The living room at Seth and Hannah Siegel-Gardner's tidy blue house in the Heights is packed: two chefs and their wives, a journalist, three dogs, a massive cookbook collection and a flat-screen TV that sits atop a vintage stove. The dogs -- Catfish, Barbecue and Janie -- are eying us expectantly as we finish patty melts that Seth and Hannah whipped up while Terrence Gallivan talked about the new partnership between the two men.
While most diners may be familiar with the currently running Pilot Light series of dinners that sold out in less than 30 minutes last weekend, Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner have much more in mind for their future -- and for Houston's -- than just this trio of dinners. The two men were responsible for last summer's wildly successful Just August project, a pop-up restaurant that operated for 31 straight, scorching days in August. And between Just August and their new Pilot Light partnership they hope to parlay their success into a full-blown restaurant.
After all, Gallivan and his wife didn't pack up all of their earthly possessions and move from a beloved apartment on the Upper East Side to a strange, mostly unknown city in Texas for nothing.
"Why should you have to go to New York to eat amazing food?" Gallivan asks, twisting in his chair with barely contained energy. "Houston is a great food community. It's just a matter of convincing people to try something new."
Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner together are aiming not only to leave a legacy of their own with a restaurant that's the culmination of years spent cooking in culinary temples like Aquavit, C-House, the Fat Duck, the Modern, August and Gordon Ramsay but also to cultivate Houston's own dining scene, which they feel is fertile ground for young, talented chefs with progressive ideas.
This past Saturday evening, Revival Market was transformed from a grocery store into a dining room. The intimate space was filled with 20 people lucky enough to grab tickets after waiting in line for hours the weekend prior. There's no telling exactly when they'll be able to eat the men's food again; plans for their eventual restaurant are still up in the air while they get through this dinner series.
Hannah Siegel-Gardner and Annalea Elwell, Gallivan's wife, served and bussed tables that night. The wine bottle-wielding attendees were a mixture of acolytes from last summer's Just August project and Siegel-Gardner's recent stint as sous chef at Kata Robata, where he picked up a feel for modern Japanese techniques and flavors from its venerated chef, Manabu Horiuchi.
"I never worked at a Japanese restaurant," Gallivan says of Siegel-Gardner's time at Kata Robata. "So I'm learning things from him all the time."
The two chefs are a study in contrasts: Gallivan, with thick, dark hair and an equally thick beard, has the demeanor of a live wire sending out shocks and bolts of untamed energy. He talks quickly, as if spoken words aren't broadcasting his tumble of thoughts quickly enough. Siegel-Gardner, with a shaved head, earnest glasses and colorful tattoos covering his thick arms, is reserved, quieter and much more contemplative with his words. He speaks deliberately and assuredly, but the two seem to share one mind.
For his part, Gallivan -- who was most recently the executive chef at Alto in New York -- brings an extensive fine dining background to their partnership, which is clearly one of equals. The Pilot Light dinners are an expression of that collaboration, and hopefully the first step to opening a restaurant where there is no "Chef," just two passionate individuals making food they love.
"The idea is that we're constantly conversing and hashing ideas out," he says. "With what these dinners are doing, there's no underlying theme. We just want to cook some good food and making sure that we're constantly developing our ideas."
He points to one of the dishes from Saturday night's dinner: onion bread toast that had been slicked with bone marrow. Gallivan had wanted to do a bread dish for this, the fourth course. Siegel-Gardner wanted to do a marrow dish.
"They started out as two completely different dishes," Gallivan says."But they ended up as one dish. We're constantly pushing and pulling each other; that's the whole point of working with a partner."
It's a partnership that goes back to their first encounter, as new chefs at orientation, green yet excited about working for Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York City. Both entered the restaurant industry at a young age: Siegel-Gardner started rolling silverware at Tony Mandola's at 13 years old, while Gallivan was washing dishes at 15. And both were keenly passionate about pursuing more modern cuisine as opposed to the staid, white-tablecloth fine dining that was more prevalent at the time.
They ended up working together at Maze, the smaller of the two Gordon Ramsay restaurants at the London. Both were drawn to what they refer to as its "more progressive" cuisine.
"It was a little bit more inventive and interesting food as opposed to what was going on in the main dining room," said Siegel-Gardner.
Three years later, Siegel-Gardner reemerged in Houston -- his hometown -- after staging at Fat Duck under Heston Blumenthal with a progressive idea of his own: a pop-up restaurant serving multiple courses, each aggressively modern and each featuring as much local food as possible. Courses included fireworks displays of dishes such as poached Gulf shrimp with braised pearl onions, sunflowers and ash yogurt or goat braised in whey served with black garlic jam.
The resulting Just August project sold out its dining room every single night, and Siegel-Gardner began to formulate a plan. Although Gallivan had to return home to New York City, Siegel-Gardner was able to convince him and his wife to ultimately abandon the Big Apple -- arguably the nation's culinary mecca -- and return to Houston based on the success of the Just August project and what he sees as a strong future in our city.
Gallivan and Annalea packed up their belongings and moved to a city they barely knew. Annalea had only been here once, and that was to help out at a Just August service. And Gallivan only really knew Siegel-Gardner and Hannah. The foursome became roommates, the Siegel-Gardners welcoming the Gallivans into their home until they can find a place of their own.
"We wouldn't be in this room right now if we didn't think this could work 100 percent," Siegel-Gardner said, eliciting nods and smiles from the other three.
Nor would they be here if they didn't see Houston as the next great dining frontier for themselves and for the young chefs they hope to groom and mentor one day.
"I think there's so much talent in Houston - the only thing that concerns me now is where people are going to go to learn," Siegel-Gardner says.
"I'm very confident that great things are already happening here and that things are just going to keep going up," says Gallivan. Seated next to him, Siegel-Gardner nods his agreement.
"The next six months in Houston is going to be a game changer as far as the way people eat," Siegel-Gardner claims. "Both with the big splash stuff that's going to happen and even with stuff that's going on behind the scenes." He talks about his excitement over Underbelly and Hay Merchant -- two restaurants sharing one kitchen, presided over by chef Chris Shepherd, known to many as the godfather of charcuterie -- and Triniti from Ryan Hildebrand, formerly of Textile. All will have equal emphasis on spirits, wine and beer as well as the food itself.
"Bartenders, baristas, cooks, sommeliers...the amount of people that are working with one another and the amount of people that are patronizing these places," Siegel-Gardner says, are growing and maturing by the day.
"Even the coffee scene in Houston has gone crazy," he smiles. The cappuccino he sat in front of me earlier -- "I'm still working on my latte art," he deadpanned -- was even a byproduct of this massive amount of inter-industry collaboration.
"David Buehrer [of Greenway Coffee] loaned him one of his machines," Hannah tells me. "So he's been practicing on it every day."
Talk about game changers: Chefs like Gallivan are now purposely moving to Houston from places like New York to work in our city and amongst our community, looking to cultivate and expand our dining scene. No longer are we facing an exodus of talent but an accretion instead. It's a subtle shift that could signal a groundswell of incoming talent.
It's a type of collaboration that, Gallivan says, "is really exciting and that's something you don't see in a lot of cities. New York is great but very cutthroat."
"I think the food community is very open," Siegel-Gardner says, picking up Gallivan's thread. "But not just open to the chefs. It's open to the guests, too, here and there's this interaction that people have with the chefs that most people don't get in major cities."
More to the point, there is ample room for growth in Houston, plenty of room for young chefs to spread their wings.
"We have the most amazing, diverse food community as far as ethnic food," says Siegel-Gardner, "But we don't have super fine dining restaurants." The Per Ses and Fat Ducks of the world simply don't have an audience in Houston. Yet.
Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner see that changing very quickly. Increasing numbers of people are exposed each day to high-end, sumptuously modern cooking on food shows and in magazines, inspiring them to seek these things out for themselves at home.
"When you want to go somewhere and have something super creative," Gallivan says, there are only a handful of restaurants to seek out in Houston. "That's why there's such a high demand," he says, speaking not only of his sold out Pilot Light dinners but of the clamoring around new places like Underbelly and Uchiko. And that's where he sees himself and Siegel-Gardner succeeding.
"We're not trying to make it so that everyone eats there," he says, speaking of their once and future restaurant. "We're just trying to make it busy each night." He laughs. "We don't want to feel like we're cooking the food that we don't want to cook or making a plate that we don't want to serve."
Most importantly, Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner see Houston as a place where their never-ending quest for additional knowledge -- learning new techniques, experimenting with new ingredients -- will be nurtured and supported. Think of a modern Paris of the 1920s, embracing young talents like Hemingway, Gershwin, Yeats or Picasso.
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"Every chef would say one of the best parts about being a cook is that it never ends," Gallivan says. "You never stop learning."
And although Houston is their happy terminus for now, Gallivan smiles: "With cooking, there is no finish line."