really fun, but you really have to like doing the same thing over and over again. I got a job on the line, cooking for a chef who'd gone to CIA, and he's like, "You might want to consider going to the Culinary Institute of America -- it's a great way to get your foot in the door."

EOW: CIA, in New York.

DG: Yes. I researched CIA, and it cost almost as much as the local culinary schools like Art Institute. So I was like, I might as well go to the best culinary school in the country. So I went, it was great, I learned a lot. It was great being so close to Manhattan. It was a great time working in places; you could call up Daniel Boulud's restaurant a week or two before and say, "Hey, I'm going to the city. Can I come in and work for free for a couple of days; I'm trying to get an externship there?" Obviously, they're going to make you do the absolutely most drudging work, but you get to see everything.

EOW: Where did you do your externship?

DG: I decided that I wanted to go to the West Coast, so I did it in San Francisco at La Folie, which I think is Russian Hill. The chef was named Roland Passot. It was the old guard, fine-dining French food in San Francisco. He was sort of known for his extravagant use of foie gras. We would have like 100 pounds of foie gras at a time. We would get the unmarked vans delivering us the foie gras.

EOW: How many pounds did you say?

DG: We had 30 to 40 livers. They were big. We would get the best ones. He was very generous. He didn't do a whole lot, he was almost 60, but he prepared the seared foie gras and the stuffed quail, and he just liked being there.

EOW: When choosing an externship, what were you looking for?

DG: I really wanted to do French Laundry. I really wanted to do it, but they didn't pay, and the CIA doesn't encourage that, and it was very difficult to make it happen. And I think it was a good move to do that, because at the French Laundry, as an externship, you really do very little. So if I couldn't do French Laundry, I wanted to be close to there. So I did my research, and I found La Folie, and they were highly regarded. I looked at the menu, called them up, spoke to the chef de cuisine and things happened quickly.

Check back with us tomorrow as Grossman discusses his cuisine at Branch Water Tavern.

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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