Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Discovery of a Chef

I believe that our nation's currently developing fascination with food is a sign that we are finally developing a culture of our own.  We have been around for over 200 years as a nation and, because of the entrepreneurial nature of our experiment, we have bent towards a reputation as masquerading mountebanks, cavalier capitalist cowboys and sponges for whatever culture serves us best momentarily and monetarily.  I believe we are growing out of this adolescent transience and emerging as fiery-eyed and battle-hardened young samurai with a burgeoning sense of identity and purpose.  Across time and culture, food has always been a defining factor of groups of people.  A way to tell what village you're from, what you put in your family's curry blend, how you tie your salumi, how long you soak your salted fish and with what, these are the things that signal who is family and who is foe.  Food is as vital to who we are and who we choose to be as sex or war.  It is a matter of life and death and we, as global citizens, are finally realizing that.  I hope.

I graduated from college with a philosophy degree in 2003.  Was supposed to take my LSATs and go to law school.  The family approved.  They would have given me a "free" ride because they supported these kinds of dreams and aspirations - after all, they were the ones dreaming them up.  I was sick.  My DNA donors lost their ranks because they no longer honored the moniker of family.  Thanks to a long time mentor named Charles Avants, who has far and away earned his rank, I went culinary-lock, stock and barrel.  My DNA donors rejected the assumption that in following one's bliss there is inherent and imminent success.  Of the living remnants, only my reluctant grandmother would prove truly assistant and I'm sure she would be beaming if she could be here now to beam.  Charles and my real family formed a support structure for me and will always exemplify how I want to raise my own.  The mission was set: use the culinary path to seek my enlightenment and to bring enlightenment to others.  I trailed off to New York in search of some magical land, streets paved in foie gras onto which shined lamppost rays of golden sauternes.

New York was the obvious choice for several reasons.  I had done a short stage (unpaid internship) in an amazing new Houston restaurant owned by Jean-Gorges Vongerichten who's worldwide operations are based in New York.  I had never even imagined food like that before.  Wow.  There were far more chefs whom I admired in New York at that time and they were setting trends and raising the bar higher there than anywhere else I could find.  I needed a huge fire under my ass if I was ever to have a chance at succeeding in this business and where better than the 'city that never sleeps'?  Logical reasons aside, I also felt this driving compulsion to go there.  Like some pied piper was blaring some lyrical melody in the core of the city and he somehow resonated its hypnotic rhythm all the way down south to the great state of Texas and lulled this southern gentleman into the streetlights.

Obviously New York will always hold a special place for me, although I can't see myself living here permanently.  It has brought me more lucky breaks than I can fathom including meeting here a woman who has impacted my life for the better in a most permanent way.  It has wandered me into many of its finest kitchens, even if just for a day.  It has hardened me against its streets of molten concrete in the summers, it has submerged me in its dank, rat-infested basement apartments and it has lifted me to the very pinnacle of nature's essence via perfect spontaneous views and burt sienna drenchings in autumn's leafy tears.

When I left China in 2008 I decided that Texas, rather than New York, would be the wisest choice as I was beginning to see family life as a plausible option, which concept I had not previously formed in my somewhat socially underdeveloped brain.  I spent the next three years looking for that plausible option.  By the time its potential became real I was already on to the next chapter of my adventure.  Back in the city of dreams.

Yelapa had been the culmination of many cultural culinary experiences including Texan, New Yorekan and Chinese.  I was blessed on many levels with a project to start from scratch with a minimal budget and no personal financial risk.  Score!  Rob put up the capital, Chuck and I did our respective parts to build the concept and an amazing team came together through an intense push of energy.  I hadn't worked that hard since my first days in the business and it was somehow invigorating at the same time as it was physically and emotionally draining.  We all poured our hearts into that place and it became a throbbing part of this young and vibrant restaurant movement that has now taken Houston by storm.

What an amazingly fertile ground we got into and at just the right time.  I was swept away by the accolades that came almost daily.  I began to really learn the value of people and also began to learn the true intimacy of cooking for them.  There are a ton of guys out there making amazing food, but I would venture that for most of you, there are only a select few who you allow the honor of making amazing food for you.  Cooking for others was a critical stumbling block for me until I got to Aurora.  Houston was very good to me, as good as I was to her at the very least, but she never brought the same luck as New York.  Somehow in Houston there were always strings.

Riccardo Buitoni and the Aurora/Emporio family have really tamed me somehow with their open and almost overbearing kindness.  The whole series of events since I arrived in New York on my second 'tour' has been really charmed by some new kind of freedom.  It is as if my doubts and insecurities are being scrubbed away at some angelic carwash and I'm being prepped for some cosmic auto show.  I feel truly blessed in a permanent way from the inside out (even though its things on the outside that seem to be doing the blessing).  I hope that my food reflects similar growth because then it will surely nurture those who really need it as it was always intended to.  The goal of cooking is to make people feel really well looked after and safe, for them to leave with a sense of peace and well being that they would go to their own mothers to find again.

And so here I am on the playground.  Throwing flavors around and doing my best to take care of all the people around me who take such good care of me. Thanks y'all and welcome to this Chef's Momentum.


  1. Thank you for sharing your Life's work, it is an Honour to see your growth thru food.I am sure your Grandmother is all smiles from above.
    Is that Jean Georges fish dish on the cover of his cook book? I heard You cooked and plated that dish for the book.What were you doing in China?

    Watching Dreams come True.LCA

  2. Loved your work at Yelapa, the best restaurant in Houston during its time imho. Best of luck in NYC, chef!