Chef Samuel Beier has a tricky mission: update Tony Mandola's cuisine to attract a younger clientele while still satisfying customers who have patronized the family's restaurants for over two decades.
I don't envy him the task, but it is needed. Cuisine inside the 610 Loop isn't what it used to be. Competition is high and the up-and-comers of Generation X who hold the majority of dining dollars and are looking for not only a unique experience but a true story.
Back in 2012 I wrote a post for "Eating... Our Words" called "Stuck In the Past at Tony Mandola's," a recap of what was unfortunately one of the most disappointing meals I'd had that year. Because of that experience, I am probably more appreciative than most to have had the opportunity to talk with Chef Beier and learn of the new focus.
Beier has the right pedigree to get the job done. He is one of the talented group of culinary professionals that emerged from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Bank, the acclaimed restaurant inside of Hotel Icon from 2004 to 2007. Many members of the group, including Bryan Caswell, Jamie Zelko and Vanarin Kuch, went on to open their own restaurants or make otherwise significant contributions to Houston's dining scene.
Beier is gentlemanly, quiet and perhaps a bit shy, which might explain why he's managed to sail mostly under the radar until now. Let's find out how the native Texan went from Bryan/College station, to New York and then back to Houston.
EOW: Where are you from originally?
SB: College Station, Texas.
EOW: So, you are a native Texan. How long were you in College Station?
SB: I grew up there and was there for 22 years. I never had the desire to go to Aggieland.
EOW: Oh, really? I was next going to ask if you're an Aggie!
SB: No, my brothers have gone there but I went to junior college in Blinn. I partied and enjoyed the college life a bit too much. I started to figure out what I needed to do with my life and make a career out of something. I worked in some low-end places like Freebirds, one of the originals. That was a lot of fun. You got to mix it up with the college crowd there. I worked at a seafood place. I got hired as an expediter and went through the training. It was a Mom and Pop operation.
We'd have people quit because paychecks weren't being paid. I stayed and eventually got moved to a cook [position]. I was like, "I have no idea what's going on here, but I'll just give it my best shot. That's how I got into the kitchen. Eventually, the place closed down, but that was where I learned what goes on behind the scenes.
EOW: Before this, did you have any kind of culinary training or even have an intense home cook in your family?
SB: No, at this time, I didn't have any training. It was just to have a job, basically. I thought my mom always cooked good food. Now, when I go home even when she cooks the simplest thing, she'll be like, "Hey, show me how to do that." I'm like, "Mom, you used to do that when we were kids. Why all of a sudden now have you stopped remembering?" It's kind of funny.
She made good food. We made homemade pizzas and lasagna--good comfort food. I never had anyone in my family, though, who was a chef or in the business. My dad's a chemist. He's totally not into the food stuff.
I became the go-to guy when at parties to make food, just because I was the one cooking food for my job. We'd just scrounge up whatever was at the house and make something up. That stirred up my creative juices. This was when Food Network was getting big with Emeril and all those guys. It sparked the idea of, "Well, maybe I can do something like that.
It really progressed when I worked for Pebble Creek Country Club in College Station. The chef there was from the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in New York. I got to talking with him about that. Was it worth it? Was it fun? That's how I got the ins and outs.
EOW: Do you find now that you're a chef when you go to people's houses that people are self-conscious about cooking for you?
SB: Yeah, I get that a lot. Some people will say, "We're making this and this but I hope it's to your quality." I've always tried to just really appreciate what people cook. Everyone's different. They may not be the best cooks in the world but they're trying hard.
EOW: I've always heard chefs say they genuinely appreciate a home-cooked meal.
SB: Yeah it's fun to see the different stuff that people do with their food. Our neighbors do a crawfish boil in their cul de sac. One neighbor is from Louisiana and another has ties there. They do crawfish, shrimp, whole artichokes. I was like, "That's kind of cool. I've never seen that before." We had sausage and [a neighbor] made butters to dip stuff in. It's cool to see what people come up with and the different generations of what's been passed down to them.
EOW: What was in between [the country club] and coming to Houston?
SB: I was 21 and feeling like it was time to get out of College Station and see things. I'd been talking about it. I was hanging out with friends and we made a bet. I said if I lost, I'd fill out the application for CIA and send it in. I lost the bet. Four months later, they sent back that I'd been accepted. This was in 2001.
EOW: 2001? Ohhh... Okay.
SB: They said, "Your start date will be in November." Then 9/11 happened. That totally changed things. "Are we going to be able to go up there [to New York]? Are we going to be able to start on time?
We did start on time. I don't know if "interesting" is the right word, but it was a good life experience to see a disaster on TV and then move up there. You're in the scope of everything that's going on. It brought me back down to life on what it's all about.
EOW: How soon after 9/11 did you move there?
SB: I started November 12, so I moved to the dorms on November 6. It was still real fresh on everyone's minds.
EOW: I was wondering what the climate was like and what the people were like at that time.
SB: There was a lot of stuff you couldn't do. You couldn't go to certain places in the city. The CIA's in Hyde Park, so it was an hour-and-a-half train ride outside the city. The security was a big shocker, seeing guys walk around with big guns.
