Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: JD Woodward of Goro & Gun

This is the first part of a two-part series. Check back with us tomorrow to read Part 2.

From the moment it opened, Goro & Gun seemed to suffer an identity crisis. The place that was supposed to be the first authentic ramen shop in Houston couldn't seem to offer the ramen that people wanted, and disappointed diners were vocal to the point of being mean-spirited. But to go off on the ramen is to overlook all those other wonderful things that Goro & Gun offers.

The space oozes cool, the decor a blend of industrial chic mixed with a sort of Western kitsch that brings to mind Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films. The beverage program is stellar, the bar a place where you want to hang out for hours. And the food, which has morphed into this kind of modern-day Houston-meets-Asian-with-a-bit-of-Japanese-thrown-in izakaya, is finally starting to gel.

"You have to go there and try the hot pockets," someone said to me, forcefully, a couple of weeks ago. "They are awesome." And having tried them since, they are undoubtedly awesome - as in, worthy-of-going-back-for-them-again awesome, a credit, most likely, to having a JD Woodward in the kitchen.

Recently named Goro & Gun's executive chef, Woodward sat down with us recently to share his beginnings as a chef and the vision he has for Goro & Gun's menu.

EOW: Have you been here since the beginning?

JW: I started helping out in the kitchen the week after the soft opening. When I started, I was doing it as a favor. I'd just left Underbelly a little while before ...

EOW: Okay, tell me about about your background. I don't know it.

JW: I started as an expo-food runner about four years ago at Rainbow Lodge.

EOW: An expo food runner. What does that entail?

JW: Expediter. When the tickets would come up, I'd call the tickets, sell the food, and run it to the table. I wanted a job as a server, and I went on a Monday because I didn't know they were closed on Monday. And I walked back there, and Randy Rucker was back there.

EOW: When was this?

JW: This was 2008-2009. Right at the end, it was May, and Randy ended up leaving late August early September. And he was like, "Hey, what do you want?" And I was like, "I want a job." And he was like, "Where do you want to work?" And I was like, "I'll be a waiter, I guess." So he looked at me and said, "Just be a food runner, and if you still want to be a waiter after you learn all the food, you'll know all the food, and it'll be easier for you."

EOW: Did you have any experience? Why did you want to be a server?

JW: I'd been a server for 10 years. That's how I started when I was 18. That's the only type of job I'd ever had. Anyways, he said, "Stay back here, I need a food runner-expeditor." So I took the job, and once I started working back there in the kitchen I wasn't going back out to the floor.

EOW: I hear you're a writer.

JW: Yeah. I graduated from Honors College at U of H in 2011. I mean, I graduated in '97, but went and did that whole stop-going thing. So, I went back about three years ago and finished my degree in English Lit.

EOW: So you have a degree in English Lit. Did you ever aspire to be a writer?

JW: Yeah, that was what I was doing. I wrote poetry, I did essay work. I did an undergrad thesis in lieu of a minor. So I have a writing background. I've played with some fiction here and there. It was stuff like that, but it was never anything that I thought I could make a living at. So once I got in the kitchen, I just caught onto it, and I was really good at it, so I never looked back.

EOW: Was it Randy who inspired you, or what was it exactly? Because you said you'd been working for 10 years. JW: But yeah, at chain restaurants. I was a waiter at Red Lobster.

EOW: So what clicked?

JW: You know, my grandfather was a chef at River Oaks Country Club, and so I kind of knew that, but never thought of myself back there. And when I saw what they were doing back there, it was like, "Wow, you can do all this other stuff." A lot of the stuff that they could do was mind-blowing because I hadn't been exposed to any of that. This was the first time I was seeing a lot of this stuff.

EOW: So you went to Rainbow Lodge and that was the transition point for you to go from being a runner to working in the kitchen.

JW: So I was a runner, and then right at the end I started on garde manger, and did salads. And then I moved over to the grill station with Lyle [Bento] and Lyle trained me on the grill.

EOW: Lyle [the current sous chef at Underbelly] was at Rainbow Lodge, too?

JW: Lyle and Mark Clayton and Ben Rabbani. That was the crew. They were all there. So me and Lyle stuck around for a while because everybody left. They were basically not going to have a kitchen. And so, I put in probably another month of notice, and then Lyle and Ben and those guys got me hired at Stella Solla. I ended up working at Stella for two and a half years under Justin Basye, and then at the very end under Adam Dorris. And then I left and did a short stint at 17, and then we opened Underbelly in 2012 and worked there for a year.

EOW: What were you doing at Underbelly?

JW: I did a lot of pickling. When we opened that place, it was four line cooks and a pastry cook. That's what we were -- we were all line cooks slash chef de partie. There was a lot of pressure there obviously, because we'd get stuff in every day. A lot of times they'd just hand you the stuff and say, "Here, you need to do something with this." And we'd be like, "Okay." So you'd come up with a set, or come up with a plate, and show it to chef, and he'd be like, "Okay this is good, change this, do this," and the food would be on the menu that night until we ran out of it. It was really awesome, I had a great time there.

EOW: So why did you move?

JW: My wife and I had our first child. When she came home, I needed to be home to help, and it was going to be three or four weeks. I couldn't expect them to hold my spot for that long. And it worked out. After he was three months old, I came back, worked the line at Hay Merchant for a while, did prep for Underbelly during the day three days a week, then they brought me back for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Check back with us tomorrow as we delve further into the world of Goro & Gun.

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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