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New downtown hotel lures a hot chef to the hospitality business: Will creative food follow?

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Chef Erin Smith JW Marriott Houston Downtown January 2014
Erin Smith will serve as executive chef at the upcoming JW Marriott hotel downtown.  Photo by Morris Malakoff
JW Marriott downtown Houston May 2013 rendering
The 80-story building is set to open this summer on Main Street.  Courtesy rendering
Chef Erin Smith JW Marriott Houston Downtown January 2014
JW Marriott downtown Houston May 2013 rendering
J.W. Marriott Houston Downtown Hotel
Get Directions - 806 Main Street Houston

Erin Smith, the former chef at Plonk! Bistro and current culinary director for the Clumsy Butcher group, has landed a new job as the executive chef at the still under construction JW Marriott hotel downtown. Smith will head up the hotel's restaurant as well as room service and catering options.

Smith tells CultureMap that she'd been looking for a new option for a couple of months when she happened to meet the new hotel's managing operator Germain Gallardo and started to consider the possibility of working for a hotel.

"This was a great opportunity in the heart of Houston," Smith says. "Not just in Houston, but downtown specifically. It's a really exciting thing to be a part of the development down here. I'm not just running a kitchen but running a food program for the entire hotel . . .

"It's something I think is going to push me out of my comfort zone a little. That's thrilling."

 "We really want to create something that stands alone; that doesn't feel like it's in a hotel." 

Hotels typically aren't known for their creative menus. To appeal to a wide range of guests, there's always a steak, a grilled salmon and some sort of pasta, but Smith says the JW Marriott wants to set itself apart.

"Our goal with the restaurant here is that we really want to create something that stands alone; that doesn't feel like it's in a hotel . . . ," she says. "If it does, then we haven't succeeded." 

Other hotels have tried that in the past. For example, the Hotel Icon partnered with celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten on Bank for three years, but, when chef de cuisine Bryan Caswell left to launch Reef, the restaurant closed. Smith isn't worried. "We're not looking to compare ourselves to anything that's been done before. I have a lot of faith that it's a great opportunity and a great option." 

Since the hotel won't open until this summer, Smith isn't ready to talk specifics, but she says "there are a lot of ideas in play."

Did she get permission to bring the biscuit recipe she created for Montrose coffee shop Blacksmith with her?

"It's not that I didn't get permission. I didn't ask," Smith responds with a laugh. "I would never take them away from Blacksmith . . I plan on eating a lot of biscuits and drinking a lot of lattes at Blacksmith while planning the menu." 

Finally, will she try to convince boyfriend Patrick Feges to leave his position at Underbelly and join her in the new venture? The two did serve a lovely meal together last fall at a dinner that benefited Recipe for Success.

"He keeps asking, but I haven't made any of those decisions yet . . .  I have mentioned, just sarcastically, with him if he really wants to be involved, he can bring his trailer and provide family meal while we're in the pre-opening," Smith says. "He didn't seem as interested in that." 

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