Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Tommy Birdwell of TQLA

In part one of our conversation with Chef Tommy Birdwell of TQLA, we covered his early career and his vision for TQLA. Today, we'll discuss Chef Birdwell's work on the Pappasito's menu, writing a cookbook with Stephan Pyles, and more.

EOW: You opened the Coyote Cafe at the MGM in Las Vegas and ended up staying as the executive chef for nearly nine years. That's a long time to stay in Vegas.

TB: Yes, it was a long time. Believe me, some people didn't last. But by 2001, it was time to move on. Although when I was at the MGM, Mark Miller let me take a leave of absence for a month from the Coyote and I opened up Star Canyon for Stephan Pyles. And before that, I had taken another leave when Stephan asked if I'd help with his cookbook The New Texas Cuisine. So I moved to Dallas for three to four months and traveled with him, the photographer, and the editor. I wrote recipes, did the photo shoots, the whole shebang. For the recipes, Stephan would write, say, Black-eyed Pea Bisque at the top of a page, and then I would fill in the blanks.

EOW: From memory?

TB: From what I thought should go in it. If he said Sweet Potato Fritters, I knew a fritter batter had buttermilk, eggs, corn meal, baking soda, baking powder, sweet potatoes of course, maybe a little cinnamon, maybe a little corn, some green onions.

EOW: Let's return to 2001. What brought you back to Houston?

TB: I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, and I thought it was between New York and Los Angeles. But then my friend, pastry chef Andrew MacLauchlan, who was consulting for Pappas Restaurants, called and asked what I was doing next, and I said I didn't know. So Pappas flew me out and I cooked for Harris Pappas and he interviewed me for four hours, and I started two months later as part of the research and development team. I did a little bit of everything: I helped open up Pappas Burgers and Yia Yia Mary's, I made general changes to all of the restaurant menus, and at the very end I was like the go-to guy for Pappasito's.

EOW: What did you do at Pappasito's?

TB: I revamped the whole menu, which needed a new theme and a new look. Harris Pappas sort of said, "Go for it, Tommy!" So I would come up with dishes and then have tastings, and he would pick dishes and they would go on menus at three or four Pappasito's, and then six months later I would roll them out to all the locations. And that was constant, day after day after day.

EOW: List a few of the things you worked on.

TB: Every combination plate you see. Campfire Shrimp. Mexico City-style soup. The tamales -- that's my masa, my pork. The green chile sauce. After that, Harris went to Pappas corporate chef Michael Velardi and said, "I think I want Tommy to help out with the drinks." Every restaurant was sort of doing something different, and Harris wanted to tighten it up. So I started doing drink tastings just like food tastings.

EOW: Was the idea to standardize drinks across all the Pappas restaurants?

TB: Correct. Standardize and evolve. Make things better. Pappasito's - perfect example. They had always used a powdered mix for their margaritas, but now if you go to a Pappasito's they're using fresh lemon juice and fresh lime juice. I was also involved in the creation of every mojito, every mango margarita, every Blue Hawaiian that you see at every restaurant.

EOW: But creating a drink menu is not the same as cooking in a kitchen.

TB: It's not. It's more technique and procedure: if I give you a recipe, you should be able to make the exact same mojito that they have at Pappas Seafood, Pappasito's, Pappadeaux, wherever. And to make it that way, you need to be very structured: half a scoop of ice, six mint sprigs, two limes with the skin facing down, muddled ten times. Add two packages of sugar. Add rum and shake six times. Fill glass, mint sprigs, shot of Sprite.

EOW: It makes perfect sense. If you have that many locations, you have to standardize.

TB: Harris and Chris Pappas taught me so much. They taught me about food, don't get me wrong. But just about thinking about volume. To feed massive amounts of people, you have to have a different mindset. It's not about what Tommy Birdwell wants, it's about what you want, what the public wants. Speaking of that, TQLA is what I want, but I also want to please everyone. I want to please you, I want to please the 18-year-old kid, I want to please the 65-year-old lady, I want to please the 86-year-old. If you get the blue corn fried oysters I want you to say, "wow, I never had anything like that." Even something as simple as the chip salsa. I want it to be the best chip salsa you've ever tasted, not just in Houston, but anywhere. I don't want you to come in here and say, "Eh." I want you to remember TQLA.

EOW: Wasn't Bryan Caswell also at Pappas?

TB: Yeah, we were there at the same time. It's funny, when I started at Pappas I had never been in a kitchen with microwaves. And when I first got hired on, I was at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse doing my prepping and my tastings. So the first time I walked into a Pappasito's and saw how it was set up, with microwaves and everything, it was definitely a shock. Bryan Caswell had worked for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], and we became immediate friends, and we talked and he said, "Dude, I've never seen it either."

EOW: I understand there are plans to open more TQLA locations. Is your experience with Pappas helping with the planning?

TB: A hundred percent. Just about procedures and documentation. At the MGM, I would change the menu every three-and-a-half weeks. For a new dish, say, smoked pheasant with apricot marmalade, there would be five or six cooks and my four sous chefs behind me. I wouldn't write anything down, and everyone would taste it and understand it wasn't going to be too sour or too sweet. That was the way we did things for eight years, and it worked very well. But at Pappas, a black bean recipe would be: one quart of black beans, soak for 14 hours. Strain water off, add one gallon of water, add the soaked black beans... I had never seen anything that structured before, not in my entire career. Yes, I'd seen recipes, I'd written recipes for Stephan, but not to that extent. For the fritter batter, I just listed all the ingredients and said: mix. At Pappas, that recipe would be four pages plus two pages of procedure.

With TQLA, it's helped tremendously. Our opening here was so smooth. I trained the cooks five or six days before and made them make the same item eight or ten times. When we opened, orders started coming in and it was easy. No chaos. As for expansion, perfect example: We're looking at Arizona right now. If we signed something in a week, all the books and procedures are ready. All I've got to do is get on a plane and hire the people and away we go.

EOW: Do people ever come and ask for the Entourage tequila?

TB: (beckons over co-owner and tequiler Scott Lindsey). Scott Lindsey: When we first opened, we'd get a request once or twice a day, but since about three months ago, it's kind of trickled off. But we still sell a good amount of it.

Tune in tomorrow when we taste some of the items on TQLA's new menu. Plus, a very special Larry Hagman story.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden