Eating Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.
Who he is:
Originally from Vermont, Benjy Mason found his way to Houston by way of his work in the nonprofit world. Figuring he would only be here for a few years, he now has a decade in Houston under his belt. "The city and the people really grew on me," he explains. After a while, Mason started feeling the itch to do something different. His nonprofit work, though rewarding, left him wanting something more. "I had worked in kitchens in college and always really loved it. I thought I would really regret it if I didn't at least try it again, and that's what brought me to Feast."
Benjy spent about nine months as sous chef at Feast, and then struck out again in search of fulfillment. "When I left Feast I was looking around -- I liked working fine dining, but that's not the kind of place where I go or my friends go. I live right down the street from Down House and had been here a couple of times. They were looking for someone, so I came in, talked to Chris (the owner) and I was like, 'This is it. This is where I want to be.'"
Attracted by the casual neighborhood feel and the concept of using high-quality, local ingredients, Mason felt Down House was an ideal next step.
Why does he like it?
After college Mason was focused on community organizing, which is what led him to the nonprofit world. "The idea of community and bringing people together. I think that was what really brought me back to food," he says. "I loved my nonprofit work, but I was devoting time to things I didn't really want to be doing. For me, food in general and restaurants in particular play such a strong role in bringing people together."
The idea that a restaurant brings people together -- in terms of both clientele and staff -- is what keeps Mason enthusiastic. "People come in, they are here a couple of times a week, and they come with their friends; they come in to celebrate, or if something goes wrong they come in to drown their sorrows. I think seeing that is really what keeps me interested. Within the restaurant as well, restaurants are such a funny mix of people coming together and working together."
In addition to the social aspect, the pace and the concept of juggling a lot of plates in the air are also part of the attraction of the job. "I'm easily distracted, so it's good for me to be somewhere where I will have two hundred things a day to do. We change the menu often, we look for ways to make everything better and then we do big-picture stuff -- like a whole series of [blog] posts about the people we buy from, touring people's farms and writing little stories about them for our Web site and our menu."
What inspires him?
"I would say that my main inspiration is my friends, the people I work with and hang out with. These are people who are trying to do interesting, unique, cool things. More than looking at famous chefs in some other cities, it's the people who I know and see every day who are out doing something really interesting. A lot of the people who supply us are super-interesting. I went out last week to [visit] Felix from Black Hill Ranch -- he's a dude who three years ago was a sommelier at Brennan's, and now he has a giant pig farm. A good friend of mine is doing a shrimp boat project, where basically two years ago he was like, "I want to learn how to shrimp!" and he went out and bought a shrimp boat, and now he's at the farmers' market.
If not this, then what?
I was doing something else! So if not that, then this! This is "then what"!
If not here, then where?
"Honestly, I feel like it's such an amazing time to be a cook, a chef in Houston. Houston has so much room, both physically and metaphorically -- there is so much space. Everyone is so supportive within the industry community and the city at large, if you're trying to do something new; whether it's food-related or art or nonprofit, people are so excited to see new stuff going on in Houston that it's hard to imagine doing this in another city."
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SHOW ME HOW
"We are really busy here; we have a bunch of stuff we are really excited about coming up. We're opening a new bar on the other side of the Heights. The owners of Down House, me, my fiancée and another couple are starting an icehouse off I-45 and Cavalcade, so that's coming up in the next month or two. We have a bunch of stuff going on for Houston Beer Week, some dinners that I am really excited about. I'm getting married -- we haven't set a date yet, but that's very exciting. That's what's on the immediate radar."