Chef Tony was joined by Chef Kathy Ruiz, Landry’s VP of Culinary R&D and Menu Development, Executive Pastry Chef Eunice Grassa, Corporate R&D Chef Russell Cody, and Executive Chef Brian Robertson.
Their visit was a shining example of what The Chef’s Garden’s Chef and Farmer® concept is all about. With a kitchen full of farm fresh, just harvested produce at their fingertips, the team came to experiment and explore, and left feeling excited and inspired. Here’s what they had to say.
TCG: What have you been up to for the past couple of days?
KR: Eating! Eating the best tomatoes I’ve ever had in my life. They taste like tomatoes! My guys laugh at me all the time because we’ll go somewhere to get a burger, and I’m like ‘Don’t eat that tomato!’ Because, what’s the point? We had tomato sandwiches yesterday, and I just made a little tart. I just put on a little shallot and garlic, the tomatoes and a great pie crust, and it’s just fantastic. Brian was making a potato salad earlier, a potato and pea salad because we got those fresh peas. He left them raw, and he’s got these vibrant purple potatoes. It’s just a potato salad, but it’s like Wow!
TCG: So are you doing any recipe development or menu planning while you’re here?
KR: We’ve been looking at some things. We do an annual leadership conference and it’s a big deal. The awards dinner is over 900 people. We’ve figured out the salad that we’re going to do for that, and a vegetable for the main course just from playing with all these beautiful things.
TCG: What’s going into the salad?
TD: One of the baby heads of lettuce, and you split them and shave some veg on there with a real nice dressing that has a little emulsification to it with some sea salt. That’s all you need.
KR: Because everything has so much flavor.
TCG: What else have you been experimenting with?
TD: We’ve been playing with lots of carrots today. The radishes are always on point. Which I really like a lot.
KR: I was having fun with them.
TD: I made a dressing today with a lot of blooms and some of the squash blossoms.
KR: I forgot about those squash blossoms. I’m going to do something. I have an idea.
TCG: How did you incorporate the squash blossoms?
TD: I chopped it up and put it in with a bunch of blooms and diced squash and zucchinis and pickled mustard seeds, just to try something a little bit different. Instead of just adding a mustard to something, let’s try a mustard bloom. Instead of adding some chopped-up dill, let’s try some dill blooms that have such a different flavor and floral notes. Instead of adding a bunch of citrus and citrus zest, let’s try citrus flowers and see what kind of note that provides once it hits an acid and kind of blooms on its own along with everything else.
KR: I made some ice cream out of the black mint. I think it turned out really good. I just drizzled some chocolate in it. I’ve seen recipes for black mint but I’ve never found it until I came here.
TCG: How did you decide which ingredients to get into the kitchen to experiment with?
KR: They just gave us a big, great variety of things. I don’t think any of us came in with an idea that “I’m going to make this, or that.” We just let the products inspire us. There’s so much stuff in there, we could play all week with it!
TD: I did order some stuff ahead of time, stuff that we’re using in the company currently. You know, how can we utilize it differently?
KR: We have concepts that are very casual to fine dining. So, we’ll take the same items and dress them up for fine dining and make them a little more homey for the causal restaurants.
TCG: What’s the reasoning behind that approach?
TD: There’s a financial responsibility side that helps everybody, both The Chef’s Garden and us, so we can have bigger volume. There’s marketability behind it, too. We can say, as a company, we are really supporting this farm and this amazing product. And the media marketing that can get behind that is priceless. Having such a unique farm like this to be able to utilize in so many different brands, because we’re coast to coast, it’s priceless.
TCG: What drove your decision to make a pilgrimage to the farm this week?
TD: We’ve been talking for three years, since I’ve known her [Kathy], about coming here. It’s hard with her overseeing culinary operations for the entire 4.7 billion dollar empire.
KR: It’s hard for me to plan a trip and get away because I’m so busy with everything. But finally I said, you know, we’re just going! All the crap will still be there when I get back. And as it turns out, it’s like a vacation here!
TD: Yeah, she’s up in the Chef’s Suite.
KR: I could get used to this.
TCG: So how are you exploring the potential for individual vegetables?
TD: Today we did a bunch of mise en place for everybody. They made some really cool salads. We’re going to cook a bunch of fish tonight and fire up some steaks and just kind of see how the vegetables mix up with those things.
KR: Tony was cutting some cucumbers this morning, and I popped one in my mouth and I said, “Oh, my god. I need to make salad!” So I made a watermelon, cucumber and tomato salad, just because I got inspired when I tasted how sweet that cucumber was.
TCG: Who else made the trip with you?
TD: Russell Cody, Brian Robertson, and Eunice Grassa.
KR: Eunice does pastry for us, and I just thought it would be good to bring her out here, and it has been. She just made basil ice cream, as a matter of fact.
TCG: What are the benefits of bringing a whole team?
KR: Inspiration, obviously. It’s good for us. It’s kind of like a reboot. You get so bogged down in all the minutia. And the people here, all the people in the fields ─ specifically the one that grows the root vegetables ─
TCG: Roberto Garcia. He is amazing.
KR: The pride in them and the passion that they have for it, it charges you! So, everybody will go back energized and creative. This has been a treat because we don’t get to spend time in the kitchen together.
TD: We’ve had the chance to have some really good conversations, too. It’s always changed how I’ve thought about things every time I come here. Because you slow down a little bit. You go OK, we need to pump the brakes on what we’re doing culinarily. Maybe not get so aggressive with the Wow! and the show and everything else, because with products like this, all I need is a little bit of sea salt on it.
TCG: We hear that a lot from chefs, that they try to do as little as possible to the vegetables and let them speak for themselves.
