One of Houston’s most treasured restaurants will soon have a familiar face leading the kitchen. Kate McLean will return to Tony’s as its executive chef and partner, the restaurant announced.
Formerly Tony’s executive chef from 2013 to 2017, McLean will replace chef Austin Waiter, who has accepted a new position at another establishment. In addition to leading the kitchen, McLean will assist Tony’s owner Donna Vallone, widow of founder Tony Vallone, in managing the restaurant’s day-to-day operations.
“Austin will always be part of the Tony’s family,” Vallone said in a statement. “We can’t wait to see what happens next in his career.”
After leaving Tony's, McLean explored other interests such as writing for outlets like CultureMap and the Houston Press, bartending, doing philanthropic work, and hosting the Pre-Shift podcast with restaurant veteran Brian Brossa. She tells CultureMap that she reconnected with professional cooking when she consulted on a new menu for Julep, Alba Huerta’s Southern-inspired cocktail bar. The experience led her to contemplate returning to the kitchen full time.
After Tony Vallone’s death in 2020, the chef began spending more time at Tony’s. When Donna Vallone approached her about coming back to work at the restaurant, she knew it made sense.
“Being in that space, I feel him there,” McLean says. “Being with Donna, grieving Tony over these last 15 months, when she called, it felt right. It feels right.”
The chef says she already has ideas about how to revamp the menu by enhancing Tony’s existing strengths. The bar menu will receive an upgrade with items like A5 Kuroge Washu Wagyu wrapped in liquid Parmigiano Reggiano and upscale treats like foie gras cotton candy. Another will be adding different pairings — think chilled vodka, natural wine, sparkling wine, etc. — to Tony’s popular caviar service.
“I’ve gotten back to the books and gotten into techniques I wasn’t doing before. I am pushing myself. I need for myself to always be doing better and pulling in more tools," McLean says.
“The first section I’m going to hit is pasta. We have a whole team dedicated to making fresh pasta every day. Highlighting that with sauces built in the pan, a good carbonara, a good cacio e pepe.”
McLean also plans to utilize Tony’s Wine Library — an intimate private dining room that features a Murano Italian hand-blown glass chandelier — for tasting menus matched to lights and music that enhance the overall experience.
Even with so many changes planned, regulars shouldn’t worry that they won’t recognize their favorite restaurant. Donna Vallone will remain present in the dining room, as will wine director Scott Banks and general manager Eric Pryor. Staples like flaming salt-crusted snapper, USDA Prime steaks, and pappardelle bolognese will always remain on the menu.
McLean’s first day at Tony’s will be February 10. On April 1, the restaurant will celebrate its founder with Tony Vallone Day, a party featuring passed hors d’oeuvres, martinis, classics dishes, and more. In honor of Tony Vallone, tuxedos and other formal attire will be encouraged. It may not be quite as raucous as Tony's in the '80s, but it should be a very good time. As for the chef, she's ready to do her part to re-introduce Tony's to a new generation of diners.
"I’m so happy right now. I’ve never felt so happy at this homecoming,” McLean says. “I’m just grateful and excited to be touching all these things and entertaining Houstonians just like he did.”