Houston restaurant reviews, industry profiles and food culture

Archive for August, 2010

Food Culture

August 31, 2010

“Foochebag” Has Wings: A Timeline

Nancy Nichols of D Magazine suggested in an article today that I either knowingly or unknowingly plagiarized the term “foochebag.” After tossing a few Retweets at her, as well as some dates, she retracted the statement and also apologized for calling me a psycho-foodie. It was corrected to the more accurate “highly caffeinated Twitterholic.” Yep, that’s me.

I’m OK with not being the first to make up the word “foochebag.” It’s not something I’d use in polite conversation, but it was an entirely independent thought. I’d never seen or heard the term before, and to the best of my knowledge, the word is my creation. I’m open to other suggestions, but I’d appreciate some proof that precedes my first use.

My first use of “foochebag” was in a conversation with John Seaborn Gray of the Houston Press on the afternoon of August 16, 2010. I was actually both bemused at and annoyed with John’s constant picking on “foodies”, which had been going on for at least a week. It led to this Tweet:

first foochebag

As far as I can figure out, this is the first usage of "foochebag"

My goal was to distinguish foodies from people who use what they ate, where they ate and how much they paid for it as some kind of ego-booster.

The Houston Press picked up the word and mentioned it in an article on August 18. This is the first use in a professionally-produced publication.

As far as I can tell, from there it was mentioned by Chuck Sudo of The Chicagoist and later used in his review of a place called Girl & the Goat. Carly Fisher also used it for NBC Chicago on August 27th, and the same article was cross-posted to NBC New York later the same day.

On August 28th, an intern for ABC 7 in Chicago, Brandon Smith, changed his Twitter handle to “foochebag” after seeing the NBC Chicago article.

That brings us to today, August 31st, 2010. Ms. Nichols’ article was published at D Magazine’s Sidedish blog and brought to my attention by Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom BBQ Gospel. Mr. Smith, obviously a good, honest guy, clarified that he is not the inventor of the term, and that he picked it up from the NBC posts.


I’m frankly amazed that a word I made up on-the-fly has traveled so far. I really thought my 15-minutes of fame might be because of a best-selling novel, or for pushing a little old lady out of the way of a Mack truck. But no, it’s apparently going to be for a word closely related to a feminine hygiene product. Rats.

Chef Stories,Houston Food Scene

August 29, 2010

Chef Carlos Rodriguez: Fire In the Kitchen

Chef Carlos Rodriguez

Concept Chef Carlos Rodriguez, Vic & Anthony's

by Phaedra Cook
Photos and editing by Chuck Cook


Vic & Anthony’s is known in Houston (and now, Las Vegas) as one of the most prestigious American steakhouses. But it’s far from being a staid meat-and-potatoes place—the menu is kept fresh via periodic introductions from Concept Chef Carlos Rodriguez, who has been with the restaurant for more than eight years. Vic & Anthony’s is known amongst Houston’s foodies as much for its legendary crab cake as much as for its wet-aged beef.

The chef took some time out of his busy six-day workweek to talk with me about how one lands the top spot in a world-famous kitchen.

Why did you become a chef?

My dad was great about taking us out to new restaurants and making me try different kinds of dishes. I started working in restaurants when I was at the University of Texas, and the plan was for me to go to law school. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was sitting in class one day listening to a professor drone on, and I dropped out and drove across town to sign up for culinary school.

What was the first restaurant you worked in?

When I was 18, I started as a dough roller at Mr. Gatti’s [now called Gatti’s Pizza]. I’d get up at 6 am and roll out pizza crust for three or four hours. Every now and then, the chef would use the dough and make calzones. He’d reinvent it using the same ingredient, and that’s how I got the bug in my ear about culinary school.

How does one go from being dough roller at Mr. Gatti’s to Concept Chef at Vic & Anthony’s?

