Although he grew up near his grandfather’s farm, eating fresh produce and watching his mother bake countless country desserts, Randy Evans didn’t have the slightest inkling of becoming a chef. He studied biology at Baylor University, planning to become a doctor. But after hosting dinner parties and bragging about antique cookbook finds to friends, Evans realized that he belonged in the kitchen.
Attending the culinary program at The Art Institute of Houston in 1996, Evans joined Brennan’s of Houston, working through every station until he became executive chef in 2003. In 2006, Evans published The Kitchen Table—15 years’ worth of recipes from the iconic kitchen table of Brennan’s of Houston—which received the gold medal in the cookbook category at the 11th Annual Independent Publisher Book Awards. In 2009, Evans finally took the helm of his own restaurant, Haven.
With Haven, Evans optimizes the natural, local, and organic in his “Texas Regional Cuisine”—a.k.a. gussied-up, thoughtful Southern cooking. Currently developing a sustainable garden, Evans often plucks produce from the soil or the back of a farmer’s pick-up truck. His passion isn’t just admirable, it’s successful. In 2010, Haven was My Table’s “Best New Restaurant in Houston” and placed in the “Top 20 Best New Restaurants in the Nation” by Esquire. In 2011, it was Texas Monthly’s “Second Best New Restaurant in Texas” and was among Southern Living’s “5 Best New Restaurants in the South.”
When he’s not at Haven (or picking produce), Evans works with local philanthropic organizations like Recipe for Success, Urban Harvest, and Texas Foodways, and he currently serves as spokesman and consultant for the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Shrimp Marketing Board and Texas Department of Forestry and Horticulture.
Interview with Chef Randy Evans of Haven – Houston, TX
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Randy Evans: I went to university in Waco. I thought wanted to be a doctor. I was good at math and sciences. I didn't want to do what my dad did—working the engines and machines for the oil business. Five semesters in, I found I was cooking for my roommates a lot. My mom cooked all the time when I was young; dinner was on the table at 5pm. Eating fancy for us was fried oysters, braised meats, rice, and potatoes. When my dad opened his own company, my mom worked with him and we went out to eat a lot. We celebrated eating.
So when I was at Baylor [University], I started watching “Great Chefs of the World,” and the next thing you know I said to myself, “maybe I want to do something different.” So over spring break I went to the Art Institute of Houston. That Sunday I cooked for my parents, asked them what they thought, but it didn't go over as well as I thought it would! My dad said if I wanted to be a manual laborer, I could go work for him. “You gonna be a cook?” “No,” I told him. “I want to be a chef.”
EB: How did your career develop after that?
RE: I met Chris Shepherd and started working at Macaroni Grill to make some money. Their chef was from the CIA and worked with Tony Vallone. He said, “Do whatever you want to do,” and after a year I'd done every station. I also did a lot of baking there, and I do it here. Then a friend of mine told me Brennan's of Houston was looking for a cook. They had a mass exodus. So I started making salads and things. Commander's is a family. I worked my way through the restaurant and [became] sous chef in 2000.
EB: Where there any other influences in your career?
RE: I went to Singapore to travel and it was eye opening. [I visited] a small city with all these different ethnicities who kept themselves separate; there’s no intermingling. I still don't know enough about Asian cuisine. The only way to learn is to travel.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
RE: When I was at Brennan's I'd have high school kids work for me before they went to culinary school. My instructors were great. Chris [Shepherd] and I taught for one semester; at the time, we were both still sous chefs at Brennan’s. We worked there and taught a class about professionalism, [about how to] get some speed and some rhythm—from the heart and not from the text book. We showed students how to make a dish and then take notes, to be like the real world. Chef Michael Holderfield at the AIH [Art Institute of Houston] is the head of the Chef's Club. They do the best in terms of culinary education. My niece is going now. I attended the Art Institute of Houston. In Houston it's the school, but we also have some junior colleges. I find that the CIA has the best interns.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
RE: Monica Pope, Michael Kramer, and I went to Washington [for the Chefs to Schools event]. We sat in the second row. We serve 3,000 kids a month through after school programs; this our fifth year. And we teach a class once a month, called Recipe for Success. Yesterday we made sweet potato biscuits with the [students]. Dr. Oz, who started the program, comes down here.
The very first year I didn't know if the kids would get it. But they'll try everything; they respond to it. We go through a whole lecture about the tongue and the palate.
Food Waste Texas is an offshoot of the Food Waste Alliance. Bryan Caswell, Chris Shepherd, myself, and Katz's Coffee got together with other chefs and writers and academics to promote, preserve, and protect Texas food culture.
EB: What steps are you taking to become a sustainable restaurant?
RE: We source from local farmers and ranchers, as well as use products from our own garden. We reuse, renew, and recycle—and this year we've recycled over 20 tons—and compost through our farmers. We also have an air conditioning system with a passive air removal system to get rid of the heat.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RE: The whole concept of what we do here at the restaurant is modern Texan, or new Texan cuisine. We look at those regions that have influenced the city, the immigrant population, like looking at the heritage of the Germans, Czechs, and Poles and the charcuterie work they brought with them, things like that. It’s classic, Texan dishes that have been known for years, and immigrant influence; we make that new and different and exciting.
I love to look at old recipes, from old spiral bound books that are turning brown. Alex would also talk about the concept of memories, where you were when you were making the dish. It pops up the time and the place. We do wild boar chili and shrimp corn dogs with lemonade from the country fair and the rodeo; that says a lot about what we do.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
RE: I usually start with the ingredient first, not a dish in mind but the ingredient. Whatever just came out of the garden, whatever it may be. In the middle of the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, I got fresh strawberries. We start with product and move on from there. It’s always about the freshness, the ingredients we have available; from there I go about thinking about my food history as a child, things that got me excited growing up, [things that] get me excited now.
