Creative Cooking

Despite Big Business Stigma, Iron Chef Competition Exemplifies Talent of Landry's Chefs

Imagine that you’re working on a special project and have mere minutes left to finish it. Your peers are watching you complete your last few tasks, and two guys keep popping in and out of the room calling out how many minutes you have left. Running late isn’t an option. Once you’re finished, your work will go to your boss and all his industry peers for evaluation. No pressure, right?

That’s exactly how Landry’s Iron Chef competition works. It’s now in its tenth year and is nothing like the popular Food Network shows. It’s not a public event. There is no crowd, no moderators giving a play-by-play and no applause.

More than 30 chefs hustled to get their dishes ready in the sizable kitchen at the Galveston Convention Center. (Fortunately, not all at the same time.) Individual dishes were submitted every seven minutes for judging. Chefs had to make three platings of their dishes: two for the judges and one for fellow chefs to look at and taste.

Once the plates were ready, two runners — one a chef who was doubling as a professional photographer — would take them to a table set up as a photo station. A dish was placed inside a light box, photographed and then carried to top executives from various Landry’s divisions for evaluation.

The judges ranked each dish on appearance, creativity and flavor. Additionally, they considered for which of Landry's more than 40 restaurant concepts each dish might be most appropriate. A seafood dish, for example, might wind up on the menu at McCormick & Schmick’s, even if a chef at a different Landry’s restaurant created it. Over two days, the judges tasted around 60 items. 

On the second and final day of the competition, top high school culinary students from three different school districts — Houston, Katy and Cy-Fair ISDs — arrived to learn about what being a chef is really like. They received pointers and tips from everyone from the chefs, to chief operating officer and senior vice president Howard Cole, to even Landry’s social media team. These days, being a chef is as much about marketing and maintaining an appropriate social media presence as it is about cooking.

Chelsea Gumm of Miller Career & Technology Center at KISD said she most wants her students to “see the passion all these chefs bring to the table. The love of food. That’s what got me started and really excited about the industry. It’s why I became a teacher, so I could give that passion to other kids and help them explore and see what it’s really like.”

Brett Simmons, a senior at Taylor High School, was one of Gumm’s students seeking inspiration from people already in the career she intends to pursue. “I’m hoping I can see some desserts because I want to be a pastry chef.” After graduation, Simmons is going to the Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio.

Jose Acosta of Westside High School in HISD is already apprenticing in the kitchen of a nursing home restaurant. “I’m usually in the kitchen prepping stuff or whatever they want me to do,” he says. He’s not sure if he’s going to culinary school, but he said he’s keeping his options open.

Cy-Fair High School senior Colton Threlkeld has long had an interest in true farm-to-table food. He’s maintained a backyard garden since he was seven years old and cooks what he grows. He recently became interested in smoking and says his most interesting learning experience was with halal meat.

“I have a friend who is Muslim and it was a lot different, how they cut the meats, the rituals, how you can’t have any other meat near it. It’s really cool to see different cultures and how they represent their meats.” After graduation, he’s attending Johnson & Wales in Denver, Colorado to pursue an associate’s degree in culinary and then a bachelor’s in hotel management.

Landry’s is a Houston-based company that has been wildly successful and employs thousands of people across the country. It has grown exponentially since president and CEO Tilman Fertitta bought Bill and Floyd Landry’s interests (and eventually the interest of Denis Wilson) in their seafood restaurant. (Fertitta’s extensive business history, including his entry into the restaurant industry, is well-documented in a Texas Monthly article.) However, Landry's is rarely lauded as a homegrown success story.

Mention a Landry’s restaurant, and foodies are likely to snort in derision. Part of that may have less to do with the chefs and their food than with Fertitta himself. Houston loves restaurateurs and chefs who grow their restaurants from scratch, but that’s not what Fertitta does. He buys existing concepts and then applies his business acumen to make them appeal more to the masses. Other times, as in the case of Kemah and sections of Galveston, he turns formerly rustic areas populated with small businesses into dining and entertainment hubs. A person could argue that a behemoth like Landry's squeezes out mom-and-pop businesses. On the other hand, Landry's has been either wholly or partially responsible for attractions that bring business and tourism money to the Texas economy. The Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort, where the Iron Chef competition was hosted, is a prime example. 

