Eater covered the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel last week. From the interview vault: The Texas Best New Chefs, Matt McCallister (FT33, Dallas), Paul Qui (Qui, Austin), and Justin Yu (Oxheart, Houston).
How's Aspen so far?
Matt McCallister: It's great.
Paul Qui: So far so good. Just got in.
Justin Yu: The kickoff party last night was a lot of fun. I didn't go to the second party. I actually walked around the city. They have a lot of great bars and it's a nice place to just kind of hang out.
Were you surprised when they did the Best New Chef announcement?
MM: When we were in the room and I see [Paul] and [Justin] and I'm like, wait a minute. I thought it was by region. I always thought it was based on Best Chef Southwest, Best Chef Northwest, whatever.
JY: I walked in and the first person I see is Matt. I was like, that guy. We started talking. They said there was a third guy from Texas. I was like, it's Paul.
PQ: They called me and ... Somebody messed up. Somebody was like, "Hey, Justin." I was like, "Wrong Asian guy." But then I knew. Justin's in it, too. It was pretty funny because they were trying to get some stuff situated.
Have you seen any uptake in business since the announcement? Has it made an impact so far?
JY: I think we were all pretty busy beforehand, too, so it wasn't like there was a big push. I guess for us, specifically, we only can do 55 people a night, so it was just more dealing with phone calls and requests than anything.
MM: We offer an 11 course tasting Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so I cap my covers at one turn. That's what we always do. We just normally do one turn and then two turns on Friday, Saturday. It hasn't really changed. Although last week we got crushed on Saturday, but I don't know. I think there was a convention going on, actually, in Dallas, so that might have been the influx. It was insane. I did not enjoy that.
PQ: That's the thing in the Austin scene because there's so many conventions and festivals that it goes up and down throughout the year depending on what events are going on in Austin. I think it's a little too early to tell, as well, since a lot of the printed magazines have just been sent out fairly recently. I feel like people catch on with the printed magazines more than the online social media stuff.
MM: Totally. I think the exact same thing.
PQ: It takes a minute to get around.
MM: The majority of my clientèle that are already dining with me, they read the online stuff. It's the out of town people that are going to be reading the magazines. When they come into town, they're going to be like this is where we're supposed to go.
JY: They're like, "Hey, I'm going to Dallas because of this. I heard about this great restaurant. Let's go there." It'll probably be the same for us. Fortunately for us, last year when Chris [Shepherd of Underbelly] won [Best New Chef], it was great for a restaurant like us, too, because we were in the same New York Times article as them, and so when Chris got all the press — Houston's a huge convention city — so people are going down to Houston, I'm going to check out Underbelly. Where else should I check out? We send each other back and forth to each other's restaurants. Us, [Pass and Provisions], and Underbelly.
Could you define for me what Texas cuisine is and how your work interacts with it?
PQ: I think smoke is an underlying quality in Texas food, regardless of what restaurant.
MM: There's always some smoky element.
JY: A lot of people don't think of Texas as having different micro-climates, but I would say because we're so much closer to the Gulf and [Paul's] in the Hill Country and [Matt's] in a really great growing area where they can get more delicates and more leaves. It's not quite as humid so you can go foraging and hunting for mushrooms and things like that. Texas in itself has so many different ways of having an interpretation of raw products, but I think all of us have a slight undertone of Southern. I don't think we inherently think about it, but somehow it's lightly incorporated. With me, I don't think I cook Asian food, but I'm Asian, so ... The way that I taste things kind of gets on that level, in that same vein. The way that I taste things because I grew up in Texas with the barbecue and with what is considered to be Southern food. You get light undertones of that.
PQ: I moved to Texas back in '98. For me, my first experience of Texas cuisine is Houston, it's all Vietnamese food. Vietnamese food, Vietnamese fisherman. There's different pockets of Indian and all these cultures that are just mashed up in Houston. It's the same thing whenever I visit anybody in Dallas, and the same thing in Austin. It's just a mix of so many different cultures. From Asian to Latin to German to ... It just depends on what part of Texas you're in. It's really cool to see everything meld together. Chris Shepherd's restaurant is a good example of that. Tyson [Cole] and what he is doing is a pretty good example of that. Now that you have our younger generation of chefs exploring that plus exploring the bounty of what Texas has to offer at this point. It's kind of taken it to a different, I don't want to say level.
JY: It's another layer.
