In high school, Claire Smith ’87 begged her parents, both Rice grads, to let her skip college and attend culinary school. Her parents were unmoved, so off she went to Rice. Culinary school would have to wait.
On the way to earning degrees in art and art history, Smith continued to learn about the business while waitressing and working for a catering company. She practiced classical culinary techniques from her mother’s cookbook collection.
“I feel very fortunate that I had in mind a plan of action for what to do with my life at a very early age,” she said. After graduating in 1987, she moved to California to attend culinary school where, “the whole of San Francisco Bay area was my learning palette.”
Luckily for Houstonians, Smith returned to her hometown and opened the Daily Review Café in 1994 — “It was a different world back then. We had a one-page lease with blanks filled in by hand.” Next, she opened Shade in 2004, Canopy in 2009 and Woodbar in 2014. Shade closed this spring and reopened in June as Alice Blue, a modern Mediterranean bistro. We met up with Smith at Canopy, the casual Montrose eatery, to discuss her culinary vocation and popular restaurants.
You trained when the Bay Area was fueling food trends like sushi, fusion cuisine and fresh, inventive American cuisine. What were some of your experiences?
I took on every internship opportunity — working at the Pebble Beach Golf Tournament, charity events at the Fairmont Hotel, competitions hosted by the school. I won first place in one competition sponsored by Monticello Vineyards in Napa Valley and earned a spot as guest chef of the vineyard’s harvest festival for 400 guests. I was able to put together my crew, line out all the sources for the menu and execute the food for the event. It was truly an eye-opening experience.
My last job in the Bay Area before I moved back to Houston was as the co-chef of a very small lodge in Inverness, Calif., on Tomales Bay. Twice a week my co-chef and I would stop by the Monterey produce and fish markets and grab our provisions for the next few days before making the 55-mile trip to prepare our guests a menu of wild game and fresh fish combined with the best produce of the season.
What were you and partner Carl Eaves aiming to bring to Houston’s dining scene with the Daily Review Café?
Carl and I wanted to open a small neighborhood place with a seasonal menu, complementary wine list, friendly staff and a place that our patrons could call their own. A few days before opening, we invited a group of about 30 friends over for a weekend and built the patio that doubled our seating. Our opening menu had four starters, four entrées and four desserts.
In the kitchen we took the challenge of the name — Daily Review — to heart and changed the preparation of most of the entrées each day. We called our process, “ready, set … cook!” It was like cooking boot camp, and I would say allowed many of the chefs who came through Daily Review to stick their necks out and try new things.
These days, what takes up most of your work day?
As owner of Canopy, Alice Blue [formerly Shade], Woodbar and a busy catering business, my main responsibility is to make sure that everything operates in the smoothest manner, providing a quality experience for our guests. My background is as a chef, but I function as a sounding board for the chefs to help fine-tune their ideas. My job is a combination of customer service, executive management, menu creation, accounting, payroll, catering and human resource tasks.
Tell us about the catering side.
My major focus with my businesses is in our catering and events department. It is a joy to work with people celebrating a special event or hosting friends and family into their homes. My favorite event is the Come to the Table fundraiser supporting The Beacon, a nonprofit serving the homeless community.
How do you approach sourcing ingredients?
At the restaurants, our first priority in sourcing is quality, then consistency and price point. Our seafood comes mostly from the Gulf Coast as there is no need to go far from Houston for quality seafood. We recently started working with Covey Rise Farms in Louisiana because they work with small farmers all over the South. Small businesses working hard to produce consistently great ingredients need our support no matter where they are.
Many of your staff seem to have long histories working with you. How do you build a loyal team?
Communication, trust, a reliable support staff, the tools of the trade and the best ingredients available are just the starting point. Over the years it has become clear that the most important thing to me about being in the restaurant business (as a teenage deli counter worker, as a server in college, as a culinary student, as an employee, as a chef and now as a business owner) is the relationships that I have developed with my co-workers.
What’s new in the kitchen since you started out?
Silicone — silpat nonstick baking pan liners, molds for baking and cold desserts and spatulas — has revolutionized efficiency in the kitchen.
What advice do you have for anyone who’s serious about learning the trade?
Find your way into a kitchen and get some practical exposure as early as possible. Get an internship — whether you’re in middle school, high school, college or beyond.
Executive chef Kent Domas contributed this recipe from the newly opened Alice Blue restaurant in the Heights.
Recipe: Grilled Eggplant Dip With Pistachio Gremolata and Pomegranate
2 pounds eggplant
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon minced garlic
1 lemon (zest and juice)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt to taste
1 cup pistachios
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
¼ teaspoon minced garlic
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
Pistachio gremolata: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, toast the pistachios until lightly colored, about 10 minutes; allow to cool before chopping. Combine with the remaining ingredients.
Eggplant: Grill eggplant on low flame, allow to char well on each side before turning. Remove from the grill and place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap. When cool, carefully split open and scrape out the meat, reserving the juice left in the bowl. Roughly chop the meat and combine with the juice and remaining ingredients.
Place in a serving dish, garnish with the yogurt, pistachio gremolata and fresh pomegranate seeds. Serve with grilled bread or lavash crackers.