Restaurant game changer: Surprise new Heights spot with Slumdog Millionaire chef to elevate Gulf Coast food
For over a year, the ambitious, Heights-based restaurant group has been telling diners that Foreign Correspondents, its Thai concept led by chef turned fishmonger (turned chef) PJ Stoops, will be opening next to Hunky Dory in an under construction building at the corner of Shepherd and 18th Street. Instead, the group has quietly been developing a restaurant called Bernadine's for the space that will be led by Kipper Club general manager Graham Laborde. Foreign Correspondents is still on track to open next spring, but it will be at another location that has yet to be revealed. "Bernadine’s is our love letter to Gulf Coast food," Laborde tells CultureMap. "If you go up and down the I-10 corridor, you get to see all these rural places that are not nearly as celebrated as they should be for the fact that they serve absolutely spectacular food. You look at a smoked sausage place in Iota, Louisiana, a crab shack doing barbecue crabs near Beaumont, a Florida fish shack."You take those things, apply modern techniques to them, maybe lighten them up a little bit, make them fresh. You really come up with something spectacular. It’s our tribute to that." While Laborde didn't make the direct comparison, Bernadine's offers something of a twist on the idea of elevating food with humble roots that Underbelly has employed to so much success. However, instead of taking influences from Houston streets like Bellaire, Long Point and Hillcroft, Bernadine's takes its inspiration from the boudain shacks, oyster dives and fish huts of the extended Gulf Coast.The restaurant will feature a "fully-stocked raw bar" and serve dishes like grilled oysters, roast duck, BBQ crab, whole fish and house-made boudin. Of course, Laborde will preview some of these items at an upcoming Kipper Club dinner (date TBA). To the extent that Laborde is known at all in Houston prior to appearing at the Kipper Club, it's from his stint as Jonathan Jones's sous chef at the well-regarded but ill-fated Concepción. However, his resume includes time at fine dining restaurants like Commander's Palace and Stella in New Orleans and The Florence Club, a private hunting lodge in Gueydan, Lousiana."There’s not an element of this food that isn’t 100 percent true to who I am. The reason I’m comfortable serving food from this entire region is because I’ve been back and forth across that region driving and stopping at roadside stands to appreciate it," Laborde says."I feel like Graham is the Slumdog Millionaire of Bernadine’s — everything he’s done in his life leads up to this awesome project," adds Treadsack co-owner Chris Cusack. "Graham is an amazing problem solver. He’s a great communicator. He’s a really fun person to be around. That was something that we had the opportunity to learn over the last year and a half of getting to know each other."The Feast Connection — and ChallengePrior to signing on with Treadsack, Laborde worked for Black Hill Ranch as the operations manager, which is where he met former Feast (and future Hunky Dory) chef Richard Knight. After he worked on a party for Black Hill customers at D&T and alongside Stoops at a pop-up, Cusack and Treadsack director of operations Benjy Mason decided to bring Laborde on board."They approached me through Richard," Laborde recalls. "When someone approaches you with your dream job — I’ve said no to executive chef gigs before — but this was just the right time. These guys, I feel like we really share a similar vision for what we want to do and guest experience as a whole. It was no debate, absolutely a go." Asked about whether Laborde and Bernadine's can hold up to the inevitable scrutiny from both the media and the public that will come from being compared to Knight, a James Beard semifinalist during his time at Feast, Mason is philosophical. "Who was the James Beard Best Chef Southwest four years ago? You don’t remember, and no one else does either," he quips."Not to discount the Beard committee, because we all want to be recognized by them at the end," Cusack quickly adds. "I think we’re looking at the long term. I think people will come to Bernadine’s, be excited and want to come back. It’s that simple, and it’s that difficult as far as finding success in the restaurant world."For his part, Laborde has a slightly different perspective on being compared to his friend. "I am an extremely competitive individual, and I love Richard Knight to death. We are as close as friends can be, but damn I want to show him up. Every chance I get. Why wouldn’t you? This is my passion. This is my life’s work."These guys have given me a restaurant. I want to make them proud of me. I want to make them happy." Bernadine "Bird" Laborde is the matriarch of Laborde's family. A "committee of aunts" had to approve using their mother's name for her grandson's restaurant. "She had nine children. She had 36 grandchildren. She made three meals a day for all of us, for 80 years of her life," Laborde says. "She was an absolute master of production. There was nothing that couldn’t be done with another pot of rice and maybe a glass of Scotch or two."Beyond giving Laborde his first opportunity to cook, he hopes that his restaurant embodies Bernadine's attitude about the power of food. "She would never turn a guest away. It was hospitality to the nth degree," he says. "I’ve taken that, put more of a fine dining twist on it with my past experiences, but never lost an appreciation for what it takes to just nourish people. Make them leave feeling satisfied and happy."Cusack notes that he's never heard of a restaurant that tries to synthesize and elevate all of Gulf Coast cuisine. Iconic restaurants like Brennan's of Houston and Gaido's in Galveston represent the New Orleans-based Creole tradition, but Bernadine's has a much broader scope. Can the Slumdog Millionaire chef pull off such an ambitious concept, hold his own alongside one of Houston's most well-regarded chefs and honor his grandmother's legacy?"I’m driven by a challenge, and I hope to exceed everyone’s expectations," Laborde says.