Chef Chat, Part 1: Justin Strang of Bistro Catron

We ventured out to the west side to meet with Chef Strang of Bistro Catron (17754 Katy Freeway), learned how one goes about becoming a self-taught chef and got the scoop on his hot selling bacon chocolate brownie.

EOW: Tell me about your training.

Strang: I started in Charleston, South Carolina. When I was there, I was actually going to school to study biology. I got a job at a high-volume steak house and worked with a great chef who took me under his wing. I started learning a lot about food and, by learning from him, I wanted to change my life and what I was doing. That chef and I became good friends and we ended up as roommates with two other chefs. So living with three chefs, I had to learn to cook. They would have me cook dinner and, if they didn't like it, they would just crush me. I had to learn quickly. Luckily, they were all great about teaching and showed me the ins and outs of cooking. It was the best hands-on training I could have. I moved to another restaurant as a sous chef working with a graduate of the [Culinary Institute of America] who taught me what he could. I moved up to the executive chef position and by that time I had been in the business for about eight years. So, I've learned a lot from a lot of different chefs through out the years and I talk to a lot of people in the business.

EOW: Being a self-taught chef, what would you say is your style of cooking?

Strang: I would say my style of cooking is open. I don't want to ever be confined to one style because I believe it limits your ability to express yourself. And so for me it's about being able to utilize one set of ingredients with another set of techniques. For example, I make an Italian eggroll that is a Chinese eggroll with chicken, basil and cheese. There are so many different styles in what I do that I feel like I would be holding myself back with just one style. But I do know that there are certain ways to make certain things. By being open to other styles, I feel I can better express myself through the art of food. I spend time playing with food in the kitchen, I dream about it night and I know what I'll make tomorrow. It's all about passion. I feel like if I don't make an effort and try things and give in to people saying this or that won't work, then I will never be able to express myself properly through food.

EOW: So what's something that may seem odd but has worked for you?

Strang: My bacon chocolate brownie. It's our top selling dessert. It's something new. I use the salty and sweet combination all the time. It's my playground. I love the salty-sweet. One of my favorite things is seafood with a pungent blue cheese or gorgonzola and caramelized peaches. I love doing the salty sweet because it complex and it keeps you involved in food.

EOW: Wait a minute. Tell me more about this bacon brownie.

Strang: Well, when you think about the ingredients for brownies, there's a lot of shortening and chocolate. The way I came about it was by making brownies one day and I had a jar of bacon fat. I figure I'd try it and if it work then it works. The first batch I made without bacon bits but it wasn't quite right. It had the flavor but something was missing. So then I cut up the bacon and put it in there; that and I added more chocolate to make it "fudgier." It all came together. The saltiness of the bacon, the bitterness of the chocolate and the sweetness of the batter made it all work.

Come back tomorrow to learn about Chef Strang's most memorable disaster experimenting with food and the obstacles he has faced as a self-taught chef.

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