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. 

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