Chef Chat, Part 1: Mark Holley of Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar

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It's almost a misnomer to call this an "interview." When you talk to Chef Mark Holley, it goes like this: ask him a question and then get out of the way. Holley is a whirlwind with deliberate direction. One sees this both when he speaks and as he surveys his new restaurant, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, giving his staff instructions as he winds his way from the dining room to the kitchen and back again.

I am not silly enough to stand in the way of a whirlwind. That's how you get sand in your eyes. So, sit back and listen to Mark Holley, a chef who has been a respected figure in Houston's food scene for more than 30 years, tell his story. Here, we learn how he came to be a cook and then a chef; how he ended up at the forefront of Pesce for over a decade; and finally how he came to start his new, eponymous restaurant.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Chef Chat, where we'll get to learn more about Holley's and find out how the food at this Midtown seafood restaurant is similar to--and different from--the cuisine for which his prior place Pesce was known.

EOW: How did you get involved with food?

My real mom, who I lived with during the summers, was more of a Southern cook, but I'm from Dayton, Ohio, where there's a big German influence. My stepmom, Mary, would make antipasti. I was one of the few kids who ate three or four different types of cold cuts and salamis. She'd make plates of a few different types of soft and hard cheeses and was a big black and green olive fan. There would always be some kind of cracker, too. She'd usually do this around 8 or 9 o'clock at night. I was the youngest so I was always there. The older kids would always be out doing their thing.

We also had sardines and anchovies. I was probably the only kid on my block eating anchovies on my pizza at age 13. My stepmother, Mary, introduced that to me. Around 16 or 17, I challenged myself to cook breakfast, so I had to learn to make eggs, sausage and bacon--all the fundamentals. It was always fun; never work and never hard. I always looked forward to it and planned days to cook for the family.

When I was 19, I took my first cooking class and learned the fundamentals. The instructor asked if we'd like to work at the restaurant he worked at in the evenings. He both taught and worked as a chef. I volunteered and worked for free. After three days, they saw that I wanted to work and was excited, so they put me on the payroll.

This instructor and chef was given an opportunity to open a restaurant called The Odyssey in Carrolton, Ohio, which was right outside of Dayton. At some point I was named head cook, so that gave me the confidence that I could [be a chef].

EOW: What made you come to Houston?

I came here in 1983. My sister and mom had moved here and I wanted a career in the hospitality industry. I wanted to be in a city that offered more. Dayton, Ohio was very small.

I worked at The Mason Jar as a kitchen manager on Katy Freeway. I started taking classes at the University of Houston but ended up going to Houston Community College and cutting it short. I had decided I wanted to be a chef instead of a front-of-the-house manager. So, after The Mason Jar, I worked part-time as just a basic cook at night at Charley's 517. [Author's note: Charley's 517 closed in 2003.]

I worked at the little French restaurant in The Meridian. Back then, it was common for chefs to be classically trained. What better place to receive classical training than in a French restaurant? I stayed there a little over a year. They sold it, turned [The Meridian] into The Doubletree and I said "Time to go!"

Then, I went to Brennan's [of Houston] and did an apprenticeship for 18 months. I worked in the morning and in the evening. At that point, I said, "OK, I've done that." I wanted to get some hotel experience. I wanted to know how the big hotel banquets worked, because those are serious. I chose Four Seasons Inn at the Park, mainly because it was one of our two Five Diamond hotels in Texas (the other being The Mansion on Turtle Creek). I wanted to continue receiving high-quality training.

This story continues on the next page.

(Author's note: Inn at the Park became the Omni Houston Hotel and Mansion on Turtle Creek is now owned by Rosewood Hotels. Currently, the only two Five Diamond hotels in Texas are both in Houston--The Four Seasons and The St. Regis.)

I spent a year in banquets, learned a lot, and was lured back to Brennan's by their executive chef, Carl Walker, who wanted me to consider going to Commander's Palace in New Orleans. I took the position, moved my family [to New Orleans] and worked as garde manger and sous chef.

I worked under the late Jamie Shannon. He gave me the opportunity to go to Commander's Palace. It's tough getting opportunities like that. Two or three years before, they'd won the James Beard award. (Author's note: In fact, Commander's Palace won three Beard awards in the '90s: Outstanding Service in 1993, Outstanding Restaurant in 1996 and Jamie Shannon earned Best Chef: South in 1999.)

I worked for a little over two years, got homesick, came back to Houston and took the chef du cuisine position under Carl Walker at Brennan's.

EOW: Were you at Brennan's around the same time as Randy (Evans) and Chris (Shepherd)?

MH: Actually, I hired both Randy and Chris!

EOW: I knew this was all interwoven somehow!

MH: (laughs) Well, let me fit them in. I hired first Randy and then Chris about two or three years after I went back to Brennan's. They worked for me about three years and that's when I got the offer in 2000 to open Pesce with Johnny Carrabba and Damien Mandola. Then the Landry's bought [Pesce] and continued. I don't talk about Landry's much, but it's all good.

[Author's note: In case you're keeping track, Johnny Carrabba has now come up in three out of the last four Chef Chats.]

I had kids. Peche enabled me to spend more time with my kids and that's why I would do it all over again. In this industry, we spend our lives... and I took a break there. I was working for a company that thought that was okay.

EOW: I've interviewed Carlos Rodriguez before [formerly head chef of another Landry's-owned fine dining restaurant, Vic & Anthony's, and now concept chef over all the Vic & Anthony's across the United States] and one of the things he was very grateful for was having insurance, because he also has kids.

MH: Oh yeah. It helps. I've always had insurance because I worked with Brennan's and Commander's. 401(k)s and everything. So, I was able to spend adequate time during my daughters' teenage years.

I worked at Pesce from the time it opened until the time it ended. Everyone knows that was my baby. I knew from that point I wanted to open my own restaurant and pursued it. It was a process of developing a great business plan and of finding the right landlord who'd give me an opportunity. Not everyone opened their doors and said "Come on in." It was also the process of raising the capital. I decided to do it pretty much on my own and it took me a little over a year to find this property [the former Sushi Raku place in Midtown at Elgin and Louisiana].

Our landlord is a great guy but I didn't realize that it would take ten months to get the buildout finished.

Come back for Part 2 of our Chef Chat with Mark Holley tomorrow and find out more about his new endeavor, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

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