Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch

Joshua Martinez has already had as many lives as a cat, at least in the culinary sense. He's known as the owner of The Modular, one of the first gourmet food trucks to hit the streets of Houston. He later went on to co-helm the ill-fated izakaya Goro & Gun.

These days, you can find him at the divey new fried chicken place in The Heights, The Chicken Ranch.

When I met Josh, though, he was not in an apron. He was in a suit and tie. At the time, he was a friendly "front of the house" face at Kata Robata. I still remember the day that he excitedly told me about his forthcoming food truck venture. Not too long after that, that he shucked his suit and tie in favor of a T-shirt and baseball cap.

The Modular was timely. It was on the leading edge of the gourmet food truck trend. Soon, it started attracting national attention, thanks not only to the good timing but also because of Martinez' successful partnership with chef Lyle Bento, formerly of Feast.

In time, Bento left to help Chris Shepherd start Underbelly, not too long before Martinez turned his attention to Goro & Gun.

Let's catch up with Martinez and take a look at the long path he's taken through nearly every facet of the restaurant industry.

EOW: Tell me where you're from originally.

JM: Mexico City.

EOW: When did you come to the United States?

JM: When I was very young: about five years old.

EOW: What brought your family here?

JM: Work. Father was into hotels and other cooking.

EOW: Was your mom cooking professionally?

JM: She was cooking for some kitchens here and there. She did a lot of catering work.

EOW: Between your mom and your dad, you've been around the hospitality industry your whole life.

JM: Yes. It's in my blood, I guess. My grandparents on my mother's side had a large seafood restaurant in Mexico City. I remember a picture of my mother with this big octopus around her. She was about five or six years old, standing on what looked like a back dock.

EOW: When did you decide that you wanted to do something similar to what your parents were doing?

JM: Maybe about 17 or 18 years old. It never really dawned on me until that point. For then, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do something with music. I wanted to run venues. I didn't know.

I took my first job waiting tables at Pappas Seafood Restaurant. I got hit with the bug immediately-- is the way the industry runs, the camaraderie, some of the horseplay, everybody getting together to get through the night and then celebrating with lots of drinks afterwards. "We did it. We made it through this night."

EOW: Every night is an accomplishment.

JM: Yes. So, that's pretty much where it started. I worked for that group for quite a bit. I moved into the kitchen haphazardly. Pappas had a problem with Immigration and a bunch of people had to leave suddenly. A bunch of us jumped into the kitchen and started running different parts. Some of us had kitchen management experience.

EOW: So, you started out in fine dining.

JM: Well, that was the seafood house so it wasn't too much fine dining, but then I moved to Austin and started working for Pappadeaux's.

I got poached by the Truluck's group. I went to work for them and found my way into wine buying. I started learning more about wine and that suddenly took me to a whole other part of the restaurant world.

I went straight into trying to get certified [as a sommelier]. I took my Level One [exam] then left there to run a smaller wine situation at another restaurant. That was ill-fated. It was right before 9/11. The restaurant lasted maybe nine months, but from that I met quite a few people who are still good friends to this day.

I scrambled looking for another job. I wanted another challenge. I went to work for a group called Kenichi, a Japanese style restaurant in Austin. I started doing everything I could with that restaurant--the bar, the kitchen, learning behind the sushi bar. My sake knowledge jumped exponentially. I took another certification course and stayed with them quite a while.

I brought friends of mine to that group. Mat Clouser was the original chef du cuisine at Uchi. I was able to talk him into coming to work with me.

It was a lot of fun. It was probably the best experience I've ever had at any restaurant, hands down. It was the way the kitchen ran, the way the waiters ran--the management style was a little hands-off. They let the waiters run themselves. There was a very tight knit group of 10 of us. If someone wasn't pulling his weight, we'd go into a committee meeting and talk to that person. We'd say, "Hey man, you've got another week to figure this out. If you don't, we're taking you out of here."

EOW: So, this was more of a peer management situation.

