Chef Chat, Part 2: Samuel Beier of Tony Mandola's

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When we left off in Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Samuel Beier, he had just completed a long stint under Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market and Market restaurants in Atlanta. It was his second time to work for the world-renowned French chef. The first time being at the defunct Bank in Hotel Icon here in Houston. (Line & Lariat is currently the restaurant where Bank used to be inside of Hotel Icon.)

A job opportunity for his wife brought the Beiers back to her hometown of Houston. In this Part 2 of our Chef Chat, find out where Beier landed his first executive position, a remarkable physical challenge he has to be mindful of on a daily basis, how Tony Mandola's customers are responding to the chef's efforts to freshen up the menu and his affection--perhaps even obsession--for cookbooks.

EOW: Where did you land when you and your wife returned to Houston?

SB: My first job when we came back was at *17. The hotel got bought out and I was promoted to executive chef. It was quite fun but also very difficult. We did room service, banquets, the bar and *17. It wasn't too stressful, though, because the volume and business had died off.

We got a chance to get stuff back on track. It was going well, but I got to a point where I didn't see eye-to-eye with the management, so that's when I decided to part ways.

EOW: Did you have something lined up?

SB: Yeah, I took the biggest risk. I was burned out [from the job at *17]. I was talking with Mark Masado (a friend and former co-worker from Bank) who told me about a catering company that was looking for an executive chef. It was A Fare Extraordinaire under Karen Lerner. Going from fine dining, to a country club, a hotel and then going into a full-production catering company was quite an eye-opener.

You always think catering companies do junk food and charge too much, but [A Fare's] food was top-notch quality. They had a very good system of how they did stuff. The crew and kitchen staff were well-trained. It was quite interesting. It was fun to do huge galas for 500 people and we did some store openings for 1,000 people. It was just amazing to see all the work for that many people. I was there for two years and left in 2012.

I didn't have anything lined up and was searching for what to do next. Do I go back to a hotel? Fine dining? Casual? What do I do? Someone had mentioned Liberty Kitchen. I called up Lance [Fegen] and Lee [Ellis]. My wife and I went over there and ate. I thought, "I could really see myself doing something like this." It was more of what I wanted to do in the future. I don't want to be too hoity-toity and fine dining with the china and stuff.

I trained with Travis [Lening] who was chef at the time. Eventually, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette opened. Travis moved there and I took over at Liberty. It was always busy. If we did 180 covers for lunch, it would be like, "Hey, what's going on? We're kind of dead." We were always on our toes.

The kitchen was extremely small but it grew on you and fit like a glove when you learned how to work in it. It was fun. I hadn't worked a lot with oysters in other jobs so I learned more about what you could do with them.

From there, I came here to Tony Mandola's, originally as a consultant to revamp the menu, which we've done. We're still trying to get more of a younger crowd in the door and trying to figure out what can we do to bring the younger business crowd.

EOW: That seems like a fine line to walk. You have this huge restaurant family that's steeped in tradition and has served Houston for generations. At the same time, you see a graying of your audience and do want to bring in the younger crowd. What are you doing to respect that tradition and at the same time freshen things up?

SB: Yeah, it's difficult. It's probably the most difficult spot I've been in just because the people who have been coming here for 20 years want the same thing, same way, no matter what. It's quite funny. We didn't change the gumbo. We just added some fried okra and crawfish tails on top. People swear up and down that it's not the same recipe because of that. You want to pull your hair out.

EOW: Maybe you need two different menus!

SB: We've had that reaction. The regulars see the new menu for the first time and they're like, "Oh, the menu changed." I'm kind of like, "Uh oh. What did I get myself into?"

So, the way we've balanced it is by keeping available most of the stuff we've taken off. We're slowing trying to get people to want to see new things, different products, experience different fish, taste different meats and see different ways of doing things. That's the hardest thing that I've been faced with here.

Most restaurants, like Underbelly, can do whatever they want to do and the crowd that comes in is excited to see it.

EOW: Yeah, they're game for whatever.

SB: It's a "show me what you've got" kind of thing. Here, it's not like that. It's "show me what you had." (laughs) It's a fine line we're trying to walk but the reaction from most everyone is they're enjoying it. They're liking the new stuff. Some in the beginning were skeptical, but now they've had it more and more, they're like, "That's the best thing." It's getting more appreciated.

