Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Jeff Axline of Brooklyn Athletic Club, on Moving Around as a Navy Kid, and the Sexy Lifestyle of a Free-Standing Restaurant Chef

This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Come back to read parts two and three, which will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

On a sleepy corner of Richmond, close to the Spur and around the corner from Montrose, the Brooklyn Athletic Club -- which took over the space that was formerly Zimm's Little Deck -- has quickly become a go-to destination for fun, food and games.

In the backyard, customers can play bocce ball, compete in bean-bag throws or challenge each other to a game of badminton. Out in front, a mini croquet lawn doubles as a putting green, and two fire pits that also double as smashingly successful S'mores roasters anchor one of the best patios in Houston.

People wouldn't just come to play the games, however. The food at Brooklyn Athletic Club also happens to be sinfully delicious, and at the heart of the food is Brooklyn Athletic Club's executive chef and partner, Jeff Axline, who sat down with us for a chat last week on a gorgeous, sunny day.

EOW: Jeff, I understand you traveled a lot as a kid; tell me about that.

JA: Yep. My dad was in the navy for 30 years. I grew up moving around a lot. Went to two different high schools, three different junior highs, a bunch of different elementary schools, absorbing a lot of cultures. Started my life out in California, moved to the Philippines.

EOW: How long were you in the Philippines?

JA: About three years, but I was real young, so I don't remember a lot. But I know my mom can cook some mean Filipino food, which is good, which I've absorbed as well.

EOW: And what are your ethnic roots?

JA: My family is German on one side, and other side is French. Axline is German.

EOW: How long have you been in Houston?

JA: I moved to Houston in 1999; moved back to Seattle for a brief time, about a year. From 2001 to 2010, I was here, and then I spent the past two years up in Austin, at a hotel up there.

EOW: Have you always been a chef?

JA: I've been cooking since I was 15 or 16 years old. First cooking job was at an officer's club on a navy base in Corpus Christi.

EOW: And what are you doing when you're 15 to 16?

JA: [Deadpans] I was getting in trouble. That was why I was put to work at 16. [Laughs] Peeling shrimp -- that's what I was doing.

EOW: Your time spent here -- I'm not actually familiar with your resume much. Tell me about that.

JA: Well, let's start from the beginning. When I first got here, I worked for Tim Keating at the Four Seasons Hotel. I worked there when it was Deville. When I got back from Seattle, it was called Quattro.

EOW: He's actually a Facebook friend of mine.

JA: He's a good guy. He taught me a lot. He's actually one of the most influential chefs that I've worked with in my career. Mucho respect for him. I met Shepard [Ross] -- who's my partner here at the restaurant -- at the Four Seasons. He actually left to be the GM at Zula restaurant downtown, which isn't around anymore, but at the time it was a pretty hot restaurant. And I ended up working with that group after the Four Seasons at their other restaurant, Trevisio, in the Texas Medical Center. I was a sous chef there.

EOW: That's affiliated with Zula?

JA: It was, yes. There has been a management change since. Tracy Vaught, who owns Hugo's, the new management company, but back in the day, it was the same people that had Zula, Mercury Room and Boca Bar. At that time, again, I'm working with Shepherd -- he was at Zula -- and then another gentleman named Lance -- we opened up a restaurant called Glass Wall together, which is still one of our restaurants.

EOW: You opened up Glass Wall?

JA: Yes, I was the opening sous chef at Glass Wall. I was there for a few years. After Glass Wall, I went to the Houstonian Hotel. I was there for about three years as executive sous chef. I oversaw the entire hotel, culinary operations, from banquet to the restaurant, to the club, to the pool. Did that, then was summoned to help assist opening BRC Gastropub. Did that for a little bit, then there was an opportunity within the Houstonian -- they have a hotel in Austin on Lake Travis called Lakeway Resort -- so when that came up, I ended up going up there for the past few years and did that.

EOW: What brought you back to Houston?

JA: Shepard brought me back. I wanted to get back into restaurants...

EOW: Because you were in hotels.

JA: I've been in both. So I've done hotels, and I've done restaurants. Free-standing restaurants are obviously a lot more fun, a lot more flexible, somewhat sexier as far as the lifestyle goes.

EOW: [incredulous] Is it sexier? 

JA: I think so.

EOW: I thought the work was harder...

JA: The work is hard. But, you know, you get to interact with people are lot more. Hotels are kind of -- you know, hotels. And they have their benefits as well.

EOW: So, in the hotels, you're in the background more.

JA: You're in the background. You know -- they're hotels. It's just a different lifestyle. You're doing banquets, you're doing restaurants with a captive audience. Whereas people that come to a free-standing restaurant come to your restaurant to try your food, or your wine, or your service. And I think that's where the two differ.

EOW: So, Shepard didn't have to say much to convince you to come back?

JA: [smiles] He twisted my arm a little bit.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Jeff Axline.

Brooklyn Athletic Club

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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