Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: JD Woodward of Goro & Gun, On Ramen and Ham Hocks

This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat series. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Yesterday, we learned how JD Woodward, the new executive chef at Goro & Gun, got his start in the culinary industry. Today, we continue our chat with an in-depth look Goro & Gun's menu.

EOW: The whole thing with Goro & Gun before you all opened it is it was supposed to be a ramen shop. Do you still consider it a ramen shop?

JW: No. And, I mean, we've been trying to push that away. When Jason Hauck came to consult on the menu, he and I really saw this place as much more of an izakaya than as a ramen shop. Just because the bar program is phenomenal and we've got a lot of plates on the menu besides the ramen that we think are really, really good.

EOW: What do you think is holding you back from producing the really great ramen that was the promise of the restaurant at the beginning?

JW: Um, you know, I think it was expectation, a lot of it. People were expecting a certain thing, and I don't think we really got the chance to play with what we wanted to do. So they said they were putting out tonkotsu, and it didn't come out right, it wasn't what tonkotsu was -- it probably was still good -- but since people were expecting a certain thing and it didn't match up, it didn't matter how good it was, it wasn't what people were expecting. So what we've done is kind of pull back, take example from other places around the country. There are places that are doing cheeseburger ramen, you know what I mean? And just having fun with it. So that's what we've tried to do, keeping the same processes and standards. We're still using all bones, starting from scratch, we're not using bases.

EOW: So what do you have on the menu now in terms of ramen?

JW: Right now we have a pork and a lobster.

EOW: So, just two. What did you start with?

JW: We started with a miso, pork, and vegetable. And we still have the vegetable upon request.

EOW: So now that you're shifting the focus away from ramen, and kind of just more izakaya, what's on the menu? What is your inspiration? What are you guys trying to do?

JW: We're trying to make really awesome small bites, and also incorporate larger-format dishes. So, we have the duck, which is a large-format dish, and it feeds anywhere from three to four people. The ham hock easily serves two to three people. And a lot of cool small bites. We put a carpaccio on the menu yesterday. We have unagi spring rolls that came out yesterday, also. We have a potato croquette with arugula salad that came out. And, of course, we have the hot pockets. Just lots of cool bites that you can either share or eat by yourself, and kind of have fun with it.

EOW: So, it's not even Japanese-based, right? JW: It's got a Japanese base for sure, but we're not trying to pigeonhole it. We're not putting out traditional food by any means, and we're not trying to, we're not aspiring to that. And I don't want to say that we're shifting our focus away from the ramen -- what we did was we made the ones that we were going to put out better, and got 'em to where we wanted to be.

EOW: So, you think it's where you want it to be now?

JW: Yeah. The broth is where we want it to be. The lobster ramen is where we want it to be.

EOW: What about the noodle?

JW: The noodle is where we want it to be now, also.

EOW: How long did that process take?

JW: It took way too long.

EOW: What happened with the last chef, Dave Coffman? Was it an amicable departure?

JW: It was amicable. It was a mutual decision as far as I know.

EOW: So, when he left, were you a shoe-in? Did you want it? It sounds like you have a young family.

JW: When Dave left, Matt [Womack], the sous chef, walked out behind him. And we lost two cooks. And so, myself and Mike Hartley, who was here at the time, split the responsibility. I ran lunch. He ran dinner. He left recently, at the beginning of August, and that's when Jason Hauck came in as a consultant. And then we all worked together to revamp the menu.

EOW: How has it changed since the opening menu?

JW: I think it's a lot more approachable. I think the dishes are a lot more solid than they were before. When Jason came in, we really spent a lot of time R&D'ing dishes before we put them up. So there was a little bit of trial and error, and it would take anywhere from three to four days from concept to plate. And we just started getting a lot better results. The feedback was much better, people would come back requesting dishes.

EOW: So, what are the dishes that people are requesting?

JW: The hot pockets, the ham hock.

EOW: Tell me about hot pockets. Was it your idea?

JW: It was Jason's and my idea. We worked very closely.

EOW: So it wasn't like a, "Hey we want to do an empanada-style thing"? You guys were brainstorming, or how did this happen?

JW: It was brainstorming and it's kind of like trying to figure out how we can use stuff that's already in the building. With the previous chef leaving, we had kind of a gap, and we were going into the summer. And so we didn't have a lot of budget to work with. We had to bring down food costs and we still had to put out stuff that was better than before. So the ham hock idea came out of the fact that we already had ham hocks in the broth. We were like, "Well, instead of straining it out and throwing it all away, let's try to figure out a way to hold the ham hock together." We came up with the idea to wrap the hock in cheesecloth. It holds it together, so when you pull it out you can put it on a sheet tray and cool it off so the fat will all congeal together. And then you take the cheesecloth off and put the hock into a vac bag and vac it, and put in the fridge. That way, when you take it out and throw it in the fryer, it just crisps right up.

EOW: What makes the ham hock so good?

JW: It basically braises in the broth for eight to nine hours, and then we drop it in the fryer to crisp the skin up, and then we baste it with a chow chow sauce, and we serve it with the steam buns. It's fun.

EOW: How about the hot pockets? It sounds terrible, you know.

JW: What it is, is it's an inari pouch. Instead of sushi rice, we stuff it with gristmill grits and we tempura-fry it, then top it with smoked teriyaki and kewpie mayo and bonito flakes.

EOW: So it's not vegetarian?

JW: It is not. That's another thing we've been trying to push more for -- getting more vegetarian. We have a tofu that's basically vegan. It's smoked tofu and seasoned flour.

EOW: Is it fried?

JW: It is fried.

EOW: Is there stuff that is not fried? People were telling me about it, and it sounds like the menu is heavily fried. And how did it evolve that way? Is it just because you're really adept with a fryer?

JW: It evolved that way at first because we had only four burners in the back, and they were usually taken up with stock, so we didn't have room to play around with sauté as much. And part of it, too, is the speed of pickup. People aren't going to wait 20 or 30 minutes to eat.

EOW: You could do cold stuff.

JW: Yeah, we have the carpaccio and the spring rolls now. At this point we're trying to A: move away from the frying; and B: add more vegetarian dishes; and C: experiment with cool stuff when we have more time.

EOW: Tell me how the food and the bar program work together.

JW: We're really, as a concept, we're really bar-forward.

EOW: Yes, from the beginning, everyone said the bar program's rocking. The food needs to come up to match.

JW: Right. That's what we've been trying to do. We've been trying to make stuff that appeals to people while they're drinking, while they're at a bar. We're not trying to be your à la carte place to come. It's about coming in ... having a nice bite, having a few drinks, and just having a good time.

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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