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

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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."

Jordan Asher, Age 29 Dosi, 2802 South Shepherd

Jordan Asher is both a self-described introvert and a free spirit, which explains the journeys he's made when he's found himself between jobs. Sometimes he'd go on road trips, and on some of those road trips he'd stage in some of the best restaurant kitchens in the country. They've included Spice Market in New York, Mercat in Chicago, Canlis in Seattle, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island and Oxheart right here in Houston.

Over the course of his career, Asher has worked almost every possible restaurant position. He's been a busboy, dishwasher, server, server trainer, prep chef, line cook, sommelier and, eventually, executive chef. Developing the Korean-influenced menu at his current restaurant, Dosi, was just another thing to learn.

Everyone in Asher's Italian family is enthusiastic about food. "My mom, my dad, my grandfather -- everybody just really loved cooking. My dad and grandfather both had really nice gardens." His father taught him respect for fresh produce, preferring to cook vegetables like green beans only to al dente, while his grandmother did something increasingly rare. She made three home-cooked meals every day.

"It was unfair for her to have to do all of that, but she loved it," muses Asher. "It was true passion. I definitely picked up on that and was making full meals by the time I was 13 or 14."

He started his restaurant career as a busboy at Pappas Seafood House off I-10 East. He worked his way up the ladder there for four and a half years.

"I stopped short of getting into management," he says. "When people get into management, they don't leave for a long time." Asher realized the opportunity he really wanted was the chance to learn about different cuisines.

He pursued formal culinary training while still employed at Pappas, opting to attend San Jacinto College's culinary arts program. "I didn't have the funds to go to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] or The Art Institute. I could have done that, but I didn't think that was necessary. A local school worked well for me and I learned a lot there."

He left Pappas and went on hiatus for a few months in Montana, where one of his best friends lived. It wouldn't be the first time Asher went on sabbatical while planning his next move. "I've always been a free spirit. I don't like constraint too much. I just wanted to go see some places."

A fledgling plan to open a barbecue restaurant with his friend fizzled out, so Asher returned to Houston. A former instructor at San Jacinto College was the executive sous chef at The Briar Club and helped Asher get a foot in the door. He stayed there for eight months, then moved to the sophisticated, high-tech kitchen at Cullen's. "That was the first true, classic, formal-style kitchen I'd worked in," he says. "Cullen's is a huge restaurant. There are so many toys in the kitchen and so much high-tech equipment."

Despite the surroundings, it wasn't a good fit. He left only two months later after having problems with what he calls "micromanagement." "I had a hard time with it," he admits. "There were so many chefs in the kitchen and a lot of egos involved. I struggled with it, but I learned a lot."

Back to the wilderness he went, taking a road trip to think about things. He returned to Houston, this time landing a position at chef Charles Clark's Spanish restaurant, Ibiza. Not only was that position more successful and longer-lived, but it also allowed him to broaden his experience. No kitchen positions were available, so he signed on as a wine steward and barista. "It was very different, and I definitely felt the urge to be in the kitchen, but it was cool. I learned so much about wine and classic coffee beverages, and I was still crafting something." (In the kitchen, though, was one of our other subjects, chef Travis Lenig, now at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette. The two would become friends.)

Clark led Asher to his next opportunity. A regular customer at Ibiza owned a hunting and fishing ranch in Colorado and was looking for a head chef. It was Asher's chance to get back in the kitchen and become an executive chef, at age 24.

Before he left Houston, Asher spent a month staging with chef Chris Shepherd at another Clark concept, Catalan, to learn more about charcuterie. (Shepherd later went on to open Underbelly and became the first Houston chef to win a James Beard award since 1992.)

Asher remained at High Lonesome Ranch in Colorado for four years, initially serving farm-to-table cuisine with a heavy Western influence. There was a greenhouse for fruits and vegetables and an ample supply of cattle and sheep from the ranch. Along with the position came a lesson. "I screwed up a lot as far as managing goes. I pissed off people. I'm a lot more relaxed now. I try to stay more positive and don't lose my cool. I express disappointment but don't get angry. I see mistakes more as learning experiences now rather than disasters."

Business was slow in the winters, and Asher would take those opportunities to hit the road again, staging at notable restaurants around the country.

Over time, he found his heart turning toward Houston again. "I was facing a crossroad. Was I going to be in Colorado forever, or did I need to go back home? It was a tough decision. I enjoyed the serenity and beauty of Colorado -- the easy life. No traffic, no commotion and it was just gorgeous. But I needed to do what was best for my family and girlfriend [in Houston]. "

What Asher wasn't willing to do was come back without a good opportunity already lined up. After passing on a few positions, he accepted an offer to work as chef de cuisine with chef Mark Cox at Mark's American Cuisine. (His former coworker Lenig from Ibiza was finishing up a three-year stint there and let him know about the opportunity.)

Asher admires Cox and considers him a mentor. "The guy is the most professional chef I've ever been around. He's straight business, always about the craft, always about getting better, looking to learn, looking to do something new. Even at his age, he's still in the kitchen every day, filleting fish and coming up with new recipes."

Considering all of Asher's professional connections, the opportunity to be the executive chef at Dosi came about in a strange way -- through a -Craigslist ad. "I was just scoping out the scene to see what was going on in town, and this caught my eye. I went and talked with An [Dosi's owner] about what his vision was. We both started seeing eye to eye. It was a natural fit."

Asher resists labeling Dosi as "Korean fusion." "It's New American with a Korean undertone. 'Fusion' sounds outdated. Now [cuisine] is about being very genuine, focused and precise. Fusion is the opposite. It's like being scattered around, taking all sorts of stuff from everywhere. It's fine if you want to do that. It's just two different worlds."

"The hardest thing in this business," says Asher, "is the commitment to losing most of your personal life. I'm very independent, and it might be harder for people who have big social circles and families."

Travis Lenig, Executive Chef, Age 34 Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, 4224 San Felipe

While there was no kitchen position available at Ibiza for Asher, Lenig was already there. The two would also work at separate times under Cox. Both have been chefs at resort ranches. While Asher worked at one in Colorado, Lenig spent time at one in Utah.

Lenig came to the food service scene very young. His mother owned a catering company, and he started helping her with it when he was only ten years old. Like Asher's grandmother, Lenig's mom also made breakfast, lunch and dinner for him and his siblings. "She would cook for her clients, send it out and then she'd have us kids the rest of the day," he reminisces.

It wasn't until much later that he considered cooking as a career possibility. "In high school, I really thought I was going to play for the Boston Red Sox. I loved baseball, but then you get older and realize that things don't always work out." It left him in a bit of an existential conundrum. So he turned to something he already knew -- the food industry -- and started with a friend who's a big name in Houston restaurants: Dominic Mandola of Ragin Cajun.

Lenig didn't start out as a cook, though. His first job was a cashier position, but it wasn't long before he made it to the kitchen. "I watched how he cooked and saw how he loved it and really had a lot of fun, so I asked him one day, 'Hey, can I jump in the kitchen?'"

Mandola said yes, and from that a career started to take root. Lenig's father, though, wasn't so sure about it. He was skeptical and said, "You know, this isn't going to be where you're there for six months and then say, 'Nah, I don't want to do this anymore.'"

"Culinary school is a lot of money," Lenig explains, "and he wasn't really willing to do that unless I was really passionate about it."

The younger Lenig persisted, though, and soon started checking out culinary schools. It was an easy decision. The Art Institute of Houston was very close by and he found the classes useful. "Just learning the basics was a really big, beneficial thing." Initially, he had an affinity for the most scientific kind of cooking -- baking, where success depends on exact ingredients and measurements.

He spent his free time bartending at John Marion Carrabba's restaurant, Piatto. Once he graduated, his first jobs were as pastry chef for Rainbow Lodge and Massa's. The love affair with baking wasn't built to last, though.

"I got really burned out by it. I really wanted to be a chef and have the creativity of doing stuff à la minute. Pastry is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. The outcome is glamorous and beautiful, but it's just so time-consuming!" Lenig exclaims.

