With only 30 years under her belt, Jamie Zelko has already spent half her life making a name for herself in the restaurant industry. Zelko graduated from the Art Institute of Houston with honors and a fistful of scholarships to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, and California. But ever the loyal Houstonian, it was to her native town that Zelko returned to begin her career.
Her early professional experience includes a roster of Houston favorites like Brennan’s of Houston with Chef Carl Walker, Ibiza with Charles Clark, Reef with Chef Bryan Caswell, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Bank at Hotel Icon, a position that resulted in numerous Jean-Georges gigs in New York. Even with so much Big Apple glamour at her fingertips, the chef once again reclaimed her Houstonian heritage, returning home to become executive chef at the Lancaster Hotel in Houston’s theater district.
Zelko’s work both at the hotel and at her new eponymous restaurant, Zelko Bistro, have earned her a plethora of praise, including “Best Up and Coming Chef in Houston” in 2007 by My Table, “Rising Star” by Restaurant and Hospitality in 2008, and a spot among Houston’s Modern Luxury “Best of Houston” for 2008. Her new bistro was recognized as “Best New Restaurant in 2010” by Texas Monthly and the Houston Press, and Zelko was named a “Top Professional on the Fast Track” for Houston in H-Texas Magazine in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.
Zelko Bistro is inspired by Zelko’s belief that good food should be available to everyone at a price they can afford. She channels this into her preparation of locally sourced ingredients, a regional wine list, and the warm environment of her sustainably remodeled, homey restaurant.
Interview with Sustainability Chef Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro - Houston, TX
Jessica Dukes: What does sustainability mean to you?
Jamie Zelko: I stand with Alice Waters. I met her when I was 22 with some other culinary students at a dinner. I’m sure she’s met 5 million people, but she has inspired me. She says that good food is a right and not a privilege, and my prices reflect that. I try to keep it affordable, and if I compromise my profit margin, then I do so because good food truly is a right and not a privilege. And I stand behind my food, not in front of it. I touch every table here, and I think the reason we stay busy is because what I feed [my guests], I feed my family. I want to be here for 30 years. I want to reach out to the everyday client, and not just the foodies.
JD: How important is it to source locally and organically?
JZ: It’s a challenge, but it’s absolutely necessary. I think it’s just as challenging here as it is everywhere else. We’re closer to the equator here, so we might have a warmer climate, but we have what’s available to us and nothing more. It’s the same all over the globe. In Texas, we’ve got great cheeses and cattle, but as for produce, when it’s wet and rainy and cold, we don’t get our greens. It’s pretty much on a national scale. And it’s strange that the government wants to depend more on foreign trade than on the American dream. We are so tight-knit here that we all know where everyone’s getting their products from. It’s a small community. I have 25 to 30 different purveyors that I source from during the year. I spend so much time and energy trying to find the best products I can. I present the ingredients simply.
JD: How do you pass the message on to your diners?
JZ: It’s a lot of things. I’ll have a certain seasonal item, like Swiss chard or mustard greens. If something is lovely or gorgeous or in season, like blueberries, I’ll walk around my tables—it’s a small restaurant—and I’ll ask people to sample them, one from the supermarket and one fresh picked. People have forgotten what a blueberry tastes like—they light up! I really have a high, high respect for Alice Waters. I love serving people, and I love looking out for people and looking out for their well-being. I think it’s a privilege to be able to serve other people. It comes out with my food and trying to be informative. Hoarding information is over.
JD: What are some of your most valuable tools for information about sustainability?
JZ: I think that Barton Seaver is a guy that chefs especially need to open their eyes to. Go see “Food, Inc.” Understand Fast Food Nation. Read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.