If Jean-Philippe Gaston were a pirate ship captain I'd gladly swab the decks. The charming chef likes all the fun things; like motorcycles and martial arts and whiskey. While at the same time, dead serious about the food he puts out. In order to introduce dumplings and ramen to the Izakaya menu, he has traveled, eaten, researched, spoke with authorities and trained first before putting his spin on things. A show of respect.
From Sunday night family feasts in Mexico City to cooking scrambled egg breakfasts for thousands, Gaston has had his feet wet in this culture from the beginning. Working off and on with the Azuma group for 11 years, he helped to open Soma Sushi, Hue, Kata Robata and now his very own flagship, Izakaya. In interim, he worked with Bryan Caswell at Reef and consulted for Ronnie Killen before blasting onto the scene in 2012 opening Houston's first raw bar (Cold Cove Bar) located within Randy Evans' Haven.
Where to find him these days? Chinatown a few times a week to pick up bones or plate; on lucky trips he'll get a foot massage. But most likely you'll see him crafting perfectly cinched dumplings and innovative twists on ramen at his home base in Midtown. Since opening in 2015, the Japanese pub has served as a canvas for his talent and dedication to learning things the right way. That's correct children, you can still be a badass without going to culinary school.
The Houston Press walked into the warm setting of Izakaya late one weeknight. Paper lanterns softly lit wooden roof slats; the interior designed to feel like dining al fresco, on the perfect night, off a side street in Japan.
HP: Busy night?
JPG: Yeah, I was just sitting with the Cochon people over there. Eric Sandler came in this morning and Philippe Starck just left. Four Seasons had called to make a reservation for him.
HP: Busy day. Was he wearing yellow pants with pineapples on them?
HP: I just saw him get in The Four Seasons suburban. Are you hungry? I ordered a lot of food.
JPG: I have to run around and make a few things, but I'll sit down later.
After a steamy bowl of ramen, and two different trays of dumplings, the Houston Press and chef Jean-Philippe Gaston enjoyed Old Grand-Dads neat with beer backs. The next afternoon he shoveled crunchy ice into a quart container, they both sat down in a booth alongside the colorful mural done by Houston tattoo artist, Catfish.
HP: What are you drinking?
JPG: Equal parts lime juice and simple syrup, crushed sea salt and Topo Chico.
HP: Can I try it?
JPG: Yeah. It's the most refreshing thing in the world.
HP: Dude. That's good.
JPG: When I quit drinking it was my go-to. One, because it's refreshing and two, it's the closest thing to a margarita. I was waking up at like 5 a.m. every day and all of a sudden, the whole day was my oyster. I spent a lot of time outside, riding bikes, swimming, it wasn't super hot then.
HP: Why did you decide to stop drinking?
JPG: "I had a little scare. I have a really high pain threshold, because I played rugby, hockey. I've always been in pain, but never really had insurance, so I just [deal with] it. This one day I was at home, I yawned and popped my ear. In the course of an hour it was throbbing pain. I got vertigo to the point where I started crying.
"I thought okay, this is clearly an ear infection, so I went to CVS. The pharmacist was like, 'if it hurts that bad, you should go to the doctor.' I was like, 'I don't have time to go to the doctor.' It's Tuesday, 5 p.m. He told me to go to the clinic at their Montrose location. He gave me an ear flushing thing, so I just fucking made it work, but at one point I couldn't stand up. I told Rudy, my sous chef, 'I gotta go to the clinic.'
"So, I went and I'm talking to the lady (at the clinic), and she's taking my vitals. She was like, 'uh, you need to lay down, I'm calling an ambulance.' I was like, 'what the fuck's going on?'
"You're having a heart attack.' I was thinking, what? Well, if I wasn't before, now I am having a heart attack. What a way to ease me into it. You can't just tell people that. I'm like, 'I feel fine, my ear hurts.' She was like, 'trust me, your blood pressure is through the roof.' I was at 220. A heart attack was imminent.
"I called the manager (at Izakaya). She picked me up, took me to the hospital. They were like, 'relax, you're not having a heart attack, but you could, today, or tomorrow.' It's been hours and my ear was still in pain, so I finally asked them, 'can you tell me what's going on with my ear?' They were like, 'oh yeah, you have a ruptured ear drum.' So, they gave me shots and within seconds, 'yesssss.' (Makes a starfish with his hands and legs in the booth) The best sleep I've had in a long time.
"The scary part was, the doctor asked me, 'are you tired all the time?' I was like 'well, yeah, I work in a fucking restaurant.' 'Do your feet hurt?' I'm like, 'yeah.'