It was a long road! I got out of school and worked at a 24-hour café in Austin and that helped me learn how to be fast. As far as line cooking goes, I did an internship at the Omni for a year and a half, so I got classical cooking experience there. Also, I worked for a country club for a few years and we’d do “theme nights,” like “Barbeque Night” or “Asian Night.”

Later, I moved to Houston to work for Chef Robert del Grande at Rio Ranch and later with San Hemwattakit who was Sous Chef at the Café Annie and later Executive Chef at Rio Ranch. Culinary school taught me about flavors but Chef Hemwattakit taught me about creativity. He’d send me to the cooler and say, “Grab eight things and let’s make something.” He taught me about adjusting flavors and why certain things worked together.

Then, I went to Pappas, and I learned not only about being a “free spirit,” but about how to systematize my creations—how to replicate something hundreds of times a day.

Finally, I got my shot to kind of do my own thing with Landry’s Restaurants at Vic & Anthony’s. I started eight months before it opened, and after all the recipes I developed, I probably ended up with enough that didn’t get used to open two more restaurants.

Every time a door has closed for me, the exact right one has opened up to allow me to do what I want to do.

Chef Rodriguez, the "fire" behind Vic & Anthony's menu items

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?

In May 2005, we had a banquet for 200 people, and a fire broke out in the kitchen. A “hot box” blew up in my face and a sheet pan caught on fire. The sprinklers came on and a big bladder of water hit me on the head. I thought that one of my crew had doused me with a bucket of water and I started yelling at them. I was convinced that I had a dining room of 200 of the most influential people in Houston being soaked, but it turned out that the sprinklers didn’t go off in there and they were fine.

The kitchen crew looked horrified and I started laughing, “OK, we can still do this. It can’t get any worse from here.” The fire marshal showed up demanding to talk with me and I said, “I can’t talk to you right now. We have 200 plates to do and then we’re OK.” We made it through the banquet. You can’t quit; you’ve got to keep going.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Opening the Houston location and then being able to succeed in Las Vegas were both huge accomplishments, but I am probably most grateful to have been successful for this long. I have 37 people in the kitchen. What we do keeps them employed and allows them to take care of their families.

Let’s talk about something fun. What does the term “foodie” mean to you?

Foodies are people who appreciate food and want to talk about it, perhaps to the point of over-analysis. There are good foodies who appreciate your work, and then there are bad ones who just want to tear you apart and be frustrated food critics. Overall, foodies have been good for restaurants and the food scene. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of cool people because of it.

What’s your favorite dish that you serve?

The maple-glazed quail. It’s just a perfect dish. It’s sweet, spicy, smoky, juicy, crispy, meaty and a little acidic. There’s hot and cold in the same dish and there’s really good balance. It was the first dish I developed for Vic & Anthony’s menu, and the last that was approved because there was a question about whether it would be viable.

What’s the next big thing in food?

It’s hard to tell since it changes so quickly. Regional and local has been a big deal. When I started in the industry, it was all about global cuisine. You could bring in anything from anywhere. Now it’s all what’s local and in-season. Here at Vic & Anthony’s, I can take advantage of both. I also have to consider that I’m sourcing for two locations. There’s not much that grows around Las Vegas.

If you source the best stuff you can make the best food. Everything is local to somebody.

Name a chef that you think is doing important work here in Houston.

Randy Rucker [of Bootsie’s and connate] and those guys out in Tomball have got some exciting things going on.

What testing process does a dish have to undergo to make it to the menu?

There are different phases. You have to look at the menu that you have and see where you want to go with it. I sit down and write 30 ideas on a legal pad, then do rewrites on and off for days or weeks. We’ll focus on 10 to 12 things that we want to work on. Sometimes when working on stuff, something else will occur to me and I’ll make little changes along the way.

Then, I have to look at the functionality of the dish. For example, how many stations are needed to make the dish? What is the cost of ingredients? We had a fantastic appetizer dish that used $18 in ingredients. Not many people are going to pay $40 for an appetizer.

We might use a concept as a special to get some feedback or use it on a fixed-price dinner to see how it plays. Obviously, Mr. Ferttita [President and CEO of Landry’s Restaurants] has the last word.

What dish took the most testing to perfect?

The crab cake on our menu is version number 37. I have a box called “The Crab Cake File.” I put 65 pounds on Tim [Kohler, Director of Operations for Vic & Anthony’s]. He ate all of everything I produced from the first bite to the last bite. He said, “I have to know what it’s like for the customers.”

How do you feel about where you are at these days?

It took a lot of hard work and tribulations, but I’m happy to be here. Houston has been good to me. It’s home.

Restaurant Review

August 24, 2010

Vibrant Samba Grille Brightens Downtown Houston

Samba Grille in Pictures

Photos by Chuck Cook (@bitspitter). Full gallery at http://www.flickr.com/bitspitter.

Calamari at Samba Grille

Picture 1 of 12

Quick Facts

Location: 530 Texas at the Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza
Chef: Cesar Rodriguez

Item Pricing (lunchtime):

Samba Crab Cakes: $14
Calamari Strips: $8
Jade Soup: $6 cup / $10 bowl
Gaucho (South American-style steak): $22
Samba Sunfish: $17
Tres Leches: $9
Apple Pie Empanadas: $9

A Preview of Samba Grille

by Phaedra Cook

Yesterday, Chuck and I had the honor of attending a special “Friends and Family” test run at Samba Grille. I expected there would be a few things to iron out along the way. After all, the signs weren’t even up yet, one of which sat in a cart in front of Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza, waiting patiently for someone to come hoist it into the metal framework on the building.
What we encountered instead was a place that is fully ready to start delighting customers with its South American offerings. From the details of the food—which partner/manager Nathan Ketchum has been closely involved with—to the training of the staff (everyone I spoke with had tried several of the dishes already), this place is ready for prime-time.
Indeed, prime-time theatergoers will likely be one of its biggest customer contingents, along with executives and office workers who have been wishing for a new place downtown for a nice lunch. Samba Grille will provide rodizio service in the evening for those looking for a fine dinner date and a timely à la carte lunch to rushed workers during the day.
I’ve been to two downtown restaurants in the past two weeks that could not provide me with an entrée within 45 minutes. Samba Grille served our beverages immediately, an appetizer six minutes later and an entrée about 10 minutes after that. It is a refreshing change.
Nathan Ketcham is not just a restaurateur; he loves the details of food. He was personally involved in developing their custom passion fruit iced tea—a blend of fruit with black and green teas. I drank it with no sugar and could not detect a trace of bitterness.


The staff at Samba Grille

Sommelier Marc Borel had already proven himself to be a pairing genius at his previous gig with 13 Celsius, especially when selecting complements to the work of Jody Stevens of jodycakes. (Cupcakes and wine? Yes, please!) Samba Grille’s broad menu gives Marc a lot to play with, and he has already developed his wine list. I look forward to a return visit to try his suggestions.
To keep me coming back, a restaurant must have a dish that I crave. Samba Grille has two of these: their calamari strips and their amazing, creamy, substantial tres leches cake. Even though I just had these yesterday, I could happily have them again today.


The calamari strips at Samba Grill. Tender and delicious!

