There and Back Again
NYC chef Tien Ho returns to Austin
A short 13 years ago – but an eon in Austin's food-scene history – I interviewed a young chef who'd left our town to follow his culinary star to New York City. When we met late one night at a midtown Manhattan deli after his restaurant shift, Tien Ho had been living and working there for six months. Exhausted, gaunt, and hungry, he was still gobsmacked by the pace and intensity of the NYC food world. But the fire in his belly hadn't diminished. He was determined to succeed in that most demanding and competitive of markets.
And, boy, did he ever succeed. After auspicious beginnings at Cafe Boulud and Cafe Gray, Ho joined David Chang's Momofuku group. As partner/executive sous chef, he helped put Ssäm Bar and Má Pêche on the map. In 2009, Serious Eats founder Ed Levine called him "maybe the best chef in New York you never heard of," whose "food is the equivalent of Springsteen playing a last-minute gig at a small club." New York magazine named him one of five Best New Chefs of 2011. For his next act, Ho roamed the world as corporate executive chef for Morgans Hotel Group, its snazzy boutique locations ranging from San Francisco to Qatar. "I loved getting to know a city's culture through its food," he says.
Then, in a December surprise, Whole Foods announced that Ho would be the global vice president of culinary and hospitality, a new position created for him to "elevate the way Whole Foods Market guests experience our food," according to Ken Meyer, executive VP of operations.
Although arguably most associate the local corporation with groceries, it is also one of the busiest restaurant chains in the country – nearly a fifth of the company's sales ($3 billion annually) comes from the prepared foods that are integral to each of the 440 stores worldwide. With Ho's hire, Whole Foods clearly intends to amp up customer service along with creativity and innovation in prepared foods.
So, in the scheme of things, what is the role of global VP of culinary and hospitality? Ho, who started work in January, says, "I'm defining what my position is; I get to help create it. It isn't just about prepared food, there are lots of other aspects ... the bakeries, cafe and coffee service, hospitality overall." These days, he's spending most of his time on the road, visiting stores in the 12 regions, getting acquainted with his far-flung colleagues, connecting with local teams, and learning how the company works. "I'm excited about working with people who share the same ethos that I do," he says. "Excited about my ability to influence, how my cooks get the opportunity to influence. I emphasize not limiting ourselves but thinking about how do we take it all higher? The scale of this impact is challenging, a little terrifying, but that's what drew me to this job."
He goes on, "I'm more passionate than ever about being in the kitchen. I don't think we're artists. I think we're craftspeople, but our craft can be very refined."
Ho knows that one of his initiatives will be more outside partnerships and collaborations, like having local and celebrity chefs bring their food into the stores. He's already launched a test-kitchen food truck in the parking lot of the flagship store on North Lamar. The truck will change concept, name, and menu to reflect seasons, trends, and vendor partnerships every two months, and it will serve as a public venue to experiment with new ideas and customer input. With each new concept, Whole Foods will also partner with a different nonprofit.
The truck's first incarnation, Tartinette, debuted during SXSW; the maiden concept is about the French-inspired open-faced sandwiches called tartines. Eight varieties are on offer, including roasted mushrooms with pistachio, Taleggio, and sauce vierge; and grilled cauliflower with pickled lemon and Catalan Romesco sauce. For the initial two months, 2% of the truck sales go to the Austin Food & Wine Alliance's culinary grant program.
As for his return to Austin after more than a decade in New York, Ho has had some pleasant surprises. "Austin certainly has a much more sophisticated food audience now than when I was here before," he says. "I made a handful of visits back when I was in NYC, but I wanted my Tex-Mex and barbecue, so I just wasn't expanding my view or paying attention to what else was happening in the food scene here. I didn't realize how much it had changed and grown."
What with all his travel time and getting settled with his wife and infant daughter, Ho says he hasn't had much bandwidth to explore the current Austin foodscape yet. "One thing that has weighed heavily on me lately is that I haven't had a chance to really connect enough with the chefs and restaurants in Austin," he says. "As competitive as NYC is, there is this incredible sense of camaraderie among chefs and restaurant folks that is difficult to describe. I'm looking forward to discovering that here in Austin."
Back in my 2003 story, I said that Ho's culinary odyssey was Austin's loss and New York's gain. Today, the tables are turned. It's Austin's good fortune that Tien Ho has returned home. New York will just have to manage.