Justin Yu at the 2016 James Beard Awards.
Justin Yu at the 2016 James Beard Awards.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

For Two of Houston's Beard Award-Winning Chefs, Reinvention Is Imperative

Now more than ever, chefs and restaurateurs are changing gears in an effort to refresh their brand. Changes in restaurant concept, from menus to interior design, are good for both the guest and the creative forces behind them. Not to say that we don’t appreciate the constantly delicious $4.95 banh mi sandwich found right around the corner, but people in their twenties and thirties are more inclined to try new things than the generations before them, as Forbes reports. In order to meet the needs of this influential market, restaurants both new and old have more pressure on them to keep the buzz going. One way for good restaurants to avoid being sidelined by “the next best thing” is to change.

Some cringe at the label of “Millennials,” the elders among the group especially, but there are many strengths to this market. According to the Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, people in this age group represent the largest share in the American workforce and are on their way to becoming the most educated. Education breeds curiosity. Curiosity breeds adventure. Adventurous people love trying new things. What’s the easiest way to try something new? Dining out.

Chefs and restaurateurs are creative by nature. For most, evolution helps keep that creative fire stoked. Seemingly, there are two different ways to evolve your restaurant. You can scrap the old and start over, or you can set up a concept based upon change. We are seeing examples of both in Houston right now.

Chef Justin Yu is a great example of reinventing yourself the old-fashioned way. Yu shut down Oxheart last March with the idea of opening something completely new in its place.

“I love what we did [with Oxheart], but my heart wasn’t in it anymore,” Yu explained to the Houston Press. He closed the restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award to open Theodore Rex in the former Oxheart space. The restaurant will be Yu’s take on a modern bistro — actually, it already was for a day, when T. Rex debuted on August 24, but Harvey flooded the restaurant. Yu and his staff are working quickly to reopen their doors.

In May, Yu also opened the funky and bright Heights bar Better Luck Tomorrow with Bobby Heugel, tapping Oxheart alum Matt Boesen to run the kitchen. Yu explained, “More than anything else, I want to challenge myself and promote other people in the process.”

The concept behind James Beard award winner Chris Shepherd’s One Fifth is a restaurant that completely changes itself once a year for the five-year lease it holds. This concept has change built into the model, giving Shepherd the chance to flex creatively, while at the same time holding our attention. Shepherd tells the Houston Press, “It’s extremely rewarding. I’ve never been one to do things the easy way. This restaurant gives us the chance to challenge ourselves constantly.” Shepherd and his team closed One Fifth Steak for the month of August to change everything from menu to interior design for their early September debut of One Fifth Romance Languages. In terms of opening a restaurant, that’s not a long time.

Chef Chris Shepherd debuted One Fifth Romance Languages in early September.EXPAND
Chef Chris Shepherd debuted One Fifth Romance Languages in early September.
Julie Soefer

Shepherd adds, “It’s fun to see how our guests react to new dishes and completely new products. We’re so pleased with the way Houston received One Fifth Steak, and now we’re really excited to introduce One Fifth Romance Languages.”

Six years ago, Grant Achatz, arguably one of the most inventive chefs of our time, opened a similar concept whose model embraced change. The result of his Chicago restaurant, Next, was a triumph in terms of holding the public’s interest. To dine at Next, you needed to purchase tickets in advance, almost as with a sporting event. Achatz would completely change the tasting menu every few months and was playful in his choice of revamps. His menus varied, from different cuisines to abstract themes and even time periods. His tickets became so prized that a black market emerged around selling them. Since One Fifth Romance Languages opened on September 8, it too has been very busy. Shepherd confirms, “Guests are excited to see what we’ve changed and taste the new dishes.”

Inside the new One Fifth Romance Languages.
Inside the new One Fifth Romance Languages.
Photo by Julie Soefer Photography

Shepherd’s and Yu’s new ventures are on everybody’s “must try” list right now, or at least they should be. So, what’s the fate of the “hottest new restaurant” five years down the road? If they’re good, they can rely on their regulars. Even better, they will attract a neighborhood niche. However, if they’re mediocre, people move on. Younger consumers tend to be nomadic, with an emphasis on following “the next best thing.”
More important, what is the fate of the mom-and-pop restaurants who spent years mastering a specialty? Or the institutions that have stood for decades on account of their owners’ hard work to evolve and cultivate a following? This is where younger consumers could afford to slow down a little. Why don’t we put those restaurants of merit on our short list of “where to eat next”? We can enjoy both, can’t we? The new and trendy AND the tried and true.

That said, the value of consistency is not completely lost on the trend seekers of today. People will always find comfort in their go-tos for a family dinner or a quick lunch. There is merit in being able to visit your favorite restaurant and know exactly what you’re getting. The familiarity of staff and menu eliminates the stress of decision making, which translates to a relaxing dining experience.

“I definitely think people are drawn to what’s new, but they’re also drawn to what’s familiar and consistent. I worked at Brennan’s for nine years and we had customers who ate there four times a week,” Shepherd says.

It’s fascinating to observe the rate at which the restaurant industry is evolving. Restaurateurs are wise to recognize the restless needs of modern-day consumers and even wiser to recognize the benefits that rejuvenation has on their restaurants. Those restless needs could even be credited as the catalyst for our creative revolution. The more Houston pushes its culinary boundaries, the quicker those gold standards such as the Michelin guide will take notice. One thing is certain: The new normal is anything but normal.

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