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David Luna of Line & Lariat on Downtown and More

[Gary R Wise]

It's taken awhile for the restaurant inside downtown's Hotel Icon to find its footing. First, it was Bank, until Bryan Caswell left to start Reef. Then it was Voice, but Michael Kramer's food found more raves among critics than diners. For the past year, David Luna, previously of restaurants such as Shade and Flora & Muse, has shaped the new concept of Line & Lariat: Modern Texas Cuisine. Luna talks about his role shaping the young chefs that work for him, the challenges of working in a hotel and what he thinks the benefits will be of the OKRA Charity Saloon opening across the street.

How did you decide to come here after Flora and Muse? I guess as long as I've been doing this, for a long time, at some point, once you start projects, once you kind of fulfill the purpose, you sense that it's time to move on to something more challenging. For me, it's not about winning a Michelin star or getting a James Beard nomination. It's, what's the task? When I came and discovered this property, a friend of mine had started this consulting project (and told me), hey, this is going to be pretty interesting. There's a lot of things that need to be done here: that the new ownership is looking to do. It's not reinventing the wheel or anything, but, for them, to define the Hotel Icon as the start of downtown Houston, they wanted to have cuisine that was fitting with the direction they wanted for the hotel. Now, they've tried to make it part of the beginning of downtown Houston and have Texas roots connected to it. That was their focus when they decided to come up with the concept. That kinda caught my attention. For me, the food part was going to be easy. I wasn't thinking it was going to be a West Texas bowl of red or enchiladas. Initially, we did have those components just to break away from what the concept was before.

When I came here, the food was the easy part. There has to be a bigger challenge for me to want to stay around. For me, it was the staff that was here. The past chefs that have been here have done a very good job of attracting young talent and ambitious people that come here to work. There was a need for them to continue the leadership. I like doing that. I like teaching. I took that as my main purpose for being here is to help these guys get from point A to point B in a lot fewer steps than it took me or some other people. Developing these guys into having a career as a chef in a lot fewer steps than it might take traditionally in a different type of hotel setting. They're given the same tasks that anyone else is given. They've got to work their stations and keep their stations neat, organized and clean and all that. It's just trying to get them to recognize that the reason I'm asking you to do these things is someday you're going to have to teach someone to do this on your own.

That's the day in the life here for me. It's not necessarily a whole lot of cooking. It's telling people how to stay organized. How to give direction, take direction. Just run a kitchen in a professional manner. Hopefully, in a couple of years, there's guys that will come out of here and can operate a restaurant kitchen. I'm not promising they're gonna win a James Beard Award; that's up to them. They can pursue those things if they want them.

I get so many people that, even though they've graduated from culinary school, have no idea what they're doing in the kitchen. After three or four months, they're surprised they know their temperatures on meats. That they used to be afraid to get on the line and cook a burger. Now they do it, and they do it well. That's the role here. At this point in my career, that's what I enjoy doing.

Are there a couple of chefs that you're particularly excited about? Tom Johnston, he's the day time sous chef. He was a protege of Greg Lowry when he was here. He's a military background guy. He's got the military discipline, very dependable. If I need him here at 5:00 a.m. to start breakfast, he's here. If I need him to stay later, he does. He's still learning, but he's going the discipline to be here. He can take direction. I like that about him a lot. Now we're working on developing a palate for him. Teaching him to develop you style of food, what you like to do. That can be anything. It's about getting him more comfortable and testing his own recipes. Running him past the guests. You get those short little gains, that builds your confidence.

Tyler Malson is my chef de cuisine. He's me when I'm not here. He runs the night shift. He closes the restaurant. I'm not here from crack of down until late. He's the guy that executes the recipes. I teach him, and he teaches everyone else. He's got a pretty solid discipline background. He's got a lot of energy. He's very hands-on. I like that about him. Trying to keep that energy grounded. He gets a little excited sometimes.

He's from Wisconsin. He came down here through Mo's Steakhouse. While he was working there, he decided that he enjoyed the responsibility of being in charge of a kitchen, but he still wants to work for a chef to learn. I've showed him a different way of doing things from what he's been taught, but at the same time, it's a lot more freedom in what he wants to cook. He doesn't just want to execute recipes that are chiseled in stone.

When we do any kind of new dishes, nothing makes me happier than to have these guys bring me food. In a lot of restaurants, you can't do that. Here, it's, like, yes. I don't mind them experimenting and trying new things, as long as we sell it. Can't just be like a playground.

But if someone comes in here to order something, if we're making a wild boar tostada, I like it to come out the same way every time. I tell the sous chefs, all fun and games aside, it has to be the same way every single time. That's a challenge at any restaurant, consistency. Teaching techniques, a lot of my guys here are young. I go station to station, working with them, reminding them of how things are supposed to be presented.

What are the dishes that you would say define the Texas aspect of the menu? We do a lot of game, Broken Arrow Ranch products. The antelope chop is one of our signature dishes right now. I've used Broken Arrow Ranch for years. With the menu concept, attaching Modern Texas Cuisine to the name of the restaurant, I wasn't real crazy about it. When I think of modern, I think of molecular, which we can do, but my thing is comfort food.

When I think about Texas, I think about growing up here. My family's been in Texas forever. A lot of people always ask me, where are you from? (I look Hispanic), but when I open my mouth, it's like, where are you from? I'm from Texas. How many generations? We can go back past Goliad . My grandmother's family was from there, near the massacre. Most of my family was from Victoria, Refugio. Both of my parents were born in Galveston. Did you grow up down there? I grew up in Alvin. Graduated high school in Galveston, O'Connell. That was the traditional thing. My mom grew up on Galveston Island. She and her brothers all went to either Kinkaid or Ursuline Academy until O'Connell became co-ed.

I just loved the Gulf Coast. When we weren't in school, we were on the beach, hunting, fishing, doing whatever. That's where I think all the food part started was being outdoors. That was our backyard.

When I talked to Ford Fry, he said the same thing, that he would go hunting and fishing. He grew up near River Oaks. I had no idea. I started reading about him. That's kind of funny. Looking at his menus, that's where I find inspiration, too. Why didn't I think of that? Those guys are brilliant out there. I just try to go back to memories growing up. Mom having Tupperware parties. Being little kids we got drug along to these type of things, and I just remember all the little finger sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, all the little things that I remember. Stopping at the gas station to get a Moon Pie and a RC Cola. Those are the kind of food memories I have. We weren't going to fine dining restaurants when I grew up in Alvin

I still use Stanton's. Allen Stanton down there does a lot of sausage and boudin for us. It's all the same stuff that I grew up on. Took our deer to get processed through him. That sausage he gives us is the same sausage we use at the restaurant. Those are my local purveyors. Avi Katz supplies our coffee. We get a lot of our cheeses from Houston Dairymaids. I like supporting the local guys.

How have you found downtown? Downtown's always been a challenge. I talked to some of the prior chefs that have been here. Their recation was, "Man, it's a hard spot." I think there's a lot of activity around here. Ya know, the OKRA Charity Bar opening across the street. There's a reason why these people are coming down here. If there's a huge resurrgence, I don't know. The blessing we had when I came here was getting the (Marriot) Autograph Collection Flag. That was our big thing, so the guests can use the reservation system and get points. It helps maintain the occupancy levels, which are always high. With that Autograph Flag, there are standards we have to hold up, but I've found that isn't our biggest challenge. That's the easy part for us.

For us, it's just trying, when the guests check in, keeping them here, instead of going out for a destination dinner somewhere else. I can understand the business traveler when they're having a dinner with a local client taking them to their favorite restaurant. The days they're not we find them sitting right here (in the bar) watching TV and having a cocktail. If there's anything that's really modern here, it's our cocktails. I'm really proud of what those guys are doing.

For us in the kitchen, us being modern is figuring out how to turn pimento cheese into not just a pile of cheese. It's hard to do that. We added some different components: the sausage that Allen Stanton makes for me, the smoked boudin. Keeping it local is always a challenge. This restaurant is never completely empty. There's always events to keep us busy. The dining room may not be busy, but in the bar it's always busy.

Do you think OKRA's going to change the dynamic downtown? It's going to bring in that younger crowd that's dining around the Montrose area. There's gonna be a lot more activity. Barnaby's opening up down the street will draw more of a lunch crowd. Our challenge as a four-star hotel is that people think we're going to change four star prices for lunch. It's not that way. There's a lot of places you can go where it's going to cost a $20 bill. You can get that same experience here.

From an ownership perspective, is this place going to be here for awhile? Yes, they've sunk so much into the Line & Lariat concept let's keep it going ? they realize let's just change it to more of a Texas type restaurant. They really want to stick with it.

And you think you'll be here? It's definitely not boring. There's so much here to do. I like the new company that's come in. A lot of the focus will be on expanding the lounge. That's the focus of the whole restaurant. A business traveler coming in doesn't want to sit in the dining room. We're focusing on smaller plates, shared plates. The food I do is simple. I try to do four or fewer things on a plate.

Is there anything else you want people to know about this place? I just want people to rediscover it. It's a beautiful space. I travel a lot. I'm always looking to find a hotel where I can sit down and feel like I'm at my mom's house. I don't think it's an exhausting dining room experience. Have some small, shared plates. Have a cocktail. We have really good cocktails here. Just explore the area.

· Line & Lariat: Modern Texas Cuisine [Official Page]
· All One Year In On Eater Houston [-EHOU-]

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