Diners probably most closely identify Canopy at 3939 Montrose with chef and restaurateur Claire Smith, who was highly praised for the fresh, inventive fare at Daily Review Café, which opened in 1994. She closed it in 2000, traveled for a few years, then returned to open Shade in The Heights. Her follow-up act was opening Canopy in the Montrose area.
While Canopy strongly reflects Smith's sensibilities, the executive chef responsible for executing that vision is Liz Brooks. Brooks brings her own ideas to the table as well, so the cuisine at Canopy is a reflection of both women. Brooks's newest responsibility is Woodbar, a multipurpose space that serves pastries in the morning and cocktails with an accompanying bar menu in the evening.
In this first part of our Chef Chat with Brooks, we'll find out how an unhappy period ultimately led her to her true calling. We'll also learn about the career progression that ended up bringing her full-circle -- interning at and ultimately coming back to Smith's restaurants.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll talk about Canopy and Woodbar's food, and the challenges of being both a chef and a mom.
EOW: Are you from Houston?
LB: I grew up in Houston -- here in the Midtown area, as a matter of fact -- but I was born in El Salvador and I've been living in Houston since I was five.
EOW: When you were a kid, did you have any idea what you were going to do when you grew up?
LB: No, I did not know what I was going to do. I did a little bit of everything as I grew up. I did work in a couple of Mediterranean sandwich shop sort of places, and I was a hostess at Marshall Field's when Marshall Field's was around. So I wasn't sure. I was a bookkeeper and office administrator. I worked for Neiman Marcus in their credit department for a while. Then I went through a bad time in my life where my marriage was falling apart.
I decided to get into culinary school, which at first I was just going to do restaurant and hotel management. But as I progressed, I realized that it just became so natural to be around the food and be cooking it. I really enjoy talking to people and seeing what people like and what they enjoy. It wasn't until that time that I found my calling in the kitchen.
EOW: When you went to culinary school, did you go to the Conrad Hilton [school at the University of Houston]?
LB: No, I went to the culinary program at the Art Institute in 2002 and graduated in 2004.
EOW: You said you were a hostess at Marshall Field's. They had a restaurant or a cafe or something back then, didn't they?
LB: Yeah, that's where that Ruggles 5115 is at now. That used to be the Marshall Field's restaurant.
EOW: How old were you when you started attending culinary school?
LB: I was 27. I got into the cooking industry a little bit later, not in my teens. It was my mid-20s.
EOW: How did you decide that's what you wanted to do?
LB: I wasn't sure, as a matter of fact. I just needed something more positive in my life at that moment. I needed something that I really enjoyed. I checked out a few programs. I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do until I got into the program itself.
EOW: When you got into the program, were there any particular programs or classes that you just fell in love with?
LB: I really enjoy all types of food. I really enjoy Asian cuisine. I did enjoy some of the pastries, but I really did enjoy the French cuisine and the unity of working together with the other students. There was a chef -- Chef Lear. He's passed on now. He was really an inspiration because he would push me when I needed that extra push. I really did enjoy his input in growing as a chef, because he knew that you had the drive. Sometimes you have to have that extra little push. He was one of my favorite instructors at the Art Institute that got me even more interested in culinary.
EOW: I know there are several chefs who have graduated from the Art Institute. I'm assuming you had an internship or a practicum and had to actually go work in a restaurant.
LB: As a matter of fact, that's how I met Claire [Smith, owner of Canopy, Shade and Woodbar]. I did my internship with Claire Smith at Shade. I worked there for six months doing my internship under Jeb Stuart. I really, really enjoyed myself there with them and I learned so much from Jeb. But I really couldn't work out a schedule at that time because I still had to finish school up. So I left Shade. And I went back in 2005 and I became the sous chef there with Jeb Stuart.
EOW: Did you work anyplace in between?
LB: Yes. I worked for this bistro out on 290, like toward Cypress. I worked at the Marriott briefly. I worked for Abuso Catering. After I was a sous chef at Shade, I went to work at The Glass Wall under Lance Fegan for about a year and a half. I came back to work here with Claire in 2009 when she opened Canopy.
EOW: Of course, Claire Smith has been such a longtime chef in Houston. She's won awards. She's very well-regarded and one of the few female chef restaurateurs. Her reputation as a restaurateur and as a chef -- did that interest you?
LB: It did. She's so easy to work for, but at the same time she has really high expectations because her name is out there. I've worked for her for such a long time now that it's become second nature to know what she likes and doesn't like. It's been nice to grow in my interests. She's let me use my own interests and freedom to create menus that reflect me but yet at the same time reflect her style.
EOW: What would you say the style of food at Canopy is like?
LB: It's infused with all kinds of ethnicities. We try to do a little Italian, a little Indian, a little Asian, and really fresh product is our main goal here. We participate in the farmers' market, so we use a lot of product that we get from there. So, mostly it's keeping everything fresh and whatever we can local. Of course, that's not always possible, but fresh food -- clean, healthy -- is one of our main points.
EOW: What would you say are some of the most important lessons that you have learned from some of the other chefs that you've worked under, like Lance and Jeb?
LB: The important lessons have been learning how to work with different people and deal with different situations. Sometimes it's really hard to keep from getting involved in small fights or in other people's problems and just keeping yourself separate from all of that. You can't take sides in the kitchen. You need to be able to delegate and separate and not get involved with people.
EOW: What do you feel like your biggest success to date has been?
LB: Becoming the executive chef here has been really hard, but it's been so much fun because it's not just the restaurant of Canopy, it's also catering and the Woodbar next door. We have a menu there. We have the farmers' market. I think in the time I've been here, I have been able to really learn to multitask, to grow and to be able to see the big picture. I don't think in any other place I would've learned that much. And to be able to handle different things going out to cater into somebody's home and being able to execute it at top level.
EOW: You opened Woodbar in December.
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EOW: How much has that challenged you or added to your workload, because now you've got a bar menu to address?
LB: It added about 40 percent more of work.
LB: But it hasn't just been the bar. The whole restaurant has grown as a whole, because people come to Woodbar and then they move over to the restaurant and eat. Even our brunches have grown to a few hundred people during the weekend. It's just having to get your mind set to produce more and to be ready for a larger group now.