A Tale of Two Cities: The New Orleans-Houston Connection

by Kathleen Culliton
February 2011

Classic New Orleans Cuisine in Houston

Recipe: Gumbo Z’Herbs

Biography: Chef Randy Evans of Haven – Houston, TX

Creole is all about the soups. It’s a Brennan’s tradition that every day a Brennan tastes every soup cooking in the kitchen.  If the soup isn’t right, nothing is.

The New Creole

Recipe: Shrimp and Tasso Pinchos, Jicama Slaw, Pepper Gastrique, and Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc

Biography: Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez of Bistro Alex – Houston, TX

With the technique of a master, the ingredients of an expansive Gulf, and the spice of a foreign land, New Creole tests the boundaries of culinary tradition.

The Gulf Cuisine of Tomorrow

Recipe: Duck Neck Sausage

Biographies: Chef Richard Knight and Chef James Silk of Feast – Houston, TX

After all these years Houston is gaining the clout and momentum to give back to the city that jump-started it’s culinary revolution.

To best understand the odd-yet-loving bond between New Orleans, the bacchanalian capital of the United States, and ever-dependable, level-headed Houston, you might imagine Rick and Captain Renault walking down a misty runway in Casablanca. From an outsider’s perspective the two cities have little in common; where New Orleans has struggled to overcome controversy, storm, and collapse, Houston has positively blossomed amidst the ruins of the national economy. And where Houston most often is glommed into a vague Texan identity, New Orleans shines as a beacon of glorious debauchery.

Yet they share a great deal: a Southern drawl, a tumultuous coast, and a certain bemused ability to survive. Imagine Rick and Renault once more and ask yourself, what are they capable of?

The Great Migrations

When Katrina struck New Orleans, the storm spurred a tidal wave of migration. Not surprisingly, it was the artists, musicians, and chefs who most often could not afford to return. For many of these creative cast-offs, Houston, with its close proximity to New Orleans, low cost of living, high quality of life, and tradition of Southern hospitality, was a natural choice for new residency. In a purely metaphorical sense, it was a perfect storm: when the migration of talent hit a booming economy and a sea of natural resources, creative energy erupted.

This modern-day influx of New Orleans talent followed in the footsteps of past pioneers. When Nawlins’ raised Restaurateur Steve Zimmerman opened Houston’s first wine bar in the 1970s, he triggered a revolution in the form of a Euro-craze. Also a restaurant liability lawyer, Zimmerman helped the Brennan family bring their Creole temple to Houston. Brennan’s of Houston appealed enormously to the Houston crowd—its haute Creole fare balanced the intercontinental sophistication they craved with the familiar element of comfort they loved. Creole was an instant hit.

The chef-owner of Haven restaurant, Brennan’s of Houston alum, and self-proclaimed Creole expert, Randy Evans explains that Creole results from an imperialist-colonial collision: the first generation of Europeans in America trained their servants and slaves to use European techniques with American ingredients and Cajun spices, et voila … Creole as we know it. At Haven, Evans likes to honor the classics to great acclaim—traditional New Orleans Gumbo Z’herbs remains a Houston favorite.

Today, the Brennans have expanded their terrain in Houston to Bistro Alex and soon-to-open Mr. B’s. Never without a “Brennan on duty,” the family’s restaurants have a history of educating some of the city’s top chefs. Randy Evans, Chris Shepherd, and Jamie Zelko each made their start under the wing of a Brennan. It’s a bond they’ll never let go of—when Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, Brennan’s of Houston burned to the ground, and the restaurant’s sommelier and his daughter were both seriously injured. To help, Evans and Shepherd organized a charity dinner to fund payment of their hospital bills.

The New Creole

As often happens in times of economic security, Houston is experiencing a culinary revolution once more. Chefs at the center of this culinary uprising dub it “New Creole.” And just like traditional Creole represents a mélange of European and African cuisines, New Creole draws from Houston’s diverse cultural makeup. Because first and second generation immigrants make up the majority of the city’s immigrant population, their attachment to their native cultures remains strong—and with equal strength they season Houston’s food culture.

The Vietnamese community is booming in Houston, and their presence in the fishing industry has had an astounding affect on the city. What began as neighborhood joints designated solely for the close-knit émigré community have become Houston street-food hot spots. Houstonians thrill for a fresh $3 báhn mí sandwich, and why shouldn’t they? Break it down into its key elements—French bread, exotic spices, and local ingredients—and what do you have but a Houstonian po’ boy?

And with a touch of Caribbean flair, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzales of Bistro Alex renders his own interpretations of New Creole, blending his native Puerto Rico into Houstonian comfort food with classic Brennan elegance. Just like Vietnam and New Orleans, Puerto Rico experienced the brutal cultural collision of colonization, and the reverberations similarly impacted the cuisine. It’s the same use of ancient European technique revitalized by a new flavor, only in this case the cuisine is Spanish rather than French. With the hodge-podge of heritages combined on the plate, dishes like Shrimp and Tasso Pinchos, Jicama Slaw, Pepper Gastrique, and Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc typify New Creole.

Coming Full Circle

A city can only give so much—its food and people, no less—without expecting something in return. And Houston has finally a chance to return the favor.

Duck Neck Sausage. Seriously. This dish comes from the kitchen of Chef-owners Richard Knight and James Silk of Feast, whose British-Texan pub food has all the hallmarks of New Creole—an imperialist background, fresh American ingredients, and an element of the bizarre. Funded by the voracious appetites of Houston’s chefs and uber-foodies, Feast has earned enough revenue to open a second branch in New Orleans.