Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Mario Valdez on Cooking Wild Game

Mario Valdez The Rainbow Lodge 2011 Ella Blvd. 713-861-8666

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space on Friday. EOW: As chef de cuisine, how much control do you have on the menu?

ML: It's mostly my menu, but I'll do a dish, present it to Donnette [Hansen, the owner], she tastes it and says, "Oh, I think we can change this or this." It's a lot of back and forth, but the final dish is something better than what it was.

EOW: What are your favorite ones, which ones are getting the best feedback now?

ML: My sea bass right now on the dinner menu. It's crab ravioli with a potato-crusted sea bass. I've got a little Mexican chorizo, a little heirloom pico de gallo in there. To crisp it, I take dried potatoes, put it on one side and crisp it on that one side so there's that golden-brown flaky crust on there. It almost looks like scales, but it's potatoes. EOW: Sounds fantastic. Other ones?

ML: My nilgai antelope.

EOW: Oh yeah, the nilgai...tell me more about the meats you use here.

ML: Wild game. Lots and lots of wild game. We have antelope, elk, wild boar, quail, rabbit.

EOW: Did you know anything about them before you came here?

ML: Yeah, I worked with them a few times at Mockingbird. I was exposed to cleaning different types of meat, knowing how to cook them, what the proper temperature should be.

EOW: What about the flavors? What's the difference between nilgai and elk?

ML: Elk, you're gonna have a much more iron-y taste to it, a mineral-y taste to the meat. It's going to have this nice, almost beefy quality, but then you're going to get that twinge of the metallic. The antelope is also going to be really lean. It's not quite as mineral-y in taste. You're going to get a good, strong piece of meat, almost like lamb, but not quite as gamey as lamb is going to be. So you have to work around that. Something sweet is going to enhance that, rather than something really spicy or mild. You want to balance it correctly. You don't want to put it with something like a citrus salad because it's just going to clash.

EOW: How about the meat itself? Is it more tender, is it more lean? ML: It's much more lean. You're not getting a whole lot of fat. You see the piece of meat and there's no marbling. So you also have to work around that, you want more -- I don't want to say fatty foods with it -- but you want something more rich. Right now I have the south Texas spoon bread, which has a whole bunch of peppers in there, so you get the sweetness from that. Cornbread. Caramelized onions. You're getting all this rich, naturally sweet food to go with it. I'm a fan of using sweetness to counteract the mineral and iron flavor in the meat.

EOW: So, are you still doing the burger Fridays?

ML: Sure! For our burger Fridays, we use all the trim from the wild game -- the buffalo, the venison, wild boar, etc. -- but I always put pork belly in there. I've been getting a lot of good feedback on that. Before, when Mark Schmidt was here, we were using more like lamb fat, or fat from rib eyes, but once he left, I changed that to pork belly.

EOW: My mouth is watering! How many burgers do you typically have on a Friday? Because when it's gone, it's gone, right?

ML: Just one dozen. Once they're gone, they're gone. During the winter months, we were doing 24, and we were selling out of them, but then once it got slower again, we went back down to a dozen. I'm using Slow Dough challah buns; they're really good.

EOW: Tell me about your brunch.

ML: Brunches are busy. It's Sunday only, à la carte. We give complimentary muffins and biscuits with house-made jams at each table. Those change up week to week. Last week we did orange almond muffins with green onion and cheddar biscuits.

EOW: So you do in-house breads and pastries, too? And are you responsible for that as well?

ML: We do everything in-house, but I have a pastry chef. EOW: That's cool! I'm noticing a resurgence in pastry programs, where there's actually a pastry chef being utilized in the restaurants, where before it was kind of just an afterthought.

ML: Right, and I hate afterthought pastries. I love having a set person there to really put the thought that's required into creating desserts.

EOW: Was she here before?

ML: No, I hired her. She came from the Texas Culinary Academy. She just graduated, she's about 20 years old.

EOW: Do you guide her, or is the menu up to her?

ML: I try to guide her. So, for instance, this week, I wanted to do a strawberry shortcake, and I asked her, "What can we do?" She went all out, and did this basil shortcake with lemon cream and lavender macerated strawberries and butterscotch soil, with micro basil from our micro green garden. So, I'll guide her and say, "I don't think we should do that, I think we should do this." It's the same process that I go through with Donnette.

EOW: Tell me about these gardens you have.

ML: We have three gardens. One right up front as you pull in, one across the street and one outside on the slope behind the building. There's lemon trees, lime trees -- it's kind of like an orchard. The whole slope is growing with mint. There's blueberries, figs, oregano. Right now we're growing heirloom tomatoes, blackberries, asparagus beans and I've just started this thing. I got a shoe rack, I hung it up and filled it with dirt, and I planted all my seeds in there, and I'm going to do a whole wall, a vertical garden. EOW: Oh, nice! Where? Is it growing anything yet?

ML: Right outside. I got my beans growing in there, a whole bunch of herbs. I've got local basil, bush basil, regular basil, tarragon, thyme, and each little thing that holds the shoe has 20 plants growing out of it.

EOW: So, talk a bit about you. You're newly married. How is it?

ML: It's wonderful. We're having a great time. I have a kid on the way. She's about six and a half months along. August 28 is the due date.

EOW: Congratulations, that's wonderful news! You're gonna be a proud papa!

ML: Thanks, I'm pretty excited.

EOW: You have Mondays off. What do you do in your spare time ?

ML: I like to paint, actually. I have a couple of chalkboards, and I'll spend a good three or four hours on my day off and create something with chalk. Something I can erase and do again next week. [He shows me some fantastic artwork -- it's like the artwork from the movie Hugo.]

EOW: Do you cook at home?

ML: I do. I make a lot of pizza at home. I'll make pizza dough from scratch. I have a pizza stone in the oven. I love to do grilled pork with pineapple, shredded cabbage, pickled okra.

EOW: You're so young. Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

ML: I beat my own timeline. My personal timeline was to be executive chef by 26, and I beat it by three years. I would love to have my own place by 30. I don't feel like I'm in a rush to move from restaurant to restaurant to restaurant, you know, "I'll take this from here, that from there." I have the time now to build on what I want to do. So, to answer your question, by 30 I'd love to have my own place.

EOW: So last question, if you were to have a last meal, what would it be and who would make it?

ML: I would just want a really good plate of shrimp cocktail.

EOW: Shrimp cocktail? Really?

ML: Shrimp cocktail is my comfort food. I used to eat it all the time as a kid. I just want some really good boiled shrimp with some spicy cocktail sauce. There used to be this restaurant on South Padre Island. It's like a religious experience for me. We used to go once a year for my birthday, and I would always get the peel 'n' eat shrimp with cocktail sauce, and I haven't outgrown it. I love shrimp. I would die happy.

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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