JM: They also tip-pooled the staff and that was the first time I had ever dealt with that. It was cool. These were all things that I learned that helped me decide what I wanted to do when I opened up my own place. It was fun and lasted quite a while--about six years.

I left Austin completely and went to Kansas City. I consulted at a sushi restaurant there. Once that was finished, I bumped around to a couple of different restaurants.

EOW: Were you consulting about wine and sake?

JM: The whole thing, actually-- the whole management of the restaurant--how they were doing things, talking to the kitchen staff, figuring out why there were problems with food costs or why there weren't butts in seats. It was from marketing all the way down to "What are we ordering? How are we ordering? Maybe we shouldn't order so much."

When I finished with that, I started working with Trezo Mare group, which was a group of Italian restaurants in Kansas City. I was a wine buyer for them and loved it. I learned about Italian wine this time. That was great.

I went to work for an incredible chef who I consider quite a mentor-- a gentleman named Michael Smith. He's a James Beard winner. He opened up a great little restaurant there-- fine dining but with a casual edge.

Michael Smith is no-nonsense. He's a self-made guy who came through the ranks. He didn't go to culinary school. He found a way through just learning from really great chefs in Europe. He is also Michael Gaspard's mentor. (Author's note: chef Gaspard is currently with Pappas.)

That was the first time I saw sous vide being utilized.

EOW: That was back in 2005 so that was way before it became trendy.

JM: Yeah, I wanted to see what all he was doing and try and figure it out.

I found I wanted to own or run my own restaurant or bar. I decided to do a bar first. It was a place called The Gusto Lounge with a couple of friends. It was a very nondescript little joint. We had two levels: the whiskey bar up top and yard beers--really crappy beers you can find in a can--downstairs.

EOW: So, it was highbrow upstairs and lowbrow downstairs. (laughs) JM: Totally. It was a strange little joint and it was a great ride.

EOW: How long was that ride?

JM: The bar is still around. It's just in a different space and it's taken a different turn. It's more of a nightclub now. I pulled out of there when I got back to Houston at the end of 2009 or 2010. My parents were ill.

I thought I wasn't going to be here very long. I thought it was just a pit stop. After about five minutes, I started looking for a job. I had to have something to do or I would just go nuts.

I talked with Ryan Snider at The Azuma Group and he said, "Yeah man, I have a job for you. I have a waiter job [at Soma], but that seems pretty below you after what you've already done." I said, "I know man, but this is what I want. Right now, this is where I want to be."

EOW: With what was going on with your parents, that was probably a great position to have.

JM: Yeah, I didn't want any responsibility. That lasted about a month, then I started seeing a bar program that I didn't think was up to snuff. It was a lot of Pucker and other horrible things. [Soma] had great food but the bar was kind of a joke. I started poking in there and asking Ryan, "Hey, let me help you out. Maybe I can help you curate a better wine or sake list."

They were pushing me up [the ranks] pretty quickly, so I called a good friend of mine, James Watkins [who is now a Beverage Director with The Cordua Group, who owns Américas and Churrascos]. I was like, "Hey man, you are about to leave [Vic & Anthony's]. Why don't you come over here?"

He didn't want to have anything to do with it. He's like, "I don't think so, man. I don't think I want to go to Soma."

I said, "You do, actually. There's so much you can do here." So, he came by and looked at it. He said, "Why would I want to come over here?" "Because it's fun and you can get back into cocktails. This is what you were doing before." I said. He and I met years back in Austin when he was working at Ruth's Chris and I was at Kenichi.

He and I rebuilt that cocktail list. We started working with infusions. He started learning sake.

EOW: He actually got a sake certification. That's not bad for someone who didn't want to have anything to do with it.

JM: Yeah, yeah! It was fun. All that time I was all over the place. I get bored if I am just doing one thing.

Come back for part 2 tomorrow, where we'll find out how Martinez established a working relationship and fast friendship with chef Lyle Bento and what factors were working against Goro & Gun.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook