One of the joys of interviewing chefs is finding that very few are boring. They are often dynamic, adventurous people with amazing stories. Chef Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's is no exception.
This native Australian worked early in his career for one of the original "celebrity chefs" at a restaurant that, at the time, was among the most prestigious. After a period of extensive traveling, he made his own mark on Houston's culinary scene, first at Aries and then Gravitas. These days, he oversees all locations of the growing Cyclone Anaya's chain that has roots as deep in Houston as our other revered Tex-Mex restaurants.
Those things, you might know, but you probably don't know that he extensively traveled Europe, hitchhiked through part of the United States and volunteered his services during the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Read on for all the details.
EOW: How did you first become interested in cooking?
JG: I have being doing it for 28 years. It was just fate. I remember going at a very young age with my dad to the local pub. He had a golf club he was involved in and we'd go hang out the kitchen. I think I just got accustomed to being back there.
In year nine or ten at school, there were two weeks that were vocation weeks. I went in and cooked in a local pub and loved it. I got led into a false sense of security because they overpaid me. When you did vocation, it was supposed to be three dollars a day. They paid me five dollars an hour, so I came out after two weeks with $300 and everyone else was getting $30 a week. I was thinking "This is great! This is it!"
The chef after two weeks said, "Come back and we'll do an apprenticeship." In Australia, it's four years of apprenticeship. Most of time, you are actually working and you go to school part-time.
By the time my school year finished, that chef had moved on. When I went back to the pub expecting an apprenticeship, there was a new chef there who wasn't as willing. He was a tool.
I worked at McDonald's for a little while. Eventually, I landed an apprenticeship and it went from there.
EOW: You're originally from Australia?
JG: Yes, Melbourne.
EOW: Where was your apprenticeship?
JG: I did all my training in Melbourne. I started off in a small, family-owned Spanish restaurant, then went into events and hotels. I ended up running a bistro. Over four years, I worked at about five different places getting experience.
I knew that I wanted to travel. Most Aussie chefs want to go to Europe. Since we're still governed by the Queen, it's easy for us to hop over to England. So, I did that and landed a good job at a gastropub. Shortly after that, I landed a job with [celebrity chef and restaurateur] Marco Pierre White at Mirabelle. At the time, it was the pinnacle of restaurants.
It was the first real reality TV restaurant. They did a series on the opening and how White built it out. He sort of became the first celebrity chef and Mirabelle opened to rave reviews. I learned a ton there and had a great experience.
EOW: Why the eagerness to go to Europe? Were there no comparable restaurants in Australia?
JG: Australia didn't have Michelin-starred restaurants. They had really good quality restaurants, but we didn't have the population of dining public to the degree that there is now. The biggest jobs you could get were in the local pubs, which were actually serving really good, chef-driven food. But there was more opportunity for growth in London.
EOW: Were Australian chefs more welcome in London than in France?
JG: The biggest thing is the language. When you go to England it's not a problem and there are tons of Aussies there. You could definitely go to France, but--I know it sounds silly--you could be a chef in London and party at the same time. In France, you'd have to just be a chef. It would be a harder struggle because you don't speak the language.
I think I was in London in '98. At the time, the French had a very high opinion of themselves when it came to cooking. I worked with a lot of French in London, and even then they had a high opinion of themselves.
EOW: Has that changed?
JG: I think it's had to. French is the basis of most cuisines. Obviously, not so much with Tex-Mex. American and Australian cuisines have superseded what [the French] did, in my opinion. There are a lot of good French restaurants, but when people think of French food, they're thinking traditional French. However, if you think of American food, it's influenced by French but it's advanced. They've lost the high route.
EOW: After the opportunities in London, what happened?
JG: In London, you only get a two-year visa. I applied as a chef, but you're not supposed to do anything that will further your career. Technically, I shouldn't have been a chef. [Mirabelle] wanted me to stay on but I had to go.
I had a friend in Austria, so my girlfriend and I bought a van, put a mattress in it and spent six months driving around Europe.
Right as I got to Austria, my friend left. I took his position. They got me a visa and I stayed through the winter. I spent worked at a five-star hotel and it was really cool. Then, I continued to travel through Europe. We went through Spain, Portugal and other places. We got back to London and I wondered, "Where am I going to go now?" I wasn't ready to go home.
I'd met a bunch of people from Canada and America so I thought I'd go visit them. I traveled to Vancouver and I worked in Toronto for a little while. I was doing pub gigs--frying wings and things like that, but it was a way to make money.
I knew I wanted to hit New York and Chicago. I went to Seattle and there's a service where you drive a car that needs to be delivered somewhere. So, I drove it from Seattle to to upper Lake Michigan. But once I dropped the car off, there was no transportation--no buses, no trains. Nothing.
So, I hitchhiked. It was the epitome of every person's hitchhiking story. I was picked up by a local school janitor, a toothless guy who lived out of the back of his van, a nun and a couple of hippies who wanted me to go out into the bush and take mushrooms with them.
EOW: Well, you got a real cross section of America!
JG: Yeah, and that was only up north! That only got me from upper Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. I went to Chicago for a little while and then landed in New York. I decided to get a job. Gramercy Tavern called me back and said, "Come in two days." I'd been living in Chelsea in a hostel and it was getting expensive. I moved to Queens on September 10, 2001, at 8:30 p.m. The next day was 9/11.
I still went the following day to Gramercy Tavern and worked a couple of shifts. Then they told me, "We just can't bring on anyone right now."
EOW: Yeah, nobody knew what was going to happen after 9/11.
JG: The city went on lockdown. I stayed in Queens for a little while. You could see planes take off from LaGuardia with fighter jets coming up on either side of them to make sure they'd land. It was a surreal experience.
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I went back to New York and walked past Chelsea Pier. There was a sign that said "Chefs With Spirit." I went in to find out what it was. One of the harbor tour boats was based at Ground Zero and was feeding the rescue workers. They'd take anyone willing to help. I volunteered and got on the boat. We were getting donations from Daniel Boulud and all the local restaurants. They couldn't do anything with their product so they were giving it to the boat.
The rescuers were working around the clock. Up on the deck there'd be police officers and firemen sleeping with their dogs next to them--taking a break before they had to go back down and keep looking. The first day, they said you can go to the back and look but don't get off the boat. On the third day, they said "Stay inside the kitchen." Apparently, people were taking advantage and getting down there and looting. After what had just happened, it really surprised me that people were doing that sort of thing. It was disheartening.
You can't live and not work in New York. It's too expensive. I unfortunately had to leave. I took what little money I had and caught a Greyhound bus to Houston because I had an aunt who had lived there for 30 years. I thought I'd get a job for a while and then keep traveling. I just haven't made any money, so I'm still here. (grins)
What did he do when he arrived in Houston? Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Chef Chat to find out.