EB: What trends do you see emerging?
RE: Houston is very liberal, really because it’s a port city. Louisiana has become a bigger influence since Katrina. These guys from Louisiana were talking to me at a bar, and when they found out I was Brennan's, we had a talk about family. We have the Cajun influence more than the Creole. We do have a Louisiana influence. Since I've been in Houston, the diners have completely changed. They were very stuck in their ways.
EB: What challenges have you faced in the restaurant?
RE: This is location number five. We decided to buy [the] land instead of leasing. There was the hurricane [Hurricane Ike] and then the fire. [We went] 17 days without electricity in 2008. And on Saturday the 13th, there was a fire. The chef was at the restaurant and the sommelier and his daughter were injured. We did the whole recovery concept and then my investor for Catalan started talking about farm to table, Texas regional cuisine, what I ate as a kid, the influence of immigrants in Texas. And we get still pigeonholed—either we're “Tex-Mex” or we're “southern.”
EB: Are there any personal challenges that come with the territory?
RE: The whole being married thing throws a big kink in it. My wife is a restaurant manager and sommelier, so she has to understand that holidays are going to be on different days. We do our holidays a few days before.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
RE: Opening a restaurant. Opening a restaurant from the ground up. Watching this place get built. Those long, stressful days, that turn into weeks and then months, being at the restaurant every day, knowing you’re only as good as you’re last plate. And training cooks from scratch. That was probably my most stressful time. And trying to get my passion across to the cook and my sous chef, even the waitstaff. Trying to get that across and have them buy into what we do. I think that’s the most difficult thing do. How do you relate passions by talking? Also learning who our customers are and what they like; trying to figure people out and learning. Opening a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
RE: I like the way everything’s gone for me, the good and the bad, it’s all been there. Maybe I’d have worked at more restaurants. I was at Brennan’s for 12 years. I learned so much when I was there. I would have worked at different styles of restaurants, maybe. Checking out other styles of cooking, like Asian cuisines, which are my weakest link. I’d have staged at more places, maybe taken more time to cook and travel.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
RE: I think it’s the same, opening the restaurant. The difficulties align with the biggest pay offs. The higher the risk, the higher the reward. I left a great job at Brennan’s, making good money with a large company that had deep pockets. I was able to travel with them, do PR and marketing, and write a cookbook with them. But we tried to go out on our own and take that risk. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes with owning your own restaurant.
EB: What does success mean for you?
RE: Number one is happiness. Success breeds happiness; or happiness breeds success. It goes both directions. I’ve got to be happy with what I’m doing, where I’m going, and what I’m putting on the plate. Nothing’s worse than coming into work and not being happy. It needs to not be work. That’s success. I know that I’ve got to break down a pig today, and I’m excited. I was telling my wife yesterday about how my hands were aching. I had broken down a lot of pigs. She said “why don’t you just train a cook to do it, get someone to butcher for you?” And I have, I’ve trained them. But when it comes to it, I actually enjoy the actual labor of breaking a pig down, starting off with an animal and ending up with all the cuts on different sheet trays, everything all separated into its own compartment. I guess that’s kind of what success is about, being happy.
EB: Butchering seems like it’s almost Zen for you.
RE: Butchering is the most relaxing thing in the world. You get to really reflect with dishes and how you come up with things. It’s good brainstorming time. We actually had a butcher shop at Brennan’s. I would shut the door, lock it, and just work. Just cut whatever I was butchering. And next thing you know, you’re going through it real fast, you don’t even know you’re actually doing it.
It’s a lot like when you’re driving to farms. You went, you walked through, you have the products and produce in the back of your car and now you’re heading back. That drive, on a one-lane road, is a long, straight, and boring drive. It’s a great way to think about what you want to do with that food that you’re driving back. And you have the smells in your car. When I was coming back with the strawberries, they had been on the vine at noon; they were just deep red, fragrant, and they’d never been in the fridge. My car had the aroma of fresh strawberries. It gets you thinking about things.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
RE: I want to do a couple other things. I have a fast casual concept that’s been on my mind. It reminds me of a place I used to go as a kid, that’s long, long gone. It’s a family-style kind of thing. It’s kind of a lost thing. People don’t do it very often. I’ll do private parties for people, family style. People say “I want to do a tasting menu” and I say “let’s do family style” and they give me this look, but they end up having a blast—talking, laughing, it’s really interactive. I really think it’s something that Houston in general is lacking—a cool family-style, fast casual type of place.
And I want to introduce younger kids to dining. I hate whenever families come in and they’re like, “Can I see a children’s menu?” We don’t do that. Everything on the menu is half price, half portion for kids. That’s the only way we can progress as a dining public. My daughter came in—her birthday was Valentine’s Day. She came in to eat lunch, and she said, “Daddy, I want you to cook for me,” and I said, “What?” She said, “Anything!” So I did a little simple steak; we get it there, and I come back and check on them and she’s not eating. And my wife said, “She wanted something she hasn’t had before!” So I did quail for her; she loved the quail; she had a great time eating that. My wife loves foie gras, so my 3 year old ends up eating foie. We were going to Catalan and ordering the charcuterie plate. She was eating blue cheese and Serrano at 18 months. It’s not putting our food hang-ups onto our children, it's letting them grow and learn. So having a restaurant that caters to families, a family-style place where you’re introducing them to real food, that’s a goal.