Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Danny Trace of Brennan's of Houston

Moving from one dining market to another can make you question what you thought you knew. As we learned yesterday, despite the years he spent at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, chef Danny Trace received some unexpected demands from diners when Brennan's of Houston reopened after the fire. Houstonians have their own sacred dishes, and woe be it to the chef who messes with them.

What's special about Trace, however, is that he listened to the diners and fulfilled requests when feasible. That's in addition to the challenge on staying on top of the ever-changing seasonal fare that Brennan's is known for. It's cuisine that Trace is well-suited for, having spent his childhood hunting, fishing and growing produce with his grandfather in New Orleans.

In Part two of our Chef Chat with him, we'll learn about some of the adaptations he made when coming to Houston and what he recommends diners order if they've never visited Brennan's of Houston.

EOW: Other than the balance of flavors being a little different, what kind of difficulties did you have from doing food at Commander's Palace and then food with Brennan's of Houston?

DT: I think that when I first came over, I tried to duplicate what I learned and what I knew. I had the New Orleans thing down at Commander's for so long, I knew the food inside and out. When I went to Florida, it was more of an island blend -- Floridian-Caribbean kind of thing going on. So lighter foods, lighter flavors and fresh fruits.

I'll give you one for instance: pecan fish. The pecan fish in New Orleans has pecan-crusted speckled trout or redfish. It's served over a crushed-corn sauce with champagne and poached crabmeat. I brought that here. People here wanted meunière sauce. It's kind of the thing that made them warm inside.

[People wanted] haricots verts [French-style green beans]. I stopped using haricots verts 12 years ago, 15 years ago. Even the meunière sauce. So I was putting those things on, listening to the guests. What made them feel warm? What was their comfort food?

You know, it takes awhile. I'm more disciplined now than I used to be, but I listen to the guests. I tried to lighten up the Pontchartrain, but nope, that didn't happen either. It's like, "Let's go back to the way it was." I guess it's like, "This is my idea to change the turtle soup." There are a few things that you really don't want to mess with, and you'll find out the hard way that you don't want to go into the dining room. But all of those things is just the learning process, different locale. You learn, and it's a great thing to always listen to your audience.

EOW: Do you still have The Kitchen Table (the chef's table dining experience)?

DT: We do have the kitchen table. Fun times. I met a lot of great people. Good stuff. We do anywhere from four to 12 people back there. There are six courses paired with either wines or cocktails.

EOW: What are some of your favorite things about being here?

DT: Being here at Brennan's? I would say the people. I made a lot of great friends through the restaurant. The guests are amazing. I think it's just being able to come in every day, work with a great team in the back -- back of the house, the front of the house, awesome. And to make memories for people. It's what we do and it's a great fulfillment to do that and to be able to play with whatever proteins or produce is offered. It's unlimited what we can buy, have and do.

EOW: It's almost unthinkable that there might still be Houstonians out there who have never been here before. Yet there are.

DT: What are you waiting on? Shame on you.

EOW: Right? What should they have? What should they try?

DT: You have to have turtle soup. I still eat it, even after all these years. I just get sick sometimes just tasting, tasting, tasting because it's what we have to do every day to check consistency and taste. But I'll find myself getting a cup and just enjoying it.

We're heavy on seafood, so there's nothing ever wrong with that. I always find myself going that way on the menus anyway. We're very seasonal. Everything that's in-season, we're going to try to be the first kids on the block to have it and the last kids on the block to have it. We demand it. So right now you'll find crispy soft-shell crabs over tomato salad with some crab meat. You'll have fried oysters and oyster BLTs. We have some roasted oysters. We do a seaweed-roasted oyster that's unbelievable, I think. Fish -- you name it. We're working close with Louisiana Foods to try to help out and get a lot of bycatch things. They call it bycatch, but I've been really serving it in Louisiana forever: things like sheepshead, black drum and hake. I've been talking to the fishermen trying to get them to start fishing for hake in Texas. We let them know that there's a market and there's restaurants that do some volume and buy it. In New Orleans, they do fish for it. Just those little things.

What else will you find? We do smoked beef rib. We have fun tipping the hat to Texas. We bought a $10,000 oven to do Peking-style duck.

EOW: Really? I didn't know that.

DT: We're playing around with sorghum. We were blanching them in sorghum and roasted them. We started using some local honey. We got some Buffalo Bayou honey, so we do a mixture of that. It's like a seven-day process, getting the duck in the door, blowing the skins, stuff it, blanch it, hang it, let it dry and and then we roast it in that oven. It's been a good hit. It's seasonal. We serve it with crawfish fried rice. I like the dish. I love to hunt, so I love quail. We do it all. Crudos. Shrimp rémoulade is a very popular one that's been hanging around for a while.

We push the envelope, we always have. But you can still come and get some classic things that are consistent as we could possibly keep them. Our thing is to push Creole food while keeping the rest of the things consistent.

EOW: I think that's a great point about what you do here: maintain the classics, but then Brennan's is always pushing and stretching, trying things and embracing things.

DT: It's appreciated because I'll get letters and it's like, "Thanks for what you guys do, changing the menus as often as you can." People get it and they understand it. So I tend to think that we're doing something right.

EOW: Brennan's is huge. This is a huge operation because you have multiple private dining rooms. You're an often-selected place for events and celebrations. You've got a bar, you've got the patio and you've got the big downstairs dining room. Tell us what you're in charge of overseeing on a day-to-day basis.

DT: Everything. I don't limit myself to anything. Back of the house, you'll catch me in front of the house, really making sure the food is being put out on the tray in a timely manner, helping out, serving, maybe the bar. I just make myself visible everywhere. I'm responsible for food and quality, yes, of course, but we now have good people who do that on a daily basis. To say what am I responsible for: I would just say making sure that everybody leaves here with a great memory of Brennan's of Houston.

EOW: We recently did a cover story on very young executive chefs, like people in their twenties and early thirties.

DT: That's not me.

EOW: Well, it's not me, either. What kind of advice might you give young people who find themselves in the position of executive chef?

DT: It's a tough position at that young age. Discipline is tough. It took me a long time. I used to run and be a gun that I didn't think anybody could touch. Hostile. But I've matured. If there is one thing that I can say, it's listen to your audience. Just because you feel it's something that people should eat, it's not necessarily the way it should go.

If you use seasonal foods, any of those combinations blended together tend to work for a reason. I think that young guns are always in a hurry to get somewhere. It's just about focus and listening to your audience is huge.

EOW: What is your favorite mealtime here at Brennan's?

DT: I would have to say brunch. It just has that party atmosphere -- that fun time. There are balloons and it's really festive. The ladies are in hats and everybody's dressed up. It's a celebration. I poached eggs for years and years and I don't want to do it anymore, but it's a great time. I love to go eat brunch. There's nothing as good as having a couple of glasses of bubbly in the morning and eating some great big dishes.

EOW: As a chef, you probably work a whole lot and you may not get to actually dine here very often. But what do you think is your favorite space in this building to dine in?

DT: The bar.

EOW: The bar? Me too.

DT: I don't want to give everybody the wrong ideas, but I like to dine in bars of restaurants. You learn a lot, you hear a lot, you see a lot. You learn a lot about the restaurant. That's where people do the most talking.

EOW: Yes.

DT: I'd have to say if I was dining here, it had to be the main dining room and the high-back chairs. They're very comfortable. You can have personal conversations in there. It's just good stuff.

EOW: I love talking to bartenders.

DT: They'll tell you anything and everything -- sometimes too much.

EOW: (Laughs.) All right, then. Thank you for the interview.

DT: I appreciate it. Thank you.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook