Local Spotlight

Michael Cordúa's Early Years as a Restaurateur Were Anything But Magical

Last week's feature story takes an in-depth look at the Houston families who developed our diverse food scene into what it is today. We spent hours researching and interviewing family members to compile their stories, but not everything could make it into print. In celebration of these fascinating family histories, we'll be posting on Eating ... Our Words interesting stories and extended quotes that didn't make it into the print edition. We hope you find these folks as fascinating as we did.

"Do you have any funny anecdotes about starting out in the restaurant business?" I asked Michael Cordúa recently. I'd acquired much of the information for the section on the Cordúas in the feature from the family's recently released cookbook, so Cordúa and I hadn't spent much time chatting during the research process.

He's such an interesting fellow though, with the most velvety speaking voice you've ever heard. I knew I wanted to get more stories from him.

"They aren't funny," Cordúa replied. "They're a nightmare!"

I laughed. He didn't.

"When you have to go through the initial inspections, and the restaurant is just a hole in the wall, you get worried," he says. "And your initial assessment for how much the restaurant would cost is way too low, and you end up spending three times that much. And then the first guest walks out because they were expecting Mexican food, not Nicaraguan. It's a nightmare, really."

Obviously Cordúa persevered, though, as he now owns and operates some of the most successful restaurants in Houston, including Churrascos, Américas, Amazon Grill and Artista. It's odd, though, when Cordúa talks about his early life and food's role in it. He really never intended to cook.

"Growing up, like as a kid, we didn't even go in the kitchen," Cordúa says. "The kitchen isn't central like here in the states. It's in the back of the house, and a maid would be doing the cooking."

He didn't spend any time over a hot stove until he was in college in Houston and decided that he missed his native cuisine. He'd moved out of the dorm and into an apartment, and now that he had an actual kitchen to work with, he wanted to learn about it. So when he returned to Nicaragua for summer break, he asked his mom to teach him a few easy things. Turns out, cooking was a more difficult task than he realized.

"The first summer that I went back to Nicaragua, my mom taught me how to cook," Cordúa says. "We started with basics like rice and beans. I didn't know how to make rice. I could toast bread, but that's it."

When Cordúa returned to school, he started cooking in his apartment. Other Nicaraguan students heard that there was a fellow Nicaraguan making dishes from their home country, and Cordúa's personal meals turned into large dinners. He'd ask each person to contribute $4 or $5 for groceries, and some days he'd have as many as 20 people over for dinner.

After college, Cordúa went into the shipping business. His work with European clients frequently took him overseas to England, Norway, Denmark and Holland, and that's where he says he learned about culinary refinement.

"I learned to cook in college and to eat in Europe," he says. "It exposed me to fine dining and what real cuisine should be, and I started to think about taking the ingredients of Latin America and applying them to European cooking. My boss in the shipping company was a foodie before being a foodie was cool."

Later, when he finally decided to pursue his newfound passion and open a restaurant, there was a lot of trepidation involved.

"I remember the fear more than anything else," Cordúa says. "My knees trembling because I was afraid I made a business mistake, and all my money was in the restaurant."

Still, looking back, he's glad he decided to pursue his hobby instead of his profession.

"It was interesting to realize that in your hobby there's a business," he says. "How many people get a chance to do that? You never work when you do that."

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Kaitlin Steinberg