A position as a line cook at Philippe Schmit's Bistro Moderne suited Lenig much better. "I learned a lot of technique from him and Manuel Pucha, who's now at Table." (Schmit is currently minding the kitchen at Drexel House.)

It was after this that he went off to be an -executive sous chef at Sorrel River Ranch -Resort & Spa in Utah. "I'd never lived outside of Houston, so I wanted to try something new. Going from a restaurant to a resort was a huge change."

He made "laid-back ranch cuisine" to reflect the area he now lived and worked in -- the beautiful but landlocked southeastern corner of Moab that bordered Colorado. The nearest town was an hour away, so Lenig learned to order for a few days at a time and made resort-worthy food from ingredients that weren't highly perishable. Beef and pork were easy to come by, and the resort had its own gardens, making farm-to-table cuisine possible.

Seafood was tricky. "I'd try to bring in seafood when I could from Hawaii," says Lenig, "but I had to plan that based on what type of guests we'd have. I'd always get a list of all our guests who were going to be there -- where they were from and what type of diet restrictions they had. I ordered it on Fridays because I knew I'd sell out over the weekend."

Lenig got married, and his bride wanted to return to college to finish her master's degree in Houston and they both wanted to be near family. Lenig was introduced to Shawn Virene and Charles Clark, who agreed to hire him for the kitchen at Ibiza, where he'd work for three years. (Not too much later, Jordan Asher would be hired as a wine steward and barista.)

"I learned a lot -- and I mean a lot -- from those guys and have a lot of thanks to them," reflects Lenig. "They really boosted my career. I learned a tremendous amount about wine, food and how to deal with customers."

Lenig then worked for three years for Cox. "He is a fantastic chef," Lenig says. "Coming from Ibiza, which was super-turn-and-burn, and going to Mark's, which might have 15 to 20 items in a dish, it was a lot of hands-on. There was a lot of teamwork. I got to really work with ingredients I'd never worked with before. If there was something we wanted, Mark would say, 'Okay, let's get it, but we've got to make sure we use it. Make sure it will go inside our menu, and let's get it out.' He was always pushing towards the next level. That was his big thing. A lot of chefs in Houston have gone through that kitchen and went on to be successful."

Lenig lived across the street from the first Liberty Kitchen and watched it being built. He wanted to be close to home and family, and there was no chance of climbing higher in the ranks at Mark's. The next step up was the executive chef's position.

He met with Lance Fegen of the F.E.E.D. TX group (which owns Liberty Kitchen, BRC and other Houston restaurants). They walked around the Heights together for an hour and a half and chatted. An hour later, Fegen called Lenig and gave him the job. That was in February 2012, and he's been with F.E.E.D. TX ever since.

Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette opened in October 2013, and he moved to that kitchen and hasn't left. In October 2014, just shy of its one-year anniversary, he and the restaurant won three Houston Culinary Awards -- Up-And-Coming Chef, Best New Restaurant and Best Interior Design. "Especially with the company I was up against [which included two other subjects of this article, Kate McLean and Austin Simmons], to get that award was unbelievable. I really didn't think I was going to get it at all.

"There's so much in this art that we do that [being a chef is] a constant learning position. If you feel like you've learned everything, then get out of cooking because you should always be learning."

Kate McLean, Age 30 Tony's, 3755 Richmond

Tony's, one of the oldest and most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in Houston, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Restaurateur Tony Vallone has proven that the word "institution" does not have to equal "boring" and more than once has brought vibrant young chefs into the kitchen.

The executive chef these days is Kate McLean. She was the first female sous chef and became the first female executive chef as well when Grant Gordon left to head the kitchen at restaurant Vallone's in the Memorial City area.

(Gordon later left Vallone's, and announced in 2014 that he was opening a new restaurant with Paul Petronella of Paulie's and David Keck of Camerata at Paulie's. Soon afterward, he committed suicide after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It's still a deeply felt, painful loss for everyone who knew the bright young star. McLean declined to discuss her time working with him.)

