Chef Chat, Part 1: John Watt of Prego and Trevisio

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Many people probably don't know that James Beard-nominated Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, Backstreet Café and Caracol, is not Tracy Vaught's only partner in the restaurant industry, nor was he the original executive chef at Backstreet.

Chef John Watt, who also co-owns Prego and co-operates Trevisio with Vaught, was the first to aim Backstreet Café's focus toward the New American cuisine that it still has to this day. Watt was there when Ortega was hired on initially as a dishwasher and watched his ascent to being a James Beard-nominated chef and owner of multiple acclaimed restaurants.

Watt himself did not become a chef in a traditional matter. He started cooking in the kitchen of a club during the 1970s. Let's learn how Watt came to have such a prominent spot in Houston restaurant history.

EOW: Did you grow up in Houston?

JW: No. I was born in Superior, Wisconsin and I lived there for [about 11] years of my life. My father passed away when I was around 10 years old and [a year later] we moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I lived there, I went to school there, I went to the University of Tulsa and in my early history, I was a musician. I was teaching guitar. I was one of the people who ran the City Arts Center. After a while, I knew a lot of people and I sort of got in the club business and found a lot of success.

The reason I cook is because I got involved in making sure the food was coming out correctly and up there at the time, they had a law called sort of "liquor by the wink." We started getting in trouble for serving alcohol in Oklahoma at that time and I had to switch over sort of to the kitchen after a while. [It's] kind of like you change titles In Casino, you know? In that movie, right? I just changed titles and I enjoyed being in the kitchen and I could kind of run both places from that place and I have done it ever since then.

And I always enjoyed cooking my whole life. I've been cooking since I was a child, you know? I've been able to.

EOW: Now, what was the name of the club?

JW: It was called Boston Avenue. It was in downtown Tulsa. It's been gone for many years.

EOW: What year was that?

JW: 1977, I think.

EOW: About how old were you at that point?

JW: 27. 26.

EOW: So, you were in the club business and moved to the kitchen. Are you completely self-taught? Did you seek out formal training?

JW: Self taught, but I worked under European chefs and for a while I worked for a Sheraton. I ended up being corporate chef for them and I then I was imported down here and became corporate chef for George Mitchell and I was over all these properties.

Where I'm good is is not just with this culinary thing. I have good organizational skills and the ability to deal with a lot of complex things at one time, so it would be natural for me to be over three or four entities at once. Well, I'm over two now.

EOW: So, you're a good project manager or a good orchestrator.

JW: Yeah, that word wasn't around back. What they called you was "corporate chef" and then they'd shift you around here and there. When I worked for George Mitchell I met a lot of people, of course, he took special interest in Tremont House and The Wentletrap and all the different--well, there's a bakery, there's all sorts of stuff down there [at The Tremont House]. He took a special interest in that and I used to see him at least once a week and he used to talk about what was going on, so I was mentored by him--one of the great Texans. He told me about what he wanted and during that time I started meeting a lot of people from Houston, and eventually Tracy Vaught asked me to come up and help her with Backstreet and Prego.

EOW: How did you meet Tracy?

JW: I met Tracy up here [at Prego] and I helped her do a redo of the menu but I wasn't working for her then. I was doing restaurant consulting. Down there in Galveston, I was meeting a lot of people who were asking me to do this or that for them and I'd say, "Yeah, of course!" right?

I wanted to move up here to Houston and so I came up and we ended up being in the partners in this venture and I helped her with Backstreet initially. I helped formulate a lot of the menu. There is still some stuff on the menu there. Of course, Hugo's involved there. He became involved. He was with us here and then went there and his rise started there.

EOW: How was Tracy able to get in touch with you initially? Did she get your info through George Mitchell?

JW: No, she just knew about me, so, you know, it came from there and we worked together on that project [Backstreet Cafe] and we worked here [at Prego].

I run [Prego] and I'm the primary owner here but Tracy still has an interest here and Tracy and I are partners in Trevisio. Then, of course she has her restaurants which are all very successful and we worked together very well over the years and I can't say anything but good things about her.

EOW: [Prego] was the first place that you worked on together, right?

JW: This and Backstreet in the beginning.

EOW: So, that was kind of concurrent?

JW: Together at that time. It was shifting Backstreet more towards New American cuisine. Early on--I don't know how long you've been around here--it's shifted from one thing to another. It was sort of an amalgamation of different kinds of things and trying to take this more in restaurants that sort of fit in with the mode of the other Italian restaurants in the city at the time and building clientele. Basically, the Village here didn't exist then as it exists now. It was some blank fields and stuff. There was a Weingarten grocery that was closed across the street and there was an empty lot over there. It just wasn't built up like it is now.

EOW: Now, Tracy already had both places first then brought you in?

JW: She owned Backstreet with her uncle, who passed away -- Jack -- and she owns it now, of course. She was partners with some other people. We became partners here [at Prego] by buying out those other partners.

EOW: OK, gotcha. Backstreet, of course, is in a very old house. How old is that home? JW: I think that house is probably at least 100 years old, but Tracy has rebuilt the entire thing. Most of the inside has been redone over the years and they've expanded, expanded, and expanded, you know.

EOW: How long were you involved over at Backstreet?

JW: I think that the heart of my work was for the first four or five years and then as Hugo was coming up, Hugo took over. I did some things for them then and, like I said, when I did that it was really likes for restyling it to be more New American and the get away from--it was basically sort of a hamburger place in the beginning.

EOW: Really?? See, I can't even imagine it being sort of a hamburger place now.

JW: Well both of them were. It takes a long time to build a business and also to sort of change a business. I remember when we first started talking about it, I said it's going to take a few years for people to take it seriously.

It was kind of strange because I went from Galveston, where they were taking me seriously, and I got a star in Texas Monthly and all that kind of stuff, to here, and, you know it was kind of a hamburger restaurant and had definitely seen better days, you know? So, it's hard like buying a new table or this or that. It took a little money. It's not like today. It was a whole different world then.

So, we kind of grew up here. The culinary scene was changing then in the early '90s. It was starting to mature here. We had old Gulf Coast traditions here and I saw those in Galveston, too with Gaido's and a couple of other places down there. But, I don't think with the exception of maybe Tony's and a few restaurants like that we had a real strong culinary tradition here. There was good food of course, some good ethnic food and some good -- I don't want to negate that time. It just wasn't the same as it is now.

EOW: What were some of the challenges with each of the restaurants? Like you said, it takes time.

JW: Changing the consciousness of the staff. You have to often take two steps backwards take one step forward in the beginning because also you're learning as you go, too. A lot of what you do--you can make a lot of mistakes. I was a lot younger then, so I probably didn't have the same precision or the same people around me that could edify my work, too.

Come back tomorrow, where we'll learn more about the food at Prego and Trevisio, as well as Watt's involvement in both restaurants.

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