Chef Chat, Part 1: Greg Lowry of Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken

In an article last year titled Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?, we cited example after example of a celebrity chef who came to Houston only to be greeted with skepticism and indifference. Such has been the case with Bradley's Fine Diner.

Namesake chef Bradley Ogden got off on the wrong foot when he said in an interview with Eater Las Vegas that Houston was "starving for great places to eat." It was a bit of nonsense that didn't get things off on the right foot. When Bradley's Fine Diner opened, it was greeted with a big yawn. It's a beautiful restaurant, and the dishes were nice but not compelling.

The restaurant ownership recognizes the issue and has brought in a native Houston chef with a long, well-regarded history to fix things. That chef is Greg Lowry, whose résumé includes Tony's, Voice, Max's Wine Dive and Triniti. Even his education was obtained here, at the Art Institute of Houston and Culinary Institute LeNôtre. He started in pastry, making all the pastries for Tony's when many restaurants needed to be supplied. This was before the sale of La Griglia and the two Grotto locations.

Lowry is now in charge of the food at both Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken, which seems to have fared better thanks to its fast-casual concept and unique gluten-free fried chicken. He's extremely enthusiastic about tightening the ship and gearing the food to Houstonians' palates.

In part one of our Chef Chat, we'll find out his long history in Texas restaurants. Come back tomorrow for part two, where we'll find out specifically what he intends to do to bring Bradley's Fine Diner into vogue with Houstonians.

EOW: Are you from Houston?

GL: I'm about as Houstonian as you get. I was born in New York. I lived there for about a year and then we transplanted to Houston. My dad was transferred here. I think he was working with a company called Sales World at the time. They moved the family down from New York.

EOW: Where did you go to high school?

GL: I went to Klein Oak in Spring. I graduated there in '94, and we just loved that part of town. We actually live out in Spring now.

EOW: How did you get into cooking?

GL: I kind of fell upon it, really. My mom's side of the family is heavily Italian. They all live in New Jersey and New York. We'd go visit a couple of times a year. My brother and I just wanted to sit on the couch and have a bowl of cereal in the morning, but we couldn't because my Aunt Mary and grandmother were there cooking. They were these crazy, quintessential Italian women. There was bed sheets on the back of the couch with pasta drying, bread flour all over the place and pasta sauce just everywhere. They didn't just eat -- it was like a feast every time you sat down. There were always 15 or 20 people in their little house. Those are the memories and that's really where it started -- at a really young age.

EOW: That sounds amazing.

GL: It was awesome.

EOW: What was your first job in the restaurant world?

GL: My first job in the restaurant world was working at Kelly's Del Frisco's out on 1960 in high school. I was a food runner. That was really my first insight into the restaurant world -- being in the kitchen with the guys, it was just a really cool kind of family feeling that really appealed to me.

EOW: From there, did you know that restaurants were where you wanted to be or did you consider another career?

GL: I was kind of undecided going into college. I was an art major in college. I hated college. That was kind of when the turn happened, and then I decided to go to culinary school. I left St. Edwards [University] and then went to the Art Institute here. I continued to do my pastry education at [Culinary Institute] Le Nôtre.

EOW: We have a lot of Art Institute and Le Nôtre graduates in town. Did you end up going to class with anyone else who became a chef?

GL: John Buchanan [executive chef at Trevisio] and I went to school together at Art Institute. There were a few others, but I can't remember who they were. At Le Nôtre, I was in the first pastry class there. So it was mostly a housewife kind of thing, or people who were going to work in a bakery, things like that. Nobody was really all that serious about it.

Now, things have changed over there quite a bit but I think they were still trying to get their feelers out. I met one of my mentors there. He was one of my professors, Patrick Rebiere. He's still with them. He was the corporate pastry chef for H-E-B. He's just brilliant.

EOW: Backing up just a bit, what was your next job after Del Frisco's?

GL: I was at the Omni Hotel with Tim Keating. I was doing banquets. This was back before [Keating and I went to] Deville [at the Four Seasons].

EOW: Did you work with Paul Lewis?

GL: Paul was not there. Tim Keating was there. It was a great training ground.

EOW: Yeah, and I think Tim Keating is at Epcot now!

GL: Yeah, at Disney. He was actually just at Paul's Kitchen a couple of days ago, I think.

EOW: Oh, really?

GL: He was in town visiting some family. I guess it was his wife's birthday or something. We're actually going to take the kids to Disney in July, so we're going to go see him at this place. I haven't seen him in 15 years.

EOW: That's very cool.

GL: It'll be cool to see.

EOW: And fun for the kids, too.

GL: Yeah, absolutely! Fun for all of us!

EOW: How old are your kids?

GL: The youngest is four, and then 10 and 11. All girls. Lucky me. (laughs)

EOW: Girls are cool.

GL: Oh, they're great. I love them.

EOW: How long were you at Omni?

GL: Omni, I was there for a pretty short period of time. That was kind of back in the day when I didn't know if I was going to be really serious about it or not. But Keating was there as well, so we had two stints together. That was back probably in '96.

EOW: What was your role at Four Seasons?

GL: At Four Seasons I was the Pastry Cook One. So I was in charge of service for Deville and for room service.

EOW: It was interesting to me that you started in pastry. At some point, did you get tired of pastry?

GL: I was the corporate pastry chef for Vallone Restaurant Group for about six years. This was back when we had La Griglia and everything. I just got burned out really back there and started realizing that, unless you're in a hotel, you're never really going to make much money as a pastry chef. Not that it's all about the money, but you have to pay your bills and support your family.

So, I was like, "Okay, I'm going to start to get into the other side of it." It kind of makes you a little bit more of a dual threat because I understand both sides. Granted, I haven't done pastry as pastry chef for a long time. But I still know the basics of it. I'm not up to date on all the modern technology that is used nowadays for pastry, but I can still very much do the old-school stuff.

EOW: Did you transition to the Vallone group immediately after Four Seasons, or was there something in between?

GL: Yes. I went from Four Seasons to the Vallone Restaurant Group.

EOW: Did you end up interviewing with Tony Vallone?

GL: I did.

EOW: How did that go?

GL: Difficult. He is very set in his ways, as he should be. He's probably one of the most successful restaurateurs that Houston has ever had. It's a very, very difficult company to work for just because it's Tony, especially in the pastry department. If anything goes wrong, the table gets every dessert in the house. They're really big on making sure that they recoup everything at the end of dinner before somebody leaves unhappy.

EOW: That's a cool policy. Tough on you guys.

GL: Sure. It teaches you what you want to be and what you don't want to be. That was what I took away from there.

EOW: Did you work within all the various restaurants that Tony had at the time?

GL: I was in charge of all their pastry departments.

EOW: Where did you work?

GL: Out of Tony's.

EOW: I guess they're getting ready to celebrate their 50th anniversary this year.

GL: I think so, yeah. They've been here a long time. I started with them at the old location on Post Oak, and then I had my second stint with them at the new location for about a year.

EOW: What were some interesting moments from working with that group? Did you say you were there for six years?

GL: Yeah. I was there for five years and then for another year after that. Everything went so fast. It's really hard to pinpoint one particular thing. I just remember doing 400 covers a night with myself and one other guy in the pastry department and just running around like crazy and everybody's screaming and yelling at each other. We had fistfights in the kitchen and all kinds of stuff. It was really, really intense the whole time. But it was fun.

EOW: I guess you did learn a lot.

GL: Yeah.

EOW: And did you go someplace after five years?

GL: I went to Farrago in between. I was the executive chef there for two or three years.

EOW: That was your first executive chef position?

GL: That was my first executive position. I just started off as a cook there and then when [owners] Todd and Kelly [Stephens] moved to Colorado, I took over at the helm. Then I went back to Tony's and to Max's after that.

EOW: Max's Wine Dive?

GL: Yes.

EOW: About what year is this? Bring me to the time that we're at now.

GL: This is seven years ago, probably.

EOW: Okay. Who was at Max's?

GL: Michael Dei Maggi was the chef there. (He's now at Atlas Bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Matt McGahey, he was the one that I ended up with. Then we moved to open Max's in Austin. Steve Super was the chef there. We had a good time.

EOW: Your position over at Max's?

GL: I was a sous-chef.

EOW: So, it was fun?

GL: It was a great time. One of my cooks, a guy named Quinten [Frye]. He's now in Hawaii and is the executive chef at a place called Salt out there. He was phenomenal -- shooting star kind of guy.

EOW: What do you feel are some of your best contributions during your time at Max's?

GL: I think getting the systems organized was really the thing -- the ordering and purchasing systems and financial side of it was really what I created there. We just had fun doing food.

Opening [Max's Wine Dive in] Austin was awesome. We opened up to open arms in Austin, and the people were awesome. The kids still today are, "When can we move back to Austin?" I don't know. We got to see what happens with [Bradley's Fine Diner] and where we expand to.

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