Chef Chat, Part 2: Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen

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Is it tough to start something new in a space that was previously a well-known restaurant with a beloved chef? Sure it is, but Paul Lewis of Paul's Kitchen seems to have the right ideas on how to pick up the ball and run with it. Yesterday we talked with Lewis about growing up in England. Today we'll look at how his career developed here.

Paul's Kitchen and Haven actually have more in common than just a building. Lewis's culinary perspective on the menu has a heavy emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients. Fishmongers and farmers come to the back door to let him know what they have available for the day. Excess is picked, preserved and canned, a skill he learned not in the restaurant industry, but from his family in England. The garden of Randy Evans' Haven still blooms around back, although it will surely do even better when spring rolls around again.

In Part 2, we'll take a look at how Lewis developed his career as a chef in Houston, starting with Deville at Four Seasons and building up to multiple executive chef positions, including at Paul's Kitchen.

PL: I joined Four Seasons in Houston first, back in the fall of 1998. I had been dating a young lady that transferred over here and I thought it would be great to transfer with her. Unfortunately, that didn't work out too well, as those things perhaps sometimes do, but it worked out well for me. I started great career at Four Seasons. I met my wife, who was working here in Houston and I ended up staying with the Four Seasons for close to 10 years.

EOW: Which years were those?

PL: 1998 through 2000 here in Houston. 2000 through mid-2002, I opened the Four Seasons in Dublin, Ireland. [My wife and I] got married in Ireland, so we applied for a transfer the back to the States. We were supposed to go to Miami, but hotel construction is notorious for being delayed, so we actually ended up moving back to you Houston. An opportunity had opened up here right around the time when they had done Quattro the first time.

We ended up moving back here and was here till 2006 or 2007. Then I did six months in Hawaii, working on Maui and on the Big Island.

EOW: When you are at the Four Seasons in Houston the first time around, was the old-school French restaurant still there?

PL: Deville? Yes, Deville was there. I still remember some of those dishes. The lobster bisque, there's a couple of foie gras dishes I remember, a hot one and also a trio of a terrine, a duck profiterole. I remember the salad, still. I remember making these crazy potato baskets. Chef Tim [Keating] loved putting mashed potatoes inside.

EOW: That was one of my first serious fine dining experiences.

PL: He was a big influence on me. I worked for him a year and a half and then when I moved back, about two and a half or three years before he moved on. When I first moved over here, I was chef de partie, working in the Terrace Café at the Deville. Then, I moved over to the banquet side. I was the banquet chef the last nine months I was there, and then I transferred to Ireland.

Deville was lots of fun. I remember the brunches in there, the private dining rooms that kind of changed when they moved it into Quattro. But, I remember a lot of those lunch menus and dinner menus. They are back in the brain somewhere.

EOW: Flashing forward again, you came back when Quattro was open the first time around.

PL: Yeah, I think that Quattro had been open two months when I moved back as the a.m. chef du cuisine. So I was overseeing breakfast and then lunch. Those shifts would go by really quickly because they were so busy. And then I got moved up to executives sous chef about a year or so after I had been back. I worked mostly with Tim on the running of the restaurant and the kitchen.

The first of the Italian chefs came in (to run Quattro) right when I was leaving.

EOW: What did you do after you left?

PL: After I left the Four Seasons, I went opened a restaurant called Cullen's down in Clear Lake. I was down there a bit more than five years. I started with them during the construction phase and we built that menu and that restaurant up.

EOW: Was that the most recent gig before you came to Paul's Kitchen?

P.L.: No I left Cullen's to go work at Osteria Mazzantini. I was there for 12 months or so.

EOW: And, I guess they had an interesting shakeup when they thought they were going to sell and didn't. I think that led to some instability.

PL: Um, yeah, that's a nice way of putting it.

EOW: Then, you were recruited to come here to develop this new concept of Paul's Kitchen.