Unlike typical rings-and-tentacles calamari, Samba Grille’s are cut into strips from thicker, flat pieces of squid, before being breaded with herbed, fine panko crumbs and deep-fried. On the menu, the calamari includes a side of romesco sauce, but it was not available on our visit. Instead, we had it with the house aioli, which was delightful—creamy and slightly spicy with peppadew pepper bits. I think it could be addictive, and Nathan said it was his favorite sauce. If you order the calamari, you might want to request the aioli on the side in addition to the romesco.
The house aioli normally accompanies the crab cakes. The three little cakes acquire a spicy, earthy South American flair from aji (Peruvian hot pepper) and a unique yucca flour binding.
The tres leches is as fine as I have ever had, and the perfect portion for two to share. The sweet combination of milks gently seeps from the cake to your plate, daring you to swipe them up with every bite. The cake is pleasingly dense, but lighter than typical bread puddings, and is topped with whipped cream.
If you aren’t looking for a substantial dessert like the Tres Leches, try the surprisingly-light apple empanadas.
The Jade Soup is a verdant concoction of cream with pureed spinach and broccoli, topped with nice chunks of crabmeat. We found it to be very rich and flavorful, but there was a little too much salt, which overpowered the delicate seafood. We mentioned this to the staff and hope to find a less-salted version there in the future, as it is well worth trying again.
I wanted to try the Gaucho steak with chimichurri sauce, as it is the stereotypical dish I think of when I consider South American food. We ordered it medium rare, and it was cooked perfectly. It was a tender, moist piece of tenderloin (pounded to be flatter and wider), topped with some chimichurri with additional on the side. Samba seems to do sides exceptionally well, with garlic mashed potatoes that made me actually say “Wow!” aloud, and beautifully caramelized baked plantains that were slightly crisp and sweet on the outside—creamy and pleasantly tangy on the inside. If you get the plantains as a side, and your dining companion doesn’t, consider ordering extras or your friend might demand that you share.


The gaucho at Samba Grill is a lovely piece of tenderloin

We also ordered the Samba sunfish filets. I figured that any dish that a restaurant was willing to put its name on must be pretty good. If someone had told me that this dish was called “butter fish,” I would have totally believed them. There’s apparently a darn good saucier in-house, as these were coated with a made-in-the-pan velouté that was delicately flavored with maracuyá (yellow passionfruit). I’m not often a fan of white fish, but these made a believer out of me. Slightly smoky, grilled asparagus politely accompanied the fish, with their thicker ends pared to ensure no toughness.
Samba Grille is also doing something that I find very exciting: paella. This is a risky dish that I don’t usually order when I’m out, for two reasons. Either the restaurant requires advance notice (which I never think to give, since I never specifically go out for paella), or the word-of-mouth on the quality of the dish is uniformly negative. Samba Grille has developed a way to make paella de marisco that not only ensures that the rice picks up the flavor of the seafood, but that they can also finish and present in 20 minutes. Rice in this dish was generally a bit al dente, which Nathan explained is traditional for the texture. It is NOT paella with a crispy bottom (known as “socarrat”); Nathan said it is modeled after the Northern Spain version of the dish. The fish, mussels and large scallop included all looked and tasted very fresh, and there was a sear mark all along the outside edge of the scallop, proving it had kissed a pan or flat-top before its inclusion.
If Samba Grille is not a wild success, it certainly won’t be because of lack of hard work and preparation. The staff of Samba Grille has demonstrably worked hard. I wish the place a fabulous opening and a long lifespan.
Samba Grille’s “soft opening” is Thursday, August 24th and its grand opening is on September 7th, which is Brazilian Independence Day.

For a review of the rodizio dinner, check out Albert Nurick’s review at H-Town Chow Down!

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: This was a special, no-charge event as the restaurant was not officially open yet at the time I visited. I have done my utmost to use the same impartiality I’d use when considering any meal and believe that Samba did an outstanding job. I will not hesitate to return as a paying customer. Pricing was provided for regular service and is included here.

Restaurant Review,West Side Stories

August 22, 2010

West Side Stories: Tuscany Italian Bakery

by Phaedra Cook

We live on the far West side of Houston. Restaurants on the West side don’t get nearly as much “buzz” as those inside the 610 Loop. There might be a reason for that. There aren’t as many upper-scale places here, although there are some. Bistro Le Cep, Le Mistral, Piatto and Pradaria spring immediately to my mind. There aren’t many well-known chefs who work in this area, either.
Still, there are several jewels that are worth driving a bit for if you don’t live out here. These “West Side Stories” are about being in search of the gems, while identifying the ones that aren’t worth the time.

The Original Destination

Phở One (11148  Westheimer Rd) received the Houston Press Best Phở award in 2009 and has been my family’s default phở place since it opened. It’s a family-owned business, and these are friendly folks that make it a point to get to know their regular customers. The patriarch knows where we like to sit and can make a good guess as to what we’re likely to order. (He’s getting used to the idea that I’m unpredictable.)

The phở is consistently good. Is it the best phở ever? Having made phở myself at home a few times now, I am still looking for a place that dishes out darker stock than the chicken-colored one that we normally see. If you know of a place with a homestyle broth, let me know so I can check it out. Regardless, Phở One is not likely to lose their status of trusted neighborhood spot anytime soon.

A New Neighbor

Tuscany Italian Bakery sign

Tuscany Italian Bakery opened on August 16, 2010

My daughter and I are both in braces, so soup is generally all we can handle after getting them adjusted. Yesterday, we went for our phở fix at and saw that a brand new place called Tuscany Italian Bakery had opened up next door at 11150 Westheimer. Intrigued, we stepped inside to check it out.
Tuscany Italian Bakery is a combination bakery and café. They offer bread, cookies and pastries, and a small selection of sandwiches, pizzas, soup and lasagna. They had just opened this past Monday, and were definitely still getting their legs under them.

It’s a Cookie, Stupid

I pointed to a small cookie and asked the young man behind the counter, “What is this?”
“It’s a cookie,” he replied.
“Yes, I can see that. What kind of cookie?”
He became a little flustered at that point. “It’s like a sugar cookie,” he said.
“Oh, okay. What about that cookie?” I pointed to the next one over, a sandwich cookie with dark filling.
He noticeably brightened. “That one is filled with Nutella.” I brightened also.
“Would you like a sample of soup?” he asked.
“Sure!” I replied, and he handed me a small plastic cup with a little plastic spoon. The soup was very tasty, with a flavorful chicken stock and an assortment of vegetables, including some hearty chunks of potato. “What kind of soup is this?” I asked.
“Minestrone.” Ah ha. This one he knew.

Short In Supply

I asked my daughter if she’d like to lunch here or if she still had her heart set on phở. She still wanted phở, so we went to our mainstay next door. I promised the young man we’d return for dessert. We did, and ordered a tiramisu, a cappuccino, and a piece of lasagna to go.

“I’m sorry, we just sold the last two pieces of lasagna,” he said. He seemed appropriately sad about this.

A lady behind us asked him, “Is that your last tiramisu?” pointing at the one remaining plastic cup—the one I’d just ordered.

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry! We’ll have more at 4 pm.”

I told the lady she could take the last tiramisu and selected a small coconut cake instead. Since the lasagna was sold out, I asked if there was any other entree I could take to-go other than sandwiches.

No, there wasn’t. Well, what about the pizzas? I asked, pointing to the menu board. Those were still available. I ordered the “Napoli,” a 10-inch pizza with ham, mozzarella, and red bell pepper strips.

Tuscany Italian Bakery cappuccino

This was my favorite part of my visit; a very decent cappuccino

My daughter and I had the coconut cake and cappuccino while we waited on the pizza. The coconut cake was interesting, with a few bits of cherry strewn through. It had a nice balance of sweetness and was not cloying. The layer of coconut along the outside provided nice texture. The one odd thing was the creamy layer at the bottom. This cake seemed more like a tres leches than a traditional coconut. The manager spied me taking a photo, I think, and came over to talk with us. She brought with her two small slices of a different cake to sample. This cake was also spongy and milky, with a dark layer running down the center. “This one is my favorite, she said. “Is that caramel in the middle?” I asked. “No, it’s Nutella,” she said. Well, there would be no shortage of chocolate hazelnut spread in this place. Both cakes were equally good.

The cappuccino pleased me the most, with a thick layer of foam generously sprinkled with a mixture of cinnamon and fine sugar.

The Pizza Quandary

Napoli pizza from Tuscany Italian Bakery

This was the pizza that took 30 to 45 minutes. There were some nice red bell peppers on it.