McLean says her relationship with food goes all the way back to when she was a toddler. "I remember being left in my high chair in a dark kitchen with a nanny with peanut butter and honey Ritz crackers. She'd left a little cottage cheese on one of them and I was pissed. I think that's my farthest-back food memory."

As an adult, McLean still has a strong relationship with food and high expectations for what a meal should be like. "I love getting hungry. I'd rather skip a meal if I can't sit down and really enjoy it. It's hard for me to just walk around and eat."

It wasn't until she was pursuing a marketing degree at the University of Colorado that she considered cooking as a career choice. The summer between her sophomore and junior years, she worked in a kitchen at a lodge. "I had so much fun with the people I was working with. I loved the work. I like hard work, and I like stress." McLean realized she'd discovered her true vocation.

Upon returning to school for her junior year, she got a job flipping burgers. She worked at that for nine months, finished college and then moved to Seattle. There she got a job at Dahlia Bakery making sandwiches. It shared a kitchen with fine-dining establishment Dahlia Lounge next door. McLean started moving up the chain, from line cook at lunch service to the hot line at dinnertime.

She moved to Hawaii to join friends there, and got a job at a fish restaurant called Postcards Cafe on the island of Kauai. She stayed for two years. Developing dinner specials turned out to be enjoyable, creative work. Working in south France, though, may have been the most beneficial in helping McLean hone her culinary skills.

"My godmother buys antiques from France, and she stayed at a family-owned bed and breakfast [near Avignon] that had a kitchen. They needed help. I applied, and I was in France a month later working for this English family." The chef's father was a Michelin-starred chef and had trained him in the same manner. McLean learned a lot. "It really made me step up my fine-dining game, and I realized that I really love fine dining -- the precision and the beauty of it."

Five months later, McLean returned to Houston and an industry executive arranged for her to have coffee with Tony Vallone. McLean's vivacious, energetic personality and work experience proved appealing, for she was asked to create a tasting menu for him and other higher-ups at Tony's the next day. She says, "They told me, 'Everything needed more salt and pepper, but do you want the job?'" The answer, of course, was yes. At age 26, McLean became a sous chef at one of the most respected restaurants in the United States.

She worked under Grant Gordon for three and a half years and, at age 29, was promoted to executive chef. "I feel very blessed," she says. "Mr. Vallone is the coolest guy I've ever met. I feel very lucky to have him as a mentor. He has a cool way of talking with people. He's very charming but to the point. I've learned how to be nice but get what we want and not settle for less quality. He's also very generous, and it seems like he's always helping somebody."

One of McLean's more difficult lessons has been learning to swallow her pride. "In the beginning, about half of the chefs were hard to work for," she explains. "I knew if I just put my head down and did whatever they said -- even if it made me mad or seemed to not be right -- it would be worth it."

Another challenge for her was winning over employees who had worked at Tony's much longer than she had. "It was hard coming up here. I was constantly trying to prove myself. It feels so good now to have done it and be someone they respect."

Interestingly, McLean sees being a woman in the industry as an advantage, not a disadvantage, and isn't afraid to use her femininity as a tool to get the job done. "I think we have a lot of power. It's not that big of an issue. It's about how hard you work and your personality. Being a woman is empowering. If I need to get something done, I just smile the right way and it gets done. I use that."

McLean has advice for other young chefs who also want to move up through the ranks. "You just have to work hard. Never give up. There are times you'll want to give up and say, 'Oh my God, why am I doing this?' but don't settle for that. Those moments will always pass, and you'll be much happier for it."

Chris Loftis, Age 28 Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, 7809 Broadway, Galveston

Chef Chris Loftis was born in Germany, but he didn't get to stay very long. His parents moved to the United States while he was still a young child, but he did get to experience the cuisine of his country of birth since he has a grandmother who, in his words, "makes awesome German food."

After seeing the way he gravitated toward cooking as a teenager, his parents gave him a nudge in the direction of culinary school. Loftis says, "I guess it's that [parental] duty to say, 'You need to figure out what you want to do with your life.' All through high school, on weekends I'd want to barbecue or be outside and just do something with food. I don't know why, but it was fun to me."

