Chef Chat, Part 2: Grant Gordon of Tony's

Yesterday, we chatted with Grant Gordon about his road to becoming a Executive Chef at Tony's. See our chat here. Today, we talk about his role at Tony's and some of of his favorite things about Houston.

EOW: So what do you do here at Tony's?

GG: I'm executive chef.

EOW: I know that. Where does Tony fit in?

GG: He fits in everywhere. It's his name on the building. He's still here every day, tasting all the food...

EOW: You were doing more French -- it sounds like your experiences were more around French -- but this an Italian restaurant

GG: This is an Italian restaurant. I had done more French in the past, so Mr. Vallone has taught me a lot about pasta. He's a mentor, and he could be a chef, but he's a front-of-the-house guy.

EOW: Going back to Cyrus -- what was your position there?

GG: I was a chef de partie, I was a line cook. But I moved up real quick and I was the lead line cook when I left.

EOW: But when you came here, you started lower than that?

GG: Well, when I moved back to Houston, I figured that with my experience and my resume that I could get chef jobs, so I was mainly looking at sous chef jobs. This situation ended up being the best because when they actually hired me here as an entry level, he could see that I had experience, and I think that was when they were planning on opening up a third restaurant and they thought that I could maybe be the guy there, so they bring me in, train me here and then just send me over that way, but they ended up just wanting to keep me here.

EOW: So the menu now, is it your menu or a collaboration?

GG: It's always going to be a collaboration. Scott, the general manager, is Mr. Vallone's right hand man. And generally we sit at this table, Mr. Vallone in this seat, Scott will be sitting right there, and I'll bring out a dish, and either it'll be good to go, don't change it, or we'll all discuss what needs to be changed. So one of those two things usually happens, we'll all discuss it, make it better. Or sometimes we come up with the dishes right here, just talking. Mr. Vallone will say "this is a good old dish that we used to do," then Scott will chime in, and I'll chime in and I'll put something together. We also have to come up with menus from time to time. Just the other day, we have one guest who really likes really exotic food, we always order special stuff for him, and we were in the private wine room the other day, and we were chatting and we came up with something just talking. It's fun to do it like that, it's more interesting, the food's better. More heads is always a good thing, and especially someone who's been doing it successfully for 45 years, it's a pretty good situation for me to have Mr. Vallone's two cents, to have him guiding me.

EOW: All right, so I'm really interested in your extracurriculars. I know you did the Les Sauvages dinner with Justin Basye and Peter Jahnke. I talked to Justin and he said he wanted to work with you, so how did that come about?

GG: That was a really cool deal for me because I'm usually so wrapped up in what we're doing here. I know all chefs say we're busy and we all have a lot going on, but we literally have a lot going on all the time. That wall that you see over there -- there's a private party of 60 going on in there, and that room over there, there's currently party of 30. So that's almost 100 people that we're serving and that's before the actual dining room gets full, and then there's the bar. So we're always busy, and being a chef at Tony's, we have the catering company. There's always something for me...

EOW: Wait, there's a catering company?

GG: Tony's Catering Company

EOW: ...Is here in this kitchen?

GG: We do everything in this kitchen. We have so many employees. This is the absolute optimal place for me to be right now, and for me to grow in my career because I'm learning so much, I'm learning about every facet of this industry and I have the best mentor that I could ask for. And he gives me all this creative freedom to boot. So I don't know what else I could ask for.

EOW: So, the Les Sauvages, you said that was really cool?

GG: Yes, sorry, I went off track, that was cool because I'm always just focused on here, and they were able to schedule that on my day off, and I put in the work and it was really fun.

EOW: I heard great things.

GG: It was fun working with other chefs because I don't know many other chefs around town. I'd like to, I'd like to meet them and get to know them, but I don't get the opportunity to meet others.

EOW: Do you have any time off?

GG: Oh yeah, I have plenty of time off. I'm given a very fair amount of time off. That's not the problem. A big part of it is that all my friends are here. When I was in California and New York, my friends were my co-workers, now I have my actual friends. I'd still like to go out for a drink with other chefs and talk shop, but that was awesome, I was really appreciative that they included me cause I don't get asked to do that kind of stuff.

EOW: Well, but you're doing the My Table gala dinner.

GG: That's awesome too. Yeah, I'm really excited about that. Actually Matt Marcus is a good friend of mine because we worked at Cyrus together --he's the Eatsie Boys guy. So I'm going to work with him, and we're doing the entree.

EOW: You're doing the entree? That's huge.

GG: Yeah, that's exciting. You know I like doing extra stuff like that but I also get anxiety because we have so much going on here. I was super nervous about the Les Sauvages thing.

EOW: Were you?

GG: Yeah, oh yeah.

EOW: But it went well.

GG: Yes, it went well.

EOW: So, being from Houston, what are restaurants that you like here in town?

GG: Thai Gourmet is my favorite. I love it. I love it so much. I ate there every week for like six months.

EOW: What do you order?

GG: Panang, Thai Hot. I get really aggravated when I see lists of Thai restaurants and I don't see them on it, I get aggravated because they deserve to be number one on all the lists. They are the best.

EOW: I always get the basil beef myself.

GG: You gotta get the Panang Beef, trust me. The wife is the chef and the husband runs the Thai kickboxing place next door. It's great.