EOW: What are some of your favorite things to eat?

SB: Right now, I"m trying to eat a lot more healthy, so a lot more greens. I enjoy seafood a lot. We always get shrimp, fish and crab. My wife is kind of picky, so she likes chicken, chicken fingers, mac and cheese, shrimp and, of all things, mushrooms, so I kind of base [home cooking] around that.

Our family has a huge history with heart conditions. I actually had a heart attack while I was working for Bryan [Caswell] at [Hotel] Icon.

EOW: How old were you when this happened?!

SB: I was 26. At the time, we didn't know. They were like, "Well, you eat bad." The doctor said "Your chemistry of what's going on inside is not abnormal for a 26-year-old."

My brother recently went in for an angiogram. He had a lot of blockage, too, so now we know it's hereditary. That's something I've dealt with since then.

At times, I haven't really taken care of it. I've taken it for granted but there have been scares here and there. Recently, I've really tried to have a good diet and eat healthy.

I love Italian food just because it's simple, few ingredients and tastes amazing. One of the things we like to do is spaghetti and meatballs. It's just so simple but so good.

We like to go out but we don't go as much to interesting places as we should, just because we live in Spring. You're removed from the scene that's down here [inside the Loop]. It's more of a date night to come down. We try and get out and eat at places down here. We love Mexican food. I love making tacos, but with a lettuce shell.

EOW: So like a lettuce wrap.

SB: A lettuce wrap, yeah. They're delicious. Actually, one of my favorite foods as a kid was when my mom would make tacos with all the fixings. I don't know how I got onto it but I love ketchup, so I'd dress up my taco and put ketchup on it like salsa. I've gotten away from it now, but every once in awhile, I'll get that craving.

EOW: I get it. Sometimes I put ketchup on scrambled eggs. What would you tell someone who thinks he or she would like to be come a chef?

SB: I think the hardest thing in our business is that there are so many kids who watch Food Network. They see exciting stuff and chefs who are making money. Then, they get into it and get their first job and are making $9.50 or ten bucks an hour and are like, "This ain't going to hack it." Then they jump a lot of steps to try and make money.

If you really want to do it right, you have to understand you're not going to make money off-the-bat unless you're a genius. There are some who can do that. I wanted to work for the best, train, really study and learn stuff.

There's a lot of people who are chefs or sous chefs where if you ask them to do a dessert, they have no idea because that's not their part. I'm not a whiz at desserts, but I can make them. The cheesecake we serve here is my recipe. I think it's the best in the world. I enjoy knowing the whole thing and of being able to do stuff on-the-fly, "Oh, we've got to do this? Yeah, I'll do it." That's where the training and your background of what you know and can do really comes into play.

There was an instructor at the CIA who said, "When you get paid from the job you're working, instead of buying a CD or an Xbox, buy a cookbook. Start reading up on what you need to be learning." I took that to heart. One of the first books I bought was from Gotham Bar & Grill in New York with Alfred Portale, which I have to this day. I now have a collection of about 400 books.

EOW: Cookbooks are like history books.

SB: To me, [cookbooks] let you know what's going on in the country and in the world. Places like Barnes & Noble tend to have what's popular. I got to a point where I'd go and it's like, "I already have these books. There's nothing new here."

I found a place in New York City called Kitchen Arts & Letters. They buy from everywhere. My wife and I had a chance to visit when we were there visiting her cousins. It was really amazing. I took a bunch of photos of books I want to buy in the future. It's good for kids and students.

EOW: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or about Tony Mandola's?

SB: As far as what we're doing here at Tony Mandola's, we're trying to make the dishes more seasonal and pop more for people. We're enhancing flavors and working on cooking techniques. We're training the staff to get more involved with what the food is.

As far as myself, some people say I'm outgoing. I consider myself shy. That's one of the boundaries I teeter on. It's not hard for me to go to a table and talk with people, but at the same time, sometimes it is.

I do like talking to people and seeing their expressions when they eat the food. I like seeing that response when they really appreciate it. I've had people pull me out here [to the dining room], like one guy who saw a dish on Facebook. He's like, "I want to eat that," and I'm like, "No problem. We'll make it." I gave it to him and came out later and asked, "How was it?" He said, "It was amazing, chef."

Stuff like that is fun. I enjoy the business a lot.

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