Chef Chat, Part 1: Randy Evans

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After last week's Chef Chat with Chris Shepherd, the next person that we wanted to talk to was Chef Randy Evans. As best friends who met on the first day of culinary school and went on to work for years together at Brennan's of Houston, the two are part of each other's stories.

Evans was the former executive chef at Brennan's and later co-owned Haven, which closed at the end of last July. His dad was a machinist who made oil tools. His mother was raised on a farm, and her dad--Evans' grandfather--was an avid gardener. With that ancestry, one might think that it is of no surprise that Evans helped lead the farm-to-table movement in Houston. However, thanks to an aptitude in math and the sciences, there was a time when he seriously considered becoming a doctor. He majored in biology in college.

He also has bolstered the careers of others who have worked for him, such as Kevin Naderi (of Roost and Lillo & Ella) and Jean-Philippe Gaston (soon to be the executive chef at Kata Robata's future izakaya in Midtown).

Now that Haven has closed, Evans has made some interesting career choices. Find out what it means to go from having your own restaurant to serving multiple clients as a consulting chef. Come back tomorrow for part 2 when we'll discuss exactly why Haven closed, which places Evans is developing new menus for, when his next restaurant might happen and where he'd like it to be located.

EOW: How did you become interested in cooking?

RE: When I was in college at Baylor. That's when I knew I wanted to do it more than just cooking at home. I was cooking for my roommates and my girlfriend, Melanie, (who is now my wife). The big time, though, when I was cooking at my sister's new house. It was brand new, with a big, fancy kitchen. I'd visit my nieces and nephews on the weekend and just cook.

My mother-in-law bought me a cookbook from the California Culinary Academy on Italian [cuisine] for Christmas in '94. That was my first real [professional] cookbook. It wasn't Paul Prudhomme or something we knew growing up.

Everyone said, "You should do this for a living!" I said, "It's a hobby. That will ruin everything and then I'll never cook at home again." My dad never did anything mechanical [at home] because he did it at work all day.

One day, over Spring Break in 1995, Melanie said we were going to The Galleria. We ended up at The Art Institute of Houston instead. She'd already scoped it out and researched it. She knew I was struggling with what I wanted to do. I didn't want to teach or sit in a lab.

I was sold hook-line-and-sinker. They walk you from room to room so you can look through the windows and see the chefs and the food they're cooking. I was like, "This is it! This is what's going to make me happy." I decided I'd start on July 10 in '95 for the summer semester. That's where I met Chris Shepherd.

EOW: Yeah, he said you met on day one and sat next to each other.

RE: Day one. 8 a.m. He'd come from Oklahoma three days prior and I'd just finished college.

I started working for Macaroni Grill a month before I started culinary school. I was living in Willis, Texas and driving back and forth. I moved to Conroe to get closer and worked at The Woodlands Macaroni Grill. We opened that store.

EOW: So, that Italian cookbook came in handy. (laughs)

RE: It did! That Italian cookbook proved to be where we wanted to go! (grins)

I started there as a prep cook for six bucks an hour--in the back blanching pasta, watching the other guys cook, making chicken stock. I was making osso buco in tilt braziers--big boys.

The chef, Jeffrey, knew I was going to culinary school. He was a CIA [Culinary Institute of America] grad. He took me under his wing and helped bring me up. In 1995, Macaroni Grill was making stocks, making sauces, making all their desserts. Everything was from scratch still. He taught me how to butcher whole legs of veal and make scallopini. I was cutting salmon for him. He saw he could teach me and trust me.

I was working full time and going to school full time. My first day on the grill was on New Year's Eve and that was because I was working lunch on salads and the grill guy conveniently got sick on New Year's Eve.

EOW: (dramatic fake coughing)

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RE: Yeah, right? "I'm sick of work." They asked me to work the grill through the rush, which meant me staying until midnight. I said, "I don't know my temperatures. Chef, I don't know if I can do this." He said, "I'm behind you. Don't worry." He was on the other side and we cranked it out. I don't know how I did it, but I was organized. The grill is an organized type of position. It's my favorite station to work, over sauté or anything. It's all about fluid motion and everything in its place. The whole idea of mise en place really goes for that station. It's a thinking man's game.

Sauté's like the working man's [game]. In and out of the oven, up and down, all around. That was Chris [Shepherd's]. He's like a sauté machine. He can crank on sauté.

EOW: Well, he's got that excess energy.

RE: Yeah, it's just like he said; I'm laissez-faire. "It'll happen, don't sweat it." If you're organized, it's going to come out right. It's all going to be fine and you're just going to work in a nice, fluid motion. So, we have two opposite personalities.

EOW: So, you were the grill king at Macaroni Grill.

RE: By that time, I was halfway through culinary school. In the spring, I got a phone call from the chef. I'm cleaning the grill and he says, "Hey Randy, can you come in tomorrow morning? The pastry chef quit. Can you make the cakes?" You know, [Macaroni Grill's] famous chocolate cake with the ganache? At that point, I was almost done with my baking and pastries class.

So, I went in to make the chocolate cake. The recipe was in the folder. It makes nine hotel pans. It's a monster.

That night, I was scheduled to work the grill, so I was working a double. Jeffrey goes, "I need to talk to you in the back." The kitchen manager was with him. That's the firing room! That's where people get whacked.

EOW: "I worked my butt off all day long and this is what I'm going to get!"

RE: "What did I do? Did I burn the cakes? I thought they were perfect!" So, I go in and he pulls out one of the cakes and says, "Did you make these?" "Yes, Chef, I made these." He says, "These are the best cakes I've seen. You're going to take over pastries and we're giving you a two-dollar per hour raise. So, I went from six bucks an hour to eight bucks an hour and became a pastry chef.

