Houston. You don’t quite get it at first. It takes a while.
“It’s a friendly city with smart people looking to have a good time with no pretense.” That’s how John Schenk, executive chef at Strip House describes the Houston scene.
“But I don’t go out that much anymore.”
After a brief trip to New York where Chef Schenk participated in “Teammates in the Kitchen,” a benefit for the James Beard Foundation and the Queens Economic Development Corporation, he and I lounge comfortably in his posh restaurant, slightly under-lit with a classy burlesque red velvety ambiance, rich dark woods, adorned with black and white images of seductive women photographed by Vienna’s Studio Manasse in 1900’s.
I wonder how best to break the news to him that I don't eat meat.
An avid advocate of seasonal and fresh cuisine, Schenk grew up in a farm in Buffalo, N.Y., where he developed a love for simply cooked foods. From there, his illustrious career earned him Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chefs” award. He was the original chef on the Food Network’s Ready, Set, Cook, and has been featured on the Today Show, CBS Saturday Morning and FOX & Friends.
Schenk’s father grew up in Galveston and his cooking was always influenced by southern flavors. Coming to Houston seems more like the completion of a familial migration cycle.
“One of my favorite foods,” Schenk describes vividly, “is cauliflower, blanched quickly, drizzled in truffle vinaigrette, maybe with some haricot verts and a bowl of al dente pasta with marinated arugula and grape tomatoes.”
Maybe we have more in common than I thought.
“Plus my wife is a vegetarian and has been since before we got married,” he explains. “She is Korean and some of the sea vegetables she brings home are quite strong scented and flavored. These aren’t your typical Nori sheets,” insinuating jokingly that most western palates would find these foods somewhat unappealing.
“I am vegan,” I blurt out, somewhat apologetically, feeling like I just ripped off a band-aid rather rapidly.
So, what am I doing in a steakhouse?
Strip House, or any steakhouse for that matter, is not a place a vegan frequents but rather tries to avoid at all costs. But as Schenk describes it, “steakhouses are the upper echelon of fine dining in most cities.” And fine dining should be available for anyone who would like to explore it, with any dietary requirements, whether self-imposed or due to personal taste and preference.
As I continue on my vegan journey, I find myself in situations where I externalize sensitivities. What I could describe as feelings of insecurity, perhaps like the fear of being the last boy to be picked in gym class, I remind myself that I am at a restaurant, where people come to have fun, enjoy good company and seek good eats.
And from Schenk’s disposition, if I am willing to work with him, he is willing to cook for me.
Schenk smiles warmly and makes me feel welcomed.
“Whatever works for you,” he replies, unaffected. “If it makes you happy, go for it.”
“We get many requests for substitutions,” he explains. At a fine dining establishment, people are used to getting food tailored to them. “The top three substitution requests include eliminating bacon, pancetta, or any pork products, cooking without garlic or onions, and lately, there has been an increase in demand for gluten free dishes.”
Eating out continues to be a heavy topic amongst vegans, both experienced and those that are just starting their journeys. And here I am, at perhaps at what most would consider the anti-vegan establishment being told, “guy, it’s all good.”
For those considering eliminating or reducing animal products from their diet, besides the what-could-I-eat dilemma, being able to enjoy a meal with their omnivore counterparts is quite worrisome. But if I can be at Houston’s premier steakhouse being told by the executive chef that he digs and can cook a mean vegan meal, the lesson here is: You can eat anywhere.
Chef Schenk’s secret to the best steak in the city? Start with the best ingredients and treat each one with respect. “Each cut is very different,” he explains. “You can’t think it, you have to use your intuition and cannot second guess yourself.”
It is this philosophy that makes his vegetable dishes, both on the menu and off-the-cuff, succulent and successful.
“You have to know your vegetables,” Schenk demands. “Sometimes there is a little trial and error involved.”
In the restaurant, potatoes, green beans, romaine lettuce, spinach, corn and tomatoes are the most used vegetables, the latter two being personal favorites.
Rambling off a rather extensive list of vegan possibilities at Strip House including a roasted beet salad, a tomato and green bean salad, and a vibrant plate of succulent, fragrant and flavorful grilled vegetables, I notice that Schenk spends quite a bit of time describing the perfect grilled tomatoes.
“I have a weakness for grilled tomatoes, juicy, slightly charred and meaty,” I proclaim.
“That’s something we have in common,” he replies. “Want to make some?”
You don’t have to ask me twice.
Chef John Schenk’s tips for perfectly grilled tomatoes
- Discard the top and bottom of the tomato while carefully removing the stem
- Hearty slices, thicker than one inch, hold up better at high temperatures.
- Opt for beefsteak tomatoes when available.
- Yellow tomatoes add beautiful color, are less acidic and typically firmer than the red varieties.
- Lightly brush both sides with olive oil and season with high quality salt and pepper, avoiding table salt and opt for a higher-end varieties.
- Heat up the grill on high, and brush with a little oil. If a flame or two decide to flare up, all the better.
- Place tomatoes and cook until they have healthy grill marks. On a hot grill, this may take just a couple of minutes.
- Turn over and grill, noting that the second side cooks quicker than the first.
- Serve with the skin on, or if you prefer, it should come off rather easily.
- Re-season with sea-salt to taste, as some may have fallen during cooking.
- If desired, garnish with red pepper flakes, garlic, or your favorite herbs and spices.
Plate. Eat. Repeat. Or just try his.