EOW: Have you had time lately to try other restaurants, then?

GG: Yeah, I've gone to Haven a few times. I've eaten Jeramie's food at Cinq. I've been to Philippe, RDG, Ava. I get around.

EOW: So you've been around, but you prefer the low-key food, right?

GG: Yeah, definitely.

EOW: You're so young, and you're executive chef in the kitchen and there are obviously people here who are older than you, do you have any problems with that?

GG: No because the way that they brought me up was intentionally done so that wouldn't be an issue. I started at the bottom, and I was not given anything. I had to earn it. I had to earn the respect of the kitchen. I had to earn the respect of the waiters. I had to earn it. They had a specific plan, like they had done it before, and they knew what they were doing. It was like "this is how we're going to bring him up," and it worked. I have a really good relationship with the staff. We have some amazing people that work here, incredibly talented people. And I'm lucky and grateful for that because they make me look good --they make us all look good.

EOW: Great. So, to your food. If someone were to try your food, what would they expect?

GG: I would want them to look out for the sauce and the technique that goes into it. There's very few things that are fried. I don't really think that that's a technique for a fine dining restaurant. There's a place for it, but for us, there's nothing really fried on the menu except for squash blossoms when they're in season. But you know, we'll do anything for our guests, and if they want anything fried, we'll do it. So, they're going to see good technique, they're gonna see good sauces. And hopefully they see - I like to think there's a certain maturity to it. We have to have fun but we like to please our guests.

EOW: What kind of guests come here?

GG: It's a mix. We get a huge amount of regular clientele, our loyal fan base has been with Mr. Vallone for 45 years. That's the rock of the restaurant. And then we also get the foodies and the young people as well. Doing restaurant week is always a good thing for us because we get a lot of the younger people in.

EOW: Is there a signature dish that you have?

GG: No.

EOW: How often does the menu change?

GG: Certain dishes will change every week, but we try not to change it too much. I'll put a lot of thought into a dish. A lot goes into putting a dish on the menu. Chances are a lot goes into the prep. And if we get all of the cooks in the groove of preparing the dish on a daily basis, repeating the presentation, getting tighter and tighter every time they do it, and the waiter's getting more well versed serving it, why would we just turn around and change it next week? So where the menu changes the most is the chef's tasting menu and I would say we probably change two or four dishes a week there.

EOW: Now on to fun stuff, about you. You're from Houston. What's so great about Houston, other than your friends and your family?

GG: Houston is the most cultured city in Texas.

EOW: More than Austin?

GG: Well, Austin is the music capital of the state -- they have us beat there handily, for sure. They also have UT sports, which is my favorite also, but we have some of the best museums in the country -- we have the Menil, the Museum of Fine Arts. Houston has hands down the best art in Texas. Houston's also got the restaurants. Ethnic food -- we have the best ethnic food -- Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian. If you go to Dallas or Austin, you're not going to find many ethnic restaurants. We have so many. And that's one of my favorite parts about Houston as well. It's also got a lot more character -- like the topography, speaking about the landscape, I think that Houston's got as much character as any city in the state, if not the most. I think we've got amazing trees. If you go to River Oaks, West U, it's beautiful, there's a lot of character. We're not perfect, the weather's not the best, but I think it's got more backbone than Dallas, for sure.

EOW: Do you go out to bars in the area?

GG: I have a social life. I try to stay away from the Washington area, I mainly stay around here. I go to Royal Oak sometimes, Mugsy's, Lizards -- I go to Lizard's a lot. They're not really "chef-y" places, they're more for people my age, where my friends go.

EOW: Do you have a favorite cheap eats?

GG: I really like James Coney Island.

EOW: Hot dogs?

GG: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Big time. Ciao Bello our sister restaurant has incredible pizza, that's my pizza of choice. For Chinese, I do take out a lot from Cafe Ginger -- it's on West Gray. It's really close to my apartment and they deliver, so for a Sunday in front of the TV, it's perfect, so I have to give them a shout out. I like Pappas Brothers for steak.

EOW: Do you prefer steaks or burgers?

GG: Steak is more of a fine-dining experience, burgers are more casual, so on a day to day basis, I guess burgers. But nothing beats a good steak.

EOW: Where do you go for a good burger?

GG: Burgers in Houston...Beck's Prime is pretty hard to beat. Whataburger is tough to beat, but that's usually under the influence of cocktails...

EOW: What's your favorite pastime?

GG: I play golf. I go to a lot of movies. I love River Oaks Theatre. It's near my house. It's the only theater right now playing independent film, I think it's a really cool theater.

EOW: Food icons, or people you look up to?

GG: Daniel Boulud, and my chef from Cafe Boulud, Bertrand. I always look up to them. Thomas Keller would be another one in the United States. I've read Marco Pierre White's stuff. His books are amazing. Michel Bras is a great one -- they're some of my favorites for sure.

EOW: Music?

GG: Music. I love music. Right now, what do I listen to... I like My Morning Jacket; it's one of my favorite bands right now, but I like all music, is the thing...

EOW: Okay, last meal. If you were to have a last meal, what would it be?

GG: I think I would've wanted it to be at El Bulli. El Bulli closed but I think I would have wanted it to be at El Bulli.

Check back with us tomorrow when we try some of the dishes from Gordon's Chef's tasting menu.

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