You’ve eaten their food whether you know it or not. If your regular haunts within the last few years have included Sandbar, Laurent’s Modern Cuisine, Bella on the River or Tre Trattoria, members of the Texas Cooks’ Co-Op have likely prepared your favorite dish many times over. But you probably don’t even know their names, not yet, anyway.
Made up of line cooks, executive sous chefs, a bartender and a sommelier (and funnily enough, an internal management consulting analyst), the TCCO is the brainchild of Tapa Tapa Truck owner and Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park alum Rudolfo Martinez and Luis Colon, a Johnson & Wales University-trained chef that’s worked everywhere from Lüke to Bella on the River and will help open Tuk Tuk Taproom. The group’s mission is to encourage support within the food community while expanding their skillset.
But Texas Cooks’ Co-Op had a questionable conception, which most members don’t like discussing. After being excluded from the then-newly formed SA Chef Coalition, an organization that included executive chefs and restaurant owners, in March 2012, Martinez and Colon decided to take matters into their own hands. The pair created the SA Cooks’ Coalition as what Martinez calls, “a knee-jerk reaction” to the other partnership.
“We felt slighted. A lot of our members have Michelin restaurant experience in their resumes and have been cooking in town for a good little while,” Martinez said. “We started without the most positive reason.”
The SA Chef Coalition began as a way for chefs and hospitality professionals to support and promote food culture. The group was comprised of Andrew Weissman, Jason Dady, Chad Carey, Steven McHugh, Michael Sohocki, John Brand, David Gilbert of Sustenio and Il Sogno sommelier Gabe Howe. They held several events including a fried chicken and beer pop-up, an intimate, yet rowdy crawfish boil, and the group also donated $6,000 to SAISD schools with culinary programs. But the Chef Coalition has been pretty quiet since December when they posted their last tweet.
Not so for Martinez and Colon’s Cooks Coalition. After rebranding as the Texas Cooks’ Co-Op, Martinez and Colon reassessed its original purpose. This wasn’t going to be an organization that tore people down. They focused instead on building high-quality cuisine up.
“We decided to get serious about our mission,” Martinez said. “We want to further the culinary scene here in regards to showing people that you don’t have to spend a lot of money for forward-thinking food. We make no money. Every dollar goes back to product or wine.”
Co-Op dinners have taken place all over the city. Over the last year and a half, the group has held 15 culinary feasts at locations such as the Art Institute of San Antonio, commercial kitchen Bake Broil and Brew, Tre Trattoria’s downtown location, Knife & Fork Gastropub in Stone Oak, numerous hotel and resort dining rooms, and most recently, Arcade Midtown Kitchen. The group’s Facebook location puts it best: “Anywhere we are allowed to showcase our different skills and techniques!”
Each theme is wildly different: Masquerade, Secret Ingredients, Nose-to-Tail, Six Flags Over Texas and a Classics Dinner are just a few of the iterations.
The group meets every Wednesday, usually around 11 p.m. at an industry favorite bar like The Brooklynite or Southtown 101. During these meetings, the members casually discuss upcoming dinners while hashing out locations, settling on dinner themes and assigning plates.
At first glance, they might seem like a disparate bunch. Most everyone is in their mid-20s or early 30s, but it’d be hard to peg down their occupations once they don civilian gear. An early meeting in September brought together the sharp-tongued Amanda Linquist, executive sous chef at Westin River Walk; crisp, clean Army Staff Sergeant Edmund Perez; soft-spoken Jacqueline Montalvo, who now works under Linquist at the Westin; Colon in a pair of stylish glasses and camo cargo shorts; and a scruffy Nick Fuentes joined the meeting while manning Tapa Tapa Truck (Martinez was completing a two-week stage, basically a fancy French word for unpaid internship, at NYC’s Empellon Cocina). The meeting was rounded out by Sustenio bartender David Naylor, who previously trained under Olaf Harmel at Mon Ami back when Harmel ran the bar there.
