Each month we feature a Chef of Chef Works®. If you’re a fan of Chef Works gear and are interested in being featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictured above is our December Chef of Chef Works®, Ryan Pera, photographed in his Executive Capri Chef Coat.
Digging dirt, or cooking?
That was the choice Ryan Pera, 47, had to make some 25 years ago. Today he’s a James Beard semifinalist with seven concepts in the greater Houston area.
Clearly, he chose right. Our December Chef of Chef Works® gets real with the Chef Works® blog on the topics of fitness, mental health and sustainability.
Give us the “a-ha” moment when you realized you wanted to be a chef.
Ryan Pera: I was finishing my degree in Anthropology at UNC Chapel-Hill and also working as a line cook at nights at a local restaurant. During the day, I was digging at an archeological site. Basically, I was miserable shoveling and sorting dirt all day and I couldn’t wait to get out so I could get to work at the restaurant. I had the best time there and loved everyone.
That was the juxtaposition that really did it for me. I realized I need to be cooking, not digging dirt.
Did you have any family in the industry prior?
RP: Both sets of grandparents were in the restaurant industry. My mom’s father worked at Katz’s Delicatessen on the lower east side of Manhattan (think THAT scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”) I grew up in North Carolina, but I visited every year. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a waiter at a fine-dining French restaurant. For us, going out to eat was like going to church. It was a serious occasion and there was a reverence to it. We had fun cooking together at home. But when we went out, it was a big deal.
What brought you to where you are today?
RP: I got my first sous chef job at 21. From there I worked in some fine-dining restaurants in Charlotte. I moved to New York in 2000 and that was a great proving ground. I was trained really well on the job in French technique and American styling.
My wife had actually gone to Duke – we don’t talk about it during basketball season – and after medical school she was offered a position in Houston. I was the sous chef for Jonathan Waxman at the time. But I knew I could cook anywhere. So we decided to make a go of it. We’ve been here since 2003 and now our group, Agricole Hospitality, has seven concepts.
You were a James Beard semifinalist in 2018 for Best Chef Southwest. What does a nomination like that do for you and your brand?
RP: As a young cook growing up, I never expected that. It was always this echelon that I was satisfied not attaining because I always thought it was out of my realm. Getting that nomination was extremely gratifying and humbling. It gives some recognition to what we do each and every day. People read about it and because of the award, they go out to eat and that gives us more exposure and more positivity to what we’re doing.
I know you’re big into fitness. How does that play into the physical and mental health aspects of the job?
RP: There are really two parts to it. First, when I opened Revival Market, I was overweight and living a bad lifestyle. My dad had a heart attack when I was 11 and my doctor told me I was the same age as him when he had his first. That was eye-opening. I made a concerted effort to reduce my weight and do regular exercise. It took about year and I lost 50 pounds.
As far as mental health goes, I lost my brother to suicide. He was a restaurant owner and he just never opened up, so I’ve personally seen the impact of mental health in this industry. Whether it’s alcoholism, depression or whatever, I want to be able to run a business that can help my staff get through hard times. We promote mental stability and I think physical fitness plays a role in that.
I started cooking at the tail end of that old style of ‘my-way-or-highway’ chefs. I saw plenty of rants and raves, screaming and belittling. Times change and we run what I like to think is a modern, happier kitchen built on respect.
Eating out can be such an indulgence. As you said before, there is a reverence to it. How do you find the balance between customers wanting to indulge while also promoting a healthy lifestyle?
RP: My philosophy is everything in moderation. I try to hold that to my cooking as well as my eating. I will never not use an ingredient because it’s ‘unhealthy,’ be it cream or butter. But I can use some restraint. If oil works better, I’ll use that. I will never tell someone not to have a dessert. Just don’t have four of them.
We cook from scratch with whole foods – no chemicals and nothing is processed. We use sustainable meats raised locally without hormones or antibiotics. It goes back to physical fitness. You can cook ‘clean food’ and use moderation and keep portion sizes under control. I’m not a physician, but I try to act within my own beliefs and confines.
Are there any charities you’re involved in?
RP: No Kid Hungry in Houston is an organization I’ve been working with for years. I’d encourage anyone – regardless of whether you’re in the industry – to look into helping them out. We’re also in the process of working with the American Cancer Society, which is opening up a lodge in Houston to house the families of people with cancer who might have to travel for treatment.
Meet the other Chefs of Chef Works® for 2019:
- January: Seth & Ryan of Nude Dude Food
- February: Allison Fasano
- March: Johnny Carino
- April: Trang Tran
- May: David Rose
- June: Caroline Schiff
- July: Tracey Shepos Cenami
- August: Ian Ramirez
- September: Tony Sinese
- October: Stacey Poon-Kinney
- November: Maeve Rochford