There would be one last bobble before our visit was done. My daughter and I finished our dessert and coffee and I went to the counter to pay and get our to-go pizza. The same young man we visited with before said “It’s going to be another 15 minutes before the pizza is ready. I hope that’s OK?”

Uh-oh. I had to be someplace before 4:30, so no, it really wasn’t. I told him that I had to leave and would come back to pick up the pizza. It seemed to me that the pizza should have been baked while we were having our dessert and coffee, so I’m not sure what the hold-up was.
About 30 minutes later, we returned, and I sent my daughter inside to retrieve the pizza. She came back, bearing not only the pizza but also the $10 I’d paid for it. “They said they were really sorry,” she said. “They said they’re still figuring out the baking time and it should not have taken so long to make it. I told them they didn’t have to give us a refund, but they insisted.”
The pizza was pretty tasty. The toppings were flavorful and seemed to be of good quality. The crust, which was somewhere between thin and medium, was a little boring, but serviceable.
I also took home a loaf of Italian wheat bread. It’s sufficient to make sandwiches with, but nothing special.

Bread Shelves at Tuscany Italian Bakery

Tuscany Italian Bakery has an assortment of breads baked on-site

I’ll Be Back

I am a fan of small, friendly businesses that are trying to treat their customers right. For that, I am prepared to forgive mistakes and give second and even third chances. The manager said that no one comes in the evening, but the place is open until 8 pm.
I recommend that you visit Tuscany Italian Bakery and show your support. People who live in the area have not discovered them yet. Go next door to Phở One for your entrée, and then drop by Tuscany for one of their frothy, cinnamon-y cappuccinos. Accompany that with a dessert or two. A few weeks from now, they’ll probably have the kinks worked out. I’m hoping to get some lasagna next time.

Tuscany Italian Bakery on Urbanspoon

Food Culture

August 18, 2010

Foodie Etiquette

by Phaedra Cook

Photos by Chuck Cook

My last post was in defense of foodies and the good we do. This post, however, is about the dark side of foodies.

Some writers have deemed foodies a rude, selfish group. Lumping us all together in this way lacks accuracy and fairness. As I highlighted in my previous post, everyone loves food to some extent or another, and the line that divides “human that needs to eat” from “foodie” is gray and wiggly.

It would be equally unfair to not recognize that the critics have a point. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras coupled with the accessibility of other people via the Internet (especially through Twitter) has enabled thoughtless people to behave poorly. Even nice foodies can go overboard in their passions.

My husband and I try hard to be considerate, but we’re just as capable of screwing up as anyone else. One night, we were at a dessert tasting. My husband’s camera has a big, bright flash. It doesn’t bother me when he takes photos of the dishes. I’m pretty much immune to it now. It never occurred to either of us that other diners might be offended by it until the maître d’ informed us that someone had complained. Now, we at least consider the setting and the size of the room before taking our food’s glamour shots.

Many hobbies have rules or standards to abide by. If you consider the pursuit of culinary adventure to be a big part of your life, you may want to think about how to engage in the activity without being inconsiderate. Consider adopting these rules:

  1. Recognize when you are not dining or conversing with a fellow foodie, and save your in-depth information for someone who will appreciate it. Try to be empathetic. I know it’s sad, but some people really don’t care that regular brown sugar is just granulated sugar with the molasses added back in. Talk about something else—and I do hope you have something else to talk about.
  2. Don’t Tweet your entire meal. Alas, I am guilty of that, but I’m a reformed Bumble. I now just take photos of the noteworthy dishes and make a note or two (or a Tweet or two). I write or Tweet about it further after the meal is over if warranted. The exception to this is when you’re dining with a group of known foodies who will not only understand, but will probably be doing the same thing.

Remember the other photo from this meal in my previous post? This might look crazy to you, but these are all foodies and we're OK with it. We call it "bloggers' grace."

  1. It is rude to talk about how much you paid for a meal, a dish, or anything food-related unless you are asked. (However, it’s needed and expected information if you are writing about it.)
  2. It is rude to ask someone how much he or she paid for something if you’re going to resent the answer. Some folks have more money than you. You’ve had your whole life to get used to this idea and do something about it. It’s your problem, not theirs.
  3. If you use your “foodie cred” to get special attention, discounts or to threaten restaurant staff, you’re going straight to Hell.
  4. If you are offered anything special by anyone who knows that you love food, it is your duty to be grateful and appreciative, even if you don’t like what is offered.
  5. Don’t try to one-up someone who knows more than you about a particular type of food. Listen and learn.
  6. Give respect to the food professionals who stay on their feet for 8+ hour shifts and put up with more bullshit in a night than you do in a week. Most of these people are not rich. The work they do is vocational and they do it because they have a passion for feeding people. Even if the restaurant isn’t very good, most people in the food industry are still doing the best they can under the circumstances.
  7. If you write restaurant reviews (for a blog, a paper, etc.) and are given something complimentary, I don’t think it is ethical to write about the free item or let it affect your review. At the least, the freebie must be disclosed so readers can consider your opinion with some skepticism. It’s safer to simply say “thank you” and write about what you ordered and paid for. There are integrity issues to consider.

If these “rules” all sounded like simple common courtesy to you, you’re probably the kind of person I’d like to have a meal with sometime. What this all comes down to is having some empathy for your fellow humans. I don’t know if that’s a skill one can learn, but if you don’t have it, I hope you will look into ways of developing it.


These people are hard-working food professionals. I respect them. I hope you do, too.

Don’t be a foochebag.

Further reading:
Stop Broadcasting Your Social Life by Helena Echlin
Money Manners Faux Pas by Kelii B. Grant
CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character by Del Jones

Food Culture

August 15, 2010

In Defense of “Foodies”

by Phaedra Cook

Photos by Chuck Cook, unless otherwise noted

I feel sorry for my ex-husband. When I got married at age 20, I didn’t know how to cook. We were very broke and survived on ramen, spaghetti and frozen burritos. No wonder that marriage didn’t work out.

Things changed when I married a man with a limited, but delicious, repertoire. I’d had five years of practice by then on making a damn good spaghetti, and his was just as good as mine. He also had a remarkable potatoes and sausage dish that I still love after almost 17 years of marriage. He calls it “bachelor food”; I call it tasty.

I wanted to be able to do better by this man and my young children, and that’s where my path as a “foodie” began. Food Network’s Good Eats host Alton Brown convinced me that I could cook if I just learned the scientific principles that turned raw ingredients into delicious concoctions. Central Market arrived in Houston a few years later, and suddenly I had the world of food on my doorstep. Now I could try truffles instead of just wondering about them. Our thriving Asian markets enabled me to obtain what I needed to make some of our most-beloved restaurant dishes, like ph and Thai Beef Salad.

However, we were oddballs amongst our non-foodie friends and co-workers, until recently. The Internet enables people with common interests to find each other, and when foodies find each other locally, they break bread together. The communal event of sharing food binds people in friendship like no other.

Now our group is under scrutiny. We’re being called superficial, arrogant and insufferable. While those may be personality traits of some individuals, true foodies are not obnoxious and in fact serve some important roles.

tables full of foodies

Boy, that's a whole lot of foodies. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Foodies Everywhere

Everyone is a foodie in some way. Maybe your grandmother swears by a particular type of flour. Maybe she only uses homemade chicken stock and never canned, or if she does use canned, only a certain brand will do.

If you’re willing to drive an extra two miles to go to the “better” fried chicken place, then you’re something of a “fast foodie.”

Being a foodie is simply having curiosity about food, and being willing to make a little more effort to get what you want. We all have to eat, and we should care about what we put into our mouths, or the mouths of those we feed. Our health, and our waistlines, depend on it.

