Chef Chat, Part 1: Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at JW Marriott

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Erin Smith is one of only a handful of female executive chefs in Houston. She first caught attention for the menu that was tailored for the extensive wine focus at Plonk! Bistro. She made headlines when she joined Clumsy Butcher group to conceptualize the initial menu for the newly opened Blacksmith coffee shop, then went on to revamp the menus at Anvil and The Hay Merchant.

Now she's in charge of a much bigger beast: the kitchen operations for the new and sophisticated JW Marriott hotel that just opened downtown. This includes the restaurant Main Kitchen, room service, banquets and the numerous other special events and meetings that happen every day in a luxury hotel.

In Part 1 of our interview, Smith discusses her surprising initial focus during college and why she instead turned to cooking. You'll also learn about how native Houstonian Smith earned her stripes at some of New York's top restaurants before returning home to head up Plonk! Bistro.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 where Smith discusses her food focus at Main Kitchen, as well as how she manages to pull off running a large hotel food operation.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

ES: I am from Houston. I grew up here, moved away for college, was gone for 10 years and came back in 2010.

EOW: Where did you go to college?

ES: Texas Tech. Get your guns up! (makes finger guns) I love doing that because we've got a lot of Longhorns here so there's this fierce rivalry thing happening.

EOW: You said you were away from Houston 10 years. Were you at Texas Tech the whole time?

ES: No, Lubbock is great but it's not that great. I decided my senior year to go study in Spain and that's where I decided I wanted to go to culinary school. I still had a year left but I told my parents, "I'm going to get my degree and then I'm going to culinary school." That came out of nowhere for them. They were like, "Really? What?"

I'd been wanting to cook and enjoyed cooking but I never talked about doing it professionally. I graduated and moved to San Francisco to go to CCA, the California Culinary Academy.

EOW: What was your original major?

ES: I was a biology major with a pre-med or pre-dental focus. It kind of would go back and forth throughout school. At the end, I was pre-dental before I decided to go to culinary school.

EOW: How did you decide that wasn't the profession you wanted to be in?

ES: I love the idea of traveling, experiencing cultures and bringing it all together. Spain was a great place to go because it's such a social environment and food plays such a pivotal role in everything they do. I started thinking about how much happiness that would bring.

Dentistry's great, but a lot of people avoid going to the dentist. Nobody avoids going out to dinner, you know? People are really appreciative and grateful and when they come in and have a great meal they want you to know it. Not every profession gets that honor. That's why I love what I do.

EOW: So, instead of being the person that people avoid seeing, you're the person people want to see.

ES: Hopefully, yes. That's the goal.

EOW: How long were you in culinary school?

ES: I was in San Francisco for exactly a year. Then, I moved to New York, temporarily at first, to do my internship, which is the last part of culinary school. It's three months where you go work and meet the required hours spent in a kitchen. I chose Per Se. I lived on my sister's couch and thought, "Three months and I'll be out and then I'll move back to San Francisco and try to find a job." But I loved New York and living with my sister, so when the three months were over there was no question that I wanted to stay.

I flew back to San Francisco long enough to pull all my stuff in boxes and ship them to New York. I never looked back. I spent four years in New York and was loving it.

EOW: How long were you at Per Se?

ES: I was at Per Se for about seven months. Since I was an intern, I started out picking parsley and chopping herbs. It transitioned into helping prepare dinners for the private dining room. I was setting up stations with the guys on the line. I went from picking herbs to doing things that were a little more intense. Not every intern had that same path. I remembered questioning it one day: "How come I get to help you guys?" The comment was, "Well, not everybody who comes in can do this. We wait to see if someone is going to be able to and then we give them the opportunity." I took that as the first big boost of confidence. I was always in awe of everybody I worked with and for them to say something like that, I was like, "Wow, maybe I really do belong in a kitchen."

After my internship, I didn't want it to end because I was learning so much. I talked with the chef du cuisine, Jonathan Benno, and stuck around for a little bit longer. I was able to spend time with Santiago, who broke down all the fish, and Ruby the butcher, who would break down whole animals. I was able to work side-by-side with people who had specific focuses.

Jonathan Benno had just married a woman named Liz Chapman and she was working for Mario Batali. She was looking for a sous chef. She talked with me about it and thought I would be a good fit. I started working with Liz and Mario and that turned into a line cook position at Babbo. I was there for a few years and developed a huge appreciation for how Mario and Italian chefs cook. They simplify it in a way that is so delicious but without complication. I love that and learned a lot from him.

EOW: Did you work anywhere else before you came back to Houston?

