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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.

EOW: What's another dish?

FE: The other one that people come back here for is Corvina. It's a mild fish. We imported it either from Ecuador or Peru. It's a very mild fish -- between sea bass and snapper -- very delicate with egg wash and finish in lemon butter and wine sauce. The other one is a steak that we serve a lot. It's carne asada, which is a beef tenderloin which is with chimichurri and grilled. It is very tasty. We have another one coming out which is going to be the parrillada mixta, which is a combination of filet mignon, lamb chops, grilled shrimp and chicken sausage.

EOW: This is making me hungry. (laughs)

FE: There is another one coming out that is called El Hefe, which is a 12-ounce filet mignon.

EOW: Oh my goodness.

FE: I know, with a fried egg on top, the way they have it in South America.

EOW:Do you do lomo here? I'm just curious.

FE: Lomo saltado? Yeah, those are easy. We do everything. I'm working on Chinese -- chicken fried rice. I've been eating chicken fried rice for four days in a row.

EOW: Oh wow.

FE: I got it. I got it down the way it's supposed to be.

EOW: You've been in the restaurant industry, especially in Houston, for a long time, and you said you have a lot of stories. Tell me some good stories from being in this industry.

FE: You know Sam Elliott, the actor?

EOW: Mm-hmm.

FE: When I was working as a waiter, they were doing a movie in Houston. For lunch, one time my manager says, "Hey, Fernando, I need a table for 15. They're coming in at one o'clock." and I said, "Oh my God. Now I got to stay here late." At 12:30 or 12:45, these people started coming in. I remember this guy with a tattoo, beard -- like a biker type. They were in characters.

Then I saw Sam Elliott walking in, and I recognized him because of the mustache and everything. So, my whole attitude changed. I realized what was going on. Anyway, they had lunch and I talked to Sam and he said, "Hey, do you know any places that I can go?" I said, "Come in tonight and we'll talk about it." So he came that night and he asked for my section. He sat in my section and he closed my section down. He talked to the manager. He says, "Hey, how much does Fernando make a night?" My manager asked me and I said, "Tell him $150." Oh my God, I sat at his table. We ate dinner. We had wine. We went to the bar. It was amazing.

EOW: That's a wonderful story.

FE: We ended up at Sambuca; we were hanging in the street trying to figure out what we are and that was it. Two days later, he wanted to go to basketball game and we had tickets. So I gave him tickets. He was sitting behind me. Anyway, I'm going to game and as I walk in, he screamed my name, "Fernando!" Oh my God! I turned around and I just waved at him, that was it.

EOW: Which restaurant were you at then?

FE: That was Rao's back then.

EOW: Okay. You had a new best friend!

FE: Yeah!

EOW: That's wonderful.

FE: I got a lot of stories.

EOW: Well, let's hear another one. We have time.

FE: I used to work at Paesano's. Mr. Marvin Zindler used to go there a lot. One day he was celebrating his birthday so he had a table of six. Anyway, when you bring the food out and you put them on the tray, you set your tray down, right? And usually you run your hand down and pick up the plate. I was serving almost everybody. I had two plates left. I stuck my hand right in the middle of his plate -- spaghetti and meatballs.

EOW: Oh no.

FE: His wife saw me and she looks at me. "Don't worry about it." So I switched my hand and I served it to them. That was our own little secret with Mrs. Zindler for a while.

EOW: Are there other restaurateurs or chefs in Houston that you admire?

FE: Actually, yes, they are quite a few. I don't know them personally, but I have quite a few. I actually even call [chefs] and send them messages to see if they want to take [the kitchen here] over. But like I said, when people see the name Fernando, they don't make the connection. Because this place is amazing. This is "wow." If any chef out there dreamed of how they want their restaurant to be, this is it.

EOW: Well, it's beautiful.

FE: We can serve 500 people at any given time -- no problem.

EOW: You've got a dance floor, a separate bar area -- you're ideally set up for things like receptions.

FE: Since November or December, we've basically done one to four weddings every month. We haven't stopped. We do about three or four events a week. Next week we have two and then the following we have four more.

EOW: I can see why. This is beautiful; it 's a great setup. The kitchen is amazing. You are so lucky.

FE: There's so many things that I wish I could do. I took a loan for 15 years, so I'm four or five years away [from paying it off]. When I pay that loan, it's a whole different ballgame, because then I can hire good chefs and I can hire a manager. I just want to see this place grow. We'll see.

EOW: Have there been any special challenges being out here in the suburbs?

FE: Everybody thinks people in Sugar Land are wealthy people and there's a lot of business. But we only do business here Fridays and Saturdays, that's it. It's mostly families. Mondays through Thursdays, the families spend time with their kids. They got soccer practices, dances, piano. So they cannot go out every night. Fine dining is usually for weekends with special occasions. So that's why we're more casual. People can come in any day. We're going to do a three-course dinner pretty soon with early seating, stuff like that.

EOW: To kind of help with those weeknights and those families?

FE: Yeah.

EOW: Is there anything else that you would like for our readers to know, whether it be about you, your restaurant, your food or anything else?

FE: Last night, I basically didn't sleep that much trying to figure out what that is. Do not judge this restaurant until you try it. Because over here, people prejudge. Come in, try it and then you can judge. A lot of people are so surprised. When they open the doors, they just go "Wow."

EOW: That's what I did.

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FE: Yes, amazing. They prejudge us by the way it looks outside. This is a huge restaurant. It takes a lot of money to maintain it. What I do is I do the inside first and then I'll start doing the outside.

EOW: The inside is stunning.

FE: The inside is amazing. It's like in New York, you go to a restaurant and the outside is so dirty. As soon as you walk inside, it's amazing with the lighting and everything. It's the same thing here.

EOW: Yes, indeed. Thank you for the interview.

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