There is always a lot of buzz surrounding Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. From the moment they burst onto the Houston food scene with their now-legendary 2010 pop-up experience, Just August Project, to the splashy debut of their restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept, The Pass and Provisions (one side is casual and the other is fine dining, both share a kitchen), their movements have been tracked and monitored by food critics and hardcore food enthusiasts — and with good reason.
These two chefs, friends since they opened Maze by Gordon Ramsay at The London Hotel in New York City, are creating some of the most unusual cuisine in Houston today, and they have a fast-filling shelf of accolades to prove it. Not three years in, the duo earned a 2015 semifinalist nod for Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Forbes Travel Guide caught up with the guys recently to get an insider’s glimpse at their unique cuisine, learn the dining trends in the Bayou City and find out their favorite restaurants around town.
For people who don’t know what you guys are about, how do you describe your restaurant?
Terrence Gallivan: We still, to this day, get people who call to make reservations and don’t understand the difference between the two restaurants. The Pass is our fine-dining, tasting menu restaurant. It’s a set menu. You get to choose five or eight courses. We offer either a wine or a mixed beverage pairing. We’re pretty proud of that. We also offer in conjunction with our regular menu a full vegan menu that is also five or eight courses, so we basically give the diners a lot of options. We put a lot of thought and effort into making sure that both menus are, hopefully, very interesting, but not for interesting’s sake. “Really delicious” is the primary goal.
Provisions is our casual restaurant that’s kind of like your everyday [spot where you] just come and get good food. It’s pizzas and pastas, good vegetables, good seafood. We have a heavy emphasis on our bread program. We make everything in house, each one paired with cheeses. It’s a large menu — over 40 items. It’s a lot of food. Hopefully, there’s something for everybody there. It could be casual or something more formal. Provisions is pretty malleable; it can be what you want it to be. Even though it’s louder, a more raucous restaurant, it’s still meant to be people’s go-to for everyday food.
Regarding The Pass, you said that you have two distinct menus. What are you thinking when you put that menu together, and how often are you changing it?
Seth Siegel-Gardner: Basically, the full menu changes at least four times a year. And then it’s constantly changing [some more]. There are a few new dishes this past week that just went on. We’ll probably change a few more in the coming weeks. It’s also evolving constantly. I think it’s finding a nice balance throughout the menu, but then also hitting a lot of notes along the way and making sure you get to try a lot of different stuff, see some different techniques. Maybe some stuff is in your comfort zone. Hopefully, some stuff is out of your comfort zone, too.
What’s an example of something in your comfort zone right now?
SSG: A good example would be the pasta. The idea is a chicken pasta, but we make the dough with roasted nori paper. There’s a chicken mousse. There’s a really nice kombu consommé. With that comes with some shaved mushrooms, vegetables and crispy chicken skin. I think for most people, [the comfort zone] is a bowl of pasta. But there are a lot of different flavors and, maybe, some stuff they wouldn’t expect working together as well.
TG: With the Pass menu, we always try to have it to where it’s somewhat familiar, at least in the verbiage. But at the same time, it should be something that’s a little more surprising, a little more intriguing, where you thought it was one thing but it’s something totally different. Not messing with the guests, but more pushing people outside what they’re used to. There are plenty of places where you can go and have a certain thing. If you come here, that’s not what we’re set up to do. We’re set up to have something that’s pretty unique and different from what you’re having every day. We don’t have a set formula writing the menu; it’s more just pushing ourselves, making sure that we’re continually evolving as cooks while also making sure that the guests’ experiences are changing, too. We only have 16 dishes between the two menus, so you want to make sure that each iteration of the menu is evolving, that we’re getting better as cooks, we’re getting more creative, we’re finding ways to make things better tasting.
What’s a dish that’s out of your comfort zone?
TG: We do a dish right now on the menu that just reads “shrimp and tofu.” When you read that, you probably have a clear picture in your head. The catalyst, or the idea, was how could you take something that’s rudimentary and usually pretty bad, like shrimp toast, and elevate it. That was not the final level of the dish, but was the catalyst for it. We basically make a savory funnel cake and we fry it in an oil that’s infused with shrimp shells, so that it has that really oceanic flavor. And then we caramelize soy milk with more shrimp flavor and make a little block of shrimp terrine, so it’s got four or five components of shrimp on the dish, but it’s presented in a way that’s really delicate to where it’s almost hovering over the soup with this funnel cake. Everything is balanced on this funnel-cake, crunchy-cracker-type thing.
How do you describe your cuisine at The Pass?
TG: I think for us that’s also been the hardest question. I can honestly say I’ve never met a chef that says, “I cook this type of cuisine.” Unless it’s a French restaurant where they’re making French cuisine. We don’t ask ourselves that — ever. We think about food, initially at least, the way we were influenced by all the people that we worked under. Seth worked under Marcus Samuelsson so, obviously, he has a lot of Scandinavian influence. And then, he worked under Scott Conant, so he had a lot of Italian influence. I worked for an Alsatian guy who worked under Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], so it’s a lot of French, but that light French style. You start off with that, and then I think we’ve influenced each other immensely over the last four or five years. And now, I think we’re influenced by our staff a lot. Our sous chefs have been with us since day one, and they bring a lot of experiences to the table, and we try to let them shine, too. We have a lot of menu meetings where we sit in a round table, and someone will come up with an idea that gets tossed around.
Why are you excited about being in Houston right now?
TG: There’s more of everything. It’s exciting. Seems like almost every month something is happening. A lot of them are our friends, so it’s really cool. What Ryan [Pera] and Morgan [Weber] are doing in The Heights [with Revival Market and Coltivare] is awesome. What Mike Sammons and those guys are doing in the East End of downtown [13 Celsius, Mongoose Vs. Cobra, Weights and Measures] is awesome. What the Justins [Justin Yu and Justin Vann] are doing at Public Services Wine and Whiskey and Oxheart [is also great].
What are some of your favorite things about Houston?
TG: It’s interesting for me because I was new and still am, I guess. (Editor’s note: Gallivan moved to Texas in 2008.) I’m still exploring and checking places out. I’ve hit a lot of the major notes, but for tourists, it’s a little more difficult because you can’t just park your car and go eat and walk around. But I think that’s the best way to explore Houston. If you spend a couple of days, you can walk around the downtown and midtown area. You can pop around and hit some great bars. And then, you can go to the Westheimer area and all the great stuff that’s happening there with Underbelly, Uchi and all that good stuff. We have a list of places that we always tell people to go [visit]. A lot of them are friends of ours, or places we like to support. We’ve probably been asked that question three dozen times, and we always say the same five places — West Alabama Ice House for the best tacos in town, a completely unique experience. And then, Anvil’s great and all their bars, Julep and The Pastry War. I eat at Huynh a lot [for Vietnamese].
SSG: I think one of the really great things about Houston is the accessibility of a lot of things. Things aren’t really hidden away. You can explore on your own pretty easily here. You definitely need a car, unfortunately, but it’s pretty easy to get around, and there’s always new stuff happening, so you can see the new stuff but the old thing are still thriving as well — places in Chinatown that people have been going to forever. Places like West Alabama Ice House. Kenny and Ziggy’s — my family’s been going there forever; it’s my dad’s favorite place in the world, loving and missing Jewish delis in New York. There are places that I remember going as a kid, like La Tapatia, La Mexicana and El Tiempo.