EOW: I had no idea you did a pastry chef stint.

RE: Yeah, I did their pastries. Remember their giant apple tart they did, like a Linzer tart [torte]? We had to make our own hazelnut flour. There was always a cheesecake, some sort of cannoli and a tiramisu. There were four corporate [mandated] items and on the weekends I started running eight. I got bored with fast and started taking recipes they had and then making them into new dishes.

Jeffrey sits me down and says, "You're about to graduate [culinary school]. You're going to be a sous chef here soon." I'm like, "Sous chef? I don't know a damn thing about being a cook, much less a sous chef. How is this possible?"

I'm sure he thought he was giving me an "atta boy" that would keep me going. What it did was make me think about leaving--the exact opposite. I wasn't ready to be a sous chef. I didn't want to get stuck and never leave because it was comfortable.

So, I quit. I figured I was going to take a couple of months off and finish culinary school. I got a phone call from a girl at the school who said Brennan's was hiring. I interviewed and got a job two weeks later after three interviews, a urinalysis and a psychological exam so I could make six dollars an hour to put salad on a plate.

EOW: You started at the salad station??

RE: I took a two-dollar-an-hour cut in pay and jumped through hoops to get a job to put salad on a plate. I'm thinking, "I'll be there a year and I'll leave." I got to the point where I thought, "If I stop learning, I'll leave." After Macaroni Grill, my rule was if I stopped learning, got bored and stopped wanting to go to work in the morning, I'd leave. I think that's why a lot of chefs jump.

I worked my way from salads to hot appetizers. Got my ass chewed a lot by [Executive Chef, now General Manager] Carl Walker. Boy, back in the day, he could eat your ass. Oh my gosh.

It was my second day to work hot appetizers by myself and I was going down. It was a disaster. There was food everywhere, nothing plated. Chef Carl jumps on the station and starts pumping the food out with me. He goes to put out the ostrich dish--a scallopini--and he goes to grab the Creole meat seasoning and it's not there.

"Where the Hell is the meat seasoning?" and I'm like, "Meat seasoning?" He's like, "No wonder you can't fucking work this station! You don't even have the right prep!"

That was a major lesson about mise en place and asking every question you can think of. That was my first and last ass-chewing by Carl Walker. I've had good lessons from Carl, but never an ass-chewing like that.

[Executive Sous] Mark Holley would say, "Anything you want to buy, let us know and we'll get it in." We were doing ostrich, we got kangaroo once, rattlesnake. Brennan's was bringing in local quail before anyone else was.

EOW: Brennan's was doing a chef's table, too.

RE: Yeah, the kitchen table. That's where you learn to talk about food and talk to people without being afraid.

EOW: So, you were doing all this cool stuff and Chris [Shepherd] was underutilized at his job at the time.

RE: Yep, so I brought Chris in for his birthday and Mark Holley hit us. We had a tasting menu and drank way too much. We walked into the kitchen to show Chris around and Mark has all the menus spread out on the pass. He just starts beating him up. "Chris Shepherd! When are you coming in? What's going on?" Two weeks later, Chris was working at Brennan's. He was a salaried employee with insurance and all this other stuff and I'm sure he took a cut in pay to come work with me.

Every other day we'd drive our cars. I put 98,000 miles on my car in a year-and-a-half.

EOW: Coming in from Conroe? Um, yeah.

RE: He said that I'd make him late. Yeah, so I think stopping for a pack of smokes and Mountain Dew was also making us late. (smiles)

We'd listen to Jimmy Buffet, Bob Marley or The Grateful Dead driving in from Conroe. We always took the tollway. He had this little white Geo Prism and he'd take this corner--I thought we were going to roll it every damn time. As soon as we hit I-45 and North Main, he'd put in Rage Against The Machine. That was the "get revved up, get ready to kick everyone's ass in the kitchen and get ready to work" music.

We'd get amped up and just hit the door. The cooks were coming in at noon to get their stations ready. My idea was that I wasn't good enough if I couldn't get it done within the time allotted. If we're good enough, we can do it because Chef has thought this out. He could do it, so why can't we? It pushed us to be faster, better.

Chris and I got promoted to sous chefs together. Mark Holley left. Carl got sick and checked himself into the hospital for 30 days. Alex Brennan pulls us into his office and says, "Y'all can do this and do more than this."

We started changing menus. There was a girl who worked at Brennan's and lived in Alvin. She told us about Froberg's Farms. On our day off, we checked it out and started buying from them.

They introduced us to a honey producer, and then we meet another guy, and another guy. We drive the other directions and go East, North and West, trying to find farmers.

EOW: This sounds to me like the beginning roots of Haven.

RE: This is how Haven and Underbelly got built. These are the relationships that we built. Chris and I pushed and Carl let us push.

EOW: Does Brennan's still use locally-sourced ingredients?

RE: They do.

EOW: So, that is part of your and Chris' legacy.

RE: Carl started it with a few items he was using locally. He was bringing in quail, chukars and pheasants. He was buying boar and venison out of Texas. The gardening aspect was what we really brought in.

We'd see farmers go out of business because we were the only ones using them. That's when we said, "We've go to grow our suppliers so they can afford to supply us." We started introducing them to other chefs. Then, the farmers' market came and it exploded.

That became an easy way for people to do farm-to-table and now it's sewed into the cloth of the Houston culinary scene. It's almost like, "Oh, I'm farm-to-table." "Well, no shit. Who isn't farm-to-table?" It's more "Who's not?" now that's the question, not "Who is?" Shame on you if you're not. It's not difficult. You choose not to and the reason is why? Have a good reason.

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