Chef Chat, Part 1: Grant Gordon of Tony's

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There's been a lot of buzz lately about young Executive Chef Grant Gordon of Tony's. Last month, he collaborated on a hugely successful Les Sauvages pop-up dinner with Chefs Justin Basye and Peter Jahnke.

Gordon was also among the youngest of the finalists who were nominated for Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year in this year's My Table Magazine Houston Culinary Awards. He also will be preparing the entree for the sold-out annual awards gala dinner next month.

We caught up with Gordon, a native Houstonian, for a chat about out how he got to be here at such a young age.

EOW: I've read that you're just 24 years old, is that right?

GG: I'm 25.

EOW: Wow. And how did you get started?

GG: After high school, I went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While I was there, we had to do an internship -- they called it an externship because it was during school but away from school -- and I did mine at a restaurant called Le Toque, which was in Napa Valley in a town called Rutherford. And that was a cool deal for me. That was somewhat of a turning point...

EOW: How long was the externship?

GG: Five-and-a-half months.

EOW: What was your role, what did you do?

GG: It was such a small restaurant that I was able to get really involved in working on the line, which is very unusual for interns. I've worked at several restaurants since, and I've never seen interns being given the opportunities that I was given when I was on the line there. And it wasn't because I was anything special, it was small place.

EOW: How small?

GG: Eighty to 100 people a night on a very busy night. They were in Rutherford, California in a small French cottage, part of a hotel. But they have since moved to the Westin in Napa, and it's much bigger now.

EOW: Did you choose Le Toque, or did your school set you up?

GG: I chose it. They had this computer program at school, at the CIA, where we could see all the different places where externs went, and we could read the reviews, and this one had a great review -- all they talked about was how much the externs got to do. So I was like, that's perfect, that's what I want to do. I also did a bunch of due diligence. I read about it in all the publications, and it looked great.

EOW: Tell me about the food at Le Toque.

GG: It was French food -- French-Californian, you know, like the whole seasonal California produce, but very French in technique.

EOW: Okay, and what was the highest level where you progressed?

GG: The highest level I got to in that kitchen as an extern was -- I guess it would be the equivalent of hot apps. Cooking scallops --I got to cook cod once -- frog legs, but mainly it was a lot of soups, which is a great skill set to learn. Soups, salads, but when I say salads I don't mean green salads, because it was a tasting menu and there were no green salads. So each week, I would be given two or three dishes, and it was usually a cold salad, a warm appetizer -- either scallops or frog legs or something like that -- and then the vegetarian entree.

EOW: The vegetarian entree...

GG: Yes, each course had two options except for the main course, the main course had meat, fish, and vegetarian.

EOW: You're from Houston originally, right?

GG: Yes.

EOW: Where did you grow up?

GG: Memorial. I went to Memorial High School.

EOW: Oh okay, so you have friends...

GG: All my friends live here. It's nice. Between going to school in New York, and me working in New York City and California for all those years, all I wanted to do was come home. I was very homesick. And I've always just been a homebody. My family is here, my friends are here, so it just made sense.

EOW: So after the externship, did you go back to school?

GG: After the externship I went back to school, yes.

EOW: Back to school and then came here...back to Houston?

GG: No, after school I knew I was going to need to go and get some really good experience to put on my resume, but before I went out and tried to work in New York, I wanted to live in Austin for a little while, cause that's where all my friends were at the time, and I just thought it would be fun.

EOW: And how old were you at this point?

GG: Twenty. Austin was a great experience experience because it was a very good restaurant -- it was called Zoot. And I was afforded a lot of creative freedom, which at 20 was really cool. It was a good experience.

EOW: What was your role there?

GG: I was one of the line cooks, but there were only three or four of us. I was doing a pretty good job, created a lot of dishes...of course back then, I didn't have nearly as much of the technique as I've learned over the years. But it was still really cool at such a young age.

EOW: What type of food was at Zoot?

GG: Zoot was progressive American. I was there one-and-a-half years. It was cool. After that, I really wanted to work on my resume, so I moved to New York. For a year I worked at Cafe Boulud in New York, which was the best experience I had as a cook. I was by far the youngest. I was in the right place at the right time, so I was able to move up quickly.

EOW: So this was when? 2007?

GG: Something like that. The Patriots were undefeated.

EOW: Did you work with Daniel [Boulud] a lot?

GG: Daniel would stop in infrequently. Daniel actually spent a lot of time in his other restaurants. Cafe was the only one that he didn't spend much time at because it was always under control, it was always doing well, he didn't have to spend much time there. He always had really talented chefs, and mine was Bertrand Chemel, who had worked his way up the ranks of Daniel, and was given the sous chef job at Cafe Boulud under the Chef at time, Andrew Carmellini. He was Andrew Carmellini's sous chef. By the time I came to Cafe Boulud, Andrew Carmellini had gone to do his own thing, and Bertrand had become the Chef de Cuisine, and the line cooks under Bertrand had become sous chefs. With the Daniel Restaurants at the time, they always try to keep the good people in the company. Bertrand had worked at Daniel for something like 10 years, so he was my chef, and he was an amazing teacher.

EOW: Getting back to -- you wanted to come back to Houston, this was your hometown.

GG: Well after New York, I was going to give Dallas a try because I thought Dallas was the place to be.

EOW: [spluttering] I'm, like, offended.

GG: Yeah, I know, right? [smiles ruefully] Well anyways that was what I thought at the time. The Dallas thing didn't work out. I didn't enjoy the job opportunities, so I moved to Healdsburg, California, in Sonoma, to work at Cyrus, a two-starred Michelin restaurant.

EOW: This is bit off tangent, but what's the scene like in Napa? What's the climate like in the food world there?

GG: It's cool. There's a very good sense of community among wineries and restaurants.

EOW: Are there lots of tourists?

GG: Oh yeah, lots of tourists. In Sonoma it's not as touristy, it's more locals. But you can run into tourists anywhere in wine county, whether it's Sonoma or Napa -- more so in Napa. But it's a cool community, everybody's always taking care of each other in the industry. When I was an extern, I used to go in with my fake ID and do all the wine tastings for free. But I wasn't a punk kid trying to get drunk, I was trying to learn about wine. And that's what it took. I had my fake ID. I would go to all these wineries, and I learned a lot about wine at a very young age. And it really is the foundation for everything I know now, because you have to study wine, and I haven't followed up much on it since those days.

EOW: Do you drink wine regularly? Is that your preferred drink?

GG: If I'm out with friends, it's usually beer or alcohol. But wine, it depends. If I'm at home, relaxing -- wine.

EOW: So what's your go-to wine?

GG: My favorite wine around the house is called Lady Bug red, because it's really cheap, and it's just table wine. It's from a winery called Lolonis. And it was actually the first organic winery in America. The ladybugs killed the bad bugs. It's like $10-13 a bottle.

Check back with us tomorrow as we talk to Gordon about his role at Tony's and the things in Houston that brought him back to his hometown.

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