Chef Chat

Up-and-Coming Houston Chefs: Meet Five of the Youngest at the Center of Their Kitchens

There are no boring chefs. The very nature of the business demands creativity tempered with a heaping spoonful of practicality. Successful chefs don't just learn how to be good cooks. They must also become teachers, managers, leaders, accountants and diplomats.

They also live in a tightly interwoven community. We interviewed five of the Houston area's youngest executive chefs. The oldest is 34 and the youngest two are 28. A pair of old friends traveled along the same path for a time before their roads diverged. Two others started their careers together, with one ending up the executive chef at a restaurant the other had left years before.

These young people are not the only generation of chefs currently driving Houston's culinary scene. Their stories incorporate bits of their mentors' tales, too -- influential people like Tony Vallone, Philippe Schmit, Charles Clark, Chris Shepherd, Ronnie Killen, Dean Fearing, Mark Cox and even controversial Dallas chef John Tesar.

What's the hardest thing for a young executive chef to learn? It's how to manage work relationships. For some, it's about learning how to train employees in a constructive way. For others, earning respect from restaurant employees who have worked there longer can be a challenge.

Developing people skills can be difficult in any professional environment, but it's especially tricky in a busy, hot restaurant kitchen. Let's meet five of the area's culinary stars who are responsible not only for managing these kitchens, but for making hundreds of diners happy every single week.

Austin Simmons, Age 28 Hubbell & Hudson Bistro 24 Waterway Avenue #125, The Woodlands and Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen 4526 Research Forest, The Woodlands

When native Texan Austin Simmons was eight years old, his mom worked two jobs. She came home between shifts, and he helped her make dinner before she went to work again in the evening. That introduction to cooking established a stabilizing foundation for Simmons that he'd return to as he grew older and sought his career path.

"I was kind of a train wreck in high school," Simmons confesses. "My dad was always around, but my mom worked two jobs to keep me in a house. I really enjoyed cooking. I didn't know that I wanted to do it professionally until I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after high school."

Right after graduation, Simmons began pursuing a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, which made most of his family happy, though his father was dubious. "I have two stepparents, and it was divided. My mom and my stepfather were ecstatic that I was doing something constructive. My stepmom's a foodie, so she was very happy, too. My dad was like, 'You want to do what? You don't want to go to college? You want to go to culinary school?' He was very skeptical, but they're all immensely proud now."

He graduated hoping to work at Michelin-starred Mansion On Turtle Creek in Dallas under James Beard-winning chef Dean Fearing. It was a ridiculously high aspiration for a guy who'd just gotten out of culinary school, but Simmons didn't give up. "I showed up three Fridays in a row to get the job. They didn't want to hire me because I had no experience."

Persistence paid off. Simmons was finally offered an internship. In time, he was elevated to working the chef's table. He did that for three and a half years, initially under Fearing and later under Fearing's successor, John Tesar.

(If Tesar's name sounds familiar, it's because he's perpetually creating controversy, inspiring articles like one in a 2011 issue of D Magazine titled "John Tesar: The Most Hated Chef in Dallas." Last year, his diatribe about a middling review by Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner -- and his subsequent banning of her from his restaurants -- made national news.)

Simmons left Mansion On Turtle Creek to work the management side of the restaurant business at BlackFinn in Dallas, but his path would soon cross Tesar's again. In 2009, Tesar asked Simmons to work at the eponymous Tesar's Modern Steak & Seafood in The Woodlands.

Tesar abruptly left after a mere 11 months.

Simmons acknowledges his former mentor's tendency to be a hothead but also gives Tesar enormous credit for his own career. "He took me from not having any restaurant experience to lead line cook in the Chef's Room [at Mansion On Turtle Creek] in 13 months. I learned more from him in a year in the Chef's Room than most learn in five years hopping from restaurant to restaurant."

What about that famed temper? "He is a perfectionist about food and gets fiery quickly. He breaks you down and then builds you up to do things his way. It's a little rough at times. It was the greatest thing for me. I was such a hardhead that I needed that stern hand."

Simmons and fellow Mansion On Turtle Creek alum Jeramie Robison were promoted to co-executive chefs at Tesars in his wake. The arrangement didn't last long. Simmons says the restaurant was severely undercapitalized. Bills weren't being paid and checks weren't being covered.

Three months later, the two young chefs left. Robison took a chef de cuisine position with Uchi, and Simmons went to Hubbell & Hudson to be a sous chef.

Another executive chef's departure -- this time that of Edelberto Gonçalves, who is now at Fielding's Wood Grill -- turned into the biggest break yet for Simmons. In 2012, Simmons was promoted to executive chef at Hubbell & Hudson at the tender age of 25.

What's it like being in charge of a restaurant kitchen at an age when others are just getting out of college and starting careers? "It's scary," Simmons admits. "This is a big operation. [The bistro] is the commissary for the other restaurant down the street [Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen]. At the time, the [Hubbell & Hudson Market] was still open, so we were doing catering, the chef's case, a sandwich bar. I was terrified, but I just kept my head down, worked hard and studied what I didn't know. I didn't even know what a P&L looked like at the time, and now I can read one frontwards and backwards."

In addition to learning how to juggle several responsibilities, figuring out how best to manage workers has been a challenge, too. "This business is very high-paced. Your adrenaline is rushing during service every day. Kitchens tend to be warm, so you tend to get heated and heavy and yell a little bit. The one thing I've tried to curb is reacting on emotion."

His advice to other young chefs is this: "Stay humble. Work hard. Try to never sacrifice the integrity of the final product that's on the plate. You can be successful and make money in this business with really nice food. If you always do the right thing and have integrity, the people who matter will notice."

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook