Chef Chat, Part 2: Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at JW Marriott

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Yesterday we did the first part of our interview with Erin Smith of Main Street Kitchen.

EOW: Why did you end up leaving Plonk?

ES: Plonk was the first restaurant I worked at when I moved back to Houston and I had no idea what the food scene was going to be like. Not having lived here for 10 years, my memory was Pappasito's and Chili's. Plonk stumbled into my lap and I was appreciative of it, but in the two-and-a-half years I was there I realized that there was a lot of stuff happening in the food scene. It was really exciting and I just wanted to see what else was out there and stretch my wings a little bit more.

I reached out to people like Justin Yu [of Oxheart] quite a bit. I went and staged there for a day. I just wanted to experience other kitchens. It's like you're in these walls every day and you want to see what it's like in the other walls.

He has more of a New York-like experience [at Oxheart]. I can tell in Houston who has worked in New York because of how the kitchens are run, like at Pass & Provisions. The [employee] family meal, for example--family meal is New York. Every kitchen I ever worked at in New York does family meal. It's not a widespread Houston practice.

EOW: To me, family meal sounds like such a wonderful bonding experience for the staff. For people who have each other's backs, to me that sounds really important.

ES: Yeah. There are other things like that, but that's one of the things. I spent some time at Triniti, too. I didn't ever stage at Underbelly, but I spent some time there. It's really just neat to see how other people are running their kitchens.

I didn't leave Plonk with a next step in mind. People would ask me, "What do you have lined up?" and I'm like, "I'm going on vacation for a month. I don't even want to think about where I'm going to work." I don't think people really believed that. They were like, "Oh, whatever. You're just keeping it a secret." and I'd say, "First of all, I'm not good at keeping secrets, and second of all, I'm just excited about going away and not working!"

EOW: Having a month off is awesome!

ES: I know! So, that's what I did. I traveled and saw my mom. I drove my sister to San Francisco and just took a breather.

EOW: How did the Clumsy Butcher gig fall into your lap?

ES: While I was on the last leg of my trip and trying to avoid any major decisions, I got a call from Bobby [Heugel]. We'd talked a little before I left, but never in a complete conversation. It was just little ideas here and there. The phone conversation we had while I was on my trip left me really excited to come back, meet with them and see what they were offering.

At the time, Clumsy Butcher didn't exist. That was part of the conversation, too. "We want to bring it all together and create this umbrella that is the scope of everything we are doing. We're going to need some positions to help bring it all in and care for everything at the same time." It sounded like a great opportunity.

Working with Mike Burnett, Chris Shepherd, Kevin Floyd--who wouldn't want to do that?

EOW: You were able to do the initial menu for Blacksmith, right?

ES: That was what I talked about with Bobby. It wasn't about getting on with the company full-time. It was about starting with this one project.

David [Buehrer] and Ecky [Prabanto of Blacksmith] are amazing. Blacksmith has a good energy to it. Everyone who works there and goes there--there's just this great energy. Even when we were working 18 hours a day, it was still fun. Everyone was enjoying it. The whole experience went so well and that parlayed into conversations about Clumsy Butcher and taking a full-time position with the company.

EOW: And from there, I think that ended up evolving into helping with the menu for The Hay Merchant.

ES: Yeah. Well, the first thing after Blacksmith was Anvil. The menu hadn't changed in two or three years and they wanted to freshen it up. There's a limited kitchen there. There's not a lot of space and cocktails are the priority so you want to take up as little space as possible. I really liked working with the bartenders there. It didn't take long to change the menu and get everything in place.

EOW: You came up with the Campari popcorn there, right? That is still on the menu!

ES: That was one of those funny little experiments where we were like, "Popcorn. What can we do?" and then you've got a group of guys there who are like, "Campari! Campari!" It just keeps popping up so I'm like, "OK, Campari. We'll do something with Campari." That dish is all about the science of it. There are binders and hydrocolloids and dehydrated Campari. We had a lot of fun doing that.

