Market Watch

Does Houston Hate Celebrity Chefs?

In 2009, a restaurant in The Heights named Bedford closed. It was the latest Houston project of acclaimed chef Robert Gadsby. How significant was this event? Well, Gadsby came to Houston with a star reputation. Five years prior, the Houston Press restaurant critic at the time, Robb Walsh, wrote an article entitled "The Great Gadsby" with the subheading, "One of Hollywood's top cooking stars is moving to Houston."

Gadsby was notable for his fine dining establishment Noé in Los Angeles. He abandoned L.A. for Houston, lamenting that life in L.A. is "shallow and meaningless." (Trust me, he's not the only person that feels that way. I recently had a conversation with a friend who observed that people in L.A. are always trying to impress you with who they know.)

When he arrived in Houston, he replaced the Omni Houston Hotel's stuffy French restaurant, La Reservé, with Houston's own version of Noé. (Accents ensure that diners know that the place is fancy.) A mere four years later, Gadsby left to audition for Food Network's show "Iron Chef America." He competed in 2007 in a mango and mixology themed episode, teaming up with mixologist Bridget Albert against Mario Batali and mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin. Batali won.

(By the way, one of Gadsby's sous chefs was Plinio Sandalio, who just returned to his hometown of Houston to open Pax Americana after a few years in Austin. He's received many accolades over the past several years for his skill and imagination with desserts.)

Gadsby was good enough to make it onto Iron Chef. Why couldn't he make a restaurant in Houston succeed? Well, a star reputation really doesn't get you very far here if you come from out-of-state, and it didn't help that Bedford was perceived as inconsistent, by professional reviewers and diners alike.

Success proved elusive for another chef with connections to Food Network. Susie Jimenez was the first runner-up in Season Seven of "Next Food Network Star." Some of her friends in Houston suggested that she open a restaurant here. That was reasonable, based on Houston's diversity and burgeoning food scene. Yet, her restaurant, Trenza, fell on its face. Embarrassingly, this happened almost immediately after declaring to both me and Eric Sandler at Culturemap that her and her investor weren't giving up yet.

The trend of celebrities coming to Houston to capitalize on our dynamic, diverse food scene is nothing new. Wolfgang Puck is noted for being the chef behind the fabulous Oscar awards dinner, but a namesake restaurant in Houston's Carillion Plaza in the mid-2000's was an utter failure. Part of the problem? Puck really had nothing to do with it. Such is what happens when you lose control of your famous name. People start using it to produce utter crap. (Both Puck's and Gadsby's Houston restaurant closings were mentioned in Robb Walsh's article "Top 9 Houston Restaurant Closings of the Decade".

The story of Bank Jean-Georges is a different twist on the relationships (or lack of) between out-of-state celebrities and Houston. While Jean-Georges Vongerichten lent his name and concepts to the menu, it was Bryan Caswell overseeing the execution as chef du cusine. When Caswell left with Bill Floyd to start Reef, Vongerichten opted to end his relationship with the restaurant. Why give up on it? For whatever reason, he decided it was not worth cultivating a following without Caswell at the helm. (Caswell had his own brush with celebrity status, competing on Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" in 2010 against the likes of Ming Tsai and Marc Forgione. He did quite well and wasn't eliminated until the sixth episode.)

Houston doesn't have much regard for imported stars. We prefer to grow our own. There's an exception to that rule--If you come here, start from scratch and work your way up, that's good too.

Shepard Ross was a professional actor when he came to Houston. He jumped into the food and wine scene because his Actor's Guild insurance was literally running out, plus he had experience working in the industry in New York before his acting days. He started out working at the now-defunct Zula, a glitzy downtown restaurant with a Vegas vibe, before opening his first restaurant, Glass Wall. With the additions of Brooklyn Athletic Club at the end of 2012, and the brand-new Pax Americana, he now has ownership in three places that each bring something unique to Houston's food scene. We love success stories, especially if we think we may have had a little something to do with it. It's a great feeling when you bet on the right horse.

Other talented cooks have come to Houston, worked their tails off, moved up through kitchen hierarchies and succeeded with their own restaurants. Kaiser Lashkari started in a tiny, counter service restaurant on the Southwest side of town before moving into the bigger space in Little India where Himalaya is today. Anita Jaisinghani spent two years at Café Annie before starting first Indika and, later, Pondicheri. Mark Holley worked his way up at various restaurants, including Brennan's of Houston and Commander's Palace in New Orleans before landing his own restaurant, running Pesce for 10 years before it closed. You can now find him melding his French classical training with his Southern roots in his own place, Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

Houston doesn't trust Hollywood. Actually, anyone who comes here claiming they're a "star chef" is going to be met with suspicion. We're not xenophobic, per se, but we don't trust that outsiders know what they're talking about. If you're from California, do you really understand what Houstonians want to eat? How could you if you haven't taken the time to learn about us? Practical-minded Houston cares less about glamor than values like friendliness, reliability and a good work ethic. Of course, we care about food, too, so we want places where we can get the whole package. But don't try to fool us with glitz and tiny portion sizes. This story continues on the next page.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook