Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Fernando Echeverria of Fernando's

"Good help is hard to find," so the adage goes. Fernando Echeverria found this to be true with his self-named restaurant, Fernando's in Sugar Land. Cooks he hired failed to be conscientious in how they used expensive ingredients, so he decided that for profitability and peace of mind, he'd take over the cooking duties himself. It's an unusual move for someone with a server and restaurateur background, but Echeverria is determined to make it work until the 15-year loan on his restaurant is paid off.

In this second installment of our Chef Chat with him, Echeverria talks about how he managed to acquire a former Ruth's Chris Steak House and turn it into a restaurant of his own. He also will share some of his stories from 35 years of working in Houston restaurants. We'll pick up from part one, where Echeverria is informed that the Ruth's Chris building is about to become available.

FE: It was a Tuesday night. The next day, I drove by and I saw [movers at Ruth's Chris] putting stuff in trucks. I said, "Oh my God." And then by Thursday, they're gone.

Two weeks later, my lawyer gave me the phone number and I called the CEO. He told me how much they spent on this restaurant, which I think was almost $6 million, and I said, "Oh my gosh, way too much money."

Anyway, to make a long story short, six months later I called them up and I said, "Okay, this is how much I'm going to give you. You got until Monday at nine o'clock. If you don't call me, I'll just move on."

They called me up Monday and said, "It's yours. Go get financing." Wow. I've been in the restaurant business for so long back then, I thought it was going to be easy. I couldn't get financing. I had to put up my earnest money and do everything that I needed to do, but finally I ended up with a restaurant.

By the time I ended up with a restaurant, I didn't have any working capital. Supposedly, I had some investors, but everybody disappeared. We opened up this restaurant with basically [nothing]. I had two [brands of] wines from the other restaurant. That made my wine list. I think it was 11 different wine bottles that we had. Sysco [Foods] gave me a $10,000 credit. All of a sudden, we opened and here we are, ten years later.

EOW: Have you had your ten-year anniversary here yet, or is that this year?

FE: We're going to be 11 [years old] in May.

EOW: You spent many years as a server and then you became a restaurateur. What was that transition like, to have to learn how to own and run a restaurant?

FE: Everything looks easy, but then you have to learn it. It was very difficult because there was a lot of people behind me at that time when I started doing all this. They knew what they were doing, so it was easy. But then what I did is whenever I had a day off, I'd go back and work different positions, like bartender, cook. I even worked as the dishwasher, so I could learn the whole process.

Two years ago when my head chef left, [I thought], "Now I don't have a cook. What am I going to do?"

I went back there [to the kitchen] and started cooking. It took me four days and I had everything under control. Since then, I cannot leave the kitchen because every cook that comes in doesn't do it the way it's supposed to be or the way that I want it to be.

EOW: How did you learn cooking?

FE: I had an idea [of how to do it] when I started back in New York. I was in the kitchen for two years. Now, everything is changing. Right now, you've got this new talent coming with amazing things that makes you go "Whoa!" I went to YouTube and [watched videos on] how to make this kind of sauce, how to prepare this, what can I do with beef, what can I do with chicken.

This year, 2015, has been so busy I have not been able to change my menu. It's like events after events after events. It's already three months and I haven't done anything with the menu. It looks like by the summer, I'll come up with a whole different menu. It's going to blow people away. I already have it. I sit on my computer and I see the plates. I just put them together. This might be a little tough, but it's going to be done.

EOW: When you say you're trying to bring in other cooks and they don't do things the way that you want them to be done, what does that mean?

FE: It means let's say I buy tenderloin. I know how much tenderloin is. So, when they clean the tenderloin, they'll be lazy and since it doesn't cost them anything, they just throw away and just leave whatever they use.

EOW: It's very wasteful.

FE: Yeah, very, very wasteful. So at the end of the night, it's the same thing. Instead of preparing enough for what they need, they just [prepare] a lot so they don't have to work the next day. Those are the little shortcuts they do and I don't like that. Number one, the quality goes down. Number two, it's too expensive. If you don't use it, they just throw it away.

EOW: Tell me about the food here.

FE: The food over here is a combination of Italian, South American and Mexican -- all the places that I've worked. I learned a lot from Ninfa's, a lot from the Italian restaurant and the Colombian restaurant that I worked in New York. It's a combination, it's like a blend. I do paella. We don't have a big menu right now. Everything is simple but tasty. I'm not sophisticated. A lot of people say this is fine dining with a nice, casual restaurant, nice and simple.

EOW: For someone coming here for the first time, what should they order?

FE: That's the part that I miss the most about being a server. When people used to come in the other restaurants that I worked in, it's like they always trust me on what I serve them. They'd leave it up to me and I'd just bring everything. That's how I got so many regulars here. Unfortunately, right now I'm in the kitchen, but I still come out, talk to them and cook for them.

One of the things -- it was very famous back then -- was the shrimp, which is like a baked shrimp and finished with lemon butter and garlic sauce. It's amazing. That's what Shrimp Paesano used to be. But we did our own little twist to it, so it's a little different.

EOW: What's the shrimp called here?

FE: It's called "Shrimp-itos." A lot of people make fun because I'm Spanish, so they say, "Hey, can you give me some of those Shrimpos that you serve over here?" So that's why we called it Shrimp-itos for the appetizers, and Shrimp-os for the main course -- just to have a little fun.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook