Stepping into the Kitchen with Some of The Island’s Preeminent Chefs
By Alyssa Jaisle & Photos By Shannon Rowan Hall
Chef Chris Lopez of Yaga’s
Many people imagine a chef’s life as being glamorous; filled with travel, famous encounters and unique adventures. According to our interviews with the chefs of Galveston, that stereotype is completely accurate. Chris Lopez, the head chef at Yaga’s on The Strand, made for a great interview because his life is full of interesting experiences. He began his life in the restaurant industry in Atlanta, Georgia where he attended culinary school. After Atlanta, Lopez expanded his cooking horizons and left for Seattle. Many ingredients that were previously unavailable in Atlanta were commonplace in Seattle, giving Lopez freedom to explore and create. Learning how to cook with wild fish and oysters added new knowledge and skills to the his repertoire. In Seattle he worked at a restaurant named Piatti where he quickly rose to the top.
After two years he transferred to Portland in an effort to learn and explore unfamiliar cuisines; this time the protein was meat. He worked at a smaller restaurant that was soon bought out by El Gauchos, a fine dining establishment. While the chef preferred a smaller sized restaurant, he was grateful to learn about the strict rules of fine dining and was able to become familiar with the different cuts of meat. After experiencing three vastly different areas of the country, both geographically and culturally, he moved down south into Bayou Vista, Texas to be near his girlfriend’s family.
Always ready for a new challenge, the chef was excited about what Texas cooking could offer him, and what he could offer Texas cooking. Thanks to Danny Hart, Lopez’s first Texas gig was at the Saltwater Grill. Pulling from his previous experience with seafood, he incorporated snappers, groupers and other fish into the menu.
All of this experience came to the chef as he was a mere 30 years old. He now felt he had acquired enough experience to try his hand at a restaurant of his own; a lifelong dream giving him complete freedom to organize and plan his own menu.
After partnering up with Marita and Buddy Schultz, he opened up Palms M&M. Both owners realized the need for a fine dining establishment on the Island, and people responded. At the white linen restaurant Lopez incorporates his knowledge of seafood, steaks and Italian cuisine to create a very attractive and diverse menu. The ceviche bar is also popular. Palms M&M was open and flourishing for three years when Hurricane Ike hit. Like many others, the partners realized that reopening the restaurant after the storm was not a plausible or profitable idea. The small percentage of people who were returning to the Island did not have the money or energy for a steak dinner. When downtown hot spot Yaga owner, Mike Dean, heard that Lopez was not reopening his restaurant, Dean offered him a position at Yaga’s. This is where you can find Chef Lopez today.
It seems each chef working on Galveston has a long and winding road that led them here. We, as restaurant goers, enjoy the benefits of these great chef’s experiences and are grateful for them. Chef Lopez is about to celebrate his one-year anniversary; a time period he says it takes to feel settled in. He also says Yaga’s has the “best bar” that bustles with customers on Friday and Saturday nights enjoying the live music and great food.
Although Lopez admits it was hard coming from a city atmosphere to an Island with a small town feel, it quickly grew on him. Happy with life at Yaga’s but always looking for new ideas, Yaga’s is now catering. Come downtown to enjoy some great shopping and stop in at Yaga’s for some great food. I challenge you to take on the Yaga’s Monster Burger, I will say the sixth of it I made it through was delicious, but I couldn’t finish.
Chef Paul Jordan of Granite Room
Chef Paul Jordan was born in Lubbock, Texas and now resides on our very own Galveston Island. However, the chef did not make a straight shot down I-45 to reach the coast. Jordan traveled around the United States and finally made it back to the coast where he often visited as a child.
Born and raised in north Texas, Jordan has led an exciting and varied life. The only constant during his lifetime was cooking, and he entered into the restaurant industry at the young of age13 Jordan worked his way up the food chain (no pun intended) and was granted a culinary internship in Florida.
Jordan fell in love with Florida and became very accomplished there. Gabriella’s of New York and the The Hyatt Coconut Point were both lucky enough to employ Jordan, and when the chef was not working at the hotel he was living on a houseboat.
Two houseboats, actually. One houseboat was composed of the living room, kid’s room and kitchen while the other boat was used for the master bedroom. Working and living where he loved was optimal for Jordan until Hurricane Charlie came along to stir things up. While the chef’s family was able to evacuate, Jordan decided to ride it out.
Unfortunately, no amount of vigilance was enough to stop the damage from a category four hurricane. Jordan escaped with his cat and the clothes on his back. The rest of his family rejoined him a few months later, but a FEMA trailer in the middle of nowhere was a stark contrast to leisurely life on the water. Since Chef Paul was unable to commute to work he searched for nearby opportunities.
He found two options: a job as a butcher at Kroger or a Subway employee. Not quite the same as revered cook at a luxurious Hyatt resort, Jordan was unfulfilled but grateful to still be involved in the food industry. Customers at Subway would have been delighted to know that a professional chef was preparing their subs.
After two years, the chef moved his family back to his birthplace of Texas; settling in Dallas. It did not take long for him to find a prominent position in the restaurant community. Jordan was hired a corporate chef at Guckenheimer; cooking upscale food selections that were served to the top ten percent of the company’s clientele. Always the traveler, Jordan decided to see what other options were available in the food industry around Texas.
After answering an ad online, he began working on Galveston, in the Pelican Room branch of Gaido’s in February 2009 and eventually became Executive Chef of the entire Gaido’s operation. Jordan became known for his ‘left turn’ perspective on recipes. Beginning with a typical recipe he would make a quick ‘left turn’ and create a unique and delicious new menu item. The connections he developed at Gaido’s eventually led him to a consulting business that landed him where he is today.
Chef Paul Jordan had three goals to complete before the age of 40. He wanted to graduate culinary school, grow out a pony tail and pierce his ear. Jordan proudly accomplished all of these goals, and while he no longer has the pony tail, you can find him as the head chef and manager at Voodoo Lounge. It might not be the glitziest restaurant and bar that he has ever worked at but it is a beautiful and unique establishment where he has the freedom to use his creativity.
At Voodoo Lounge he encounters a challenge that both leads to frustration and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Some of the extravagant cooking tools that the chef is accustomed to are not available but the lack of certain kitchenwares force him to push his creative boundaries and produce delicious food in innovative ways. The atmosphere of Voodoo Lounge makes you feel like you discovered a unique gem to frequent in Galveston and after sampling his creations you will feel the same way about the food.
Chef Luis Hernandez of M&M Restaurant and Bar
Chef Luis Hernandez is living the American dream in our town of Galveston. He traveled to America from Mexico at the age of 16 and landed here. Like many teenagers at that age, Hernandez bussed tables to earn money. Unlike others, however, Hernandez had dreams of moving ahead in the industry. He did not choose to work in restaurants by accident, he always knew he wanted to be a chef.
He was not content with simply watching others cook; the young man absorbed everything he could from his surroundings, including techniques, management styles and the general work ethics of the chefs he was employed by. During his time off, he continued his search online for recipes or followed along with cooking shows; teaching himself how to cook.
After a few years of hands-on experience and careful observation, Hernandez landed a position at The Wentletrap. During the time before Hurricane Ike, Windletrap’s was considered one of the finest restaurants in town and Hernandez was grateful to be working there. From there he moved to the Jack Club and finally to Rudy & Paco’s Restaurant where he worked as head chef until Hurricane Ike. The restaurant was forced to close for seven months, and since this was the case with the majority of the Island, Hernandez headed to Houston to look for work. He found his way back, however, into a grateful kitchen at Rudy & Paco’s, who, like everyone else watched the island rebuild itself.
He now works as chef at M&M with what he calls “the dream team.” Hernandez says his main concern is keeping the customers happy. And happy he kept the fishing party that came in recently who showed up with pounds of fresh fish after a successful day at sea. The customers told the chef he could cook their catch any way he saw fit; they were not disappointed. He appreciates input and ideas from others and loves working with all types of food. Hernandez emphasizes that a career as a chef is not an easy path and if you do something you need to do it all the way and with love.
He presented us with lobster thermidor, a ceviche trio and creme brulee. Hernandez put his own spin on the original french thermidor recipe; it was fantastic.The ceviche trio included jumbo lump crab meat, snapper and elephant tuna. The creme brulee was to die for. The signature M&Ms melted into the brulee intensifying the mouthwatering desert with a perfect trace of chocolate. To chef Hernandez, Galveston feels like “his house,” and cooking with love is not hard to do when you are cooking for family.