EOW: What happened after that?

ES: I went to Hay Merchant. We tweaked the menu and then we launched brunch. Dax [Macnear] and I worked together on the brunch menu and continued tweaking the dinner menu. Dax is one of my favorite coworkers. I'd work with him again.

EOW: At some point, the Main Kitchen opportunity fell into your lap. Had you already left Clumsy Butcher group?

ES: No. I was doing an offsite event for Hay Merchant and this man walks up, hands me a card and start talking about a hotel. I honestly wasn't paying much attention because I didn't have that much interest. I hadn't really thought about leaving my job and going to work in a hotel.

He was really nice and complimentary. We shook hands, I put his card in my pocket, got home, put it on the counter and it sat there for weeks. I never picked it up or made any calls. I started getting these messages at work. Nobody could get his name right. They'd say, "Jeremy." His name is Jermaine.

He had a very hard time getting in touch with me, unfortunately. I did eventually reach back out to him and we sat down and had a meeting. He started talking about this whole project. It was very appealing. I went to the meeting not thinking that I was going to leave interested. I was going to just hear him out and I left very interested.

EOW: This [Main Kitchen and the food operations at JW Marriott] is such a different ballgame than being a chef in an independent restaurant, or even several independent restaurants. Did you have any fears, like "Whoa, this is going to be huge!"

ES: Certainly. I didn't know what to expect. People can tell you over and over again what it's going to be like, but until the doors open, it's all just good intentions. I'm so impressed with what we've done, where we are and the fact that we've made it this far. Everything is going so well, but you take it day-by-day. It's a big beast. There's so much: the culinary department, every event, employee dining, in-room dining... it's all coming out of this one department. I knew all along this was coming, but you can't even imagine it until it happens.

So, there were fears, but I think I didn't even know what to fear! That was probably really good because I was able to approach it pretty calmly. We take it day-by-day and do what we can.

EOW: How long has Main Kitchen been open?

ES: A little over three weeks.

EOW: So, not long. What is your culinary focus?

ES: When I cook, it's a very selfish and unselfish thing to do at the same time. I like to cook what I want to cook. If I wake up and I'm like, "I really want to try making this today," I don't think, "Oh, but our concept is Italian." I don't even think like that. I just think, "This sounds like it could be really good. I think it could fit perfectly with the rest of the menu. I'm excited about it. Let's look at ordering products and playing around with it."

That's really the mentality--just coming in, cooking what we want to cook, being excited about it and hoping that everybody else is excited about it, too. It's a selfish thing to do, but we do it for unselfish reasons. We just want to put good food in front of people. We try to use local stuff but we're not exclusively local by any means.

EOW: You're probably too high-volume to be able to do a whole lot of that.

ES: We are, and after living in California and New York, you fall in love with things that are available in other parts of the country. I hate limiting myself and saying, "Well, I can't use that because I want to use just what's here." I have a lot of respect for chefs who do that, because it's not easy, but I love certain products too much. When ramps are in season, I want to use them and those don't grow in Texas. We wish they did, but they don't. I'm excited about using stuff like that and having it on the menu.

EOW: Is your menu set for the season or does it change regularly? ES: I'm a little sporadic, so I like to change things up. There are figs on the menu. Figs are going out of season so we need to take those off soon and put something in its place.

The lunch menu is going to be more stable because that's what the business for lunch really demands and requires. Dinner will change a lot. You'll see a lot of seasonal things coming in and out. We're having a lot of fun with pizzas and playing around with seasonal pizzas and seasonal salads.

EOW: So, you're doing the restaurant, room service, the bar, banquets, special events...

ES: And eventually off-site catering. We're not there yet, but yeah.

EOW: Do you have any secrets for how you manage all of that?

ES: A good team! A good team is the secret--just surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. I think I've done a good job of doing that. All of the sous chefs, like Mark Parmley, Sharon the pastry chef... Make sure you surround yourself with people that are smarter than you, willing to work really hard and want to see the same kind of success.

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