Chef Chat, Part 1: Mark Gabriel Medina of Kata Robata

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When I asked Mark Gabriel "Gabe" Medina, the current Chef de Cuisine at Kata Robata, if he would be willing to do a chef chat with me, the 29-year-old, soft-spoken chef, who's been flying under the radar since he assumed his current position, was a bit hesitant.

Stepping into the much publicized shoes of predecessor Seth Siegel-Gardner, he had some big ones to fill. But I think he's got that covered. This six-foot-one chef wears size 12 shoes.

And since everyone says that size matters, let's talk about his hands. During our chat, I couldn't help but notice that his hands are almost twice the size of mine. Yet, it's these very same hands that are turning out some very delicately plated dishes from the kitchen. Intriguing, indeed. Let's get to know him a bit better.

EOW: How did you get started in the culinary arts?

MGM: Originally I was in Finance. I totally changed fields. It just kind of happened. I took my cousin to the Art Institute for fashion retail, walked around, and instead of looking for a job at a financial institution, I just signed up for classes and started cooking.

EOW: Are you originally from Houston?

MGM: I was born in Houston, spent a great deal of my life in Southeast Asia: Philippines, Singapore, Thailand. My father was a CEO in an oil company, Coastal Philippines at the time --it became El Paso -- and through him, I was able travel to all these places and get inspired by all this food and fantastic culture.

EOW: How old were you during this period when you were traveling all over?

MGM: I was in my teens. I guess you could say I was privileged. But my dad was very strict. I was one of those kids who always spilled my water at the table, and I would always be scared I'd do something wrong. He would always tell me "No sauces. Try it straight. No salt, eat it the way the chefs meant it to be." He educated me on a lot of things. And I ate at all these high-end restaurants, even as far back as when I was five or six.

EOW: So tell me some of your memories around food when you were younger. Some of the experiences that blew your mind, if any.

MGM: Actually, I remember the first really good steak I ever had in my entire life. It was so simple, a filet mignon wrapped with bacon, perfectly cooked. It was actually an Italian restaurant in the Philippines, and it was incredible. The steak was super-succulent. I was about 15-16 years old. My father took me to eat steak and he was also educating me about wine, hard liquors, cognacs, bourbons.

EOW: You started drinking early, then...

MGM: (smiles) Yeah, I was partying young. My favorite thing about traveling was the street food. I think I developed an iron stomach. A friend came to visit me in the Philippines one time, and got sick off of a street burger. But me, I'm like chomp, chomp, chomp. In Thailand, pad thai off the street is perfect. All the dim sum in Taiwan -- so good. I had gone to Taiwan for a swimming competition, and they had these energy drinks called "Essence of Chicken." It was like chicken stock or something like that. It was disgusting. But people thought it was energy, so we took shots of those things, and I did feel very focused and clear after that. Things like that I always remember.

EOW: Tell me about your first cooking job.

MGM: I was the tournant chef at Houston Country Club. Originally I went there for Fritz Gitschner, who was a Master Chef. Master Chef is a designation by the ACF American Culinary Federation. I think there's only two in Texas -- most of the Master Chefs in the US teach at the CIA in New York. So, my mentality at the time was, if I'm really going to do this, I have to go out of my way and push myself to go somewhere, to succeed. I was thrown in the weeds, shucking thousands of oysters, killing and breaking down lobsters, making Houston Country Club crab cakes. They were delicious, but I had to do a lot of them in the first week or two.

EOW: What was it like working with Fritz Gitschner?

MGM: Well, I was busting my butt off working, so my sous chefs pushed me to do these private tastings with Fritz Gitschner. This was when I was brand new, so I didn't know how to cut really well, I didn't know what all these techniques were. So the first time I worked with him, he asked me, "I need you to cut these tomatoes." And then he looked at what I did and he was like, "What is this?"

EOW: So how did you learn to cut tomatoes?

MGM: He showed me, actually. That was one of the things I loved about him, he was thorough about everything. He would show me the techniques, and explain why you don't cut these this way, why you don't chop garlic a certain way, because you lose the juice. Other people will say, it takes longer, there's not much of a difference, but the way his mindset is, every small thing matters, so despite how minute the detail is, you have to put every effort you can.

EOW: You said you did private tastings. Did you cook for anyone famous?

MGM: Houston Country Club was a really high-end country club. When I was there, we cooked for the Bushes. We served George Bush Senior sushi. I don't know if you ever heard the story about how he ate at the Japanese consulate and threw up, but every time we served him sushi, we were worried...Anyways, he loved it. He would order the most simple traditional things, and Barbara would order cucumber rolls or something similar.

Check back with us tomorrow when Medina tells us about his role at Kata Robata, working with his predecessor, Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner, and some of his favorite places to eat in Houston.

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