Cole, who has worked for Fertitta for 21 years, readily agreed that there's a stigma when it comes to Landry’s restaurants. “There’s a big-company phobia when it comes to culinary," he said. "We have big, great, wonderful talents. We are a big company, but it doesn’t mean we have less talent. I would like to see people kind of get over that stigma. Come to our restaurants and try our food at the different levels, because we have different price points for everyone in America. We’re not just high-end and we’re not just low-end. Just let the food, service and quality stand on its own.”

Landry’s often attracts top chefs — especially those with families — thanks to its ability to offer insurance and decent wages. Take, for example, Brian Robertson, who has worked for Landry’s for ten years and is now the concept executive chef for Rainforest Café. His duties include research and development, styling plates to keep up with trends and traveling to the various Rainforest Café locations to work with their chefs. He’s won the Iron Chef competition three times and this year acted as a coordinator, helping San Luis executive chef Phil Bouza ensure that visiting chefs had the supplies needed to create their dishes.

Before joining Landry’s, Robertson worked his way up from apprentice to sous chef at ritzy Houston restaurant Tony’s, and was executive chef at Saba Blue Water Café and then at Divino in Museum District. Like Cole, he recognizes the stigma attached to Landry's restaurants — especially at family-focused concepts like Rainforest Café — and argues that it’s not deserved.

“The nature of success is that you’re going to have people who disbelieve,” he said. “I’d say come in our restaurants and try our food. We’ll prove you wrong. In Rainforest, everything we do is fresh. We’re high-volume concepts and that’s challenging.” Robertson says that a lot more is made from scratch than people think. “I couldn’t believe it when I first started working there. We even hand-bread the chicken tenders.”

He also says that kids’ food is continuing to shift in a healthier direction, with one caveat. “It depends on the parents and how they raise their children. If my kids want pizza, we’re going to have pizza but I’m going to supplement it with something healthy.”

The dishes that sailed out of the kitchen during the Iron Chef competition were overall delicious and often visually stunning. Big corporation or not, there’s no argument that Landry’s chefs, when given free rein over their creativity and talent, have much to offer.

Below is the complete list of Landry’s Iron Chef winners and their dishes.

Best Overall Dish: Chocolate Butterscotch Cake
Charles Reed, executive chef, Golden Nugget Lake Charles Country Club

Unique Small Plate/Appetizer: New Texas Curried Chili w/Hand-formed Tots
Scott Castell, concept executive chef, Claim Jumper

Honorable Mention, Unique Small Plate/Appetizer: Blue Fin Crudo Granita
Michael Swezey, executive chef, Morton's Nashville

Unique Salad, Maple Sugar Seared Salmon Salad
Phillip Bouza, executive chef, San Luis

Honorable Mention, Unique Salad: Asian Style Togarashi Chicken Salad
Carlos Valdez, executive chef, Oceanaire Hackensack

Main Course (low cost range): Braised Pork Osso Bucco
Jason Cole, executive chef, Brenner's Steakhouse

Honorable Mention, Main Course (low cost range): Apple Braised Pork Belly
Drew Wilson, executive chef — Oceanaire Minneapolis

Main Course (mid cost range): Smoked Pork Chop w/Cheddar Grits
Dan DeSalvo, executive sous chef, Mastro's Washington, DC

Honorable Mention, Main Course (mid-cost range): Thai Style Whole Fried Snapper for Two
Carlos Rodriguez, corporate executive chef, Signature Group

Main Course (high cost range): Meat and Three
Faithy Harris, senior chef, Yak & Yeti

Honorable Mention, Main Course (high-cost range): Tequila Lime Ceviche Red Snapper
Jerod Wilcher, executive chef, Aquarium Nashville

Unique Side: Cauliflower Mac & Cheese
Luis Martinez, executive chef, Bubba Gump Anaheim

Honorable Mention, Unique Side: Pimento Cheese Soufflé w/Bacon Jam
Scott Castell, concept executive chef, Claim Jumper

Dessert: Chocolate Butterscotch Cake
Charles Reed, executive chef, Golden Nugget Lake Charles Country Club

Honorable Mention, Dessert: Hazelnut Chocolate Crunch Cake
Richard Hawthorne, executive chef, Golden Nugget Las Vegas

Kid's Meal Throwdown: Chicken Cordon Bleu Skewers
Drew Wilson, executive chef, Oceanaire Minneapolis

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook