Interview with Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner of Kata Robata – Houston, TX

March 2011

Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

Seth Siegel-Gardener: I wasn’t really inspired. It was something I was good at it. I started rolling silverware at 13 and began to seriously work in restaurants while going to college for philosophy. I thought about culinary school. Instead, I just kept working in kitchens and moving up.

CH: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?

SS: I think culinary school is for some people but not others. You get out of it what you put into it. And there’s a lot to be said for working every day and getting your ass kicked. And, yes, I’ll hire someone who’s never worked in a restaurant if they have the right attitude.

CH: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?

SS: Work in serious restaurants to make sure this is the career you want. You’re going to miss every birthday, anniversary, holiday, and wedding. It’s going to consume your entire life.

CH: How involved are you in your local culinary community?

SS: Compared to other cities I’ve worked in, I feel like [all the chefs] are in this together in Houston. It’s not highly competitive. Most chefs in Houston can call or text if they need something. And everyone tries to support local farmers and craftsman. I’ve only been back in Houston for five months, and I want to start getting more involved with outreach efforts to get kids to eat a little healthier. With food-related outreach I’ve done in the past, I’ve seen that kids are into it and parents aren’t. I want to work with families and not just kids—children can’t go grocery shopping.

CH: How do you see the Houston dining scene?

SS: For Houston, we’re at a pivotal point. It’s always been interesting, and we have some of the most diverse ethnic food in the country. We can get amazing Vietnamese and Korean food. We have a huge Chinatown. Chefs are becoming more knowledgeable about these cuisines and passing that knowledge on to customers.

CH: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

SS: I source products that are hopefully local and sustainable. I like the fact that I know and have worked on the farm where I get my pigs—in many cases, I knew the pigs that end up in the restaurant. I want to create more respect for food. Especially as food prices rise, it’s a restaurant’s responsibility to help people understand what they’re paying for. It’s important to make sure money is going to the right people.

CH: What’s your biggest challenge right now as a chef?

SS: [At Kata Robata], we have one of the best sushi chefs in the country, and we have to try to get diners to enjoy the whole experience and eat more than just sushi. I’m in charge of desserts, as well as hot food, and my biggest challenge is getting people to eat dessert at a sushi restaurant.

CH: What trends do you see emerging?

Foraging is getting popular, but it’s double edged sword. You have people who understand and respect the concept and technique and others who may get their diners sick.

Food trucks also are big in Houston now—five years behind New York.

The best thing about Houston dining is that people now travel for food. They used to stay in their neighborhoods, but people are getting out more and are looking for better quality.

Scandinavian food is going to be the next Spain. Samuelsson started it some time ago—but no one will give him credit for it.

CH: Which person in history would you like to cook for you? Who would it be and why?

SS: I would love to have a meal prepared by Albert Adrià. His book, Natura, is incredibly inspirational. It’s beautiful when someone stays true to food and vegetables without just putting a carrot on a plate. He makes techniques look seamless.

CH: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?

SS: Getting this Rising Stars Award.

CH: What does success mean for you?

SS: Getting to cook my style of food and being able to have my own place. I don’t need to make a million dollars. I just want to run a restaurant and have it stay open for 10 years.

CH: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?

SS: Hopefully, I’ll have been cooking in my own restaurant for three of those years. I’ll start the process of owning my own business, running a restaurant, and being a part of a community. I want to have a higher-end but approachable restaurant.

CH: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?

SS: Architecture and design: a profession where you can express yourself while still building and creating something.