Monday, April 28, 2014

Susan Fordice

Susan is the President and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston.  Susan grew up in the Midwest and graduated from South Dakota with a degree in psychology. She resided in Los Angeles and Chicago before moving to Houston twenty years ago.  She worked in development at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University before joining Mental Health America, this area’s oldest mental health education and advocacy organization.  She works to change attitudes about mental health and mental illness and advocates for good public policy and access to the effective treatments that are available for mental disorders.  

Susan is married to Jim and has three daughters, a stepdaughter and a stepson.  She is the grandmother to ten grandchildren.

What’s your story, Susan?
I was born and raised in South Dakota and have lived in several Midwestern states.  After the end of a 14-year marriage, I changed my life in earnest and moved to Los Angeles.  The next stop was Chicago.  The opportunity to relocate to Texas came a few years later.  We heard the weather in Houston was “tropical” which suited us just fine.   

Most of my career had been in hospital development and fundraising, working with regional medical centers and medical schools.  My first employer in Houston was MD Anderson Cancer Center.  I will always be grateful for that experience, they are only the best in the world.  In the mid-1990s, I joined the development staff at Rice University and continued to travel nationally.  Assigned to bio-sciences, bio-engineering and nano-technology, I had the unique opportunity to know and work with Professor Rick Smalley following the awarding of the Nobel Prize. 

When I once again decided to make a major change in my life, I joined Mental Health America in the late 1990s.  I left a development office of more than one hundred staff members to become a shop of one.  Like so many of us working in nonprofits, I felt called to support something that was personal and in an area of great need.  Sixty years ago, Miss Ima Hogg founded MHA in Greater Houston to be a voice for people who had no voice.  It is such an honor to be here and continue this work.

Why do you do what you do?
Susan and her mother
I have generations of reasons to care about mental health. Without going back too many generations, I lost my mother at the age of 59 when she died from complications from alcoholism.  In fact, she suffered with major depression. Because of stigma, we never called her illness a mental illness.  I used to wonder how people died from alcoholism and, sadly, I found out.

I do think that if we had called her illness by its real name and treated it differently, she might have lived to enjoy her grandchildren and see her great grandchildren be born.  We all missed so much by her not being here.  That's not an uncommon story.  It is a story shared by many. 

Not surprisingly, I have my own story and I feel it’s immensely important to call it what it is.  In the mid-1990s, I was also dealing with depression.  Even with my family experiences, I didn’t realize it at the time.  Our family had experienced some difficulties and losses and I just thought that profound sadness was situational.  One day, I went to see a new internal medicine doctor for an annual medical and all of a sudden I was sobbing. I didn't see it coming, not a clue. After talking to me for a while, she said, “I think you are depressed,” which made me laugh.  She suggested I try a medication and if I didn’t feel better within two weeks, we would dig a little deeper.  Three days later, as I'm driving down 290, I suddenly said, “Oh my gosh! This is what normal feels like!”  I was absolutely euphoric just to realize that I felt normal.  I called her and said, “I am such a lightweight, it only took me three days!”

I have three beloved daughters.  They have six children and each generation has its own stories.  How they manage their challenges makes my heart soar.  The power and beauty of a family is in the love and support we can provide to one another.  By virtue of the work I do, I know and have heard from so many people who have struggles, so many.  We know they need understanding, support and proper treatment.  Treatment works.  Early intervention works.  We need better public policy and access to care for everyone in need.  It’s not just what we are all called to do as a caring community, it is a benefit to the community. It is more cost effective to help people recover their lives rather than cycle in and out of jail, shelters and emergency rooms.  It is really difficult to believe and absolutely impossible to accept that this still happens way too often.

The last legislative session was a good one for mental health.  There seems to be a realization that you can’t sweep mental health under the rug anymore.  We made progress, but there is much more to do.

An example of our current work is a school behavioral health initiative, which involves a large number of independent school districts in the area.  It can take as long as fourteen years for a diagnosis following the onset of symptoms.  Think about the difference in the trajectory of a child’s life, not to mention the reduction in suffering, if we identify kids earlier and they get the help they need.  Legislation from the past session will help make that a reality by providing training for teachers and administrators and also by adding training to recognize signs and symptoms of behavioral health problems in educator preparation programs.  Remember, there isn't a blood test for these illnesses and there is a lot of denial along the way.  These accomplishments were supported by a passionate and effective group of stakeholders, including teachers, counselors and nurses from our independent school districts, parents, grandparents, community organizations that serve children, advocates and others.  We need to support educators and make sure they have knowledge, tools and resources. 

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
Susan with her grandmother,
before the car accident which disabled her
That’s an easy one for me. As a young child, I spent several years living with my grandparents.  When I was five, my grandmother was in a horrible accident when their car skidded on ice.  Other people in the car were killed and my grandmother went through the windshield of the car. She had a traumatic brain injury which left her paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak.  They expected her to die so they let me in to see her to say good-bye. To everyone’s surprise, she survived and lived another seventeen years.  However, she lived in constant pain and had limited medical treatment for pain or for recovery.  Over the course of those seventeen years, the paralysis gradually improved leaving her paralyzed from the waist up on her right side and able to speak with the vocabulary of a very young child, though this followed many years of no mobility or ability to speak.    

We lived in a small town in South Dakota, population 400, with one doctor about thirteen miles away.  There were no social services, though neighbors did bring food for a while and visit.  We had never heard of physical therapy.  It’s difficult to recall, let alone describe.   

In all those years, never once did she ever complain. We knew when her pain was most severe because she would close the drapes and just lie on the sofa with an ice pack on her head. This was a woman who had every reason to withdraw from reality, yet she got up every day and gave that day her best.  If I had one grain of her strength and courage, I'd be something special.

We did have adventures when I got a little older and she was more mobile.  When I was fourteen, we had a Sunday morning ritual of watching the television ministry of Oral Roberts.  He healed people and at the end of his show would ask people at home to stand and hold up their right hand and ask to be healed.  I helped her with that hand every week.  We were so unsophisticated and we were looking for a miracle, so one day we ran away from home to go see Oral Roberts.  We waited until I was fourteen and could drive legally with my farm permit.  I had eight dollars in my pocket and I didn't read a map, so we stopped at every gas station and asked for directions.  Unfortunately we had a little fender-bender and my grandfather was called.  He had to come and lead us back home and we were in big trouble! 

Undaunted, we waited a couple of years and devised a new plan.  We had heard of the Mayo Clinic and it was only 250 miles from home.  Once again, with less than ten dollars in my pocket but a lot of hope in our hearts, we quietly slipped away.  When we went through the doors of the Mayo Clinic with no money and no insurance, they found a home for me to stay in and did a full assessment of my grandmother.  They told us about physical therapy, which would have been so much more helpful if done earlier.  They referred us to a physical therapist in a town fifty miles away from home, which we thought was just amazing.  Of course they had to call my grandfather and we were definitely in trouble again.  He told us to get home on our own, which we did just fine.   

What advice would you give to someone new to working in the mental health field?
Never compromise your integrity.  Never.  And treat others as you wish to be treated, which is just about as solid and simple as it gets.   When you have an opportunity to work with colleagues and other organizations, always be a good and generous partner.   Together we can have a greater impact so treat those relationships as a sacred trust.  Give more than you hope to get and forget about who gets the credit.  That is much easier in a good relationship.  Not so easy when you get burned, but you can’t let the bad experiences keep you from doing the right thing.  Be the good example for others even when it’s hard.

