Chef Chat, Part 2: Mary Bass of Haak Vineyards & Winery

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When we left off in Part One of our chat with chef Mary Bass of Haak Vineyards, she'd recently gone back to being a stay-at-home mom after closing a very successful bakery. Haak Vineyards asked Bass to come evaluate the kitchen staff after their previous chef left and Bass warned them ahead of time she had no interest in getting another job yet. Sometimes plans change and different decisions are made. Here's how that conversation went:

MB: [The Haaks said] "No, just come see if the staff can run the kitchen"

EOW: That's how they get you.

MB: They got me! (laughs) So, I came in at the end of June 2013 and decided that I didn't think the staff that was here could run the kitchen full-time on their own. [Haak Winery] was like, "So, don't you want to work for us?" and I was like, "No, I don't want a job, like, I've been working nonstop." By this point I'd only had like eight months off.

They said, "Well you can do whatever you want. You can cook whatever you want. You can write your menus, you control your food costs, you control your labor, you can hire whoever you want."

They gave me full freedom and when they said that, I was like, "I can hire who I want. Okay."

We gave the staff here the choice to stay or go and most opted to leave. They were very loyal to the previous chef. Kitchens work that way and I understood.

So, I was blessed to be able to hire students. Teaching, you get a good wealth of workforce but they've been doing an interview for you the whole time, you know? So, you knew you how they worked. I hired my sous chef Tyler. I hired one of my first year students, Alisha, and we've had multiple students come and go throughout the kitchen doing their internships here. They always work out the best. They stay the longest and it's nice because I already know their work ethic before they ever step foot in the kitchen.

EOW: That's a very symbiotic relationship because they have an opportunity to intern somewhere and you have an opportunity to evaluate them before they ever set foot in your kitchen.

MB: Yeah, it worked out really well. I love the college for that. All my jobs now are so that I can be a better instructor, I teach saucier, American Regional and garde manger. It's a very similar program to the one I went to. The director of the program in Galveston left and started the program in Alvin. So, we have a great program. This is my fifth year teaching and next week I'll start American Regional and that's my favorite class.

EOW: How old are your kids now?

MB: My oldest has just turned nine, my son is seven and my daughter six and they're true chef kids in every sense of the word. My oldest, if she wanted to go into the industry, she would be very good at it. She does competitions now and is very active in the food world. She understands it better than some adults that I talk to so she's definitely a chef kid.

EOW: So, they must be pretty proud of their chef mom.

MB: Yeah, and they are very interested in what we do and its cool because my kids eat Brussels sprouts and they like, you know, eggs over easy. They understand the whole food world, have been exposed to it and have really good palates.

EOW: Since you work at a vineyard that does a lot of events, as a chef, what do you have to think about when you are helping plan a menu?

MB: So, it's cool, we've got several different styles of events here. Weddings are our biggest event and we have a set menu. The brides choose their food. We just redid our menus for this year. We have to think about food that hot-holds well that we can serve a lot of people because we do buffet style service.

But, then we get to do private dinners where we sell tickets to the public and get to write a custom menu similar to the one that we photographed today and we pick a theme. We did a Titanic-themed, eight-course dinner. We've done farm-to-table where we use all of our local farmers here and create food around what they're growing.

Then we do concerts, which is what we do during the summer. So, every single week we write a new gourmet, concession-style menu and the customers come knowing that only two things on the menu are going to stay every single week and everything else is going to change. You won't eat the same thing the entire summer. So, every time you come in, there's a new band and a new menu.

EOW: How would you describe your culinary focus?

MB: My culinary focus is "from scratch," like everything that we make is from scratch--all of our sauces--and then that true American regional farm-to-table style that becoming more and more popular. We've been doing it for years but now everybody else's catching up with this trend.

But, you know, using locally-sourced food and then just making clean food. That's the best way to put it--but we don't shy away from our butter and our cream. Julia Child was one of those: "If you don't use butter, use cream," so we're definitely one of those that stick to that aesthetic.

EOW: What are some of your favorite dishes that you make here pretty regularly?

MB: My favorite dish that I always tell my students, especially my guy students, "Hey, you want to get a girl on the first date? This is what you make. It's called poulet au fine herbes , or chicken with fine herbs. Basically, it's a sautéed chicken breast. You finish it off in the oven when you pull it out. You let the chicken breast rest and then you sauté mushrooms and onions in a pan.

