Houston native Tommy Birdwell, the co-owner/executive chef at TQLA, may hold the record for having worked at more restaurants than any other chef in Houston: 37, at last count. Then again, his career began at age ten. A graduate of Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Birdwell worked with many of the stars of the Southwestern cuisine movement back when it was just becoming a movement, including the James Beard Award-winning chefs Robert McGrath, Stephan Pyles and Mark Miller. But despite the long shadow cast by his mentors, Birdwell has forged his own identity, winning both popular and critical acclaim for his latest venture.
Eating Our Words recently sat down with Chef Birdwell to discuss his formative years in Houston, his wide-ranging career, and what lies ahead for TQLA.
EOW: When TQLA opened, it faced some initial skepticism, which could be characterized as: "Great, another bar on Washington." Did you anticipate that, and as a chef how did you react?
TB: The whole thing about being on Washington and the kids and all that, it didn't bother me because I knew our vision and what we wanted to do, and it was going to be something different. It wasn't just going to be a regular old bar on Washington. A lot of people were thinking that because I've worked with chefs like Stephan Pyles and Mark Miller, I was going to do a new version of modern Southwestern. Yes, the theme is Mexico and the Southwest, but I do a little bit of everything: Mexican, Tex-Mex, Southwestern. I don't categorize it, so the menu can evolve. When people say, "Oh, dated Southwestern food," I never said I was doing Southwestern food. Everyone else thought I was. But it doesn't bother me what people say. I'm here to please people. I want people to come here and then come back two or three times a week, not just for a Sunday Mexican day out. I want them to remember the food. I put a lot of thought into it.
EOW: Do you get people coming in who expect Senor Frog's?
TB: It's funny that you say that. We get people coming in who think it's like Senor Frog's or Squid Roe or Molina's and then they eat here and say, "Wow! We had no idea." Then there are people that think it's going to be like RDG + Bar Annie, a little more upscale. And it's not that either. We're here on Washington, and we're here for everyone. Yeah, at night there is the bar scene thing. It's not just exclusively a restaurant. It's a restaurant bar. We want people to eat good and have fun.
EOW: When did you first know that you wanted to be a chef?
TB: When I was ten years old. My dad ran a bunch of Luby's Cafeterias in Houston, and I would always go in the back and help the cooks out, and then I started baking, making desserts and stuff. Back in the day there were always older black women that worked at Luby's, and they showed me about food: the color, the taste, the look, taking pride in your ingredients, and how it was a love. It progressed from there. I used to go to camp when I was 12 years old, and I wouldn't go to horseback or to archery, I'd go to the kitchen. My parents used to get notes that said, "We cannot keep Tommy out of the kitchen." Long story short, my parents said "we're paying for it, so let him do what he wants to do."
EOW: What are the first desserts you made at Luby's?
TB: Lemon meringue pies, coconut meringue pies, chocolate ice box pies, lemon ice box pies, tapioca pudding. I could make 18 to 20 different kinds of pies.
EOW: At ten years old, did you really know what you wanted to do with your life?
TB: One hundred percent. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
EOW: Did you think you were going to be a pastry chef?
TB: I just knew I wanted to be a cook or something in the food business. From junior high school onward, I worked in various restaurants all around Houston. When I was 14, I was a busboy at Maxim's, where the new Tony's is. Maxim's was a big deal; all the judges and big lawyers like Racehorse Haynes used to come in. I would stay late and work for free in the kitchen. I was too young, but the people in the kitchen had been there for like 30 years and were more than happy to let me.
EOW: What kind of dishes were you making at Maxim's?
TB: Just the basics. Kitchen prep: gumbo, crab salads, desserts. Whatever they needed help with. "Tommy, help me clean this case of romaine."
EOW: "Tommy, make me a lemon ice box pie"?
TB: No, it didn't go that far. I wish it did.
EOW: How many restaurants had you worked in by the time you attended the Culinary Institute?
TB: Eight or ten. There was an up-and-coming female chef in the early 1980s named Mary Nell Reck, who had a restaurant in Houston called Truffles, and another called Capers. I was hired on as a saute cook at Truffles, and I also worked the grill and learned the positions in the kitchen for the first time. Also, around that time there were I think 19 Luby's in Houston, and if, for instance, the pastry chef at the Luby's on Buffalo Speedway was going on vacation they'd ask if I could come in and fill in for a week. That happened two or three times, and I'm counting each one of those. I also worked two summers at a quail hunting lodge down in Mexico, back when I was in high school.
EOW: How'd you get that gig?
TB: My dad was an avid hunter, and I went hunting with him one time. I would go on the hunt in the morning, but in the evening I would stay back and cook because I wanted to learn. I was working with older Hispanic ladies, making flour tortillas and mole and tamales. The next summer I didn't want to go hunting, but the owner hired me back to be the cook, so I was there for the summer.
EOW: Is that the first time that you had cooked Mexican or Southwestern style?
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TB: Yes. That was literally the first time that I'd made any chile sauces or moles or tamales.
Tune in tomorrow for more with Chef Birdwell.