Susan with
Blake and Addie,
two of her ten grandchildren
 and with Rikr, her dog
How do you find balance in your life?
I love my job but my family is everything to me. I have three daughters, a stepdaughter and stepson. Plus I'm the grandmother of ten.  Six of my grandchildren live here and four in the Midwest. Every weekend gives me balance because nearly every weekend, I have time with my grandchildren.  The Houston grandkids range in age from 6 to 18, so our activities are very different.  We love going to the theater, musicals, movies, shopping, antiquing, football games, or we may just shoot baskets in the driveway.  If I’m really lucky, I will get some time with my busy daughters. 

I also love dogs and have a few, mostly rescues.  My favorite is a big, beautiful white German shepherd named Rikr. He's my shadow and follows me around the house.  My dogs make me laugh every day.  

What does Houston mean to you?
I came here with all the stereotypes of Texas in my head. I didn't know what to expect and I was just so surprised. Houston has the best of everything!  Some of it is so unusual – a house covered in beer cans and an art-car parade, yet we also have the best medical care in the whole world in our backyard.  People who have health challenges do their research and this is where they come.  I love the people.  Like where I come from, there are such wonderful characters.

I miss Southern California and there are things about growing in rural America that I miss, but I do love Houston.  I am not leaving.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
I love my backyard.  People sometimes ask me where I’m going on vacation and I'll say, “To my backyard.”  Also, my husband Jim and I go to Carrabba's every Friday night. With busy lives, it’s the one time when we actually get to catch up and have a real conversation. That it always our time.

What is your favorite restaurant?
I enjoy Carrabba’s and I love Pappadeaux’s, but can’t think of favorites without mentioning Paulie’s shortbread cookies.

What is your Houston secret?
One of the things I enjoy most is when the West Texas peaches appear in Houston. Being a Midwesterner, I've done a lot of canning and preserving in my life, but I have never had such a heavenly smell in my house before.  It’s such a treat to be able to give those little jars of jam as gifts and I absolutely love the sound of the lids popping when they seal to the jar.  

If you could change one thing about Houston…
When I moved here twenty years ago, I wondered, where are the trains? We had three different types of trains in Chicago to get you anywhere and everywhere.  I’ve now been commuting down 290 for twenty years, so I would love to see some trains or some diamond lanes at least.  I will never understand a barricaded HOV lane.  Really!  You get stuck there behind one of those smoke belching buses and think you’ve found a new hell.  The other thing I would change would be the air quality.

Susan was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Sarah Fisher.

To find out more about the work of Susan and her team at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, visit the MHA website.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Kate McLean

Kate McLean is the chef de cuisine at Tony’s, one of Houston’s best fine dining restaurants. Recently named as one of the 2014 Top 5 Rising Chefs in the US by Gayot Restaurant Guide, Kate learned her craft in restaurants in Colorado, Seattle, Hawaii and in France, before returning to her native Houston in 2010.  She was sous chef at Tony’s for three years before being appointed chef de cuisine in the fall of 2013, the first woman to hold that position in the restaurant’s fifty year history. She lives in Midtown with her boyfriend, James.

What’s your story, Kate?
I've always loved food. Always. My mom is a great cook and my grandmother too but really, I just really love food. Growing up, everything I did revolved around food. If I was ever rewarded, I would choose food, something like a Reese's peanut butter cup, because having something that you love is total satisfaction.  Food makes me happy.

Although I was born in Houston, I grew up in Dallas and then El Paso, before coming back here when I was thirteen.  I never thought of being a chef until I was in college and went to work for the summer in a lodge near a lake in Colorado.  I got the opportunity to work in the kitchen, doing things like prepping the salad and I discovered that I really liked the creative aspect of thinking and working with my hands on a dish.  Unfortunately, the chef there was a real jerk.  I've always been rebellious and have never liked being bossed about.  So one day when he was messing with me, I ended up breaking down in tears.  The lovely sous chef, Timmy, came and asked me, “What do you want to do?  Do you really want to do this?” Then he started asking me more detailed questions and that really started the ball rolling for me.  It made me think that maybe I actually did want to cook as a career and knowing that Timmy was willing to help me was real boost.