The membership has fluctuated since the Co-Op’s first dinner at Tost Bistro: Bella on the River’s Sean Fletcher and James Diaz, along with line cook Daniel Orta, previously with Sandbar and now at Arcade, participate when time allows. Spare hours are a precious resource for these industry folks.
“It breaks the monotony, so I don’t mind,” said Colon of the late night meetings, “We get to do things that we don’t get to do at work.”
Another factor that might keep members away is that this isn’t a for-profit venture, at least not in cold, hard cash terms. Once a feasible amount of dishes are set, after Naylor gets his liquor budget for opening and closing cocktails and only when Vinously Speaking owner and wine-provider Cecilia Baretto gets her budget for wine pairings, does the group decide a price for the dinner. The overall budget comes from the Co-Op members’ own pockets, to be reimbursed after the dinner is finished. For instance, September’s Back to School dinner at The Richter Co is priced at $65 to include eight dishes with wine pairings (instead of the usual 12) and a cocktail. That’s truly one hell of a deal.
This month’s dinner will be held Sunday, September 22, and will focus on the first few lessons all culinary students learn in school, like roasted chicken, consommé, French mother sauces, braising, eggs Benedict and crepes. The idea to previously host the dinner at The Art Institute came from chef-instructor John Tamez after he attended a dinner last year. For Tamez, the dinner serves as an extra tool that helps some of his 500 students see how other cooks and chefs in town work.
“There aren’t big name chefs yet, so the students aren’t too intimidated. I can only teach them so much here,” Tamez said. “They’re regular guys that let the food speak for itself.”
Menu planning is when the cooks get a chance to get those creative juices flowing. Each member chooses a number of dishes to take on: a risotto appetizer and a cassoulet main for Perez; Linquist persuaded herself to take on two dishes while trying to figure out a way to make a dessert variation on the classic eggs benny.
Colon, a molecular gastronomy nut who’s completed stages at John Shield’s Town House in Virginia as well as Grant Achatz’ Alinea in Chicago, took on a main and a dessert.
On game day, the team makes it to the month’s location with several hours to spare. A walk-through takes place a few days beforehand to make sure everyone knows where the silverware and plates are located within the kitchen and the layout of the dinner.
“We usually walk in with about 85 to 90 percent of the product ready-to-go,” said Colon … that is when everyone shows up.
There have been no-shows and tardy members before, and Colon’s lost a few menu items out the back of his truck, but still the TCCO delivers.
It’s during dinnertime that the TCCO membership’s varied backgrounds and skillsets really come into play.
Naylor opens the dinners with a cocktail paired with a hors d’oeuvre prepared by the host location. Guests, who have ranged from family members and friends to local gourmands, have a chance to mingle before taking their seats. Once courses begin trickling out of the kitchen at 5:30, each chef presents his or her own course.
“At the end of the day, we all know how a kitchen runs, and we expect that structure,” Colon said. “The food’s gotta come out on time. We still have to provide that service, that good experience.”
As the newest member, Linquist, who worked at The St. Regis Deer Valley Resort in Utah before moving to SA, gets several things out of the Co-Op, primarily a networking opportunity that also allows her to share a thing or two with the San Antonio scene.
“Being a banquet chef in the past, it’s almost harder to know how to prep for 40, 45 people because I’m so used to 300, 400,” said the New Jersey native. For her debut dinner, the Zocca chef created two main dishes, a star anise pork belly with cumin and tahini paired with peach chutney and veal sweetbreads with potatoes, beets, Swiss chard, hazelnuts, sherry and Parmesan.
“For me, the group is a way to get creative and think outside the box. We’re not here to be better than one another, but [to] learn and support each other and be proud of what we do as a group,” Linquist said. Since joining, she’s also extended a job offer to Montalvo, who had previous experience working at Sandbar, Il Sogno and most recently, Minnie’s Tavern.
