The Loop Food
LOCAL HEROES The formerly quaint ‘buy local’ trend has gone mainstream in Houston. Here’s how we hit the cutting edge (and why it tastes so good)
Remembering the lovely squash blossoms of his childhood in central Mexico, chef Hugo Ortega wanted to serve them to his customers here, at Backstreet Café (1103 S. Shepherd Dr., 713.521.2239) starting in the 1980s and later at his fi ne-dining Hugo’s (1600 Westheimer Rd., 713.524.7744). Still, it wasn’t until three or four years ago that Ortega found edible squash blossoms—graceful yellow-orange fl owers that can be stuff ed with minced chicken, cheese or any number of fresh herbs, and then, best of all in Texas, batter-fried—in this country at all. Even then, to make sure they were right, he had to trek all the way to a fi eld outside San Diego.
Th is year, with his annual squash blossom celebration now a popular event at Hugo’s, Ortega heard of an alternate supplier. He had to visit this one, too, just like the other one, so he could see and touch and taste while chatting with the grower. Th is farmer, though, was only 20 miles south of Houston. On his drive there, Ortega recalls worrying that his good fortune was just too good to be true.
“I didn’t know what I’d fi nd, and there are so many things that could be wrong,” the chef says. “But then suddenly, there I was, in the middle of these fi elds with all these beautiful squash blossoms, and I felt so happy.” He ponders a moment, weighing the larger issues he and his peers are facing today. “We have to buy local, really. We can’t keep paying all this money to fl y things all over the place.” In a relatively short period of time—some might estimate the past fi ve years or less—a business that for a generation prided itself on being able to get anything fl own in from anywhere on any day of the year has altered its view completely. Instead of “anything on any day,” fresh and seasonal are the words that sell. A growing cadre of our fi nest chefs is insisting on ingredients—from fruits and vegetables to poultry and dairy products— grown or otherwise produced so close that they can drive to the farms between mealtimes if they have to. With some irony, a movement that began at the cutting edge of cuisine, among its highest-priced celebrities, has expanded to take in Houston restaurants at nearly every level. And with the moderate weather of the Gulf South, “celebrity growers” are fi nding it easier than they would farther north to keep their customers more than satisfi ed, more often.
Best of all, chefs swear the fl avor of the food is better.
“Th ese farmers are the new rock stars,” off ers Executive Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan (5555 Washington Ave., 713.426.4260), who sources a wide array of his meat and produce from suppliers within 150 miles of Downtown—the farmers market defi nition of “local.” “You should see how people look at some of these guys at the market, especially after they’ve been featured on TV or written up in some food magazine.” Or, as Charles Clark of Ibiza (2450 Louisiana St., 713.524.0004) expresses it colorfully: “American chefs were lazy for so long. Th ey just picked up the phone and ordered, no matter what the season. Now, if you serve something in your restaurant that’s out of season, it’s kinda like wearing your underwear outside your pants.” Th is is a remarkable development, even apart from undeniable echoes of ecological responsibility and general “green thinking.” A few years back, chefs couldn’t buy local because there was little or no local to buy. And farmers were reluctant to take up with a new product, with all the expense, just because they were asked by one forward-thinking chef to do so.
Generally, in Houston as elsewhere, the story involves a handful of Noisy swirl of customers free samples of their tomatoes, orange wedges, honeys and a wide variety of cheese made all over Texas.
Another early pioneer of local food was Brennan’s of Houston (3300 Smith St., 713.522.9711), inspired no doubt by a similar movement at the restaurant’s mother ship in New Orleans—Commander’s Palace, helmed at one time by Cajun farm boy Paul Prudhomme and later by a young Emeril Lagasse. All this got fi ltered through then-chef Carl Walker’s childhood memories of farming in Missouri and today, with Walker as general manager, it’s channeled with passion through chef Randy Evans’ energetic mind.
Evans holds among his dearest memories the tastes of fresh vegetables and fruits bought from roadside stands all across his native Texas. “As a kid, I didn’t remember tomatoes being nasty and mealy with no fl avor at all,” says Evans, decrying the poor quality of produce developed not to be fl avorful but rather to survive a long commute from some “agribusiness” outfi t in another country. Th e chef treks regularly to farms outside Houston, in Spring, Alvin and Wharton. “Going out there lets us walk around the fi elds and really get to know the farmers. Th ere’s a face to the food.” Th e tomatoes he brings back from such trips are likely to end up in a simple but delicious salad with Texas goat cheese, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, while the peaches he picks up in season between here and Dallas become a salad with spicy arugula grown in Cat Spring, candied pecans from the Rio Grande Valley and peach vinaigrette. More serious eating with a local fl air includes Brennan’s fried Gulf oysters in tequila chilicorn salsa and Evans’ honey-lacquered Galveston County duck, with seared foie gras, braised local red cabbage and a sherried applesauce jus.
At Brennan’s Midtown neighbor Ibiza, chef-owner Clark has long led one of those unoffi cial groups of chefs who band together and convince farmers to grow what they need. His favorites right now include the Buddy’s chickens he uses in a true French country coq au vin, the bison tenderloin from near Bellville that he likes to serve mediumrare with smoky bacon risotto and braised cippolini onions, and the super-sweet Pecos County cantaloupe that he turns into sorbet.
Clark, as it happens, is a co-owner of Catalan, where Chef Shepherd is so obsessed with local foods that a conversation with him is continuously interrupted by his running off for more show-and-tell. Try this, taste this, he says as though it’s Christmas morning, ripping open a rustic paper wrapper or peeling back the top from a plastic container. He has fl ash-fried peppers of a style found in the Galicia region of Spain, now grown locally and sold only to him. Th ere are fresh duck and goose eggs (“If you want to do a tasting of eggs,” he smiles, “I can do that.”), fresh honeycomb in a pool of golden honey, and quite possibly every shape and color of squash known to man.
Many of these local discoveries turn up in what Catalan’s menu bills as the “Chef ’s Playground: What We’re Eating Now,” a fast-changing list featuring things like seared bison paillard over wild greens tossed in a syrah vinaigrette, red-wine braised short ribs topped with seared foie gras, and, on the seafood side, seared U-10 scallops over Jacob’s andouille and Creole-mustard cream.
Like Monica Pope, Shepherd has become a leader in the local farmers market movement, serving on the board of one and shopping at another in a weekly frenzy that fi lls his truck with goodies. He feels it’s his obligation to both his customers and his community. “If you don’t have any farmers, then there ain’t no food,” he says. “We all have busy lives. But if I can’t take one or two hours a week to support these people and give this quality to our customers, I should be slinging tacos in a taco truck.”