EOW: Interesting. We recently did a Chef Chat with Jason Gould [of Cyclone Anaya's]. You went up there right after he left to come to Houston. How long were you at CIA?
SB: I was there until 2003. In between, you do an externship where you go to a restaurant and complete four months of work. My externship was in Breckenridge. It was in the summer so I wasn't there for the ski season, but it was a lot of fun. I'd traveled though Colorado but I'd never been to the mountains. It was really cool to go there. The place I rented looked out at the ski slopes of Breck and downtown. I did a lot of hiking and a lot of working. I met some cool people.
(Author's note, on another "it's a small world" note, pastry chef Rebecca Masson started honing her craft in Breckenridge.)
EOW: What did you do after that?
SB: I went back to school and finished my last year there. I had a couple of odd jobs, nothing tremendous. I worked at the Olive Garden for a while. It was an eye-opener because you get to see behind the scenes of that thing! It was a beast. I take everything into perspective. There wasn't a lot of scratch cooking behind the line, but there was a lot to do with speed and keeping up with everything. It was non-stop.
After I left the CIA, I came back to Texas, mainly because I was dating my future wife. It was a long-distance relationship. I got a job at The French Room in Dallas and worked under William Koval. My chef du cuisine was Marcus Segovia. He's still there.
That was one of the best moves I made. I weighed where I wanted to go with my career. Did I want to go with an average restaurant and make money quick? Did I want to take my time and really study behind great chefs? I chose working for people who are the best at what they do.
It was a struggle. It doesn't pay much but it was fun. Everything was made from scratch. We were making pastas and getting in different types of fish and proteins. It was really cool.
EOW: You kind of had the whole gamut. You had Olive Garden--the feeding the masses thing they have to do--and then to the polar opposite, a place where everything is scratch made. How long were you there?
SB: Two-and-a-half years and then my fiancé and I decided we needed to live in the same place for a while. I moved to Houston. I was really struggling. I wasn't gung ho about Houston. I'd driven through it as a young adult.
EOW: Well, it's not much to look at if you don't know the place. (laughs)
SB: Yeah, I was happy to drive out. I wanted to work for another great chef and be part of something awesome. I kept looking and looking. I finally saw that Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] was opening Bank at Hotel Icon. Bryan Caswell was the chef. I called him and he said, "Well, let me get back with you." A couple of weeks went by. Nothing. I called him again. I kind of hounded him for a good month. Finally, he was like, "Okay, we can have you come on board."
I worked for him about two years. It was pretty cool. It was a nice kitchen. The staff was nice. Bryan was fun to work with. He's a good chef, very on-point with everything and very demanding, but also he liked to have fun and have the creative side. He liked making sure everyone was on the same team and working together.
EOW: The talent that came out of Bank is insane. Everybody went on to do something.
SB: It was one of those solid teams where everyone was going for the same goal.
EOW: Did you stay at Bank until Bryan Caswell left to open Reef?
SB: I actually left after two years. I wanted to move on to something else. My chef in Dallas, William Koval, had mentioned to me a few years back, "Hey, there's a guy in Atlanta, Joël Antunes. He's incredible. The stuff he's doing is mindblowing." He was one of the top six chefs in the nation at the time.
I called chef Koval back and said, "Hey, I think I want to work for the guy in Atlanta. I think this is the move I need to make." He got in touch with [Antunes]. It took a little while but eventually I locked up a spot up there. I'd just gotten married six months prior. We were newlyweds and I came home and told my wife, "Hey, we're moving."
EOW: I'm sure she was overjoyed.
SB: Yeah, that was a little bit of a difficult situation. She's from Houston and had a hard time leaving. [Joël's] was a great experience though. It was a 5,000 square foot kitchen. It was amazing but it's not there anymore. We has an air-controlled pasta room. There was a pastry area.
EOW: Doesn't that ruin you for every kitchen you work in after that? (laughs)
SB: It sets the bar so high you're like, "Where can I go from here?" That job was the most rewarding. We all worked 10 to close, six days-a-week. [Chef Antunes] was French, so he'd buy stuff from France and Italy. It was shipped in. Once a week, they'd go to the airport and pick it all up. Some of it, he'd ship to Jöel Robuchon in Las Vegas. It was high-caliber products and equipment. It was über fine dining.
EOW: How did that end up?
SB: After that, I felt I had the experience to be a sous chef and had gotten word that Jean-Georges was opening a second Spice Market in Atlanta. The first one is in New York. I worked for them and became the executive sous. They also had another place called Market in Buckhead and they wanted me to bounce back and forth between the two properties. It was a good experience to see the management side of the business.
EOW: Did you stay in Atlanta a while longer?
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SB: No, we were there for four years. My wife got a call from her boss who had worked in Atlanta. He had moved to Houston and called to say, "Hey, I've got a job here if you want it." It was just one of those things where you have to bite the bullet.
EOW: Ha! It was your turn to leave. Your wife was probably like, "Yay, we're going back to Houston!"
SB: Yeah, she was. Houston's grown on me now. We built a house in Spring.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our Chef Chat, where we'll learn where chef Beier worked in Houston before landing at Tony Mandola's, as well as how long-term guests are responding to the menu changes.