JPG: "Does your back hurt?' I'm like, 'dude, how many answers do you want for the same fucking question?' I'm on my feet 16 hours a day, and if I go drinking, (laughs) I'm in the same socks for 20 hours a day, let's put it that way. Yeah. I'm tired. All those symptoms lead to a heart attack for a normal person. I've had these symptoms for 20 years. It's nothing new. He gave me medicine and told me, "if it wasn't for your ear, you probably could have died or had a stroke." The very next day I said no cigarettes, no alcohol, no fatty foods, well I never really ate fatty foods anyway. I quit it all.
"After two or three months, I decided I could have a cheat day. I was telling you last night, I'll have a few drinks here and there. Back then we were going through the transition with the dumplings and I was training in seven different languages. Every night I was having jack and cokes and shots of Jameson. I don't drink at all at work, but as soon as I get off…"
HP: That's amazing that you caught it in time.
JPG: I know, it begs to question, as an atheist, is there really someone looking after you? (Smiles.) Because it feels like, very randomly, my ear drum ruptured on that day at that moment.
HP: (Smiles.) If we could motorcycle to Surfside right now, what would we ride?
JPG: Umm, the one I really want, or the next one I'm buying is a Ducati Scrambler. They're awesome, they are replicas of 1940s racing motorcycles. Super clean. It's like the Ferrari of bikes. (Pauses.) Surfside, I like that, take 288 all the way down until it dead ends. (Shows a picture to the Houston Press.)
HP: That's really cute.
JPG: I want one.
HP: Is your phone on army time?
JPG: Yeah. It makes sense, there's 24 hours, right? Why would you call 10 o'clock, 10 o'clock two times in a day?
HP: Okay, okay, I gotcha. What style of martial arts do you like?
JPG: I grew up liking Karate like any other '80s kid, but Kung Fu, Tai Chi. I love Tai Chi because it's more meditative. And Jiu Jitsu as well, it's very centered. It makes you think about you, not about hurting anyone. That and Capoeira.
JPG: It's a Brazilian dance, fighting…
JPG: They usually get into circles and kind of battle each other. One individual will go in the middle of the circle, it's almost like break dancing and fighting.
HP: Talk to me about your philosophy on adopting techniques, last night you said it took six months to get down the technique for making dumplings.
JPG: I don't like to half-ass anything. If you're going to tell me, we want to do poke, we want to do dumplings, we want to do ramen. I'm not just going to make something up and give it to you. I am going to study it, research it, eat it multiple times, I'm going to go here and there, I'm going to go everywhere.
Just like when I'm making a new dish, I know what it's going to taste like, because I'm making it. So, I taste test. I'll give it to the hostess or the busser, someone I know has no affiliation with me. In my research, I didn't have time to go everywhere, but I did go to L.A. where they have Din Tai Fung; the mecca of dumplings in the world. Worldwide, they have 150 restaurants, but in L.A. they have eight. I went to every single one and then others that were rated higher than that. I wanted to see the differences.
Adapting to something new requires you put effort into it, not just what your idea of it is. You have to respect what you're getting into. I need to learn how the masters do it, how to perfect it, and then I can add my take on it.
I learned from the best in Chinatown. Learning with her was hard because she doesn't speak a lick of English, and my Cantonese is not very sharp (laughs.) Google translate has been pretty awesome between us. She used to work at Sarah place, a restaurant in Chinatown. It's an old-school Chinese restaurant, the chef is world renowned. He is regarded as one of the best in Shanghai. Sarah Place is his more relaxed concept. She made the dumplings there, I worked with her for a few weeks and eventually we convinced her to come here. We built that whole station for her. (Looks over his shoulder.)
HP: So awesome. Well thanks again for taking the time today.
JPG: That's it? Aww man, I was having fun. Want something to eat?
HP: I have to run pick up some champagne before work.
HP: It's a champagne that they're trying to pour over ice, and I can't help but wonder ...
JPG: Right, Korbel!
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HP: I need to get to the bottom of it.
JPG: For brunch for a while we had a… (laughs) build your own mimosa bar. Twenty bucks for a whole bottle of champagne and you get cranberry juice, orange juice, whatever to make your own little mimosas. You'd be amazed how many women would knock down a whole bottle of champagne in an hour.
JPG: (Different voice.) "Yeah, we want seven of those." And I'm like, "but there is only six of you?" They're like, "yeah, well, we're all going to have one." I'm like, it's not a single glass, it's a whole bottle. And they're like, "Yeah, we know."