Chef Chat, Part 2: Justin Strang of Bistro Catron

We continue our chat with Chef Strang to learn about his most memorable disaster food experiment and the obstacles he has faced as a self-taught chef.

EOW: What was your biggest disaster from trying new things with food?

Strang: Experimenting is my biggest thing. It's how I've learned to do what I do. So there have definitely been some disasters. Of course I don't serve any of those. But one of my biggest one was when I did a honeydew and Gorgonzola cheesecake. This was probably my worst culinary disaster ever.

EOW: What made it so bad?

Strang: It was the flavor blending. It just didn't work. The honeydew was so sweet that it overpowered the Gorgonzola and threw off the cheesecake completely. It didn't even taste like cheesecake.

EOW: Describe for me how it tasted.

Strang: Well, have you ever had one of those Flintstone orange push-up popsicles? It was like mixing that with a blue cheese. It was just horrible and didn't work at all.

EOW: I understand your wife is a ballet dancer. How has her passion for her art inspired you?

Strang: My wife is a big inspiration for me. Early in my career when I was a kitchen manager, even though I was doing well, I felt like I was coasting. I knew I wanted something more for myself than to just work in a high-volume restaurant. I wanted to more involved with the food. I saw my wife be so passionate about her dance and how she always put her heart into it. She knew when she went out there, she was giving it her all. I saw how nervous she would get before a show and how important that every little detail was perfect. So she inspired me to move on, take a big pay cut and work at a fine-dining restaurant. It was the best move I made because it drove me to be more involved with and learn more about the food. So she inspired me by making me want to be as passionate about food as she was about her art.

EOW: As a self-taught chef, were there a lot of obstacles to overcome early on in your career?

Strang: I still find them now, especially when I moved to Houston. In Charleston, I was pretty well known because it's much smaller area than here. As I moved up the ladder there, people heard or find out about me. What I found out moving here was that, despite my experience and reference, if people don't know who you are and know that you're self-taught, they're not going to trust you to be in a position you're currently successful in elsewhere. So, not having the schooling has definitely been hard for me. Most of the time in Charleston, I didn't have any real issues. I moved up pretty quick and did pretty well. But here in Houston I have definitely seen some negativity from it. I've always worked hard and pushed myself even harder. That has gotten me to the level I'm at now. So now, it's all about the food for me because it's the food that's what's going to move me further. So, it's important that I get my food out there. When I was first here, I put out 25 resumes and did not get any calls. Then I would meet with people that would say, "Well...we'll give you $10/hour to come in and prep." That was a lot of what I was offered. It was very hard, but if that's what I have to do then that's what I'll do to get my foot in the door somewhere. But it was very hard to me since I was taking a few big steps back when I first moved here.

EOW: Despite where you are now, do you ever consider pursuing a formal culinary education?

Strang: I do but it'll be more so for myself than anything else. I know what I'm capable of and I can find a job if I need one. So, a degree would be more for my heart since I've always wanted to go back and get a degree.

Tomorrow we'll end our visit with Chef Strang with photos of some of his creative dishes, including the bacon chocolate brownie, of course.

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