Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Benjy Mason of Down House, on Going from Staging at Feast to Executive Chef at Down House in Nine Months

Benjy Mason Down House 1801 Yale St. 713-864-3696

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and Part 3.

Yesterday we chatted with Benjy Mason about his learning to make dumplings as an exchange student in China, and how he was given a mountain of pigs' heads to debone on his second day as a stage, essentially an unpaid restaurant intern, at Feast.

Today, we learn about how he went from being stage to sous chef, and then Executive Chef, at Down House in just nine months' time.

EOW: Feast moved you up in the ranks quickly, didn't they?

BM: I started staging, and I really liked what I was doing, was learning a lot. And so Lyle decided that he was going to move on, and he was sous chef, and basically the two chef-owners were the only other employees, so they were like, "Well, you've been coming in for a while now, do you want to take this job?" But I was still working at my nonprofit, so I did three months of working full-time at both places. I'd work at my job, get off, then go to Feast and work dinner service, and then come to Feast on my days off to prep.

EOW: What was the final thing that made you leave the other job?

BM: I had made a decision six months in advance that I was gonna leave. It's still run by one of my best friends. Basically I was sticking around until they found someone to replace me. It wasn't a surprise when I quit.

EOW: So most of your chef training was at Feast?

BM: Other than in college at restaurants, basically all my chef training was at Feast. It was a crash course.

EOW: How long did you end up staying?

BM: I came to Down House in October. I started staging at Feast in January, so nine full months.

EOW: So what precipitated the move to Down House?

BM: I was happy at Feast, I was going to stay there for a while, and then they closed New Orleans, and I was working there full time at this point, but they were like, "We really can't afford to keep you here." So actually I was looking for other kitchen jobs. Then Richard from Feast came here [to Down House] one night for a drink, and the owner was talking about how he needed a new chef, so he said, "I've got just the right guy for you." I'd wanted to go and work in another kitchen for someone else, but I came in, met the owners and really liked them and what they were doing, so here I am.

EOW: What did they have foodwise at the time?

BM: They were doing breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the dinner menu was really small. The original chef had left a month and a half before, so everything was in flux. And Richard was like, "Man, you don't want to work for someone else, it's terrible!" But I said, "It seems really stressful." But he said, "Ah, it will be great!" But yeah, it was really stressful.

EOW: What was stressful?

BM: So the first day I got here, I had to fire half of the staff in the kitchen. We also do breakfast, lunch and dinner, so there are a lot of staff covering those shifts. Although we don't advertise it as "farm-to-table" as such, we try hard to work with local vendors and source things locally, so instead of working with one vendor to get a big delivery in bulk, we are working with multiple local vendors, who may come at any time during the day. Managing that while trying to keep the price points fairly low -- less than $20 for an entrée -- can be difficult at times.

EOW: You've also introduced a second new menu. What's the most popular item on it?

BM: Yes, our new menu rolled out about a month ago (laughs). The kimchi burger. It's our eight-ounce grass-fed beef burger with kimchi and an egg on top. We had some extra cabbage one day, so I decided to make kimchi, and we put it on the burger and it's been a big hit.

EOW: So now that you're settled, tell me about your job here.

BM: I have a really short attention span, so one of the things I really like about my job is I get to do a lot of things. Like this morning, I came in and talked to a bunch of vendors, did spreadsheet stuff for two hours, chatted with other chefs and did prep lists. We also do a lot of special events here, like our one-year anniversary party coming up, when we have a shrimp and crab and crawfish boil. In June, we've got a dinner with Southern Star Brewery coming up -- this will be our third.

EOW: You do a lot of beer dinners, right?

BM: This will be our third, but we're moving away from the "beer dinner" concept, because we're not really a six-course-plated-dinner type restaurant. So for Southern Star, I think we're going to do our version of a summer barbecue. We'll do some hot dogs, ribs, summer salads, and they're going to dry-hop a casket of their new Walloon beer, which means they brew the beer, cask age and add extra hops at the end, and we're going to do a beer cocktail as well. We're doing a gin dinner. Jeremy, the bartender here, did this amazing lecture for the staff, starting with the Dutch gins and moving into the English gins, so we're doing a gin dinner based on his lecture, and we'll do food inspired by the different styles of gin, like medieval Dutch food and some Victorian British food, and Prohibition Era food.

EOW: So on to more stuff about you. I hear you're engaged.

BM: I am.

EOW: Does she like your food? Does she come here and hang out?

BM: Yeah, she's always like, "I guess I'm going to come and eat at Down House, or I'll never get to see you." Before I worked here, I used to cook at home a lot, and now, I don't think I've cooked at home since I moved into my new house.

EOW: So if you cook at home, what do you cook?

BM: Occasionally I'll work out ideas for here at home. I like to go to grocery stores, I think they're fun to wander around in. So I end up with lots of random stuff in the refrigerator, so those things will accumulate in the refrigerator, and I'll come home one night starving and throw something together.

EOW: Okay, so last question: If you were to have a last meal, what would you have, who would make it, what would it be?

BM: It would probably be dumplings. The family I lived with in China made delicious dumplings. I like the Northern Chinese, meaty, thick skin, with pork-y, ginger-y filling. But I like all dumplings.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some items off of Mason's new menu at Down House.

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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