I knew I didn’t want to work in an office, even though I was in business school studying marketing. I had always had businesses growing up. At eight years old, I sold rocks. They weren’t painted or polished, they were just rocks, but people actually bought them, probably because I was an eight-year-old girl! So though I liked business, that conversation with Timmy was the turning point.  When I went back to school, I got a job working at a burger and pizza place. It was really fast-paced and always packed. It was so much fun – the routine and the tickets and the heat and I don't know what else, but it felt great. I fell in love with cooking, with the intensity of it.  Of course, it was quite a high-end burger company, not McDonald's, though that might be a better story!

After I graduated, I moved to Seattle to live with my cousin Caitlin.  I found a job and worked my way up in a bakery which shared a kitchen with a really nice restaurant, the Dahlia Lounge. But after a couple of winters, I decided that Seattle was too cold for me and since all my friends were moving to Hawaii, I moved to Hawaii too and that was super fun.  I loved the people there and I learned a lot working at a seafood restaurant.  The owners were vegan and gave me the chance to really hone my creativity. I was grill chef by then and I got to create the specials every night.

I knew I wanted to do fine dining because it's beautiful and it's tight and it seemed like the perfect goal for me.  I wondered then if I needed to go to culinary school in order to move to the next level.  Then an email arrived inviting me to apply to work in a bed and breakfast in France. 

Les Carmes is near Avignon in Provence and was run by an English couple.  Their son was the chef and was trying to get a Michelin star so it was very intense and gave me the chance to experience service on a whole new level. I learned so much, though it was a hard season to get through.  It was a mix of French classic cuisine, along with English and Spanish, but the main thing that I learned were the flavor components he would come up with. I've always been rather rebellious about flavor.  I love to create something weird, something that you haven't heard of before, but something that works. 

Tony's Restaurant
A picture window connects the kitchen
and the main dining room
At the end of the summer season, I went travelling around Europe with some friends and when I came home, of course, I needed to get a job. I was lucky enough to get coffee date from Mr Vallone [owner of Tony’s] during which he asked me to do a tasting menu for him the next day. I was allowed to pick whatever I wanted from the pantry to make four dishes. I remember that I did an avocado and crab salad with pancetta, a really tight little salad, and I did lamb with braised fennel.  I also crusted tuna in lava salt from Hawaii and served it with beach mushrooms in a cognac sauce.   My last dish was burrata cheese but I didn't really know how to use the broilers. In order to warm it up a little bit, I put it on parchment paper under the broiler and of course, it caught on fire! The cheese did get a little covered in ash, but I sent it out with a pasta chip and a sauce vierge, and it can’t have ruined it completely, because they hired me.

When I started working here, I would work a number of different kitchen stations. Then they made me sous chef and then in November of last year, I was made the chef de cuisine.

Day to day, I’m usually in the restaurant by nine. I'll change into my whites and, depending on the day, I have a few tasks such as the preparation of that tomato ravioli filling.  Also, I’ll give some thought to new dishes. I pick up ideas randomly from all over the place.  I have five or six books that I look at, for instance The Flavor Bible which is a great tool for any chef.  It has, say, green grapes in there and then it lists everything that goes really well with green grapes in alphabetical order. It’s fantastic.

So if I have a new dish to present, I will write up the recipe and get it ready to show to Mr Vallone and to our General Manager, Scott Sulma.  Some mornings, I'll be tasting stuff or teaching people how to do a new dish, or I'll be checking on the parties and events.  For example, we are about to do a Wine Dinner in partnership with winemaker Paul Hobbs.  He will feature a bunch of wines and we'll prepare food to go with them. It's the first one I've done and I think it'll be fun.

Tomato fonduta ravioli, braised Texas rabbit with a white asparagus sauce
“This is Texas rabbit which our supplier gets direct from a farm.  They send us rabbit legs and we braise them. The white asparagus is from Holland and is in season only three months of the year which makes this a very special springtime dish.”
People start coming in for lunch from 11.30 and we’re really busy through till about two, though we are open all afternoon. Though we all try to get to break in the middle of the day, I do my orders each afternoon for produce and bread.  I don’t have a standing order because I want to decide each day what we need.

