When did you first become interested in cooking? I first became interested in cooking as a young boy, watching my paternal grandparents – specifically my grandmother – cooking on their ranch in East Texas. I thought it was really cool how they would grow all these vegetables, pick what they wanted, then cook it for dinner. Straight from the garden to the table; that was really interesting to me. After I got the “cooking bug,” I remember spending Saturday mornings cooking breakfast while my two older sisters were watching cartoons. I’d kick everyone out of the kitchen and I made them call me “Mr. Chef.” I had a lot of fun with that, so really, it was in my blood from a young age and I’d have to say that’s very important. This is a difficult career and you have to be passionate about it. It’s either in you or it’s not. Where do did you train to be a chef? All over the United States, really. After many years of reading cookbooks, food and wine magazines and anything like that I could get my hands on, I decided to go straight to one of the most respected names in fine dining: Brennan’s. I called Brennan’s of Houston and was able to speak to the sous chef. I asked him the best way to get my foot in the door. One thing led to another and I was offered a very entry level job there. I quickly realized how much I didn’t know, but I was ready to learn. I worked multiple stations and absorbed as much as I could. After about eight months, Brennan’s management gave me the chance to relocate to Las Vegas where they were opening a Commander’s Palace. I jumped at the opportunity. The high-end dining environment of Vegas really opened my eyes and I wanted to soak it all in. I started stodging, or working for free, during my time off in all the best restaurants. As a result of some contacts I made doing this, I was offered a job at Le’Cirque at the Bellagio. I continued to work at Commander’s Palace and to stodge at other highend Vegas restaurants. One day after a shift, I was walking through a casino lobby and saw a poster in a gourmet kitchen store promoting a cookbook signing by legendary French Laundry Chef Thomas
Keller. I got my resume together, complete with a two-page, handwritten mission statement, and was the first in line at the book signing to hand it to Thomas Keller. About a week later, I got a message, asking me to give him a call. A job offer followed and I worked at the French Laundry for just over two years, an unparalleled experience. After that, I made my way back to Texas before we moved to Lake Charles. Throughout all these moves, I continued to stodge all over the country. In this industry, I don’t think you should ever stop learning and experimenting. After moving to Southwest Louisiana, what were your first thoughts about local cuisine and how you would carve out your own place in the food scene here? My first thought was that it had some catching up to do, to be to quite honest. I’ve eaten at most of the restaurants in the region, and the food is really good at most of them, excellent at many. It wasn’t my style, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re so blessed to live right here and have wonderful shrimp, crab and even local fish, but I didn’t see a whole lot of that translate into anything other than a seared fish or a pan-fried fish on a menu. So my idea was just to be different and respect the product. Keep it simple, but not necessarily fry it. To serve vegetables that are local. When you have great proteins that you can get locally, it also tells me there are probably local farmers and local people who really care about what they’re growing, what they’re raising, what they’re doing. That’s what I want on my menu; that’s what I want on my plate. You spent a lot of time planning and experimenting before you opened your own restaurant. How did that process help you arrive at what is now Calla? I spent a lot of time in restaurants in the area, with people in the area, talking about food. What is the cuisine of Southwest Louisiana? Is it Cajun? Is it TexMex? Both? Do we want to create our own? What do we want to be known for here? I cooked meals for small groups, experimenting with menu options and getting feedback. I’d like to keep as much of our menu local, but we’re still searching for farmers and ranchers. We want to find people who have something unique to bring to us. There was also a lot of other experimentation that came with the space itself and being out in Walnut Grove and seeing this restaurant develop. What I have today is not exactly what I planned, some of it’s exactly what I envisioned, and a lot it is much better, but we’re super happy with the whole thing.
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Calla is in Walnut Grove, the region’s first traditional neighborhood development. How is this a good fit for Calla? We kind of have the same ideas and same goals. Walnut Grove is the first development of its kind in Southwest Louisiana and to me, Calla is the first in the area for what we do. I don’t think there’s a restaurant like us anywhere around. We’re both very passionate about the community and doing what we do the right way, in a way that benefits the area. I think we also feel that with all the growth going on, the time is right for a change and the community needs something different. We are both committed to taking up that challenge and offering something new instead of doing the things the way they’ve always been done. The whole Walnut Grove team has been exceptional with that, and really, that’s our philosophy with food. We’re doing things that other’s aren’t.
How do you describe your approach to menu planning? We look at what’s good, what’s inspiring, what we want to work with and what time of year it is. I’ve always questioned why I see things like asparagus or strawberries on menus year-round when these are spring ingredients. I know I’m getting the best product when I know it’s in season, whether it’s local or not. That inspires us with menu planning. We take it from there. I have a super talented staff, and I give those guys freedom. I may own this restaurant; I might be the chef, but I don’t think for second that I can’t learn from others who are passionate and who are researching when they get home. So our menu comes from everybody here and it comes from what’s in season, what looks good, and then it’s a whole new challenge. How do we prepare it? Are we going to grill it, sauté’ it, sousvide it? What are we going to do? So, it’s always new and fun. How do you plan your drink menu? Our drink program at Calla is really based off everything I’ve learned in a kitchen. All of our juices, for example, are run through a juicer daily, so if you order our Chupacabra, our play on a margarita, it’s made with fresh pineapple, cucumber and lime juice, and fresh tequila. We have people who come in and ask for a pina-colada, or this or that, and we don’t have it. Why? Because if we don’t have the
April 2015 Issue of Thrive