Chef Chat, Part 2: Mark Holley of Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar

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In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, we learned about Mark Holley's extensive experiences at some of the best restaurants in the United States, including Brennan's, Commander's Palace and his prior restaurant, Pesce.

In Part 2, we'll learn more about his latest endeavor, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

MH: I was involved with every step of this project: the furniture, the design, the colors--I was involved in every aspect and learned a lot. The reason why was that I wanted more: more out of my career, more in life and more of a challenge. I wanted to spread my wings and expand. I'm an analytical person, so I liked the idea of designing a restaurant and understanding it. Anytime someone did something, I made them slow down and explain it to me so I understood it, which enabled me to make a better decision.

EOW: You're famous in Houston for your fried chicken. Do you think people expected you to open a Southern restaurant?

MH: No. Let me define who I am and where the fried chicken and where the Southern comes in. I am classically trained by the French and Italians and Creole-ized by Brennan's. At Pesce, I did seafood and we did a lot of Pan-American [cuisine that encompasses the Americas, which includes Mexican, South American and Caribbean flavors]. Here [at Holley's], I'm doing Pan American.

I started researching restaurant trends. The minute I walked in here, I knew I was doing seafood again. I went on a few road trips. I traveled through Austin, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, Charleston and New York. With that, I understood that Southern cooking is back on top now.

Breaking down Holley's--it's a lot of what I did at Pesce, but there's more to it. After saying this was going to be my namesake, I had to ask myself "Who are the Holleys?" I'm from Dayton, Ohio, which is right next to Louisville, Kentucky and my dad. We're doing bourbon at our bar and some Southern-type caviars. One's from Florida. The other two are from Mississippi.

[Author's note: A bit about those caviars and bourbons: the caviars are Hackelback, Paddlefish and Royal-Siberian, while the bar sports about 30 bourbons.]

My mom, Vivian, was an unbelievable Southern cook and she was from Georgia. She's behind the fried chicken and we'll roll that in.

So, we go from Kentucky, through Georgia, through New Orleans because of my 12 years with the Brennan's family, then back to Texas with Gulf seafood and a local flair. That's what Holley's is.

I have to mention Jonathan Long. "Sopa" is his nickname. I had the opportunity to work with him at Pesce and picked up a lot of the Pan Asian flavors from him and need to give him credit for that. We just put a Thai-style fried snapper on the menu. It's a good example of my Pan Asian.

Javier Lopez spent eight years with me at Pesce--he's the chef du cusine at Brennan's now--and he's from Mexico. A lot of that Pan American influence was inspired by him.

EOW: Where is Jonathan Long now?

MH: Jonathan is the executive chef at Grace's [Johnny Carraba's restaurant on Kirby].

I have to pay homage to one more person: Melissa Piper Riley. We spent several years in the trenches at Brennan's earlier in our careers. She came on with Holley's as a consultant and we've hit a home run. There's a coconut cake on the menu that is B-A-D-A-S-S. [Author's note: I tried it. He's right. It's the best coconut cake I've ever had.]

She'd been out of the kitchen for several years. I'm very grateful she climbed on board to help me with my desserts.

EOW: Tell me about this bourbon program. (waggles eyebrows. OK, I didn't really. But I thought about it.)

MH: Well, Paul [Ramierez, the general manager and sommelier] needs to lay it out for you, but I'll say a few things. These rooms are named. The wine cellar is named for my stepmother, Mary. The private dining room is named Lawrence, after my father and the bar is named Lancelot, after his father. He was from Louisville, Kentucky and that's what started the bourbon thing.

[Paul fills us in on the rest: The signature cocktail is the Sir Lancelot, named after Holley's dad. It includes cherry-infused bourbon, rye whiskey and lime juice.] EOW: What do you want people who have not been here before to know?

MH: 85 percent of the people who walk through these doors are people who came to Pesce. They haven't forgotten. I want them to know I'm still here and I'm painting a different picture than Pesce. It's like an artist--you never paint the same picture. It's a different picture but it has the tones of my flavors and experiences.

We have an oyster bar that is very casual and very come-as-you-are. The dining room has a softer feel. We have two sound systems; one is more modern for the bar and one is more traditional for the dining room. Frank Sinatra might be playing in the dining room and the Bee Gees might be playing in the bar. You're getting a whole lot of me. I love Frank and Pesce played Frank.

EOW: For sure. The bar and the dining room are distinctive with one being very casual and the other more formal.

MH: I want people to feel like they are coming to my house and receive the hospitality that I've been trained to provide over the years.

Another thing, now that we're into this; Brennan's had staff meals. Our staff and what we're building is a family. We all sit down and eat the staff meal together. That's big. I am about incorporating everyone here like a family into the success of this restaurant.

I hired two sous chefs that are very different from me--Brandon Silva and Kenten Marin. I want to have that youth and energy in the kitchen. I want to keep current with the food.

EOW: So, to define how Holley's is different from Pesce: you had stops along the way during your journey as a chef, and those stops are presented in the food here.

MH: Yes. I like that. That's well said.

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