Why Chef Louis Lambert's Palate Is a Product of his Texas Roots
An early morning finds Lou Lambert heading to the airport, although travel isn't in his plans today. He has a box that has to get to its destination tout de suite, on account of the contents therein. While this scenario may seem vaguely sinister, his box contains no mischief-making elements but maybe a beef tenderloin. Or a salmon. Or some sausages. Its destination is the home of Lambert's mother. See, it's her turn to host the Odessa Poker Club and Lou's doing his part to ensure that the gathering is a culinary success, if not a financial one. Such an act of familial love is telling when you're seeking the inspiration for the culinary zeal of Louis Lambert. It was family that first excited his interest in the world of food and it's family that continues to sustain, encourage, and inspire him.
Lambert is an Austin chef and restaurateur who has made his presence felt locally almost from the time he landed here. He's the man behind Jo's, the South Congress coffee shop which stands next door to his sister Liz's refurbished Hotel San José. The shed-like hut routinely has scores of customers waiting for their sumptuous sandwich, baked good, or beverage. During his stint as executive chef at Word of Mouth Catering, Lambert's cooking was served to the likes of Lance Armstrong and Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. His short-lived and much-missed Liberty Pie gained legions of devotees to his superlative pizza ("to this day people raise hell with me that we don't have the pizzas," he says). He had to close it because his recently sold catering business, Liberty Catering, was so successful. Later this month, Lambert plans to open Lambert's in the South Congress location that housed his catering business, sandwiched between Terra Toys and Texas French Bread. He's someone who clearly loves to cook, and Austin loves what he cooks. To learn more about his relationship with food, I spent a recent Saturday with him as he prepared a personal meal: a pot of gumbo.
We met at the San José, where Lambert is obviously at home. During the summer, Tuesday nights have become Steak Nights, when hotel guests -- and anyone else, for that matter -- can pay a flat fee for his expertly grilled steaks with all the trimmings. He and his sister designated one night to raise money for a new roof for Doug's House, a Project Transitions residence for people living with HIV.
We headed to Eaves Bros. on Airport to pick up the seafood for the gumbo. Lambert quickly makes his selections, based partly on what he has in mind, partly on what's available. When he discovers there are no blue crabs, he substitutes lump crab meat. While he bemoans the loss of flavor he would get from the shells, the finished product will hardly lack for taste, as he'll also have jumbo shrimp and oysters going into the pot.
The preparations are done at his house, a gorgeously and simply refurbished South Austin home mere blocks from Jo's and the soon-to-open restaurant. Lambert and his partner renovated the house, purchasing the derelict structure after it was condemned by city officials. They cleaned it up, enlarged it, added long leaf pine floors rescued from a soon-to-be-demolished house in Waco, and created an open kitchen suitable for a commercial enterprise. And yet, it's not flashy. The stove isn't "restaurant-style"; it's a restaurant stove complete with the dings and wear that betray its years. There aren't any countertops as such, but a large center table and a wooden dresser-type piece that appears to be about the same age as the floors. It turns out to be a product of Lambert's own hands. In fact, much of the house is a result of his handiwork, for Lambert is, he says, "kind of a junior woodworker."
While I perch at the table and nurse a beer, Lambert peels the shrimp (reserving the shells for a future stock) and begins the roux, pouring vegetable oil (unmeasured, but carefully eyed) into a salvaged pot. (It was purchased for business purposes, but when the handles were lost to a particularly nasty fall, it found a place in his home. As Lambert points out, you don't toss out a $125 pot because of some missing handles.) As he whisks in flour (also without benefit of a measuring cup, but clearly in correct proportion), he fills me in on his journey to Austin. Like most of life's transitions, the move was partly deliberate, partly serendipitous.
It was the latest step in a culinary history that began in the lobby of the Lincoln Hotel in Odessa. Lambert comes from a ranching family whose history on his mother's side began in 1915. This is a man whose sense of Texas culture can't be faked or bought. He wears his cowboy boots with the matter of factness of someone who was president of his high school's 4-H Club. He speaks fondly of boyhood days with his rancher/businessman grandfather. "I had an interest in ranching, so I would love to spend time with my grandfather," he says. "I'd go out to the ranch with my grandfather in the morning, then we'd come back into town and spend three to four hours at the hotel. As a kid, kind of the place to go, not just in Odessa but in all ranching communities, was the hotel. And each community would have a big hotel where it was kind of a meeting place, a big, swanky place. And in Odessa it was the Lincoln Hotel."
He remembers the Lincoln Hotel's height; at somewhere around seven floors, it was the tallest building in town. Perched at the top of the hotel was the Golden Rooster. "It was a private club for businessmen, the oilmen, and the ranchers. That's where people went to get their haircuts," he says. It was the business hub of the town. "And I can remember my grandfather sitting in the lobby, smoking a cigar, and everybody coming up, 'How are you doing, Mr. McKnight?' Then at lunch you'd go up to the Golden Rooster, and they had the formal dining and it intrigued me, the formality of it. It was a kind of culture and my grandfather loved it."
Lambert talks easily, whisking with a wooden spoon constantly, jazz music emanating from a CD player on a shelf, his enormous dog standing guard outside the kitchen door where he has been exiled due to company.
The family's home was in town, but Lambert spent summers on the ranch, which led to a different culinary experience altogether. "On the ranch in the summertimes," he recalls, "for about a month period you would work cattle, and at that point you may have 20 cowboys out at the ranch and we'd have a camp cook named Lalo. And he cooked three meals a day over an open fire. With Dutch ovens. He spent his whole life cooking out at the ranch. He never left more than six miles from his home all of his life, but all the men in his family were camp cooks. Beans, stews, he's making bread there," as he points to an evocative photo he has affixed to his refrigerator door. "We still have camp cooks," he says. "Lalo is dead now, but his nephew is still out there, still cooks."
While the story unfolds, he stirs the roux continually and an aroma begins to permeate the room. It's the smell of alchemy, when two simple items come together and make something altogether different than mere flour and oil.
The expansive range of West Texas cuisine -- elegant formality at the Golden Rooster and open-fire meals on the ranch -- may have piqued Lambert's interest in food, but his visits to his paternal grandmother's home in Port Arthur cemented it. His family there was made up of rice farmers and shrimpers. "My grandmother barely spoke English. Well, in this broken coon-ass accent," he says. "Their family communicated in French. We'd go see the aunts, and they'd offer you the chickory coffee in a demitasse glass. We'd go with my uncle crabbing, go to the shrimp boats and pick up shrimp. My grandmother cooked huge pots of gumbo. We'd have crab, crab boils, and it was fascinating." Almost mid-sentence he stops and says, "See this roux?" It is worth stopping for. It's gorgeous, almost chocolate, maybe mahogany. His pleasure at this creation is obvious and unmasked. He folds in chopped vegetables -- onions, celery, green peppers -- then sprinkles in some spices from a bowl atop his stove. "This is a pre-blended spice blend, a gumbo spice blend," he points out. "My sister likes to cook gumbo; I got tired of telling her what was in the spice blend so I make this batch."
Lambert absorbed these widely varying influences and knew he'd be involved with food somehow, somewhere. He followed the families' tradition of attending Texas Christian University. "Hated it. Hated school at that point because I wanted to be in food in some way. Even when I was at TCU, I was getting side jobs working in restaurants and I couldn't tell anybody. I couldn't tell my parents because they'd go, 'You're supposed to be studying. You're supposed to get a business degree. You're supposed to go in the oil business or be a lawyer.'"
So he left and after several stints in various hotels, Lambert headed to the Mecca for aspiring U.S. chefs, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He took a year off in the midst of his training there to work with Wolfgang Puck at his San Francisco restaurant Postrio. This was when Puck was at his zenith of his celebrity in the late Eighties and early Nineties. After six months in the bakery, then six months doing different positions on the line, Lambert returned to New York to complete his Culinary Institute training. When he graduated, he was recruited by a company out of Dallas to work for a restaurant group that owned Cafe Pacific and Patrizio's in Highland Park -- "kind of the foo foo, high-end stuff," in his words. He was hired as a sous chef, but after six months he was promoted to executive chef when there was trouble with the person in that post. Shortly thereafter the two chefs he had worked with at Postrio, David and Annie Gringrass, were about to open their own restaurant in San Francisco, so Lambert returned to the Bay Area and helped them open Hawthorne Lane.
"They encouraged the line cooks to experiment," he says. "There were not any written recipes; you passed it on from person to person," which explains why he liked his stint at Hawthorne Lane more than anything else in his career. "It caused me to think like a chef when I was just a line cook.
"The last thing I did at Postrio was run the charcuterie department. We would make our own sausages, cure our own hams, smoke our own salmon." His new restaurant will feature sausages that are made in-house, and the staff will smoke the salmon themselves. "It's not that difficult," he declares. "It's like making bread; people have done it for thousands of years but are somewhat intimidated by it. You buy smoked salmon around town and it's a piece-of-shit product because they have to put so much chemical and other stuff in it to stabilize it, so it's this mealy mess."
It's time for a seafood stock, made earlier in the day, to go into the pot. When he gets it simmering to his satisfaction, Lambert quickly deveins the shrimp with a simple swipe of a chef's knife. He places a piece of parchment paper on his cutting surface. The veins will be neatly deposited on the edge of the paper and the paper is then discarded, leaving a clean cutting surface. This is a trick I plan to incorporate at home. It seems I spend half my cooking time cleaning the cutting board between tasks. Brilliant.
On a trip back to the ranch, in Alpine Lambert ran into Grady Spears, who was looking to duplicate his successful restaurant Reata in other cities. Reata specializes in rustic Texas ranch cooking, and Spears asked Louis to help develop new menus and put together a package that they could take on the road. After about eight months in Alpine, Lambert moved to Ft. Worth to open that city's Reata, training the staff and retooling the kitchen in a million-dollar restaurant on the top floor of a downtown skyscraper.
While he was living in Ft. Worth, Lambert made several trips to Austin to visit his sister Liz, an attorney who had moved here from New York to take a job in the Attorney General's office. "At that point my sister had bought the San José," he recalls, "and was thinking about renovating it. I liked what I saw and I thought, 'I'm going to move to Austin.'" A friend of a friend worked for Word of Mouth catering. "I had done a little bit of catering in New York, so I thought, 'I'll work there until I get the lay of the land.' I ended up becoming the executive chef and stayed."
He was at Word of Mouth for three years. "It was getting so big, and at that point we had opened [Jo's] and Liz" -- her lawyer days now behind her -- "was running the hotel and I thought, 'It's time to do something on my own.'" That something was catering, but since he figured it would take some time to become successful, he decided to put some retail in the front of the space to help with cash flow. Thus was born Liberty Pie, a takeout joint specializing in pizza and dessert pies. "The pizza took off, but the catering automatically went crazy," he says. "We didn't promote it, but it was one of those word-of-mouth deals. It got to the point that we did not have the kitchen space, and it came down to economics. So we reluctantly shut down Liberty Pie."
Lambert's attention returns to the pot. He skims some scum off the top and discards it. "All this is like a velouté," he says. "What it does while you cook it, it kicks off the fat and any impurities and it foams up. If you don't skim, it'll be fatty, No. 1, and No. 2, it'll give you gas." Good enough reasons for me. Time, too, to start the rice, cooked in a rice cooker. Texmati rice is the grain of choice for this meal.
All along Lambert has been intending to have his own restaurant, and the time is now. He sold the catering business and is in the final stages of preparation before opening. "The menu will change on a weekly basis," he says. "We'll have some key things that stay there, but it's going to rotate weekly." Lambert eats out quite often, so he knows that he hates having to ask the waiter to substitute side dishes or to add items that may appear on the menu, but don't accompany the entrée he wants. At Lambert's, "we're going to have a grill section that has a few fish, a few steaks, and then we'll have a few vegetables a la carte. Everything we do, from the wine list to the food servers, is going to be geared to people who eat out all the time, live in the neighborhood. They don't want hassle, but they want a great meal.
"What characterizes my cooking is where you take things that people are familiar with and are indigenous to that area and make it your own. That's what I do," he says. "When we cook at home or with friends, it's gumbos, steaks. We cook simple things. It's harder to cook something simple like a roast chicken than it is to cook something with 15 different sauces on it."
He points out that Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe and Star Canyon failed in Austin. "They come in here and they bastardize simple, clean, good food with 15 sauces, stack up things," Lambert says. "You read the menu and go, 'What?' You can't conjure up an idea of what that is in your mind. To me, you should be able to read a menu and in your mind have some kind of an idea of what that's going to look like and taste like. Then as a chef, it's my job to at least meet or exceed what your expectations are. A lot of people use sauces and all this stuff as a crutch. Well sweetheart, there's only so many foods, and I promise you somebody else has already done anything that you think you're going to do. So why not concentrate on just doing good, simple things that people can identify with and want to eat and do it better than anyone else?"
The gumbo is deemed ready for the seafood. In go the shrimp, oysters, and crab, and the aroma becomes even more enticing. Lambert is inspired to announce, "I don't know if it's possible, but I think I've made the world's best gumbo." Out of the mouth of anyone else, that would sound like boasting, but Lambert has a quiet, gentleman-cowboy demeanor that makes it sound like a simple observation. As anyone who makes gumbo knows, no two pots are the same, and every cook has his or her signature method. Lambert's grandmother was no exception. "If my grandmother was making gumbo, she'd have a couple of hardboiled eggs in there. Drop them in whole," he says. "She'd do a chicken gumbo and put gizzards in there. When we were in college, me and my twin brother would sometimes take road trips and go see my grandmother by ourselves. The last time we were there it had gizzards in it and Lyndon commented, 'Ohh, I love gizzards,' so the next time we went there we walked in the house and she had a big pot of gumbo going and all that was in it was gizzards. Gizzard gumbo. So we sat there and choked down a bowl of gizzard gumbo."
No polite choking is required for this bowl; it's glorious, earthy -- soulful, even. As I attack the gumbo, Lambert's guests begin to arrive. These are friends who are obviously close and unabashed fans of his cooking. Bottles of wine are deposited on the table, they exchange oohs and ahhs about the gumbo, and a Saturday evening communion commences. This is friends night. The next night will be the sacred Sunday family dinner, when Lambert and his sister and their respective partners get together at Liz's house and everyone contributes to the meal. This event goes on religiously unless someone is out of town. Even the new restaurant will bow to the tradition; it will be closed Sunday and Monday to allow for the family meal. "It's about quality of life," Lambert says. "After the last three years, between catering and the loss of two brothers, we were growing the business and ... we just decided we're going to do the restaurant: It's about quality of food and quality of life."