Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Jean-Philippe Gaston of Cove Cold Bar, on Traveling Around the World, Speaking Several Languages and Starting at the Very Bottom of the Restaurant Food Chain

This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Parts two and three will run Thursday and Friday.

There is nothing in town at the moment quite like Cove Cold Bar. The tiny little restaurant within a restaurant (it is literally located inside of Haven Restaurant) is not only one of the most current, of-the-moment places to hit the Houston restaurant scene, it's also one of the most innovative. Dishes are beautifully assembled, stretching the imagination in flavor and composition, and at the heart of it is Jean-Philippe Gaston. The current chef de cuisine over Haven and Cove, Gaston has created a menu that's as diverse as Houston. You'll find dishes from Japan and Italy, Spain, Thailand and beyond, and perhaps you'll wonder, as I did, how he came to know so many places. Last week, we sat down with him for a chat to find out about that and more.

EOW: How old are you?

JPG: Thirty-three. I'll be 34 in December.

EOW: And your heritage. You're French? Where are you from?

JPG: Bloodwise -- all European, Spanish and French. I was born in Mexico, but traveled to the old country a few times. I've lived and traveled all over the world, really, so it's hard to call one place home.

EOW: Why did you travel so much? JPG: My mom worked at American Airlines, so she had access to a lot of plane tickets and stuff. And then I traveled a lot with friends.

EOW: Where were you based?

JPG: Mexico City is the anchor of it all, I guess.

EOW: Entonces, habla español? (You speak Spanish then?)

JPG: Hablo español, inglés, italiano, francés. (I speak Spanish, English, Italian, French). But I've been in this country longer than any other, so I guess this is home.

EOW: I understand that your travels kind of shaped the food that you do?

JPG: Yeah. A lot of it was influenced heavily on Asian culture. I've always had a love for it. My neighbors across the hall when we were growing up were Japanese. The man was a bigwig in one of the companies. I grew up hanging out with them. The wife taught us how to play violin, and he taught us about martial arts and cooking. I was heavily in love with that Japanese culture, so I followed that and traveled to Asia a few times. Just the simplicity and the love for the art of it. On some of those travels, me and my friends were so broke that people would take us in -- usually they were poor people -- and they would teach us how to cook traditional dishes from different parts. These people showed us the true meaning of cooking.

EOW: You're talking about Japan?

JPG: No, anywhere. If we went surfing in Mexico. If we went to Oaxaca, a little 90-year-old Aztec lady would show us a 2,000-year-old mole recipe.

EOW: This love of cooking, did it come out of your travels?

JPG: I think it was mainly from the family side. Where I come from, going out to eat was a treat. McDonald's was for your birthday. You always ate at home. Family always sat down at the table and ate together. You always had at least one meal together, whether it was breakfast or dinner. My mom and dad would cook everything. They were excellent cooks, too. On Sundays, that was my favorite. It was a morning thing. My mom and dad would wake up at 6 a.m. and by the time that we woke up, there would be everything from quesadillas to pancakes to fruit salads to scrambled eggs or sunny-side up eggs. You got to pick what you wanted, and there would be everything from Latin to French to Spanish, and it was like that every Sunday. Eventually my aunt and grandfather all moved to Mexico. So on Sundays, we'd finish our meal and then go straight to the market, and go buy oysters and beers and stuff for the afternoon because one of the three would make the afternoon/dinner party. So we'd either go to my aunt's and she'd make a gigantic paella, or we'd go to my grandfather's, or they'd come to our house and we'd eat oysters and watch the equivalent of SportsCenter.

EOW: Tell me about these languages. Why do you speak so many?

JPG: Me, my brother and sister, we all speak English, Spanish and French. With my dad, I spoke French, my mom I spoke Spanish. My mom grew up in Queens, so if she got angry, she would yell in English. I went to a private school -- you have to go to a private school to get a good education -- back then all the European kids would go to the French school. So in that school, all your classes were in French. And you automatically had to take Spanish because we're in Mexico, and you automatically had to take English because it's the neighboring country. And then you have to take an elective -- Russian, Italian, Latin. But once you know French and Spanish, it's easy to learn what people are saying in Italian or Portuguese.

EOW: How did you end up in Houston? And did your culinary career start before then, or is it something that started here? JPG: My mom fell in love with this guy who owned a shipping company here. We have roots here as well -- my mom's best friend lives here, and her cousin, too. So I was just gonna come here to get a couple of credits for college, but something happened with my transcripts and they put me back in 11th grade. So when I graduated again, I decided to go to UT, moved to Austin and lived there for about four years. When I was at school, my first real job was at La Madeleine. It was fun, but I always had this leadership kind of role. I never liked to be at the bottom -- it's a Sagittarius thing where you just like to be number one all the time -- so I worked through all the stations and became a gold line associate really quick, and within a year, I was assistant manager.

EOW: So, did you end up going to culinary school?

JPG: Well, my GM at La Madeleine went to become the exec chef at the Sodexho Marriott inside AMD computers, and he asked me to go with him. So I moved to AMD computers, and they required chef papers, so they put me in Le Cordon Bleu. But after a week, I was like, "This is stupid; you're wasting your money. They're spending a whole week to try and teach me how to flip an egg -- I make 5,000 breakfast tacos every day." So I dropped out of culinary school but stayed at UT and finished a degree in communications.

EOW: What brought you back to Houston?

JPG: I came back because 9/11 happened, and I was in AMD computers, so all the buildings started shutting down and I was let go. I'd known a girl at La Madeleine who gave me her job as a GM at Swensen's ice cream, but after four months, the owner wanted someone cheaper and got rid of me. After that, I couldn't get a job anywhere, because I was either overqualified for one spot or under-qualified for another. This was five or six months after 9/11. I was 22, I had no money whatsoever. I was caught shoplifting food so I could eat.

EOW: Where was your mom?

JPG: Well, I didn't want to break her heart. I never told her what was going on. I lived in this cool apartment north of Austin on the lake. My roommate took off without paying his bills, and I was left with a huge debt and got evicted. So I ended up crashing at my friend's place. Eventually, my brother said enough was enough because one of my friends called him and said I hadn't eaten for a month. So he rented a U-Haul and picked me up and brought me back home and told me I was going to live with my mom. I got a job starting from scratch at the bottom at Barry's Pizza, making five dollars an hour.

EOW: Wow, that was a humbling, right?

JPG: Oh yeah. If I hadn't had family here, or the friends that I had, I'd be under a freeway somewhere.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Jean-Philippe Gaston.

Cove Cold Bar 2502 Algerian Way Tel: 713-581-6101

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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