Add fresh herbs, deglaze the whole pan with white wine, heavy cream, butter and then it's got this beautiful cream sauce. Served over garlic mashed potatoes--can't go wrong.

We probably make it for nine out of 10 weddings. Brides love it. We love it too.

EOW: You have the good fortune of working at a winery. What your favorite wines here?

MB: My favorite by far is the madeira. The white madeira, the blanc de blanc, has buttery tones to it. The last batch to me tasted like buttered popcorn but everybody was like, "I don't taste that," and I'm like, "Well, I have a different palate than you!" It's got really good caramels. It's a dessert wine but we do make a chicken sauce dish with it really, really delicious.

Today, we poached pears in the red madeira and so it's got very, very good tones. It's one of the most popular here at the winery and by far one of my favorite wines here.

EOW: If you're off duty and you just want something to just chill and relax with?

MB: I would definitely get the semisweet, white blanc de blanc. It's got really good fruit and citrus tones to it and it's nice and light. It makes really good sangria. It's definitely my favorite sangria base to start with.

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EOW: What would you like for the general public to know?

MB: So, we're kind of off the beaten path. You won't just stumble across us. You have to drive to us. We're a destination venue. We're open seven-days-a-week. We've got a tour and tastings every single day and we have that good Southern hospitality. All of our staff, the owners on property, they come out and greet the people everytime that they come in.

So, you get that feel, like you're part of the Haak family. We call it, "We're the 'Haakspitality' group" and so you get that southern hospitality. You feel like you're part of the family.

EOW: What are some of your goals as a chef for this place?

MB: So for us it's just continuing to always offer the highest level standards in our food. So, every time the guests show up, if I'm not on property, that my sous chef and my staff are able to produce food equal as if I were here and that when a customer comes here that they know that their food is going to be the freshest that it could possibly be. [It's] made from scratch and they know that it is going to be delicious.

EOW: During your career, have you been inspired by other chefs?

MB: Yes. So, it's really great coming from Galveston Island. I've done private events down there and the chefs down there inspire me. We're a really good family of chefs and so it's not--you don't feel competition maybe as you would feel in a larger city. It's all working together. It's more supportive and I've had events where I'm out of mint, so I call up, "Hey, chef Chris, I'm out of mint. Do you have any?" He's like, "Yeah, come get it out of the walk-in."

It the same family setting. They really work really well together and a lot of us went to school together or, the old school, some of the chefs down there were my mentors when I was in school. So being a Galvestonian, going to school in Galveston and working under some of the chefs down there for bigger events--that's my favorite thing to do. When they're having larger events, I get to either to bring my students and go work them or I'll volunteer and go work. That's when I get to see more things than I would just here at the winery.

There's no training for chefs that are already on the job unless you go in work under somebody else. Well, I don't want to take the risk of moving around kitchens. I'd rather just volunteering and go take some time and go learn a new menu from somebody else.

EOW: Since you are close to Galveston, your hometown--Santa Fe is just--

MB: 30 miles northwest.

EOW: Do of shellfish and fish figure into your menu?

MB: So, I don't write a lot of shellfish [into the menu]. I'm allergic. It sucks. But, today I cooked scallops. It's definitely something that, as a chef, even if you have aversions you still have to know how to cook everything. We've got a really great seafood market down in Galveston called Katie's so we buy and source from them quite a bit. Our pruning was last week and so it's an oyster-themed menu. So we had oysters galore--quite a few of them. I didn't realize so many people ate oysters but they're very popular. Anyways, we do write some. When we do our custom menus we always try to have some sort of seafood in every course.

EOW: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

MB: No. I'm really excited to to do this today. This is my first Houston publication. I've done all the Galveston ones, so it's nice to break north a little bit.

EOW: I'm excited to be out here and thank you for inviting me. This place is beautiful.

MB: Yes! If you haven't been out to the winery, we just finished pruning so all the vines are little barren right now, but come March they are beautiful. [In] July, we harvest. We invite the public out to come help us harvest all the grapes. I think last year we did 5 tons of grapes on-property. And so, we offer free breakfast and you come out and get to clip all the grapes. The vines are very nice and lush all the way through September and then September, October, November, they turn and we get those golden colors. Then they get clipped in January.

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