6 Celebrity Chefs Who Started at Brennan’s of Houston

Even before you Stepping into Brennan’s of Houston’s elegant Vieux Carré interiors is like stepping into a special place. Founded in 1967 as a sister restaurant to the legendary Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, Brennan’s of Houston is as legendary in the Houston culinary world as its illustrious predecessor.

Within the walls of the pretty dining room, which was completely remodeled after a disastrous fire in 2008, Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine filmed a famous oyster scene in the Oscar-winning film tenderness conditions. Countless Houston families have grown up with a tradition that includes serving turtle soup and bananas at the table. Foster: Sunday brunch in the courtyard. Brennan’s legacy as one of Houston’s most storied and treasured restaurants cannot be disputed.

Aside from what’s obvious to the consumer, however, Brennan’s has played a very important role that has been underestimated: For years, partly because of its relationship with the Culinary Institute of America, Brennan’s has served as the de facto training ground for the rise of culinary talent in Houston and beyond.

In fact, the list of chefs who were once employed by Brennan’s reads like a national culinary who’s who. Daniela Soto-InnesWinner of the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, she held a pastry chef position at Brennan’s in 2010. Sarah Grueneberg2003 Sous Chef at Brennan’s, won the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. Kevin Ratbunwhose eponymous Rathbun’s in Atlanta has been named among America’s best restaurants esquirealso served as Brennan’s sous chef. Etc.

In Houston, Brennan paved the way for names like Chris Shepherd, Mark Holley, Danny Trace, Joe Cervantez, Bobby Matos, Patrick Feges, Martin Weaver, Matt Marcus, Nick Fine, Sean Hochstein, Lance Fegan, Mark Cox, Randy Evans, Jamie Zelko and others – all of whom own or direct their own restaurants and culinary concepts.

“When you’re a really good ball player, you want to team up with great ball players,” said Alex Brennan-Martin, president of Brennan’s. “We created a simple truth: we create great memories for our guests. We are open on big days and holidays; Sunday morning for Sunday brunch. We make significant numbers. That’s why we have a reputation among young chefs that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Mark Holley

Davis Street at Hermann Park | museum district

Mark Holley wouldn’t be Mark Holley if it wasn’t for Brennan’s. Overall, he spent 12 of the most formative years of his career with the Brennan’s family, first as line chef, then as Garde Manager at sister restaurant Commander’s Palace in New Orleans before returning to the position of executive sous chef before breaking through alone to manage Pesce, to run his eponymous Holley’s and now Davis Street in Hermann Park. “Brennan’s gave me a roadmap to excel and perform,” says Holley. It also shaped his Pan-Asian Creole cooking style, which you’ll find in dishes like his famous whole fried Thai snapper, served with a kimchi collar, hoppin’ john, and Thai barbecue sauce.

Joe Cervantez

Pier 6 | san leon

Joe Cervantez’s kitchen at Pier 6 in San Leon serves more than 1,000 guests over the weekend. That’s no small feat for any restaurant, let alone one with around 200 seats. But Cervantez was more than prepared for the task, having spent several years at Brennan’s, first as a banquet chef, then as an executive chef. You’ll see Brennan’s influence here and there with dishes like crawfish empanadas and redfish on the half shell, but Pier 6’s menu, which Cervantez developed from the ground up in collaboration with owner Raz Halili, has its own identity. The next step in his career? “We are building a large party room for weddings and banquets at the marina,” he says. As Brennan’s former banquet chef, he’s got that in his pocket.

Danny Lane

potent | Downtown

Italian on his grandmother’s side and Southern on his grandfather’s side (from Thibodaux, Louisiana), Danny Trace spent most of his culinary career at the Commander’s Palace and in Brennan’s family. In 2017, he left Brennan’s to open Potente, Jim Crane’s downtown Italian fine-dining restaurant, but his time with the Brennan family still influences much of his work. “Be consistent,” he says. “Don’t cut corners. It takes time to make lobster stock.” To this day, Trace refuses to compromise on quality and works with farmers to source the best meat and produce he can find. He also lets in a bit of Creole here and there: Boudin and cracklins at Potente? Why not?

Patrick Fege

Sweeping BBQ | spring branch

When Patrick Feges worked at Brennan’s, he was still a young line chef. His great insight from his two years there: “As soon as they walk in the door, the entire experience revolves around the guest,” he says. “It’s not about me. It’s about the guest.” Fege’s career took him to Underbelly, Killens Barbecue, and Southern Goods before he and his wife, Erin Feges, opened Feges BBQ. They have two locations now, but the location is Spring Branch the place where he flexes his cooking muscles. “We’re the only place in Houston where you can get a whole platter of pork,” he says proudly.It’s served with pork fat cornbread and charred coleslaw and is served pulled and chopped, with cracklin on top – a mix of Texas and Carolina barbecue styles.

Bobby Matos

State of Grace, La Lucha, Superica | River Oaks, the heights

He is currently Culinary Director for three Ford Fry concepts: State of Grace, La Lucha and Superica. But when he moved to Houston from San Diego in 2010, Bobby Matos was an unknown. Citing its historical significance, his wife Jessica got him a sous chef position at Brennan’s, where he worked under chef Danny Trace to help reopen Brennan’s after the great fire. He says the experience left an indelible mark, showing him not only the magic and technique behind Cajun and Creole cuisine (which he still uses), but also how to perform fine dining on a mass scale without sacrificing integrity .

Chris Shepherd

southern smoke

One of Houston’s most well-known chefs, Chris Shepherd — winner of James Beard Best Chef: Southwest 2014 — waxes poetic about his time at Brennan’s, where he worked in his early years after graduating from culinary school. Starting with the hot app station, he recalls: “It was overwhelming: so much work. It was crazy.” But in the same breath, he recalls fondly, “You had to be tight; you had to have it perfect. It was a lot of fun.” Shepherd recently parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality (Georgia James, Georgia James Tavern, Wild Oats, Underbelly Burger) to focus on his work with Southern Smoke, the charity he founded in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. “We’ve received $10 million in funded grants since 2015,” says Shepherd. His next target? Expanding charity services to include free mental health care for the restaurant industry.

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