Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The latest food trend to hit Houston

Most people in the food community recognize trends. From rustic tableware to "throw a fried egg on it" options on menus, Houston is not immune to such trends. While some may seem gimmicky and others downright annoying, there is a trend I've seen in the city over the last year that I must admit gives me some mixed feelings. The newest foodservice item that's all the rage these days seems to be important restaurant staff members leaving high profile positions at a faster rate than what many consider normal.

The goal of most restaurants, other than of course serving great food, is consistency. You want every plate to look and taste the same each time it goes out to a diner, every night you're open. As a patron, there is little more deflating than loving a dish on one visit, ordering it again on another visit - or even talking up this dish to a friend who later orders it - and it being less stellar than you remember. I always feel the need to apologize when I recommend a dish or restaurant to someone and they have a poor experience. That may be my own neurosis; I didn't cook the lackluster meal, but I apologize anyway. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to depend on some of Houston's prominent restaurants to produce consistent results as the turnover rate for both the front and back of house staff has increased. In the last few months alone, some of the Houston area's most prominent and promising restaurants have seen some eye opening departures.

La Balance in Katy, which received rave reviews, lost its co-owner and executive chef Jose Hernandez due to reported differences of opinion with his business partner. I was fortunate to dine there on Chef Hernandez's last weekend running the kitchen, and was blown away by the meal. Having been trained in French cuisine, I had avoided French restaurants for years due to burnout on traditional French fare. My meal at La Balance, however, reminded me of how simple and comforting these dishes could be when executed properly. Sadly, I've hesitated to go back since the chef's departure out of fear that the kitchen cannot replicate my memory of the last visit. Vallone's opened with substantial hype due to the restaurant's legendary namesake as well as much ballyhooed chef Grant Gordon taking the reigns of the restaurant. Shortly after opening, he has left the restaurant along with its beverage director, Evan Turner. These are just a few of a growing list of talented people that includes Ryan Lachaine (formerly of Underbelly), Erin Smith (who left her post at Plonk, spent a year as culinary director for The Clumsy Butcher group and has now taken on the role of executive chef at the Marriott in downtown that's set to open this year),  and Chris Leung (pastry chef at Kata Robata who left to open the magnificent Cloud 10 Creamery).

The exquisite boeuf bourguignon at La Balance

I tend to view our culinary landscape through two sets of eyes, the first being that of a diner, which is ultimately what I am. The diner in me can't help but feel a sense of sadness that some of the talent has left my favorite kitchens. Will the food suffer? But then there's the part of me that was taught by chefs that kicks in and sees another side to the situation.

During some portion of my schooling, one of the instructors took my class to a hotel to see the operations. There we met a chef, a man likely in his fifties, who carried on about the challenges of hotel foodservice. One thing he told us towards the end of the day stuck with me for a long time and ultimately gives me hope for this new food trend. He told us that the worst mistake he made in his career was staying at this same hotel for so many years. He said that the way to become the best chef you can be is to work for many different types of chefs in many different environments, so that you can hone your skills, learn different techniques, and become a more well rounded chef. This gentleman (and I am truly sorry that I do not remember his name) told us that if you stay in one place for more than a year or two during the early part of your cooking career, you're doing it wrong. I think ultimately that I agree with this sentiment. While the selfish diner in me wants every chef in every restaurant I love to stay and prepare the same style of food for my dining pleasure each time I come in, I know that is a disservice both to them and the diners who could be enjoying even better meals from them for years to come as they better themselves as chefs.

The increase of restaurant turnover is also a sign that the Houston dining landscape is undergoing its baby boom. So many talented chefs are popping up all over town and are taking advantage of the opportunities our city is providing thanks to its ever expanding culinary prowess. Despite our personal gripes, this is a good problem to have. Chefs aren't compelled to outstay their welcome due to a lack of options, or worse yet, having to leave the Houston in search of greener pastures.

                                               Who wants to think of a world without this biscuit?

If you are one of those diners like myself who sometimes pines for our restaurants to go back to the way they were, remember this: If Chris Shepherd never left Brennan's, we would never have had Catalan. If he had never left Catalan, we would not have Underbelly and perhaps Brandi Key doesn't get her opportunity to run the kitchen at Coppa. Similarly, if Brennan's had held Randy Evans captive, Houston could be deprived of Haven. The aforementioned Erin Smith could never have given Blacksmith its signature biscuit had she been confined to the Plonk kitchen. Some of tomorrow's signature Houston dishes will likely be created by a departing chef you and I may be fretting about today.

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