In the evening, it's always busy, particularly on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, though we are closed on Sundays.  We’re open from about 5.30 until ten, or until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, so that makes for long days.  We do have seasonal rushes, of course. December is just crazy and Valentine’s Day lasts a whole week!  This year, we were busy through January and February which is good because those are normally slow months.

During the service, I don't actually cook, I do the expediting. I get the tickets and I tell the line chefs when to fire things. Once the first course has gone, we still have that second course hanging on the board so it’s up to me to keep track of the tickets and where everything is. Once the food is ready, I make sure that everything is right, put it on the tray and send it out. I don't taste everything for every table but I do taste all the purées and sauces before service starts so I knew that we're good to go. I don’t get to eat until probably about 10.30 or 11pm.  Sometimes I'm so tired I can't even put anything in a box. I just want to go home, but usually I look forward to eating at the end of the night. It's a treat for me, especially if my boyfriend stays up to eat with me.

Gjetost, lemon honey crème fraiche, toasted almonds 
and chilled green grapes
“Gjetost is a Norwegian cheese.  They slowly boil sheep's milk until it caramelizes. It’s a little weird because you expect it to be sweet but it's not. This dish is a palate cleanser and although it looks like a dessert, it is on our menu as a cheese course. The green grapes rather taste like a sorbet because there's so much sugar 
in them when they freeze. They’re fun, almost like eating a slushy.”
James and I have been together two and a half years. We met when he was a catering waiter and he's wonderful.  Sometimes it's hard for him to deal with my ridiculous hours and it's been rough at times, but he is very understanding.

The other thing I really enjoy is writing so perhaps that is be something I might do more of in future. Of course time is always the issue, but luckily, writing is something I can do alongside my job.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
I think God has been my greatest influence. I'm not a model Christian by any means, but I don't think I would be here without Him. I feel like I've been following on a path. I didn't expect to do all this but it didn't happen by accident.  I didn't ever quit because He helped me not to. He makes me want to be a better person and He helps me deal with the stress.

What advice would you give to someone new to a restaurant kitchen?
Don't give up, ask questions and work hard. That’s it.  It really should be that simple.  The kitchen can be a crazy place and you can be very exposed and vulnerable, but still don't give up. I’ll admit though that there were times I wanted to get fired because I simply refused to quit!

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I don't know that I do. I try to look forward to little things, I guess, like being with James. He is how I find balance because he has so much love and he is such a great person to be around.  Even though we don't get a lot of time together, when I am with him I'm not thinking about work or stressing out, I'm balanced.

What does Houston mean to you?
Houston means home, but it also means somewhere to explore. I'm crazy about exploring the city. We like to walk around different areas, like Montrose or Downtown.  Sometimes we’ll hear about really cool places and we’ll go check them out.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
On the 59, when you take the spur-road exit towards Downtown, there is the best view of the Houston skyline. That is my happy place because it means I'm almost home and it means that I’m in Houston. Sadly, it’s hard to get a photograph of it because you're driving on a two-lane highway!

What is your favorite restaurant?
This probably sounds annoying but my favorite place to eat and drink has to be our apartment. I love being home with James, eating with friends and having dinner parties in the courtyard.

What is your Houston secret?
I can't tell you exactly where it is but just off I-10, hidden back in that little area by Target near Downtown, there's an artists’ work-yard.  There are ten or twelve huge presidents’ head statues.  You can drive round and see them all. It's really cool.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I would move the ocean closer because I love the beach. And I think it would be have to be ocean rather than the Gulf.  The Gulf’s okay but it's not the same, so perhaps it could be the Caribbean Sea, but with the waves from the Pacific. That would be perfect.

For more information about dining at Tony’s, click here.