Loftis and his good friend Joe Cervantez, both Pearland natives, decided to attend the Art Institute of Houston. They even started their careers at the same restaurant, taking advantage of an opportunity to work at the now defunct Skyline on the top floor of the Hilton Americas downtown. When it closed, their career paths split but would again parallel in later years.

Cervantez stayed at Hilton Americas to run the restaurant downstairs. Loftis decided to look for a job near home. He asked Ronnie Killen, who was opening a new restaurant called Killen's Steakhouse, for a job. Killen agreed to hire the young man as a cook.

Loftis worked on and off there for two and a half years. It was a period of growth and soul-searching. Loftis says, "I still didn't have the experience that I needed for a [steakhouse] like that, but luckily Ronnie was patient with me." To this day, he regards Killen as one of his mentors.

Loftis would work at a few more places before landing the job that would ultimately propel him to an executive chef's position. A stint at Strata in Vintage Park in far northwest Houston was a good fit. However, it was a hellacious drive from Pearland -- especially for a man about to become a father, which Loftis was at that point.

Then came The Barbed Rose steakhouse in Alvin. He accepted a sous chef position there. The commute was much shorter, but there were a number of factors working against the restaurant's success, too, not the least of which were the habits and expectations of Alvin diners. Loftis explains, "[Places like] Joe's Barbecue have been there for over 40 or 50 years. It's hard to compete with those kinds of restaurants that have been there forever because the parents grew up eating it and their kids grew up eating it." Others complained about "high prices."

He left, but the string of bad luck wasn't quite over. The next place he worked was Brazilian restaurant Samba Grille in downtown Houston. He arrived just as it was gasping its last breaths. It closed two weeks after he started. The only bright side was that he hadn't worked there long enough to get attached.

He'd find stability at Sweetwater Country Club for about a year, but it wasn't quite the right fit. "It was totally different than what I thought," says Loftis. "I never worked in a country club before. Not that I'm knocking country clubs, but it was very demanding because it was in Sugar Land and these people are paying a lot of money and, you know, they want what they want."

The right opportunity was, thankfully, just around the corner. Loftis interviewed with The RK Group, which owns Radio Milano as well as Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, which had not been built yet. It took them six months to call him, but when they did, they offered him the sous chef job at Number 13. The only catch was that it still wasn't quite open, so he bided his time helping chef Jose Hernandez at Radio Milano.

In August 2013, Loftis started working in another steakhouse -- Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood. However, he'd end up running this one.

As was the case with up-and-coming chef Austin Simmons, Loftis's chance for a promotion came when his executive chef left. Jason Hanin left Houston to go run the kitchen of a restaurant called Gladstones on the sunny Malibu coast.

The promotion came with its share of challenges, the hardest of which was maintaining good relationships with the staff. "I wanted them to know I was still the person they could come to with culinary problems. I didn't want them to think that just because I was the exec chef that I thought I was better. I'm still the same person. I just have a lot more work now." He is, in fact, proud of being someone who listens to and takes advice from both employees and customers. "I'm not a 'my way or the highway' person. I listen to people's concerns and I care. I've worked with people where if it's not their idea, it's a bad idea. That's just not the way I work. I know I'm not going to please -everyone, but everyone likes being listened to and considered."

Loftis has occasionally had to learn things the hard way, so he has this advice for young cooks who want to move up: "Listen to your chef. When I was 17, I thought I was a hot shot and knew everything. Ten years ago, I got yelled at. In my head, I thought, 'Man, this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.' Now I see kids doing the same thing with me. It may not show immediately, but I guarantee there will be a time where you'll say, 'That guy was right.' No matter how crazy or farfetched, take it with a grain of salt, because he's probably right."

He also emphasizes the importance of a good work ethic. "Come in early, stay late. People who give it 50 percent in this business won't last long."

What happened to Loftis's childhood friend, Joe Cervantez? Well, he's a dad and an executive chef, too -- at Loftis's former workplace, Killen's Steakhouse.

The world of Houston chefs is a very small one indeed.

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