Houston has its own molecular gastronomer by the name of Randy Rucker. The 26-year-old is the chef of Laidback Manor, which opened late last year.
I just returned from Houston on Sunday, but I'm back again, this time for the Research Chefs Association conference. This time around I have yet to see a cowboy hat, except for the one made of pastillage on top of the chocolate cowboy in the lobby of the Hilton Americas, where the conference is being held.
Laidback Manor’s publicist, Dick Dace, offered to pick me up at the airport, and I couldn’t think of any reason to refuse him. He took me to the restaurant and ordered me a Martini while young Mr. Rucker (Isn't that a great name, Randy Rucker? Sounds to me like a professional wrestler) whipped up a light lunch (not!) that began with a fried green tomato with purple mustard and shaved Brussels sprout flavored with navel orange.
Then we had green apple and celery root soup with Cape Bay (Massachusetts) scallops and confit of sunburst squash.
Atlantic salmon with popcorn agnolotti in chive emulsion was followed by crispy sweetbreads with fregula di sardina, lime zest and curry bubbles.
Randy served us Berkshire pork cooked sous-vide with Dr. Pepper and topped with smoked potato salad and espresso glaze. Then he seared some flatiron beef with a smear of mushroom-bacon puree and a Chinese soup spoonful of white truffle foam (and unlike many foams in restaurants, which resemble more the emulsion and bubbles that Randy served us in previous courses, this was really foam — like shaving cream, only, you know, edible).
For dessert we had a shake of milk chocolate and foie gras and, to finish it all off, little beads of strawberry and balsamic vinegar that Randy made by dripping the vinegar drop by drop into liquid nitrogen.
So after I checked into my hotel I took a nap, showered and went to the RCA conference’s opening reception. Dick Dace was there, and he introduced me to an enterprising young junior at Johnson & Wales University named Andrew Schmitt, whose résumé I now have. Andrew is so smart that it has not taken him 20 years in the workforce to realize that he doesn't want to be a chef in restaurants. Those chefs are a particular breed who love the back-of-the-house so much that they’ll endure the long hours and the working during holidays and the physical toll the job takes. Andrew, instead, wants to go straight into product development, so he flew down to Houston and is at the conference busily looking for work. Good man.
Dick took us to dinner at another of his clients, Pico’s Mex Mex, where we sampled different tequilas and moles, and munched on a Yucatecan red snapper dish called tikin xic, the house specialty of softshell crabs, marinated steak and a variety of other goodies.