Houston chef Erin Smith, formerly of Main Kitchen at the JW Marriot, Clumsy Butcher Group and Plonk! Bistro, was crowned victor of the Food Network’s cooking competition, Chopped. Smith won the title in an episode that aired in late May and required her to cook with exotic ingredients such as rattlesnake. She’s the third Houston chef to win on the show.
A native Houstonian, Smith went to culinary school in San Francisco before going to work in New York and returning to Houston. She’s currently working at Camerata, planning her September wedding to fellow chef Joshua Feges of Southern Goods, and thinking about their future restaurant. We caught up with Smith to talk about her experience on Chopped and what she loves about Houston’s culinary scene.
How was your experience on Chopped?
I really enjoyed it, I was really nervous the whole day. It’s a really long day of filming but it’s real. I think a lot of people assume that you get the basket ahead of time or that you might have more information than you appear to have when they air the show, but the truth is that it’s pretty much how they air it. It’s a surprise when you open the basket, the clock starts right there and you just go for it.
What surprised you?
I was surprised with how great the competition was and I don’t mean that from like their skill set because they were obviously very talented, but everybody was really nice. Obviously we were all there to win so there was a little bit of friendly competition, but everybody was really generous and helpful. If you were missing a tool and somebody had it, they would stop what they were doing and hand it to you. The competition surprised me because I thought it was going to be super cutthroat and everyone was going to be out for themselves and that wasn’t the case.
You’re working at Camerata now. Tell me about that.
I’ve always been fascinated with wine since I started cooking. When I was in New York I worked in Italian Wine Merchants and Babbo and both places really emphasize their wine programs. That’s when it started and I realized, ‘oh, I really love this little industry within the industry.’ It took a long time for me to actually pursue it because that was 10 years ago. I got really lucky that [Camerata owners] Paul Petronella and David Keck wanted to give me a chance and take some time and train me.
Are you looking to do something related to wine?
I’m always going to be a chef at heart; that’s where my real passion lies. I think I identify more as a chef but I also think it’s very important to understand all aspects of the industry. In the kitchen you kinda separate yourself from the rest of the restaurant sometimes. You don’t have to deal with customers, you don’t have to be a presence on the floor if you don’t want to be, and you don’t have to understand the beverage program, but I think it makes you a better chef if you care about all those things. For me it’s just getting a grasp on understanding a good wine program and I think Camerata has one of the best wine programs in Houston. David [Keck] is a complete professional when it comes to service, so I’m learning about service from him as well as wine.
I read you’re working on opening a restaurant with your fiancé.
That’s definitely our goal. We’ve been talking about that pretty much since we started dating. I knew that that’s his lifelong dream is to open his barbecue restaurant and I have a very similar skill set and it’s something that I’m very interested in as well so we’ve been talking about it. That is what our future goal is. For right now, we’ve got the wedding coming up and I’m pretty invested in Camerata and he’s invested in Southern Goods. So for the time being we’re probably going to wait a little bit, but not too long I think after we get married that’s going to be our focus.
What are your favorite places to eat in Houston?
There are so many great restaurants here. Some of my favorites are Coltivare. I love Pax Americana. I love Uchi, which is where David used to work. I love Kata Robata. I love Southern Goods, which is where my fiancé works. They’re great, super Southern, it’s a more casual place so I can go in without having to worry about how I’m dressed and that’s always nice. For cocktails, I love Anvil. In my opinion, one of the best cocktail programs in the nation and we’re very lucky to have them here in Houston. Blacksmith and Morningstar are my favorite places for breakfast. Whenever I need to meet up with someone for breakfast, those are the places that I recommend. And of course Oxheart.
How has Houston’s dining scene changed since you moved back?
When I moved back to Houston from New York, I had very low expectations. I decided I would find a job cooking and it probably wouldn’t be at a restaurant because my experience growing up in Houston -- and part of this is because we lived somewhat in the suburbs -- is that it was a lot of chain restaurants, a lot of Tex-Mex and I wasn’t really interested in getting involved in a chain restaurant. But I moved back right as that whole scene was really just starting to evolve. Pass & Provisions was about to open. Oxheart was probably just an idea at the time but then Oxheart opened. So all of these places, most of the places that I named that are my favorites, opened after I moved back here and they’re chefs that I’ve developed really good relationships with. That’s one of my favorite things about being in Houston and being in this industry, is just how awesome the people are in the industry and how great their restaurants are. There’s always new stuff in the works with great chefs behind it so it feels like this is a great place to be. There’s a lot of opportunity here, there are a lot of people who are willing to dine out on a regular basis so it’s a good market, and it’s been really exciting. I don’t think I could’ve planned it any better and I didn’t plan it intentionally but I moved back at the right time.