ES: After working at Babbo, I took a transitory position. I was trying to figure out what my next step was going to be. I started working at Williams-Sonoma as their culinary expert--helping them decide trends, machines and where is the home buyer going. I was there when they introduced the PolyScience line so that was where I became really familiar with that. I'd work with the PolyScience team. They'd design [a machine] and I'd test it and see if it was commerical enough or too commercial and find that fine line. I'd test out stuff like The Smoking Gun [a handheld food smoker] before it would go on the market.

At the time, [Williams-Sonoma] had exclusive rights when all that was being sold. We were also working with the Voltaggio brothers and with Thomas Keller because he'd just worked on an All-Clad line. It was a really interesting part of my life where I [was gaining] experience but wasn't cooking in a restaurant. I had so much fun on a geeky side. Customers would come in and ask questions and be told, "Oh, you should talk to Erin." I'd walk over and an hour later they'd be like, "Okay, so we're going to buy it. Stop telling us how great it is."

EOW: So, you were an excellent salesperson!

ES: Actually, I was probably a terrible salesperson! I was excited to see stuff like that introduced at those price points. I could buy a circulator for $700 when before you couldn't find anything like that for under $1,000. Even though it was meant for home use, as a professional cook I was excited about what they were able to sell things for.

This story continues on the next page.

EOW: Was Plonk! your first position when you got back to Houston?

ES: It was. I wanted to take a little time when I got back from New York. I wanted to unpack, take a few weeks off, recharge and start looking for a new job. I met Scott Miller [of Plonk! Bistro] by happenstance. I was not looking for a job when I met him. He found out I was a chef and started talking to me about this wine bar called Plonk. I went out and met him on a day they were closed and really liked what he had to say.

My favorite part was he was really detailed with the wine. Anyone who knows Scott knows exactly what I'm talking about. He has very high standards for how wines are held, managed, maintained and served. There's all this respect and I thought, "You know, I really appreciate that he has so much focus on the wine." In turn, I had that much focus for the food.

EOW: There are a lot of hot red wines that are served in this city.

ES: That is exactly why he cared so much about how the wine was stored.

EOW: How long were you at Plonk?

ES: Two-and-a-half years. Maybe a little longer than that.

EOW: What were some of the challenges?

ES: The kitchen was never designed to be used in a way that a restaurant would need it for. It was meant to have some meats and cheeses, a place where you could put a cutting board and that was it. There was no cooking system. They had a beautiful Woodstone pizza oven and that really the only piece of equipment.

It was a challenge. As we started growing the menu and getting busier, this piece of equipment did beautiful things, but then you'd hit the [maximum] capacity and have a hard time keeping up. Also, figuring out what else it can do...

We learned how to do steak, burgers--everything came out of that oven. Now, I prefer the way that [pizza] oven cooked to a regular grill! I don't like grilling burgers. I love really high heat. You get a nice sear. I became so in love with the way it cooked food. I'd still want a few other things but I really appreciated the way you could cook in that pizza oven.

EOW: I think the first dish I ever had at Plonk! was a thick pork chop.

ES: Really? Yeah, so it was seared in that oven. It wasn't completely cooked in it because those were too big to cook from start to finish. You would have been waiting for several hours. There was a beautiful sear that it would get. We'd get that oven up to 700 degrees. You're never going to achieve that caramelization at 500 degrees.

EOW: This was a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

ES: It really was and I am so impressed with what we were able to do. I love that menu, not just because I helped create it, but if I'm thinking, "What do I want to eat tonight?" I usually think about Plonk. I need to go there more. My dad goes there all the time still. He'll text me, "I'm sitting at the bar having a guanciale burger. Brian Cheatham says, 'hi!'"

EOW: As a customer, just from looking at the menu, I never would have known that you had so little cooking equipment.

ES: That's what I'm proud of! We didn't let it hold us back. You could say, "Ugh, we can't do this. We don't have the equipment," but we were like, "Let's see how it turns out!" We had a lot of successful experiments and figured out that you could do a lot. I wanted a Woodstone pizza oven for [Main Kitchen] but it didn't work from a construction standpoint.

EOW: I guess ventilating it would be difficult.

ES: [Main Kitchen] is not on the ground floor. The laundry equipment is underneath where the Woodstone was going to go and you couldn't have that much weight on one wall. I was like, "Wait, so we can't get rid of all that laundry stuff? The Woodstone is really important." They were like, "No, we need to have clean sheets for the entire hotel." "That's not fair! Says who?" (laughs)

EOW: Obviously, their priorities are terribly out of whack!

ES: That's exactly how I felt!


Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where Smith will describe her new menu and the intricacies of running a hotel food operation.

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