Fake Foodies

There are some people out there calling themselves foodies that are giving us a bad name. They are not in search of knowledge. They want to feel important, and find their outlets by demanding refunds from chefs for invented slights (after finishing their meal, of course) and posting their unfair perspective on restaurant review sites. These people are on a quest to prove that they have better taste and know more than everybody else. These are not foodies, these are douchebags who use food as their status symbol of choice. They are no different than the person who brags about their car or their cell phone.

Let’s consider actual foodies and the roles they serve in our community.

Support of Local Food and Chefs

At some point, most of us foodies figured out that the best food doesn’t usually come from a national chain restaurant or a factory. Many of us choose our ingredients from local sources when possible, and prefer restaurants that do the same as much as is reasonable. We go to the farmers’ markets, and our support—both word-of-mouth and financial—has helped make it possible for more of these to spring up all over Houston in the last few years.

When our chefs want to try something new, we are behind them all the way, even when the general public initially balks. While we might like steak frites, we sure don’t want them every week. Creative chefs plus foodies is a winning combination. The chef gets to stretch his or her wings, and we get to have new experiences.

Quality Pushers

Jamie Oliver isn’t the first person to care about what schools feed children at lunchtime, but him sticking his famous name on the cause doesn’t hurt one bit. If we work to put good food on our tables at home, why would it be acceptable for schools to do less for the one or even two meals our kids get there? Caring parents who happen to have a little foodie in them are pushing the better-food-in-schools movement. Whose kids benefit? Everyone’s do.

Foodies are anti-crap. We want food handled in a safe manner dictated by science and common sense. We know that processed food with lots of sugar and salt isn’t healthy, but we also aren’t above an occasional indulgence. (A burger with Cheetos and cheese sauce? Yes, please, but not every day.)

Because we care about food, we’re willing to do the homework and complain when something is not good from a health, quality or safety standpoint, and all consumers reap the rewards.

Foodies crowded around the Tacosamadre truck

These people at the taco truck? Foodies. Photo by Chuck Cook

Cultural Inclusion

Foodies are an inclusive group. Are you from somewhere else? Great! What do you eat? Can you teach us how to make it? Where can we buy the ingredients? Being from somewhere else is not a liability; it’s a benefit when you’re hanging out with foodies.

Food is a doorway. What starts out as a journey for food can end with deeper cultural knowledge. Do you know about Indonesian lore? Check out the dances at the annual festival. How does a lady properly wear a sari? Go on a guided tour of Little India.

Go for the food; stay for the education. Make some new friends while you’re there.

Economic Inclusion

It doesn’t require a lot of money to be a foodie. A group recently did hot wing comparisons amongst six different places over a series of evenings. (It turns out that guys probably don’t actually go to Hooters for the wings, as they ranked the lowest.)

I’m currently on a cupcake comparison mission, which costs me $2.50 to $5 each. That’s less than I used to spend per day at Starbucks. So, you can’t afford the fancy dish featuring the exotic ingredient at the pricey restaurant? Buy the ingredients (online if you can’t find it nearby) and make the dish yourself. Recipes for just about anything are available for free on the Internet.

Foodie Power

“Foodies” are an easy bunch to make fun of. We’re nerds about the details, making much of the meaty chewiness of shitakes versus tree ears, or running all over town to acquire chocolate cupcakes from five different bakers to do side-by-side comparisons. Our friends who aren’t quite as “foodie” as we are just shake their heads and laugh, and don’t understand why we care about when to use Madagascar vanilla and when to use Mexican. We’re often referred to as the people who eat the “weird shit,” and we’re OK with that.

Foodies at Cooper's barbeque

Yep, those foodies and their snobby Texas barbeque... Photo by Chuck Cook

Still, I think more of you will be joining us. Oh, you only like down-home food and none of that ethnic stuff? Well, you might enjoy our barbeque runs to places like Lockhart, Tyler and Austin, where we go in search of the best brisket in Texas.

Get used to us foodies, because we’re everywhere and we’re here to stay.