MM: I kind of agree with both of what they said. I mainly just stay regional. When you're talking about Southern, there's sometimes an underlying Southern influence just due to the fact that I stick with just the regional ingredients from the South, with the main focus being on Texas. Then, outside of that, I just focus on the bounty of what's going on. Hyper-seasonal, but I pretty much just cook with it whatever I want and try to redevelop new ideas. It just depends on what kind of mood I'm in. There might be a mild Asian influence, there might a more Southern influence. But you aren't going to take a dish and say, "Oh, this is Asian." You're going to be like, "This chicken was marinated in this, this, this and this." It has that kind of undertone.
JY: With the raw ingredients ... We're about to, all three of us, are going to have to do okra, corn and cow peas or snow peas, soon.
JY: That's just what we're gonna all have to do, because we're going to have 3 months of straight up hot weather.
MM: Yeah. I just threw field peas on the menu.
JY: I just started that, too. Those are, I guess, very notably Southern ingredients that not a lot of people really think about at other times.
What does fine dining mean in Texas? Not to say that you guys are doing fine dining, but you're all pushing in a really sophisticated direction. I'm curious if there's been any push back on that, on the price points, on the sophistication of the food.
PQ: There's always push back on the sophistication of the food and the price points.
MM: And portion size. This is Texas. So everything's bigger. It's like, "I didn't get a giant fucking plate of Tex-Mex, I'm not satisfied and it was only $12." I'm just like, "You're in the wrong place."
PQ: Well and the situation in my restaurants is in no way close to what fine dining is. It's not. Just because of our price point, which is, I don't even feel like is crazy expensive compared to other fine dining restaurants, we're still labeled as fine dining. We're not.
JY: I think all three of us have what is considered ... I mean, the minimum you can spend in my restaurant is $49. As soon as you walk in the door, $49. I know that's not a small amount of money for any one person, but I also know that you're already getting 4 courses plus bread plus you know ... You'll probably get essentially 6 courses and that breaks down to less than $10 a course.
MM: That's insanely reasonable. There are fine dining restaurants in Dallas that, for an eight course tasting, you're going to drop $125 plus, not including wine pairings. I do an 11 course tasting and I charge $85 for it, so ...
PQ: But people want to see that large piece of meat in the end.
MM: Exactly. It's all vegetable focused on the tasting menu, so at the very end of the meal sometimes they're like, "I didn't get meat." I'm just like, "You got vegetables cooked in fat from meat." That's close.
PQ: They look for quantity. Larger sized plates. At that point, I don't want to eat 11 courses of meat. I want to eat 11 courses of vegetables. Maybe some seafood, shellfish, and then some meat. A little bit of meat. It's always a constant battle, I feel like, in Texas. It's hard. It's hard. I think, easily, us three could probably make our restaurants a lot more profitable and please a lot more people if we chose to go-
MM: Cater to the masses?
PQ: Cater to that. We wouldn't be doing what we're doing right now if we decided that.
JY: I think actually, all three of us, in kind of that same vein ... I don't think any of us consider our restaurants fine dining. For us, specifically, you're pulling your own silverware out of a drawer —
MM: Which is bad ass though. That's a cool element about eating at your place. It's different.
JY: There's a lot of preconceived notions about, "I'm spending this certain amount of money, someone should mise en place me, someone should pour my wine and my water, pull out my chair every single time." I think the reason that we don't do it like that is to take away the kind of... It's almost like a tension that you get, if you personally don't make enough money to walk into one of those places. I know when I was a culinary school student, I worked a lot of hours so I could walk into a place say like Daniel. It had amazing service, the food was fantastic, but I just felt so out of place. I felt almost uncomfortable because I knew it was out of my price range. We try to dispel that by offering something that you can be relaxed. We don't have a dress code as long as you don't get arrested for what you're wearing, it's fine. No dress code. We don't have a sommelier onsite anymore, but we have a really great wine program. You pour your own water, be loud, or be quiet, do whatever you want. Just enjoy yourself for the most part. I think that's what we all want. We just want you to enjoy yourself.
MM: It seems to be a common theme. I'm typecast as fine dining, but when you walk in I'm playing gangster rap and there's no white tablecloths.
PQ: We get complaints about that.
MM: My bathrooms are all done in graffiti. Two weeks ago, I had a guy. He was the very first seating, at a 5:30 seating at Friday. He's sitting at the bar with his wife and then he walks up to me while we're doing pre-shift and he goes, "Um, do you play anything other than rap music?" I just looked at him. I go, "No." Then he left. I was like, "Well, you can't win everything."
PQ: I get the guests that come in, they look at the menu and they're like, "I don't understand this." And then they leave. We get one of those every week.
MM: Yeah. I mean, we're doing what we all want to do and love to do and we all do a really good job at it. We're busy. I'm not killing it, but we profit and we do good.
PQ: It's about, I think, basically instigating change, you know? I like the evolution of where Texas is headed. I think us three being here is great evidence of that. I think it's good. We're drawing more talent into Texas from out of state. You're drawing attention. Now people want to invest more money into Texas. They want to do more things with the state in different cities at different capacities and different levels. I think that's amazing for everybody.
Justin, you play vinyl only at your restaurant, right?
JY: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
JY: Whoever's closest to it when it runs out. It's actually pretty funny though. There's a section that's specifically for after work or after shift and then there's ... I like pop music, so sometimes that happens. It's kind of hilarious. They look around, was that Justin Timberlake playing in this restaurant?
You have Justin Timberlake on vinyl?
JY: Oh yeah. Both versions. Yeah. It depends. It's pretty great, too, since I can basically see the entire restaurant from anywhere I stand, if I feel it's too quiet or if the energy's low, I can always change the music to make it feel like this will be more energetic. If it's getting too loud, I generally change it to something slower, just to kind of balance out the restaurant.
PQ: You're DJing.
JY: Yeah. It's a lot of fun.
PQ: Feeling the crowd. You're feeling the pulse. You're going with it.
JY: I'm the only one that gets veto power, though, so I'm like, no long guitar solos at the restaurant. It gets too awkward.
JY: See? One side of Zeppelin is ... I have a side that I've marked that they can play. The other side has three guitar solos on there that just gets awkward when you're talking and you're at a minute and a half guitar solo.
You guys obviously have had a lot of media attention, but what Texas chefs do you feel like deserve more national attention?
MM: In Dallas, I think of a friend of mine, David Uygur. He's been written up in the New York Times, but he throws down his take on Italian food but it's, again, he's using regional ingredients and really cooking Italian food, which is cooking in your region. He executes some really amazing stuff. That's one of my go-tos. I go there and I'll go to Tei-An and go eat what Teiichi is throwing down. Those two guys are pretty talented in Dallas.
PQ: Andrew Wiseheart. He opened Contigo, which is like burgers and pub food and all that stuff, but he's about to open a new project and I know he has the skill set to be able to execute his vegetable-focused restaurant.
MM: I'm excited about that place.
JY: I would say two things. We have really great ethnic food chefs in Houston. They don't speak English very well. You see the award winners for [the] Beards and they're like, their food is way better than that. I'm always happy for anybody who won an award. Just like the people that inspire a lot of the food in the higher end restaurants in Houston, like Kaiser from Himalaya, the entire family over at Pho Binh. They're a complete institution. They have four restaurants now.
PQ: You've got to go to the bún bò huế place. The bún bò huế. Houston's my hood, too, so there's a lot of places in Chinatown that just specifically focus on one thing.
JY: And they do it so well.
PQ: And that's all they sell. You get a small or a large. That's amazing.
JY: I actually hope San Antonio really gets a lot more press than they have in the past. I know Jason Dady is always pushing it forward. Then Quealy [Watson] over at Hot Joy and the Monterrey, and then Jesse and Diego from Mixtli.
MM: There's some cool stuff going on in San Antonio. It's like, why isn't this on the shirt? [Points to the Eater Texas t-shirt.]
JY: Mixtli, they change, I guess, every few months on a different region of Mexico. They do a tasting menu. They go and travel there and they kind of involve themselves in the food and then they come back and they do an interpretation on that region in probably six or seven courses. I haven't made it out there, but I met them and I see their food and I'm really excited to make it out there.
What's up at all your restaurants? What's new?
MM: Summer. Summer's happening.
PQ: Total overhaul of everything. I do it all the time. I've been doing it constantly, actually, at Qui, but that's just the way I've wanted to evolve the restaurant. I've just moved on my own terms. We're about to do some changes again.
Can you tell us what those are?
PQ: Nah, I'm going to wait for a little bit.
JY: So my sommelier and I, Justin Vann, we're opening a wine bar called Public Services. He has interesting tastes sometimes, but mixed in with a really broad knowledge of classic wines. It's a really good mix. He's kind of out there in his head. He's the type of person where you're glad he has ADD and you're glad he's in the business that he's in, because it makes him so much more valuable. He's just so passionate. He doesn't care for how much money he's working. It's like everything you want in a cook. He'll deck brush the floors. Right now he's probably taking a wire brush to the back bar. We're doing it all ourselves. We're doing that.
And then we're thinking about it, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to transition Oxheart into ... I'm going to take away the four course menus. Not because I want to make it more high end, but because I'm having such a hard time finding cooks that want to be with us.
PQ: Yeah, you have to accommodate the space for the talent.
JY: Yeah. We want to do just two menus of either six or seven courses, I'm not sure. One's vegetables and one has meat and fish also.
PQ: That's just more creative freedom, I feel like, to those types of menus.
JY: I think it's good. We're over two years in now, so it's a good, natural progression for us. I think the people that want to come back ... We have an insane amount of regulars for the type of restaurant we are. It's really weird. They have alarms set for the first of the month so they make reservations for the next month. I think they'll just be happy that we're continuing to grow as a restaurant.
Matt, how about you?
MM: The restaurant's always in a constant change. I'm always changing all the menus all the time. We're always doing new things. No real plans on anything with FT but I am in progress and working on a new concept. That's about as far as I am. I do have a space, I just haven't done anything else with it. I'm hoping maybe about a year out. It should be fun.
And we're asking everyone this: Down the line, what's the craziest opportunity you said no to?
JY: Not much. Top Chef, probably.
What happened there?
JY: I don't do well in front of cameras. I'm not personable.
PQ: I don't either, but that's why I think I won. I didn't talk much. I just found my little corner.
MM: Yeah, I had the same thing. I turned that down, too. I was just like, no, I don't want to do that.
Do they call every year?
MM: They don't call me anymore because for three years they would call and then the last time I was like, "Look. I really don't fucking want to do this. You can leave me alone now. I'm not ... It's just not going to happen." Then they started contacting my cooks or my chefs or whatever.
JY: It's not for me, I don't think. Plus I'm really slow in the kitchen. I'm more of a methodical type. I'm pretty sure I would never make it. I'd embarrass myself, I'm sure.
Paul Kahan was saying the same thing earlier today. Top Chef kept calling and calling and he just refuses to do it.
MM: I don't think it's a bad thing. This guy [points to Qui] rocked it pretty hard but it's just like ... I don't know. For me, I agree with [Yu]. I just like to go in and leisurely walk through my walk in and look at the cool produce we have and then kind of figure out what I want to do with it.
JY: It was actually pretty funny. We were down prepping and I was like, "I bet this is kind of like what doing Top Chef is." You don't know where anything is ...
PQ: No, they fuck you a little harder. For me, if I don't think I was exec chef for the Uchiko, Uchi group at that time, I probably wouldn't have done it. If I was in my own place, I wouldn't have done it. I was at a point where [I was] running a kitchen that does 4,000, whatever, 2,000 covers a week ... That's not a lot of kitchen time at that point. I might as well do it. I knew at that time that I was going to open my own spot, but if I was at Qui at the time, it probably wouldn't have happened. For me, I don't know. I'd definitely turned down a lot of bigger offers to open a restaurant for what I have right now, because I wanted to do everything again on my own terms at the pace that I wanted to do it.
Vegas? Did they offer Vegas?
PQ: Yeah, but I mean even just for investors for my restaurant in Austin, before I opened Qui, there was definitely some big money people that wanted to do a restaurant with me. At the end of the day, I picked people that I felt that I could probably work with better and kind of cultivate something.
MM: Yeah. That's an intelligent move.
JY: Anyone else get offered Abu Dhabi yet? I got offered Abu Dhabi.
MM: No shit?
JY: Yeah. I was like, it's going to be hard to do Texas food in Abu Dhabi.
MM: I had lots of restaurant opportunity offers and spaces and stuff brought forth to me. What was going to be one of my largest investors when I was opening FT, after a few months I just didn't ... It just didn't feel right. I was just like, "I don't want to work with you. We're done."
PQ: It's hard sometimes when they dangle all this stuff and it's nice and shiny.
MM: I think I was in Chicago and they were like, "Hey, we're flying back on our private jet. Do you want to come with us?" I'm just like, yeah, this is cool. This is kind of crazy, but okay. They were one of those people that I just knew that moving on, six months after opening, they were going to be those people that were being controlling. No man, you'll get your stuff when you get your stuff. This is my place. I do whatever the fuck I want to do here. If you can't be okay with that then this isn't going to work. I don't need you to tell me what I should do. You're an investor. That's it. It's also tough when you've already signed the lease and you're already under construction and then you have to go scramble any find another $200,000. Whatever. It worked out.