Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Sylvia Casares of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, On Her Signature Dish and Thoughts That Go Through Your Head When You Come Close to Death

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen 6401 Woodway Drive Tel: 713-334-7295

This is part two of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, Sylvia Casares talked about leaving the corporate world to start a restaurant business in her forties. Today we talk about her signature dish and her very close brush with death, as she candidly reveals her feelings about the shooting that nearly ended her life.

EOW: What would you say is your signature dish?

SC: When Dai Huynh wrote the first piece in the Chronicle, we sold a crazy amount of beef enchiladas. There is a saying, somebody once told me, "Every successful restaurant has to do one thing better than everybody else." And my thing is enchiladas in general. I would say that the the chili gravy is the most significantly different than everywhere else because it's an eight-hour recipe.

EOW: Why does it take eight hours?

SC: Well, we have to take out the chiles, remove the seeds and the stems, because we cook with chiles. We don't use powders. We don't use chile powder. We're taking the chiles, boiling them, pureeing them little by little -- that's the beginning of what I call the building of the flavor. It's just a very old-fashioned way of making chili gravy. It's the way it was done 50 years ago.

EOW: How did you come up with this recipe? Because you're not a trained chef, right?

SC: No. Everything -- my experience, the way I do things -- is usually the way I saw it done. And I'm just a purist. I like to do things right. And so, when I develop recipes, it's gotta be all about flavor, and I'm always trying to reach the optimum flavor. I'm trying to reach the 10 -- which, when I eat food, I tend to rank it one to ten, ten being outstanding. I'm back in that research lab doing sensory evaluation, so I always aim for that 10.

EOW: Tell me about the Woodway location, your flagship location. What's different here than at your location on Westheimer?

SC: The main difference here --- I come from South Texas -- and the way grilling is done there is with mesquite wood. So all of our meats, like our fajitas, are done here with mesquite, and you end up with a smoky flavor, which is different than the flavor you get from the gas grill.

EOW: Okay, on to personal stuff. I understand that there are things you can't talk about for legal reasons. You've just come through a personal tragedy recently with the shooting, and you look amazing. This is not something that happens to everybody. How did you pull yourself out? Was there a low point? Did you think you were going to get out of it? How did you go from there to here, today?

SC: Two things: I would say my faith, and the love and support of family and friends. I'd say that's what kept me buoyant the first month.

EOW: Were you bedridden?

SC: I wasn't entirely bedridden; I got around, but very limited because I was in a lot of pain. For six weeks, I was really secluded. I only saw my inner circle and my kids. And then after about six or seven weeks, I started getting the notes, my kids brought me letters from the restaurant and the customers. And that was wonderful -- e-mails, notes, all kinds of love being poured out to me, and it was very healing.

EOW: Did the restaurant suffer while you were gone?

SC: It might have, but everyone just jumped in to keep things going. The employees kicked it into fifth gear, and everybody just put on their big-girl panties and tried the hardest that they could.

EOW: How long did it take for you to fully recover and come back to work?

SC: I came back around Memorial day, but it was more not really working -- talking to customers, being around, ten to 15 hours a week in total, just a little bit here and there.

EOW: Was there rehabilitation involved?

SC: No, just recovering at home. I was very blessed, because it was a very severe injury, but it wasn't of the nature that left me impaired or incapacitated.

EOW: So would you say you're fully recovered?

SC: I would say, "Yes, I am." And psychologically, which is probably the most important thing, I'm great. I heard someone say the other day: "God's always working." And I don't know if this is the best way to describe it, but this has been a spiritual journey. For about a year to a year and a half, I'd been very actively trying to develop my faith --I'd been going to church once a week, I was attending Bible study after Mass. I think when you're young, you might think you don't need it, but when you get older, I had decided it was time. So I'd set a goal to read the Bible, and learn about it. So I had embarked on that, and that played a huge, huge part of this. Every day, I would try to read 30 minutes, through the different apostles -- Paul, John, Mark, so I was learning about the life of Jesus.

EOW: And then this happened.

SC: And this happened, and I was like, "Wow." And a lot of miracles took place, so a lot of what I did during my recovery was just continue that, because I was not leaving the house, and I was at home doing nothing.

EOW: Normally I ask about a last meal. Did you think about the possibility of not surviving at any point?

SC: Oh yeah, that was the first thought that came into my mind.

EOW: I know I can't ask about specifics of what happened, but when did you become conscious of what happened?

SC: Instantly. I heard the gun go off, and the pain...the gun exploded, and the pain, and I put my hand here [puts hand on right side of stomach], and I looked and I saw the gun across. And then I thought, "My God, I've been shot in the stomach. This is it for me. This is how I'm gonna go."

EOW: [incredulous] Oh my gosh!

SC: It was like one minute I'm fine and then the next minute I've got this huge, huge, huge problem.

EOW: You were conscious the whole time, then?

SC: Oh yeah, I didn't pass out for a while, I don't know when it was. It was sometime when I was in the ambulance. I mean, I just thought: "Oh my God, what am I gonna do? This is not how I'm supposed to die. This is not how it's supposed to end." I've always been dutiful to whatever it is I'm working on -- raising my kids, or working, or doing a restaurant. I've always put myself last. I haven't had to time to enjoy my life. And so, you talk about a wake-up call -- it was beyond a wake-up call, it was like bugles or something blowing in my ear! (laughs and makes bugle sounds)

EOW: Bugles!

SC: I don't want to say I knew I was going to die, but thought it was a pretty good chance. It was a pretty good risk that I wasn't going to survive, because you always hear that a gunshot wound to the abdomen is deadly. And it wasn't like I had time to negotiate it. I didn't have time to run or duck or beg. It was a surprise; I didn't see it coming. I mean, one minute I'm getting ready to start my vehicle, and the next minute I'm...

EOW: Thank goodness someone called the ambulance in time.

SC: So at one point I'm thinking -- well, I don't think I thought it, but I felt like, "This is a totally dumb way to die." (laughs merrily)

EOW: (joins in the laughter) You were like, "This totally sucks, this is the wrong way!"

SC: I did, I think I kind of really did. "This is not how I'm supposed to go. This cannot be happening. How, after all this work? How, after all this delayed gratification? How can my life be coming to an end like this, and for what?" It's funny because my cousin's a therapist, and she had a slumber party where all the guests were therapists. And of course we all discussed it, and at some point them said, "You know what it is, your executive function kicked in in your brain."

EOW: Which is what?

SC: (snaps her fingers) Survival. "What do I have to do to survive? What do I have to do to stay alive? How am I going to survive this? I'm not going like this. This is not how I'm supposed to go." So the fighter in me, the same woman that circled the wagons and figured out how to turn her restaurant around in that hole in the wall is the same one who figured out how to hold on, and get help, and hang on. You know it was sort of "Yeah, I'm gonna fight like hell, I'm not going like this. This is a waste."

EOW: So how does this change how you go forward? What do you think you deserve that if everything stopped tomorrow, you would totally regret not having done, or not having experienced.

SC: Well, I haven't done anything on my bucket list -- I wanna go here, I want to own this, I'd like to do this...I mean, I'd like to travel internationally. I'd like to go to Europe at least once. Pretty normal things. I'm making more friends now, and connecting with a lot of female friends that can and will travel with me. Working out hard at the gym. Just continuing on my faith journey. Because faith is not something you decide: "You know what? I think faith is a good idea," and say "Okay, I'm going to have faith now," and all of a sudden you're full of it -- it's a process. So I'm working on my faith.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Sylvia's signature dishes.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham