It is not very often that line cooks are presented with the opportunity to showcase their skills outside of the restaurants in which they work, let alone the ability to directly profit from them. In a restaurant kitchen, reputations are made by being a "grinder," someone who can handle a lot of pressure while maintaining a high standard and not complaining about it. This is why the Grand Prize Kitchen Collective, headed up by Yaki Snack Attack's Austin King, is essential to the growth of the food culture in Houston. For one night, it gives line cooks the chance to be in control of their own destinies. Cooks can serve what they want, how they want, and are allowed to receive full credit for their labor. At the same time, it exposes diners to the creativity of committed kitchen professionals whose wares are not available anywhere else in the city. When diners support talented local cooks, everybody wins. Although this program is still in its infancy, it can provide an important glimpse into the future of the Houston food scene.
At 6:00 p.m. on Monday, two hours before service, there was still a lot to do before Sean Aruguelles, currently a line cook at Uchi, and Farzan Fatehi, who is an Uchi server, would be ready to start putting out food. The prep list was daunting; they still needed to make the pork glaze and chocolate sauce, they still needed to make their pancake batter and skewer their pork; short ribs needed to be breaded, mushrooms needed to be roasted off, and no one had even started on the gnocchi. It would have been very easy at this point to give into the pressure and fall into a panic, to concede to the fact that there was too much to do in too little time.
A horde of people attacked the window, demanding to know when they would be able to place their orders; the pressure mounted as the team continued to finish their prep and set up for service. It was 9:00 p.m. before the first orders started to go out and, although they were late out of the gate, the feedback for their food was overwhelmingly positive. After a rocky start, the guys began to hit their stride and put out over 100 plates in the next couple of hours.
By comparison, last night's vibe was much more relaxed as Oxheart veterans Willet Feng and Mark Clayton joined King for a collaborative service. Feng and Clayton both recently left Oxheart to pursue other endeavors; Feng plans to move to China and Clayton will be staging at the acclaimed Relae restaurant in Copenhagn this summer.
The menu was a riff on the iconic Luby's Lu Ann Platter that featured fried chicken two ways along with udon mac n' cheese with crumbled Funyuns, quick pickled slaw, potato hash with sambal ketchup, and scratch biscuits. For dessert, the chefs prepared an interpretation of banana pudding: toasted nilla wafer crumbles and banana-lemon curd, along with graham-almond soil and five spice dusted fried plantains provided a great balance of flavors and textures. Service started just after 7:00 p.m. and went smoothly from the start.
The contrast between these two services is indicative of the diversity represented within the Collective and adds an element of uniqueness and drama to each event. With every different group of cooks, diners can expect a myriad of different styles, personalities, cuisines, and techniques all within the comfort of a neighborhood bar.
So far, the Collective is made up of about 25 local chefs, cooks, and food truck professionals. Availability for the kitchen is posted close to the beginning of the month and members sign up for open days on a first come first serve basis. For the moment, these are usually Sundays and Mondays. Yaki Snack Attack has a fairly permanent schedule of Tuesday thru Friday; and Saturdays are run by Brianne Sacco of NOLA's Creole 2 Geaux. From barbeque to bao, chili pies to duck confit, it has all been done there in some form or another, and hopefully, for everyone's sake, it will continue for the foreseeable future.