When you consider the company that chef Michael Cordúa keeps as a Food & Wine Hall of Fame chef — Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa, Daniel Boulud — you begin to realize the magnitude of his accomplishment and his vital contribution to the Houston dining landscape.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of his first restaurant this year, Cordúa sat down with Forbes Travel Guide to reflect on his journey as a chef, his latest restaurant and the cookbook that he penned with his son David, who has taken over the reins as executive chef of what is now known as Cordúa Restaurants — Churrascos, Américas, Artista, Amazón Grill and Cordúa Catering.
Did you always aspire to be a chef?
No. I had been educated in banking. I had been in the shipping business before I decided to pursue my love of cooking at age 26. Culturally in Nicaragua, there were no male chefs — the cooking was done by the maids in the back of the house. In the restaurants, you never saw the kitchens, so there was no role model or someone to aspire to [be like]. And even here in the States, the idea of a chef being a personality had not started yet. So as a man, what was I doing in the kitchen? I had to overcome these impediments in order for me to accept that yeah, that’s what I am. I’m Michael Cordúa; I’m a cook. The idea of being a cook was very humbling. And it’s when I took a sip of that humbleness that I found all these blessings on the other side.
The churrasco steak was a key part of your success. Tell us about this Nicaraguan specialty.
My uncle was a banker who had invested in a restaurant in Nicaragua called Los Ranchos. It was my favorite restaurant in Nicaragua, and its specialty was the churrasco steak. I loved that meat. I would fast for a whole day so that I could order it as an appetizer and an entrée, and eat two steaks in one visit. But when I was bringing the idea here to Houston, my American friends who tasted it thought it was just a good fajita. I had to be creative. The churrasco that we developed — that we now serve — is a tenderloin. It’s the same steak that you use for châteaubriand or filet mignon, which are normally known for tenderness. What happens is that the chimichurri sauce we use and the way that we carve, baste and grill [the steak] gives it texture and flavor. You already have the tenderness, so it’s a recipe for a fantastic steak.
Tell us how your food evolved from being Nicaraguan to South American.
When we first opened, our menu was very small. We had maybe 12 dishes — maybe five or six soups, salads and appetizers; six entrées. Once I had command of those dishes, I began to read old Latin American cookbooks, and everything I read was potages — you know, where you put everything in a pot and you make a nice stew or soup. That’s fine if you grew up with it, but if you’re trying to entertain someone who’s not familiar with the food, they’re not going to dive into something they don’t recognize. So, part of the research was getting down into the flavors, into the ingredients, and then changing the construction of the recipes so that they would be easily identifiable. My mom could come and have dinner at Churrascos and even though she would not know the dish, she would recognize the ingredients and the flavors. The ability to do that — what I call the trans-culturization of the cuisine — allowed Américas to become more of a pan-American restaurant as opposed to just Nicaraguan.
You just opened a new restaurant. Can you tell us more about it?
On December 4, we opened our fourth Churrascos in Memorial City. In addition to that, David recently launched a new menu of items focusing on criollo cuisine, traditional day-to-day Nicaraguan fare.
What are some of the dishes that you’re most excited about?
The seco de puerco is inspired by a Peruvian lamb dish — it would be called seco de cordero in Peru. We took that idea with the Mexican carnitas and came up with a Peruvian-tasting carnitas dish. It’s braised in cilantro sauce and served over very broth-y lima beans. Our ceviche menu was also expanded to include a Niçoise-inspired ahi tuna ceviche, a ceviche verde with chili-cucumber broth with green apple and crispy kale, a king crab ceviche with a sesame tuile, and a lobster campechana with avocado and crispy chicharrón, or pork rinds.
You’re also launching your first cookbook, Cordúa: Foods of the Americas, with David. I’m sure people have approached you to write one over the years. Why now?
I thought that our 25th anniversary was a good time. We opened on August 8, 1988, so 2013 is 25 years. It was also a good time to stop and say thanks. People know about the family and the restaurants, but this is almost like taking a peek behind the scenes.
This cookbook is very personal. Reading the introduction, the level of detail is almost like a memoir.
I think one of the hardest things for a restaurateur is his family life. It is rough — not just for the restaurateur, but the bartender, the chef, the waiter. The industry itself is merciless. So for me to have achieved this — not just the restaurants, but to have raised a family with my wife, Lucia; for my kids to be best friends with each other; for my kids to see me not just as a father but as a friend, as a colleague — I think it was important to share because that’s been our biggest accomplishment. I thought if the book was just about recipes, it would have been a great cookbook. But I thought it was important to share our journey.
What recipes can we expect?
Twenty-five years of favorites — from the churrascos to the tres leches, also some more adventurous recipes from our catering company, dishes created for our wine dinners and some family recipes.
Photos Courtesy of Julie Soefer