KR: So true. We were talking last night about how, some chefs out there, they get these cool products in, the stuff that’s trending and happening. They bring them in and they really think they’re doing something, but they can’t quite put it together. It never comes together on the plate, so it never comes together in your mouth. But they think they’re really doing something because they’re using the items that everybody’s talking about. It’s our job to teach and grow people. But how do we reach these guys? How do we teach them?
TCG: What do you see as the obstacles to that?
TD: Chefs are becoming so much more cost conscious that they’re ignoring the possibilities of being able to have the freedom and flexibility to be able to buy stuff like this. The finish line’s right here and they can’t get over it.
TCG: What do you think they have to do to get there?
KR: The bottom line is the bottom line. I get it that they have to be numbers driven. But there’s a way to do it. There’s a way to make the numbers and do fantastic food. Tony’s said it a bunch of times. It could be as simple as a knife cut. You just change the way you’re cutting the vegetable and you use less, and it looks fantastic on the plate.
TD: Operators are wasting money in so many places that they shouldn’t be, which is preventing them from spending money where they should be. So what we try to do is take a step back. I will say to myself personally, what are we really trying to achieve here? What’s really important for the end game, for the guest? And so we really took a hard look at a couple of our brands and we started saving money in places that we were completely wasting money. And people were holding onto things, myself included, that we’re like “Oh, I can’t let go of this!”
TCG: Give an example.
TD: Bacon was one of them. We were wasting all of this money on this beautiful Applewood smoked bacon. Because you’re a chef, you’re supposed to have this pork obsession and this bacon obsession. But we went to a generic brand bacon that’s smoked, and we saved ourselves a buck fifty a pound which freed up $27,000 a year. It allowed me to spend that money someplace else and buy stuff that really has an impact on the table. Smoked bacon that’s diced and put on a salad? No one cares.
TCG: Let’s shift to your thoughts on social media and how it is influencing your brands.
KR: I have a nephew who is 29. I asked him to invite a group of his friends over to my house. I got Scott Tarwater [Landry’s Corporate Director of Wine and Special Events] to come and make a couple of cocktails. I think they were doing Moscow Mules. I wanted to pick their brains. How do y’all decide where to go eat? What do you look for on a menu? Because this is his generation. This is who’s going out and spending the money. And it was fascinating. They very much want a story. It was across the board. That matters to them.
TCG: Can you talk more about that, what you mean by “story”?
TD: The emotional connection that people have now is so huge. People are telling the story about how this is a wonderful farm. You can’t get a more emotional connection than this. We’re on a farm picking flowers and herbs and vegetables, and there’s pictures and videos of us doing that, and this is going to be in the restaurant. And you can go to the website and see it and go “Wow, I’ve got to go there!” We’re really here doing that. This isn’t some make believe farm. It’s a real place. And that’s where the biggest connection is. The diners that are the next generation out there, you need to wow them a little more. Chefs are going to have to step up their game a little bit.
KR: We may complain about the millennials, because they’re kind of a pain in the ass. But I’m really glad that they’re taking the stand that they’re taking. Because it has to change, and they’re not going to let it go. If you want to stay in business, you’ve gotta give people what they want. And of course the other priority is always that they want the food to be Instagram-worthy.
TCG: They say that, now, the camera eats first. Is the epidemic of cell phones at the table a good or a bad thing?
TD: I think it leads to a bigger epidemic, and that’s the constant need for entertainment. People wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is look at Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. That’s their daily news source. That’s their daily routine. And those little videos that pop up, it’s hard not to watch them. And that becomes, “Oh you don’t have a video for your restaurant?” “You don’t have any pictures on Instagram?” “What’s wrong with you?” It’s almost like, “What do you mean you don’t own shoes? It’s preposterous that you don’t have that!”
KR: It’s how they find everything, too. If you’re a restaurant trying to get people in, you’d better have a presence on social media or they’re not going to find you. Because they’re not picking up Texas Monthly and going to the back like we used to do to see what new restaurants are there.
TCG: What do you see as downsides to ubiquitous cell phones and social media?
TD: Somebody can be sitting inside your restaurant now and be posting horrific things and pictures, and you don’t even know it. They haven’t even paid their bill yet and they’re shredding your property. And that’s why I think it’s important for us to be able to come here and have things like this.
TCG: Important in what way?
KR: We’re so far away from food. To come and experience something like this, it reminds you why food’s a pleasure. There’s so much crap out there. Everything is so processed. It’s unbelievable.
TD: Good food, in my opinion, is good food. Whether it’s a bowl of chili in a restaurant, or some pasta with meat sauce, or having one of Jamie’s [Simpson] dinners. But there’s a generation of chefs out there that don’t know how to do stuff. It’s really alarming. You run into these trendy new restaurants. And it’s a beautiful space. It’s full of beautiful people. But there’s no substance behind what they’re putting on the table. It’s a see-and-be-seen-place.
KR: Tony, you said something that was very sad the other night when we walked out of one of those places ─ that it was insulting, almost, the way they prepared one of their dishes. It was insulting to the food, and it was insulting to me, the guest. We had just eaten at one of your restaurants, and it was fantastic. And you told me that “this place runs circles around us.” But these people don’t know what they’re eating. They don’t know the difference. And for that to be OK is kind of heartbreaking.
TD: That’s a reality right now. Oh, you have guacamole in a bowl with stale chips? But it’s in a beautiful restaurant and I look nice next to this other good looking person? Let’s take pictures! That happens far too often.
KR: So this is a treat, without a doubt. What we’re doing isn’t work. This is what we love to do. This is why we all got into it. This is what we don’t get to do. My world is so much management of people and just dealing with crap, and it’s so rare for me to be able to get into a kitchen and just play. It makes you remember why you got into it. And when you get to use products like this, it’s pretty amazing.