Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Amanda McGraw of Brasserie 19 and Ibiza

Yesterday, we chatted with Amanda McGraw of Brasserie 19 and Ibiza about her times staging in Chicago, and what it was like opening a restaurant like Brasserie 19. Today, we continue our conversation.

EOW: What is your official title?

AM: I am the Chef de Cuisine for Brasserie 19 and Ibiza.

EOW: What does that entail?

AM: I create dishes for both menus. I'm also kind of a creative director. We don't really have a title for it. Clark Cooper -- they had Catalan, now it's Coppa, then Brasserie, and Ibiza for 11 years. But they're opening new concepts, and I'm creating the menu for new concepts. Charles [Clark] is the Executive Chef of all the concepts. I'll make new dishes, do tastings for him and Grant [Cooper].

EOW: So they are the gatekeepers. And they're like "yay" or "nay." Do they have an idea, or do you just present it and they say, "I would prefer it to be this way." Or do they just tell you "I want a meat dish." How does that go?

AM: It's both. Sometimes I put together something and say, "You should try this," and they'll say, "That's awesome, let's put it on the menu." Or, they'll come to me and say "Hey Amanda, we want to do a new scallop dish." Our menus are changing quarterly, seasonally -- spring, summer, fall, winter. For the Brasserie, most brasserie menus are pretty set. So we're trying to make it pretty set, only do three menu changes every year, and feature nightly dishes.

EOW: So, what are the best dishes here?

AM: Steak frites, of course. Oysters and charcuterie, definitely. This is the best place in town for oysters. And, we have a really awesome charcuterie program that I think doesn't get recognized enough. We just got a smoker recently, so we're smoking our own ham, sausages. Also, we're the only restaurant in town that serves Island Creek oysters, which are some of the best oysters in the US. French Laundry uses them, Per Se...some of the best oysters we get here.

EOW: Let's talk a bit about this whole gender thing. The industry in Houston is fairly male-dominated. Who can you name off the top of your head that are female chefs? We have Monica Pope, obviously Brandi Key at Coppa.

AM: There's Anita at Pondicheri. There are younger women, like me. We have Erin at Plonk. We have Daniela, who was a Triniti. Other than that, I don't's hard. I'm not saying that women can't do it. But you're working in a male-dominated field, mostly Hispanic men. It's hard work. I have lots of burns on my arms...

EOW: So, do you feel like you have to work harder?

AM: Definitely. Like whenever I first started over here -- even now -- if I ask a guy to work the pantry station, it's like "oh that's a girl's station." The salad station, "It's a girl station." We have a girl here, Kelsey, who started in December, and she's awesome. It's really good to have a girl in there to show up the guys a little bit and put them in their place, knock them down a peg, you know?

EOW: So did you always know you wanted to be a chef?

AM: No. I've always been around strong female cooks. I was raised by all women who taught me how to cook. We were in the kitchen all the time. But I never thought of it as a career. Then I went to college, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was working in a restaurant at the time, and I really liked it. There's not that many jobs that people have that they really enjoy, have fun. To me, this is fun. I work 12 to 14 hour days, but it's what I want to do, so I can't say that for a lot of other jobs.

EOW: So, fun stuff about you. What do you like about the food scene here?

AM: The ethnic food, definitely. I think that's what most people would say that are in this industry. We have one of the most diverse food scenes in the country.

EOW: Where are your favorite places to go, then?

AM: I've been going to Pondicheri a lot lately. I love Pondicheri. We go to Himalaya a lot, Huynh. Himalaya is Pakistani. I love the lamb burani, the goat curry. We get a ton of stuff to share. We just tell him, "Hey send us out five things," and we go to town. At Huynh, I order the duck salad. It's my favorite dish in Houston. It's awesome. It's so light and fresh, I could seriously eat it every day.

EOW: Hobbies?

AM: Music and my pets take up a lot of time. I have a dog and two cats.

EOW: How do you take care of them when you're working 14-16 hours a day?

AM: Me and Brandi [Key, her partner and Executive Chef of Coppa] both take care of them. I'm there in the morning, so I take care of them, she goes home in the afternoon, and then when we get home. We also have friends that go over there.

EOW: Is it easier to have a partner in the industry because of the hours?

AM: No, it's hard. But, we're hoping that we won't have these hours forever. [laughs]

EOW: Cause if you had a partner who had a 9-to-5 job, you would never see them...

AM: I don't know if I could be in the industry and not date someone else industry, because no one else would understand the kind of hours we put in. Especially it's really cool that we work for the same company. Grant and Charles sent us to LA a couple of months ago. They were like "Hey you guys, we want you to go to LA." They paid for our trip. We went to LA for four days and hit Jgelina, Animal -- those were my two favorite places we visited.

EOW: Would you say you're more into comfort food or Modernist cuisine?

AM: I like all food. I like lighter food, I don't like heavy food like gravy and mashed potatoes. I like light, clean foods.

EOW: Who are your culinary idols?

AM: Paul Kahan - he's the owner of the restaurants I staged at in Chicago. Sean Brock, he's kind of a newer guy. Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz. Thomas Keller, I've been to Bouchon in Yountville. David Chang -- not necessarily his restaurants but his book Momofuku is one of my favorites and I love his Lucky Peach magazines.

EOW: Your last meal.

AM: Pancakes and bacon.

EOW: You just said you don't like heavy food!?

AM: [laughs] I don't like gravy and stuff like that, but pancakes and bacon is the ultimate comfort food. It's sweet and salty and homey. But the pancakes have to be right, they have to be buttermilk pancakes. I love my mom's pancakes.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of McGraw's dishes.

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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