The minute you meet Philippe Schmit, executive chef and owner of Philippe Restaurant + Lounge in Houston (which debuted in the spring of 2011), you feel his exuberant energy and larger-than-life personality. Born in France, the colorful Schmit did stints at New York City’s Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Le Bernardin, Orsay, and La Goulue before making his home in Houston, where he is affectionately known as “The French Cowboy.”
While he is known to sport a cowboy hat and boots during rodeo season, it’s his Texan-inspired French cuisine that has propelled him to international recognition. Last year, he was inducted into the illustrious ranks of the prestigious Maîtres Cuisiniers de France (Master Chefs of France), an organization with approximately 250 members worldwide. Schmit is the only Texas-based chef in the organization, and one of approximately 50 stateside.
We caught up with Schmit to hear about his recent trip to the Master Chefs of France Annual meeting, what’s new with his restaurant, his take on Houston’s restaurant scene, and his participation at the Capella Pedregal Food and Wine Festival in Cabo San Lucas starting today through July 14.
Chef Philippe, I understand you went to Lyon, France for the annual international Master Chefs meeting a few months ago. How was your trip?
It was an amazing trip. Lyon is still one of the big cities in France. The gala dinners are huge –with 400 to 500 attendees – because the president is from there, and because the dinners were held at Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc. For the dinners, they couldn’t feed us at the restaurant, so they put us in a type of church. The atmosphere was incredible, it was like a concert, everyone was filming. They served the famous soup V.G.E. of Paul Bocuse, named for former President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and there was so much truffle in my soup that I took my spoon to elevate the truffles so I could take pictures!
For people who don’t know, what does it mean to be a part of the Master Chefs of France community?
First, it’s [about] being recognized by your peers. But also, there is an amazing amount of information that you share with each other – especially with chefs who are at the top of their game. You end up meeting chefs that you would never meet in the real world. For instance, Georges Blanc is at the front door waiting for us, shaking our hands, and I’m telling him, “You know, I came from Texas to be here,” and the president is pointing at me and saying, “He’s the Texan.”
And you’re talking to Mathieu Viannay, chef of La Mère Brazier in Lyon, and we’re at a dinner headed by four MOF’s [Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a distinguished award for the country’s best craftsmen] who are doing a catering event at the City Hall of Lyon, and the mayor of Lyon welcomed us. And I’m having a conversation with Mathieu about the business, and he’s telling me how much he makes per cover – things that I don’t even ask him!
That sounds amazing. Let’s talk about your restaurant. What’s coming up for Philippe?
First, we’re going to have a patio – after two-and-a-half years, the most beautiful patio in Houston – and it’s not going to be looking at a parking lot. We’re also changing the menu. I try to do it seasonally, but this season I’m embracing even more Texan flair, the French Cowboy.
Can you explain what “French Cowboy” means to you?
Well, it’s my interpretation of the Tex-Mex. For example, I do gumbo for specials, but I’m doing a gumbo jus to go with fish, and one vegetable two ways. I want to introduce the trends I’ve seen in France. We’ll be shaving a lot of vegetables raw, very thin, using fresh ingredients, and pushing the quality of the ingredients, with a cleaner look. So it’s French technique with more regional ingredients. For example, the duck à l’orange becomes duck à la pamplemousse (Texas grapefruit). I’m also using this idea of a haystack, which is very Southern. So, the vegetable is going to be asparagus, the pickle’s going to be a vinaigrette with vegetables, and the protein’s going to be fava beans. I’m revisiting blackened flounder, extremely popular. I’m bringing for the first time jumbo black sea bass, but I’m doing it on grits with barbecue corn. And it’s going to be very visual and I’m very excited.
Let’s talk about the Houston restaurant scene. How is it different from when you first came?
It’s amazing. It’s almost frightening. It’s a total different ballgame from when I first came about eight years ago. First of all, you have many more openings. You have several more French restaurants opening. But I want to tell you that if there are restaurants popping up, it’s because of the demand. Somebody told me yesterday, “Philippe, if you put your house on the market, in 24 hours, you’ll have four or five offers.” Because so many people want to move to Houston, the economy is so strong. So, I just want to make the point – if you’re wondering if there’s going to be a saturation of restaurants opening up because there are still so many opening – if the city grows, there’s room for everyone.
What do you think Houston’s strengths are compared to other cities?
We have a cosmopolitan community. We have such a boiling pot – Vietnamese people love French food, Indian, American, Tex-Mex, and Mexican. And because of our economy, we get the best builders, architects, interior designers, and we’re going to see more of that. Great chefs are starting to move in from other cities. And now suppliers are starting to come. I have a supplier coming in two weeks who represents a famous truffle company because she knows Texans are eating truffles. Even in New York, people are starting to say, “Wow, what is going on in Houston?” And when New York is starting to look at us, we have the real deal.
Let’s talk about the Capella Pedregal Food and Wine Festival in Cabo San Lucas. You’re one of the featured chefs. How did you get involved?
It just so happens that one of the heads of PR from Capella Resorts is a big fan of my restaurant. She’s based in Dallas. There are also two big chefs from Dallas attending – Kent Rathbun and [Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker] Dean Fearing. The former sous chef of [Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star] The French Laundry, Timothy Hollingsworth, is here, too. One of my old sous chefs from New York is helping me as well. And Yvan Mucharraz, the executive chef at Capella Pedregal, is a French Laundry alumni as well.
So you’ve left Houston for Cabo San Lucas for the next few days. Why is it important to attend the festival?
Unfortunately, I never go for vacation. I always put so much pressure on myself. When everyone is on the beach in Cabo, I’m going to be cooking and prepping. [Laughs] One of the reasons is because we have a very strong Mexican clientele here. In fact, I spoke to someone from Mexico last night, and he told me, “I texted a friend of mine in Mexico that I was here at Philippe, and he said to me, ‘I’ve been there already, it’s fantastic.’” We are very appealing to those who live in Mexico because it reminds them of France. Going to Cabo is important because it brings a connection when I tell people that I’m going to cook in Mexico. Honestly, I think that it’s me representing Texas, and Houston, specifically. Because people think we’re the armpit of Texas, and I’m gonna kick their butt.
What will you be doing at the festival?
Tonight, it’s going to be an appetizer. I’m going to be doing a cooking class. There’s going to be a barbecue, everybody’s participating. I’m the only French chef, and I want to bring some special sauces that I will prepare here. I’m going to have two sous chefs with me, one from New York, one from Houston. We’re going to be there for four days, starting tonight, which will end with an elaborate gala dinner on Saturday night.
Photos courtesy of Jack Thompson