Food for Thought
An extreme chef: Skateboarding nut cooks up some of Houston's best steaks
It takes some extreme heat to sear a steak the way they do at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, but that’s not the only kind of extreme moves that chef/partner James Cole has going on.
Cole will be celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the River Oaks location this fall. Now a decade-long run at one restaurant is pretty good for any chef, but it’s particularly good for someone who never intended to even be a chef.
“I was a medic in the army,” Cole says. “And when I got out I decided to take a year and just travel around the country, staying with friends for a month or two here and there. And about the only kind of job you can get when you’re moving like that is in a restaurant. I’d just do anything. Prep work, whatever.”
Known as one of the most amiable chefs in town, Cole's also a bit of an extreme athlete away from the kitchen.
When his wanderlust finally led him to Austin he eventually wound up at Sfuzzi down on Sixth Street. Sfuzzi is long gone now, but in the day it was famous for its peach bellinis and pasta dishes.
Things went well for Cole while he was there and that’s when he thought he could make a career working in restaurants.
And even without any culinary schooling, Cole did make a career of it, to the point that the Fleming’s group came a calling 12 years ago and offered him a job in the Austin kitchen. Then 10 years back, they offered him the chef/partner position at the new location in River Oaks and he hasn’t looked back since.
Known as one of the most amiable chefs in town, who uses extreme heat to turn out terrific steaks, Cole is also a bit of an extreme athlete away from the kitchen.
If he’s not sweating it out in the Fleming’s kitchen he can be found with his family surfing on the coast, or down in Costa Rico, or, several days a week, hitting the wheeled board.
“I’ve been skateboarding for as long as I can remember,” Cole says. “I guess for as long as I could walk. I had a board with plastic wheels back in the ‘70s. I’m not great at it, but I’m OK.”
OK? At 40 Cole is still riding the rail and waxing poetic about half pipes and Jeff Phillips — a legendary Texas vert skater who has a skatepark named for him in Dallas.
Cole used to skate there but now you’ll find him in Houston at The Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark and some others around town. And he’s competed in hundreds of competitions.
“I’ve got second and third place a lot,” he says, “but I’ve yet to hold up the trophy. That’s what keeps me going. I want to win once before I’m too old.
“I can’t do some of the things I used to. But I’ve still got some moves.”
Cole's definitely got the moves in the kitchen when it comes to steaks. But while I love dining at Fleming’s, sometimes you just want to eat at home. Like, having a great meal in your sweats. But can you ever recreate a steakhouse steak in your own kitchen?
“If you really want the same flavor as a steakhouse you should grill it outdoors. The key to cooking a great steak is high heat and you can really only get that outdoors.”
“If you want a restaurant quality meal at home, you need restaurant quality equipment,” Cole says.
But, sans that, he does have some tips for home steak cooks.
Number one is to start with a great piece of meat. Fleming’s uses USDA Prime beef. But Cole says if you can’t afford that use an acid brine (citrus juice) to break down the muscle.
Once you have a good piece of tender flesh, salt and pepper is really all you need for seasoning. Oh, and for sauces, he says to serve them on the side.
“That way you can always add more,” he says, “but if it’s on the meat you can’t subtract it if it’s too much.”
And then, of course, you need extreme heat.
“If you really want the same flavor as a steakhouse you should grill it outdoors,” Cole says. “The key to cooking a great steak is high heat and you can really only get that outdoors on a grill.”
You can, of course, try to sear the steak in a grill pan on the stovetop, but as Cole points out, that can involve a lot of noisy smoke alarms going off.
After searing the steak you need to finish it in the oven. And in the final stages, add a pat of butter.
“That’s the way to really get the steakhouse flavor,” Cole says. “Finish it with butter, it makes the meat glisten and, well, everything is better with butter!”
And, finally, let the meat rest.
“Particularly if it’s more than medium rare, you need to let the meat rest before you cut it so the juices go back into the steak,” Cole says. “You want it crispy on the outside but tender inside.”
So the key to a great steak is extreme heat and extreme passion. Which Cole has for skateboarding and steaks, although he says he doesn’t eat steak as much as you would think.
“Maybe only a couple of times a month,” he says.
After all, he has to stay in shape for that next skateboard competition.