Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Roberto Castre of Latin Bites Cafe

Today, Latin Bites Cafe, the tiny seven-table Peruvian restaurant that received critical acclaim during its one year, five month reign in Houston's warehouse district, is having its grand re-opening to the public in its brand spanking new Memorial location (5709 Woodway Dr.).

At the helm of the bright, open kitchen space with the fire-spitting woks and the cool new cebiche bar is Executive Chef and Owner Roberto Castre, Eater Houston's Chef of the Year 2011. The super-talented young Peruvian took some time out in between revamping his menu, training his staff, and dealing with city inspections to sit down with us for a chat.

EOW: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

RC: When we were kids, my mom gave us this gift. She did this thing where she had each of us cook - me, my younger sister, and my older sister. We took turns cooking on the weekends and whoever made the best food would win some money at the end of the month.

EOW: How old were you when you started this?

RC: I was about 12 years old. I would go to the books three days before, I would prepare my menu, I would serve it and everything, and I always tried to do it right, because I wanted to win.

EOW: Did you win a lot?

RC: [Laughs] I would almost always win.

EOW: So did you end up going to culinary school?

RC: Yes. My mom took a lot of classes -- desserts, Peruvian food, Italian food -- but she never went to culinary school. But because of these little competitions we did at home, by the time I was 14 years old, I knew that I was going to be chef, so I finished high school and I went to culinary school. I stayed in Peru for six months after I graduated, but couldn't find a job, so I came here.

EOW: Came here to Houston? Or to the US?

RC: Came here to Miami. Two days after arriving there, I found a job at a Peruvian restaurant. That was the first time I was cooking in a restaurant, because in Peru I worked at Chili's, but I was a server.

EOW: When did you move to Houston?

RC: I moved to Houston about two years later. I had to leave Miami because I realized I couldn't do anything there. You know, in Miami, it's partying all the time, so I couldn't save any money, and one day I said to myself "I have to leave Miami, or I'll never do anything."

EOW: So what brought you to Houston?

RC: I had a cousin here. When I moved here, I worked for another Peruvian restaurant called Pescalato -- it's not there anymore -- for a year and a half. When I realized I couldn't learn from them anymore, I moved to New York, where I worked at another Peruvian restaurant, but it was the same problem, because I wasn't learning anything. I went to Delaware, then back to Houston, then Arlington, where I became Executive Chef of a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant called Xouba. I was there for a couple of years before I went to Dallas to open a Peruvian restaurant called Allo as Sous Chef, then Stephan Pyles, where I was ceviche chef, then finally came back to Houston.

EOW: So you went from Executive Chef, to Sous Chef, to Ceviche Chef, why?

RC: Because I wanted to learn more. And in my mind, I wanted to open up a restaurant someday, and it was just part of the learning process.

EOW: So, Houston. Was this your last move?

RC: Yes. I moved to The Woodlands, and I got a job at Americas. I worked for Jonathan Jones, but then he left, and so I did, too. I went to Jasper's, where I took a day job as a cook, and then Hubbell & Hudson opened, and I took a night job there as a sous chef. So I had two jobs. I did that for around 10 months so I could save some money.

EOW: You said that Latin Bites started out as a catering business, tell me how that came about.

RC: Around 2007, around the time I left Arlington, Rita (my sister) moved here to Houston because we had this dream to open a restaurant. Rita, Carlos (her husband) and me, we talked, and we said "What can we do?" We decided to do the catering, but we didn't have money to rent a place, so we said, "Okay, let's do it at home. Let's start from home." So I told them if we do it at home, we have to do something different, because I can't cook for 40 or 60 people from a home kitchen. So we did catering, but we can only do bites -- hors d'oeuvres -- so that's why we called it "Latin Bites."

EOW: Oh, that's a great story!

RC: So we started with Latin Bites Catering, just hors d'oeuvres, and we did pretty good.

EOW: How did people find out about you? How did you get the word out?

RC: Facebook. We didn't have any money for advertising, so we opened up page on Facebook, and I started to invite people. I invited all my friends, Rita invited all her friends, and we started like that. And the rest was through word of mouth. For the four first months, we had three or four parties a week. So we did pretty good, but it was hard, because I was still working at Hubbell & Hudson. I worked at Hubbell & Hudson from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then I would come home and cook for the party from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m., to be ready for the next day. The next day, I would go to work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then I would come home and we would put everything in the car, we would go cater the job.

EOW: And you did this for how long?

RC: We did this for eight months.

Check back with us tomorrow as Castre tells us about opening Latin Bites just one month after kidney donation surgery.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham