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Prego Turns 30: An Interview With the Chef

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On a recent Thursday night, Prego was packed. "We're doing better than ever," chef John Watt told us. So, we wanted to know, what's the secret to still being so popular, three decades on? Turns out, it's all about stability, creativity and doing things the old-fashioned way.

Prego has been here for 30 years and you just celebrated 25. Is that unusual?
Yeah! It's unusual for anyone these days to be in the same job for 25 years. But you know, we have a lot of people who have been with us for a long time: Pablo, one of our cooks, Luis our sous chef and Manuel, one of our servers and assistants have all been here for 30 years. Kathy on our wait staff has been with us for 17. It's strange, but if they're a short-term employee if they've been with us for just five.

So, what do you think keeps people here and how does that help the longevity of the restaurant?
I wish I could say it was my personality, but you know, we're a small space, and we work really hard to have the right people in it together. I'm lucky to have a really mixed crew, lots of people with talent and opinions and they love being part of this. I'm always telling [pastry chef] Matt[hew Zock] "We should bring back that blackberry tart," and he'll tell me, "No. No way. " So, I try to listen to folks, whether it's the staff or the customers. We've seen so much talent come through here and when you have folks who've known each other for a long time, it makes for a great working environment.

john%20watt.jpgHow has Prego changed over the years, and more importantly, how has it stayed the same, giving people what they love?
First of all, we always tried to be progressive, both in terms of our menu and how it grows and in terms of staff development. Our wine program has changed substantially since we opened the doors and Rafael Espinal, who oversees it, really took that on, just because he was interested in wine, and now he's a level 2 sommelier. We added a gluten-free menu a few years ago. And with many people who either have to or want to eat gluten free, you don't have other dietary restrictions like you might with vegetarians, so we have several options to work with. The big thing , though, is that we keep evolving. We made a commitment early on that everything we could do in house, we would. We make our own pasta , probably four times a week. We do all of our own sauces, ice creams, fillings, our own sausage. I am sure if we had a place to keep cows, we'd do our own butchering. Making everything from the ground up really elevated us on a quality level early on, and we've never changed that. And we really are more successful now than ever.

How do you keep it fresh for your diners?
We make all kinds of season changes. There's a pumpkin soufflé on the menu now. We have a set collection of Prego Classics that won't go anywhere, and our diners love them. We use as much local as we can. But I think our success has always been that we don't take any shortcuts and we always strive to improve, whether it's in our food or in our service. And everyone responds to that, from our employees to our guests.
—Holly Beretto

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John Watt [Official Site]


2520 Amherst St, Houston, TX 77005