“She’s an artist. It’s great to see someone making (food) sexy and take it to the next level,” Linquist gushed. “When Jackie makes a salad, you can tell she makes a salad.”
Montalvo, the creator of an intricate birds nest made of fried leeks with layered “eggs” made of cod and potato and topped with delicate avocado slices, also gained something she didn’t know she had previously: confidence.
“It’s a push. Every dinner is a challenge,” Montalvo said.
Perez also shares Montalvo’s precision, while adding speed. As a tasking non-commissioned officer for the Army and personal chef to a three-star commander at Fort Sam Houston, the St. Philip’s College-trained and Culinary Institute of America-certified chef brings years of military efficiency to the group. He’s done everything from feeding small companies near the Korean demilitarized zone to manning the omelet station during breakfasts with 2,500 hungry soldiers.
A part-time volleyball coach, keyboard player for a Top 40 cover band and father to four girls, Perez somehow finds time to participate in the dinners.
“They’ve taught me a lot. These guys teach themselves, they’re into molecular stuff, which is something I kind of want to get into, but not rely on,” Perez said, but insists one of the main reasons he’s involved is the camaraderie. “My wife likes eating my food, but doesn’t like talking about it. This way, I can have a couple of beers and hang out with cool people while talking about the industry.”
The cooks keep each other abreast of all the comings and goings in SA’s professional kitchen life. Fuentes, who will be joining the staff at Biga on the Banks this fall, joined the group after hosting a dinner at Tre Trattoria Downtown. The former sous chef, and maker of a smoked orange panna cotta, is working toward opening his own truck or brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future. In the meantime, he’s honing his skills and fighting boredom with the TCCO.
“As employees, we see a lot of menus that don’t change, specials that never see the board,” Fuentes, a 10-year veteran of the industry said. “In San Antonio, you can easily say its (tickets like) salmon, salmon, Caesar salad, salmon, salmon, Caesar salad.”
“Or dirty martinis,” Naylor, the Sustenio bartender, chimed in.
The End Goal
Martinez, who is working on opening his own restaurant in Southtown (look for that later this year or early 2014), is learning firsthand the amount of financing it takes to open an independent eatery. It’s a major barrier to the Co-Op cooks breaking free of line cook or sous chef status, where they typically make anywhere from $29,000 to $57,000 annually according to a 2010 StarChefs.com survey.
“That’s the main goal … Hopefully [to] find that one person willing to say ‘that guy has enough determination, passion and heart, let me back him up financially.’ That’s the biggest obstacle for us.”
While most chef hopefuls are often encouraged to attend culinary school, no one mentions the $25,000 or more in student loans. Sous chef positions aren’t guaranteed to fresh grads, either. For the most part, cooks coming out of school are making no more than $9 an hour.
Financial burden aside, the group is not just a venue for cooks to push the envelope. Yes, it provides a creative outlet for aspiring chefs who would otherwise be stuck preparing the same mis en place day in and day out, but it also gives the group insight into what it takes to host these dinners. Each monthly soiree turns into a Top Chef-level challenge where these cooks try their hand at leadership, organization, pricing (remember, these budgets come out of the group’s collective pocket) and portioning.
They run into no-shows from members, cancellations and other hassles while trying to create gastronomical experiences.
“We’re trying daring, bold things. We’re like the neighborhood softball team. We work in kitchens, then go hang out and talk about food, food trends, restaurants,” Fuentes said. “It’s a recreational opportunity to collaborate and work withlikeminded individuals.”
Still, the ultimate goal is expanding the San Antonio palate.
“We don’t want people to be afraid of a fucking tasting menu,” Colon emphasized. “We need people to come in with an open mind.”
Back to School Dinner
Sept 22, 5pm
The Richter Co.
email texascookscoop (at) yahoo.com for payment details
Follow the group on Facebook
This article has been updated to reflect that the dinner's venue has changed from the Art Institute of San Antonio to The Richter Co