Houston certainly has its share of celebrity chefs who receive national recognition and accolades for their work. Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, one of Food & Wine Magazine’s best "new" chefs; Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, nominated along with Shepherd for the James Beard Award; Seth Siegel-Gardener and Terrence Gallivan of The Pass & Provisions, one of Bon Appetit’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America 2013; Justin Yu of Oxheart, too many recent honors to name, and the legendary Robert Del Grande of RDG (James Beard and other numerous awards) are just a few.
And of course, there are others. But chef Mark Gabriel Medina — co-executive chef at Soma Sushi — has been operating mostly under the radar. Sure, he won the People’s Choice award over 21 other chefs at the “Go Pig and Go Home” event for his scrumptious pork ramen (the ramen menu at Soma rocks, by the way).
But he's hardly Bryan Caswell, TV star.
Randy Rucker taught Medina how to appreciate food for its natural flavor — a mushroom, for example, or a piece of fish.
A native Houstonian, Medina traveled the world growing up (his father was in oil and gas), including a move to southeast Asia as a teenager, which left its mark in myriad ways. He loved seeing so much culture while a firsthand view of political strife further opened his eyes.
"The best thing about Asia is the street food," Medina says. "I loved having access to that . . . there’s so much happiness in that cuisine.”
Medina studied finance at Seton Hall in the early 2000s, but soon realized his true calling was to cook. His professional start came at the Houston Country Club after graduating from the Art Institute of Houston’s Culinary Program — where plenty of big-name Houston chefs like Charles Clark, Randy Evans and Shepherd each received their own culinary education.
Medina has been at Soma since last November. Prior to that, he was at Kata Robata for three years where Chef Manabu Horiuchi was a mentor and huge influence as were chefs like Shepherd and Siegel-Gardener who “slapped him into perspective” during Gardener’s time at Kata. Medina had been drawn to Asian cuisine and was determined to work with Horiuchi, who he considers one of the most talented Japanese chefs anywhere.
"All the local chefs knew Hori and I just really, really wanted to learn from him," he says.
Medina was lead line cook at the time when Siegel-Gardener was at Kata alongside Horiuchi. Medina found himself sandwiched between two intense figures from whom he learned tremendous discipline — classical Japanese training from Hori’s point of view and Siegel-Gardener's contemporary take.
“He had a very serious approach,” Medina says.
He also singles out Shepherd as not only a key figure in his development, but also as a chef he deeply respects. "He's contributed so much to our industry and has played a major role in bringing our culinary community together," Medina says.
A Chef's Education
Medina learned from peer chefs who passed through the doors during the collaborative efforts that resulted in what became the somewhat legendary “umami dinners” at Kata.
Thanks to Randy Rucker (the consulting chef for the upcoming El Big Bad and former owner/chef at Bootsie’s Heritage Cafe), Medina discovered how much he actually loves southern food, southern heritage and third coast cuisine. Like Hori, Rucker’s perspective on food was profound.
Rucker taught Medina how to appreciate food for its natural flavor — a mushroom, for example, or a piece of fish.
“Don’t mask it," Medina explains. "Embrace its natural flavor and find things that complement that. I learned to create honest food — unadulterated.”
Medina also mentions Ryan Pera of Revival Market and humbly adds that he’s privileged and lucky to continue to learn and work amongst such talent in Houston. Medina says meeting, talking and working with these chefs and many others in the industry has helped him to understand their individual philosophies.
From there, he was able to take from their experience and create something of his own.
"Gabe is certainly a rising star in the Houston culinary scene.”
Classical western training and the traditional combination of proteins and veggies brought a rustic, heavier feeling to Medina's cuisine. He began seeking balance in terms of both flavor and his food’s appearance. “Organized chaos took shape — in particular within the design concept of the plate,” he says.
He also loved working with Chris Leung, acclaimed pastry chef (and owner of Cloud 10 Creamery).
“Chris inspired the techniques for the pastry program at Soma,” Medina says. “He helped cultivate my mind and food to what it is now — balanced.
"You’re only as good as the rest of your team — I consider us one unit.” Hui Lim is the pastry chef and Pascal Choi is the other executive chef at Soma.
“He’s the numbers guy — he has a real understanding of pricing and margins,” Medina says of Choi. “I’m the dreamy one.”
They’ve done a comprehensive overhaul of the menu at Soma, which features a number of new items including Medina’s outrageously good heritage Mangalitsa pork dish (the pork comes from Revival Market). It’s smoked with mesquite and then cooked sous vide, served with pickled mushrooms, a yuzu fish sauce, salt pickled cucumbers and mustard seeds.
The duck confit is a revelation beginning with cured duck thighs, a rich shitake béchamel, spiced corn, shishito cornbread, red onions and cilantro. “Balanced” is truly what comes to mind when I eat this beautiful cuisine.
While raving about Medina’s cuisine, I’ve heard accolades from numerous chefs around town, including another award-winner — Randy Evans, chef and co-owner at Haven.
“Gabe is one of a few young chefs in this city that has learned classics from masters like chef Hori and taken that knowledge to produce new re-thought classics of his own, now at Soma," Evans says. "I've always said you can never re-create a classic if you have never learned the original.
"Gabe has done that and more. He has learned from his two mentors — Chef Hori and Chef Seth. Hori taught him about being true to cuisine and its heritage while Seth showed him new techniques, allowing him to fuse classic and modern, without his food lacking soul.
"Gabe is certainly a rising star in the Houston culinary scene.” I couldn’t agree more.