PL: Paul Miller, the owner here, was actually one of the parties who wanted to buy Osteria Mazzantini when it was for sale. That deal didn't work out, as business deals often do.

As other deals were coming in and the restaurant was closing then not closing then closing again, you kind start looking for things because you have a family to support.

I had reached out to Paul because I heard that he was looking to do other things in Houston. My interview with him was very strange. It was more of an, "Okay, I've been looking at your kitchen for the past couple of months. How do I get you on board?" That was really the interview, so, oh, a little bit different!

EOW: To the point. Good. Didn't waste any time. (laughs)

P.L.: It kind of takes you aback a little bit. "Oh. Okay! Very strange but, okay!" (laughs)

Yeah, so we sat down and talked for a long time about what he was looking to do moving forward, the plans that he has for this restaurant and other plans for the future. It was a great opportunity and it's been a great fit and a great experience so far.

EOW: Is it odd or difficult to come into this space that Randy Evans was so closely affiliated with? Is it a little weird?

PL: Yes, because I do know Randy as well so it's kind of a strange scenario. One of the things we discussed when we were buying the business was, "Do we just kind of keep it the same-- kind of relaunch it?"

We decided no, that's not the right thing to do. So much of the restaurant is tied into Randy that it wouldn't be right to just carry on with a different chef.

So we closed and did some remodeling. We closed for about seven or eight weeks and then we opened up right at the end of September. The purchase of the restaurant really happened on August 1, so almost two months of construction. Then, we opened up.

EOW: What is the most important thing to you about the menu here?

PL: I think the most important thing to me that the food's fun. It's fun, it's interesting. We get to use and express ourselves with different cuisines, different ingredients. We really wanted to take what the Union Kitchen is known for and established as global cuisine and just really expand beyond that. Go deeper into flavors, deeper into ethnic regions.

Houston is such a melting pot of really great diverse people that everything you could possibly want is here anyway. We thought it would be fun to really explore that's and have fun with different spices, different flavor combinations-- giving people the experience to have that under one roof without having to go different restaurants to get a Middle Eastern dish or a Thai dish or a Korean dish or a Italian dish.

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EOW: When a diner goes to make a reservation through Open Table or something like that, what is the phrase that describes what kind of food this is?

PL: The one that we like to use to describe it is, "globally inspired, locally sourced," because I feel our food is really inspired from around the globe. We do buy and source our own product from around town and around the state.

I was reading an article the other day and it was saying how people have come to expect that now. It in the past it has perhaps been a nice surprise but the dining public is now changing their opinion in this perspective and looking for that.

There are many places that do it for a marketing thing or something like that but it's something that we really do. Growing up back in the U.K., It was normal to do that. Cheese made from the next state over or next shire over, as we would call them. Locally-shot game. We worked with one of the local shooting schools and they would bring in animals still warm -- still on the feathers or on the fur. We'd hang them, age them, clean them and then use them.

We were getting vegetables that someone had gone out and foraged for. Someone had to go out and harvested it from a field or something. Cream from cows that are 30 minutes away. That was just something that-- obviously, I come from a different discovered culture--but that was just something that you did.

EOW: So, Paul's Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant in a very legitimate use of the phrase.

PL: Yes. Yes it is. We opened at the end of the fall so we got right at the end of pickling cucumbers from the grower we were buying them from, so he ended up paying 20 to 30 cases. We put all of those up, so we are just finally now, two months later, coming to the end of those.

It's looking ahead so when something is coming into season or going out so if it's something we want to keep around for a little bit, we can take advantage of the knowledge and skills that we have to make that happen.

EOW: What is one thing you really want people to know about Paul's Kitchen?

PL: We're still working getting on our name out there. We've only been open now for three months, so we're continuing to work on getting our identity there. I think you know we're a very diverse restaurant. We cater to many different tastes. We're here seven days a week; lunch everyday, dinner everyday, brunch Saturday and Sunday. We have a great happy hour.

I think there we're a very approachable, elegant with a great level of food and service, just in a very casual setting.

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