Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Leung of Restaurant conāt, On Honing His Technique

Yesterday, we chatted with pastry chef wunderkind Chris Leung of the upcoming Restaurant conāt about his background and how he got started in the dessert world. Today, we're getting to get the meat and potatoes of how he became a pastry chef extraordinaire in the four short years since he got started.

EOW: I know you started your career at Houston Country Club, and spent two years there...How did you know when it was time to move on?

CL: Around my second year, Michael O'Connor, the sous chef at HCC, told me about Randy's [Rucker] Tenacity supper club dinners. I knew Randy through Twitter as well. I went to his Thanksgiving dinner that year to help out in the kitchen. That was when I first met Randy. It opened my eyes to a different type of cuisine, something that was different, more avant-garde, a little bit more modern in terms of the food. After that, I went to all of his Tenacity dinners, and one was at Yelapa. Randy asked me to do a dessert for him. LJ Wiley, the Executive Chef at Yelapa at the time, liked the dessert and asked me if I would want to work in a restaurant. So then I went to Yelapa to run the pastry program there.

EOW: After Yelapa, you went to Bootsie's in Tomball. Where do you think you honed your technique as it is today?

CL: Probably around the time when I first joined Bootsie's. It was very different from how I learned to design menus and how to cook. Over at Bootsie's, I had to design the menu based on what I had, versus design the menu and order what I wanted. I also forced myself to not reproduce what I had already made. It forced me to learn on my feet. Once we switched over to tasting menus only, which was about three months into my being Bootsie's, I did two new desserts every day. We did four dinner services, so I created eight new desserts every week. Didn't want to repeat what I'd already done.

EOW: You said that you would design the menu based on what you had at Bootsie's. Take me through the thought of process of how you would come up with what to make "today."

CL: First, the thought process is going through the flavors first. Flavors is the most important aspect when it comes to designing or coming up with a plate. Also, for me, textures are very important, whether it's crispy, crunchy, creamy. That goes into play for me when I think about flavors. And then I go into techniques: what can I do to manipulate something that you're used to, but present it in a different way? That is the awe factor, if you will, to designing a plate. Something you're used to in a savory dish, and usually it's a creamy thing, but in my dessert, it's a crispy element. Something simple like that can make the diner think about the food, and most of the time, they enjoy it. Also, usually if I see a new technique that some other chefs have done, I try to re-create the technique on my own, and figure out how to use it and make it my own.

EOW: So you are making these dishes on the fly. I can't imagine it always works flawlessly. Tell me about some things that happened that you didn't expect.

CL: A lot of times, I have a vision in my head, but it doesn't come out the way I want it to. One time, I wanted to do a fruit zest puree. It wasn't pureeing in the blender, but was essentially juicing it. The water was picking up all the flavors, so instead of doing a puree, I emulsified the water and turned it into a vinaigrette.

EOW: There's a lot in the press about Randy Rucker. Tell me what it's really like working with him.

CL: He's actually a really great person to work with. In the kitchen, we spend all our time together. We spend more time with each other than with significant others and family. So, it's important that we all get along. He keeps it light in the kitchen. When he needs to be serious, he'll do it. At the end of the day, I know that Randy is going to be looking out for me, for my best interests. Sometimes he forgets himself, but he always makes sure we're taken care of. I didn't know that when I joined Bootsie's. I think what you see in the public forum isn't necessarily how a person really is. Sometimes people are different in public, and in the background they're different from what others see. As a chef, he's challenging me and giving me the freedom to do what i want. Just watching him come up with a menu or cook dishes -- through his techniques, I learned a lot in the past year.

EOW: So, conāt. Why the name conāt?

CL: Conāt started with Randy. He fell in love with the word when he first saw it. We went through several names, but it always came back to this one. I forget what the actual definition is, but what we got from it is..." being aware of where things come from, your surroundings." That is essentially the philosophy from that word.

EOW: Have you guys figured out the concept for conāt?

CL: We'll be building off what we were doing at Bootsie's. Dinner service only to begin with. We'll be offering a six, nine [course] chef's degustation. Mainly local products. All seafood from the Gulf. Proteins, we'll try to get it from state of Texas... Other than chocolates and wine, most ingredients will come from the state of Texas or possibly Louisiana.

EOW: Everybody's chomping at the bit to know when you will open.

CL: We're still projected to open first quarter 2012. Our address 5219 Caroline Street, which is the Museum District, right next to the Asia Society.

EOW: So fun things about you. What is a relatively unknown fact that people wouldn't know about you.

CL: (laughs) People probably don't know that I watch Glee.

EOW: You said you played soccer, right?

CL: When I can. I'm actually going to plan the high school alumni game soon, when alumni plays the varsity team. I'll probably be the oldest one out there.

EOW: What is your favorite cheap eats?

CL: I love a pho. It's what I fall back on if i can't figure out what to eat. I like Pho Binh By Night (12148 Bellaire Blvd., 832-351-2464). For late night comfort Chinese food, I like Fu Fu's. I get the green onion pancake, clear noodles, dumpling, spicy Szechuan noodles.

EOW: So, final question. If you could have anybody make you anything, who and what would it be?

CL: It would be my mom. It would be her. She does this dish of beef tongue with pickled mustard greens. She used a lot of offal in her cooking, but this dish stands out to me. She used a special marinade on the beef tongue, and would steam it, and serve it with mustard greens. It's something i remember from my childhood. My mom is one of my favorite cooks, because she cooked for us every night, making dishes that we grew up loving.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Leung's delectable pastries.

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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