Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Erin Smith of Plonk, on What It's Like to Be a Woman in a Professional Kitchen

Erin Smith Plonk Bistro 1214 West 43rd Street 713-290-1070

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space on Friday.

Yesterday, we chatted with Erin Smith of Plonk about her stint at Thomas Keller's Per Se in NYC. Smith would leave Per Se to take on a position at Mario Batali's Italian Wine Merchant, eventually landing at Batali's Babbo, where she was the sole female in a kitchen full of men. Today we chat about her time there, and what eventually led her back to Houston and Plonk.

EOW: What does it mean to be a woman in the kitchen?

ES: After Per Se, I went on to be a sous for Liz Benno at Italian Wine Merchants. She'd worked with Mario Batali for years, and she taught me a lot, especially about what it means to be a woman in the kitchen. I think for anyone in the kitchen, it's challenging because it's a hard environment to be in. But I think for a woman, you have to find the balance between playing with the boys and being serious. And if you're the head, you play with the boys a lot less, because you're always trying to keep the mood serious, because you want to maintain focus. A lot of the advice she gave me became very important, especially when I went to work at Mario Batali's Babbo, because it's a boys' club.

EOW: What was her advice?

ES: She mostly taught me, "Take yourself seriously but not so seriously," and "If you feel you're good, don't ever let the male chefs knock you down, because they will." That's not always true, but you certainly have to make sure that you're on point all the time. It's almost like people are expecting you to mess up a little bit, in a way that I don't think men experience. You have to prove you're good regardless of the reputation you have walking into the kitchen, because they're expecting you to not be good.

EOW: What did you learn at Babbo, above and beyond a particular cuisine or technique?

ES: People always ask me this: Did I learn more at Per Se or at Babbo? I learned more about being a chef and being professional at Per Se. I learned more about how I wanted to present myself as a chef at Per Se. But I learned more about cooking at Babbo, because the way Mario cooks -- he cooks with passion, he cooks with something so close to his heritage, and with love. The way that I learned how to cook from Mario is the way I choose to cook now.

EOW: Which is how?

ES: Full flavor, seasonal, never skim on anything, pastas from scratch. We don't do pastas here, and I wish we did, but we don't have anything to boil pasta on. (Laughs.)

EOW: What brought you back to Houston? How did you end up at Plonk?

ES: After I left Babbo, I took on a job as a culinary expert at Williams-Sonoma. My second day back in Houston, Scott Miller (the owner of Plonk) walked in, and when he learned of my background, he asked me to consult on Plonk's menu. I met with him, and I was really inspired by his passion for wine. I thought, "If he's this passionate about the wine, and he's looking for someone to help him with the menu, this is someone who's going to let me do what I want to do." We have the same standard, we're both perfectionists. So, I decided to help him that day, first in a consulting capacity and eventually, when the menu got more complicated, as executive chef.

EOW: The kitchen here is not your regular kitchen. Tell me about it.

ES: There is a wood stone pizza oven. Seven to 80 percent of what we do on our menu comes off of it. We have two induction burners that are kind of temporary if we need them. We'll sauté things on them here and there.

EOW: I was going to say, how do you get away with not sautéing things?

ES: I have books and books of ideas, and only some will work here. If I come up with a menu idea that I really like, I'll tweak it so it will work here. We sous vide a few things. In the big oven, we keep sizzle pans hot. The oven is 700 degrees. So if you need a hot pan, you pull a pan from the back of the oven, you put something on it and it sears right away. We sear our pork chops, our hanger steak, our burgers on the sizzle pans.

EOW: That must slow things down.

ES: Yeah, the oven gets really tied up. I know one of the biggest complaints is that food takes a long time, but on a Friday night, we'll have 30 to 50 tickets on our board, and the oven fits three to four pizzas, a couple steaks and a couple burgers, and then it's maxed out. So, we're held back by the capacity of the oven, and food takes a long time. But, we do everything from scratch, we grind our own burger meat, nothing comes in prepackaged, so the quality is very high. We're hesitant to sacrifice the quality just to make things faster. So I think it's frustrating to the guests to wait so long, but I feel like the end result is still some of the best quality food that we are capable of doing.

EOW: Why not get a stove? There's room back there for it.

ES: So, the day I met Scott, he said, "My dream has always been to open a wine bar. My nightmare is to have a restaurant."

EOW: But you're essentially a restaurant.

ES: We are now, but it has been a slow morphing into that. Over time, the food has taken center stage more than the wine, and people started coming in more for the food than the wine. But it was never a conscious decision on our part.

EOW: But you have a pretty full staff in the kitchen, right?

ES: We do now. The menu grows a little bit, the staff grows a little bit. We used to never set the table because that's what restaurants do. And so, Scott held onto that wine bar concept for a long time. That's part of the reason why we don't have a wait staff.

EOW: So how do people get their food?

ES: We have runners, and sometimes I deliver the food.

EOW: How do people order?

ES: It's counter service. All of our bar staff -- when someone comes in, they're supposed to greet people and explain the concept to customers.

EOW: Are people happier with the counter service in the end?

ES: I think if it's somebody's first time, they might be a little turned off that they have to go to the bar and order. When we're available, when the bar staff is not busy, they'll come by and take orders and refill glasses. But on a Friday night when we're busy, that won't happen, and we don't want to create the expectation that it will always happen. I find that a lot of people at first are wishing there was a server, but the people that come in regularly have found a way to appreciate it, because we don't turn tables quickly. You pace your own meal. You can go up to the bar and order an appetizer, then an hour later order an entrée; there's nobody trying to get you out.

EOW: So you kind of morphed from consultant to executive chef. Do you feel now -- that girl that interviewed with the culinary schools -- this is what you envisioned?

ES: It is, actually. Plonk is a great place to work. This is exactly where I want to be right now. I'm young, and this is the first time I've ever been an executive chef. I was with the business almost from the beginning, so I've learned about what it takes to open a place and run a business. I've also been able to do a menu without someone saying no. So it's been amazing. What I've learned is that the most important thing I do every day is to train my staff. Because the people in my kitchen are the future of Houston's culinary industry.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Smith's food at Plonk.

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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