Chef Chat, Part 2: Mark Schmidt of The Rainbow Lodge

Today we continue our chat with chef Mark Schmidt of Rainbow Lodge, discussing his favorite Houston-area restaurants and what's in his fridge at home.

Eating Our Words: Before coming Rainbow Lodge, you previously owned Cafe 909 in Marble Falls with your wife, Shelly. I read that you liked to call your style then "rustic gourmet." What does that mean?

Mark Schmidt: It came up when we were designing the logo and we needed some verbage on the logo that described the restaurant. I didn't want to say "fine dining," but I wanted people to know that this was gourmet food, but in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, that to me was rustic. I never really tried to explain it to people, but I let them come in and get their own opinion. Unfortunately, it came across like "shabby chic" came across, which was not my intention, but a couple people did get it. Virginia Wood, one of the writers for the Austin Chronicle, wrote a really nice article, and she got it. I wanted it to be good food without pretension.

EOW: Do you feel like you bring that to Rainbow Lodge?

Schmidt: Yeah, but I think I have to bump up the pretense a little bit, but not in a bad way. The Rainbow Lodge is a 100-year-old log cabin, and it has a lot of history. And as a restaurant, it's been around as long as I've been cooking, for over 30 years, so what I try to do is tailor my food to the lodge history, and the rustic gourmet style kind of fits here.

EOW: Would you say the food at Rainbow Lodge can be adventurous with game such as elk, antelope, bison on the menu?

Schmidt: Well yeah, but again, it depends on what part of the country you're in. In Houston, it can be adventurous. But, as long as I've been in restaurants, people have been trying to sell buffalo...on a much smaller scale back then, but now it's getting more accepted, and [people have] zeroed in on the health benefits of being leaner, and higher in protein. And if you've lived in Colorado or any Rocky Mountain state, then you've probably had elk.

In a way, to some people, it's not daring, but there are also people who've never left Texas, so it can be seen as adventurous to them.

EOW: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Houston?

Schmidt: I tend not to go to fine-dining restaurants, because it's probably not as special to me as it is to the average person going out to eat. I maybe cast a too critical eye of the food. I never send stuff back or do special requests or stuff like that, but because I know the price they pay for the ingredients, I look at the menu and I see the markup. I'm a little more critical going to fine dining, I prefer little holes in the wall. I love the Asian food here in Houston. I found one place way out on Bellaire that does really good pho. And for burgers, you know, they're one of those things that people are divided on. I love Christian's for burgers, but the next guy might prefer Lankford's. And depending on the city you grew up in, your affiliation to Tex-Mex is different. I grew up in Dallas, and the Tex-Mex there is totally different than in Houston. There's a place I've been going to for years up there, where I always order the same thing, and I'm still looking for a place like that in Houston.

EOW: I'll wrap this up, by asking you what's in your fridge at home right now?

Schmidt: Up until last night there was probably some beer. A couple bottles of wine, salad greens....Shelly made a really nice lentil sausage stew with fresh kale, probably about four different types of mustard, one of them homemade. A couple different salsas. Lots of building blocks. It's funny, when I get home from work, most of the time, I just make a sandwich. I cook six days a week, and on Mondays, a sandwich or a burger sounds damn good.

Tomorrow, we take a tour of the grounds at Rainbow Lodge.

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