Chef Brian Zenner of Belly & Trumpet in Uptown has been around a bit. Born in Bangkok, his family moved to Dubai and London before finally settling in Texas. And while on paper his culinary career started at the Texas Culinary Academy, one might say the cooking wheels started churning on a dock in Thailand when he was just 14 years old. Zenner has spent time in kitchens in Austin, Portland, and most recently under the tutelage of chef Bruno Davaillon at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, then alongside chef Jason Maddy at Oak.
Here's a recent chat:
Where are you from originally? I'm mostly grew up in Houston. I was born overseas, but moved back to the states when I was 8, lived in Houston for a while, then finished high school in Dallas.
From a culinary perspective, would you say most of your influences came from Texas? Yeah, but, living overseas early was pretty influential for the whole family. We went to a lot of Thai restaurants growing up and we traveled to a lot of places even after we moved to Texas.
I hear you're working two jobs now -- Oak and Belly & Trumpet. How's that working out for you? It's working out well. Most of the time is spent at Belly & Trumpet. Then, I help out at Oak when I can. But my focus is primarily on the new place.
You and Jason Maddy (of Oak) both worked Davillion at The Mansion. What did you learn from him? Bruno is amazing. I had been cooking for about eight years when I joined The Mansion, and I was there about 15 months. The most influential aspect was the use of flavors. He's an amazing chef and taught me a ton about putting flavors on plates.
What did he teach you about running a kitchen? Bruno is definitely very soft spoken, but when he does speak, it counts, which is something I'm still working on. I wish I was a little more like him in that regard. He's a great leader in the kitchen. He has very high expectations for everyone in the kitchen and expects people to work independently and to be accountable for their work. He's about training chefs, not just working with cooks.
You opened a restaurant in Portland, Oregon. What did you learn from that experience? I learned a ton about the business side -- getting contacts, pulling everything together. This was actually the second restaurant I helped open [Belly & Trumpet would be the third] and as far as opening places, it's a lot of fun.
It seems to me that opening restaurants is a rather arduous process. It's also very fulfilling though. That first night or week, when you watch it all come together, it's worth it.
How important is it for a chef to be connected to the dining room, not just in terms of plates of food, but in terms of what customers are saying and the overall experience? It's important and it depends on your front-of-the-house management and staff. You can be really hands-on, but it's really about the general managers. Our GM always give a lot of feedback, both good and bad. We don't always agree with it, but we definitely always listen and take it into account with every decision we make.
But, in terms of spending a lot of time on the floor in the front of the house, we do it some, but I mainly depend on the front of the house to let us know what's going on.
Do you pay a lot of attention to culinary trends? I pay attention to trends as much as I try not to follow them. We want to know what's going on, but we also want to stay ahead. We certainly are not going to do something because it's trendy at the moment.
Sounds like you have a lot of free reign at Belly & Trumpet, creating your own menu and changing things regularly. Can you go through that process a little? We do have a lot of free reign. We get to play around a lot and bring in new, interesting products. I really think it's the direction that all of America is going. Dining is much more chef driven, much more about getting talented people in the kitchen and let them do their best. It makes dining much more interesting.
Are you working with many local farmers? Right off the bat, it's hard to get started on that. We're working with Tom Spicer and a little with Tassione and Barking Cat Farm. We're definitely looking forward to spring though.
Is it difficult to base a menu on a harvest that is dependent on so many variables, like rain, freezes, etc.? Absolutely. It's mainly about building a relationship with those farmers. And, yes, it's really hard to build a menu, then two days later turn around and they say, "It all died." It's difficult, but like anything, it's worth the effort. And you get to support something that is very important. It's great when we can use stuff around us instead of trying to fly everything in. Although, we still do some of that. Being from Portland, morels are coming in season and that's one of the things I can't wait for every year.
What's the best meal you've ever had? When I was 14 years old we went to Thailand for a vacation and a friend of the family took us out to a restaurant that was on a dock and there were all of these wooden boxes filled with fresh seafood. He went through and picked like eight things and we had course after course of this seafood that was so fresh. Something that really stands out was a chili-cracked crab, which is this crab covered in a curry. It was pretty memorable.
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What's the worst thing you've ever eaten? [Pause.] It usually has something to do with expectations. So, I expect McDonald's to be bad. Worst thing I ever ate? [Another pause.] I have no idea. Probably something I made and threw out.
Do you have any food shames? I'll get a couple tacos at the Jack in the Box at three in the morning every once in a while.
Two for 99 cents? Those are the ones. That's tough to say out loud.
Not here. You're amongst friends. The later at night, the better those are. Right, only when it's very dark.