Chef Chat, Part 2: Mark Gabriel Medina of Kata Robata

Yesterday, Kata Robata's Chef de Cuisine, Mark Gabriel Medina, told us about growing up on fine dining in Southeast Asia, and serving President Bush Senior sushi at Houston Country Clubs.

Today, we talk to him about his role Kata Robata, working with his predecessor Seth Siegel-Gardner and Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi, and his 10-year plan.

EOW: So you had this great experience at the Houston Country Club, and then you set your sights on Kata. Tell me why Kata. Did you know Hori? Had you eaten here before?

MGM: No, I hadn't eaten here. But I knew Hori from back when he was at Kubo's. I used to go there and eat sushi all the time. Ridiculous amounts. Anyway at the time, Chris -- Chris Leung, one of my really good friends -- he was over at Yelapa, but he was moving to Bootsie's all the way Tomball -- too far for me. At this time there were just a few chefs I really wanted to work with -- Chris Sheperd, Hori, Randy Rucker. I didn't even know about Seth yet. He just came in, and when I came here, I worked with Seth and Hori.

EOW: What was your role?

MGM: I was a sous. Seth's sous. I was his assistant.

EOW: So what did you do when Seth was here [at Kata]?

MGM: Whenever we had tastings, he and I would just zone out, knock it out. I was taught a lot of classical French cuisine, but Seth opened me up to Modernist styles, different plating styles, and so forth. When he had me try to plate some of his stuff, it looked horrible. Even I knew it looked horrible. But I didn't have the eye to put things together the way he does, the way he's so articulate about every miniscule detail.

EOW: Were there specific things Seth taught you that you didn't know before coming here?

MGM: I had a base knowledge of hydrocolloids, the chemicals they use for Modernist Cuisine, or "Molecular Gastronomy." When Seth came in, he exposed me to more of those things on a daily basis. I learned more sous vide techniques, about different flavors. He taught me about sour and bitters. And Hori, too.

EOW: So do you work with Hori? You're Chef de Cuisine now, so you work in the kitchen -- do you get exposed to the sushi part? Can you do sushi, too?

MGM: No I don't. I have some experience with sushi, but to be honest, I don't think my sushi skills, knife skills are as good as the guys at our sushi bar. They're doing it in and out every day, consistently. Cuts the exact same way, weighs the exact same amount, cooks the rice, cleans the fish exactly how Hori wants it. I've been slowly learning how he cooks the rice, cleans the fish...

EOW: Do you plan to learn it? Isn't it a core competency?

MGM: Yes, that's actually one of the main reasons I came to Kata. Also, for Japanese sauces, Japanese food. I didn't really know much about it. Hori's taught me so much, even simple things like how to make proper dashi. It's totally different from the Italian and French way of making stocks.

EOW: So on to fun things about you. Tell us about Gabe. What do you do in your spare time?

MGM: (sheepishly) Golf. I'm a terrible golfer, but I love it.

EOW: Do you have a cheap eats? Where do you go for takeout?

MGM: That depends. If I want salt toasted spareribs, Shanghai on Bellaire. Dim sum, I love Fung's Kitchen, but not on weekends. I like the clear flat, cold noodles with the chili oil and onions at Fu Fu's. It's awesome. In this area, I like BB's cafe. It's Creole/Cajun food, it's kind of hidden, on the way to Niko Niko's. They'll have gumbo, jumbalaya, po-boys, fried crawfish, it's one of the late-night places I like to go to.

EOW: Do you still travel?

MGM: I just came back from New York for the ICC. I was with Jenny Wang [Houston Chowhounds founder], Chris Leung and a few others. That was a splurge. I spent more money there than I do in Vegas, roughly $3,000 in five days.

EOW: On food? I LOVE IT!!! Tell me where you went!

MGM: WD-50, Eleven Madison Park, Soto...there were a lot of places. I can't remember them all now. I went to a lot of Filipino restaurants, too, because eventually I want to open up a Filipino restaurant. Before I became a chef, when I was studying Finance in New Jersey, there used to be this place in New York called Sandrillion. It's closed now, but he has a new restaurant called Purple Yam. The chef there combined Filipino cuisine with Mediterranean and Italian ingredients, like noodles chicken...It was fantastic. I've never been able to picture Filipino food like that, and it made me want to push the bar of my cuisine, understand my cuisine, and educate other people about my native cuisine.

EOW: So do you have a 10-year plan?

MGM: After Kata, I plan to go to Spain. The reason why Spain is because it's my culture. We have a lot of Spanish and Latin influences in our cuisine. I see dishes from my Guatemalan and South American co-workers that are similar to things that we eat. For example, we have this thing called "kare kare," which is braised oxtail in a peanut sauce with vegetables in a thick stew. That's how I got my inspiration for braising oxtail and adding it to ramen. I was like "let's do that," so we made a ramen out of it. But for me to push the bar in my cuisine, I feel like I need to go to Spain.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Medina's dishes.

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