A few months ago a young woman made the journey from New York City to Kemah, a distance of roughly 1,600 miles, so she might visit a restaurant she’d noticed was generating considerable buzz online. “I have to tell you,” the woman said to David Skinner, the restaurant’s owner and chef, “I’m in the hospitality industry. Do you know how many good reviews Eculent has?” Skinner told her that he didn’t. “I can hardly find any bad ones. They’re all like five stars.”

“Shouldn’t they be?” he replied.

The woman was aghast. “You just don’t know how big a deal that is. I’ve never had an experience like this. If you were in New York, you’d never get a reservation here.”

Sift through the reviews Eculent has received since opening in 2014, and you will indeed find the odd bad review here and there. But the good ones are breathtaking—on TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp, and everywhere else—even as diners struggle to describe exactly what it’s like to eat there. “Calling Eculent a restaurant completely undersells the experience,” reads one. “How can I … accurately describe something that is out of this world?” begins another. A dinner at Eculent is “life-altering” and “mind-blowing” and “in a league of its own,” with more than a few patrons calling it the finest dining experience they’ve ever had.

In short, in this food-mad city, it would seem that there are few places people are madder for—so why have so few ever heard of it?

Perhaps that’s because Eculent is not in Houston proper, but tucked behind a steakhouse called T-Bone Tom’s near Galveston Bay. Or maybe it’s the fact that until recently Skinner served only six diners a night, three nights a week. (He’s recently upped it to 12, five nights a week.) Then again, it could be that his jaw-dropping 40-course meals come with an equally jaw-dropping $225 price tag (wine pairing not included).

But most likely it’s the chef’s pedigree. David Skinner has spent most of the past 30 years laboring not in kitchens but fluorescent-lit offices at Conoco and his own oil-field service company, not as a chef but as an analyst, amassing a fortune as a consultant. The 54-year-old has devoted his off hours not to perusing cookbooks but writing a book of his own, an academic tome on decision-making that’s now in its third edition and used by business schools in the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, Skinner’s résumé is about as far from a superstar chef’s as you can imagine, which is part of what makes his achievement—perhaps the most exciting restaurant Houston has seen in a decade—so implausible.


 

Starting off an Eculent evening with the cocktail machine

Image: Amy Scott

“What you want to do is take one of these pipettes and fill it up twice,” Skinner announced on a recent Friday evening to four diners who’d trekked to his restaurant from various parts of the metro area. At 6:15 there were still two missing, so he killed time by introducing the rest to a Rube Goldberg–esque contraption that sat just inside Eculent’s entrance.

“What we’ve got here is our cocktail machine,” he told them, handing each a beaker and a card with a periodic table listing dozens of “elements” corresponding to corked flasks with liquid flavorings like White Sangria, Dry Ice, Cantaloupe, Praline, Fire Salt, Prickly Pear, and Hickory Smoke. “We’ve had some really fantastic combinations,” Skinner told them, “although the most popular so far is peanut butter and white chocolate.”

“I wonder if ginger and amaretto would go together,” mused one diner. “Any suggestions for huckleberry and something else?” asked another, waving his pipette. Skinner thought for a moment. “Maybe blood orange?” he replied, meanwhile directing the cocktail machine, which he controlled via iPad, to dispense some vodka into the man’s beaker.

The machine is a bit of a gimmick, but a necessary one, as dinner at Eculent is a precisely timed affair. After the two stragglers finally arrived, Skinner led his group out of the restaurant, past some impressive tomato plants hanging from aero-ponic towers, and into an adjacent building, a long, narrow space with carefully controlled climate conditions and the antiseptic feel of a research lab. It was here, Skinner explained, amid a centrifuge and 3-D- and food-printers, a dehydrator and a freeze-dryer, that he’d developed some of his most creative dishes, and here too where his guests would consume the first of their many courses. Hanging from the branches of a small tree sculpture were what looked like six lowly pieces of romaine lettuce. In the mouth they crackled and dissolved in an instant, at which point several patrons reported with astonishment that a single leaf had somehow tasted like an entire Caesar salad, croutons and all.

Even more intriguing was the next course. Skinner turned the group’s attention to a plate of six beige-colored bonbons. “A word of caution with this one,” he said. “These are designed to explode and they will. What you want to do is put the whole thing in your mouth, then bite down, keeping your mouth closed.”

Image: Amy Scott

The diners, who included a newly married couple and an older one that appeared to be on a first date, did as directed. “French onion soup!” exclaimed the older woman. “It is!” gasped her companion. “A whole bowl of it. With the cheese and bread and everything. How did you do that?”

“It’s a secret,” Skinner replied with a smile, offering only that his ingenious, Wonka-esque course number two had involved many weeks of trial and error, plus a casing of “edible fats.” The bonbon wasn’t the last of the evening’s mysteries. Later he would encourage them to eat wedding bouquets held together with pistachio butter, slivers of watermelon that mimicked ahi tuna, a soup composed of three types of cauliflower, a lily flower with an edible stamen, a one-bite BLT, and an entire Italian dinner consumed through a straw (tiramisu included).

Skinner loves telling war stories during his epic, three-hour meals, and one of his favorites concerns a catering job he did for the Rhone Valley wine association a few years back. “They contacted me and said, ‘We want you to do a dinner in San Francisco for 100 select people and we want it to be about the future of food. We’ve heard that’s something that you could do.’” How crazy do you want it? Skinner asked. “‘We want you to be as creative as possible.’”

At the dinner, which was eventually held in an unmarked Bay Area warehouse, guests were instructed to put on Tyvek Hazmat suits and walk through a decontamination area, donning nametags (edible, of course) prior to entering the dining room. The point of the suits, Skinner said, was partly to “normalize everybody at the dinner. You don’t know if the person next to you is worth a billion dollars or $100,000. I mean,” he laughed, “you know they’re not worth zero because they’re in San Francisco.”

But Skinner also didn’t want the exceptionally messy dessert he’d planned to ruin anyone’s Armani suit. “I called it a Pollock pop. We came up with all these different flavored powders that were like paint. We just threw them on the table”—Jackson Pollock style—“and then handed the guests a gel pop that they could roll in it to pick up the flavors, then dip into liquid nitrogen to freeze.”

The chef smiled proudly at the memory. “It was a crazy, fabulous evening like nobody’s ever seen.”

“Sometimes David will come to me and say, ‘Okay, tell me if this is too crazy,’” said Stacey Mullen, the only other cook in Eculent’s kitchen. “I never really do know what he’s going to come up with.”

A dish fit for Fabergé

Image: Amy Scott

For the record, Mullen told me that during the year and a half she’s been working with Skinner, she has never said something was too crazy, although the pair have had many conversations about how far diners might be pushed. “One of the dishes we are discussing is a Willy Wonka–like thing, where the customers lick the walls,” Mullen recalled. “And so we had a big conversation about how that would make them feel when we have people who are germophobes or whatever. It could get a little bit weird.”

Then again, it was Skinner’s desire for the different and a rethinking of the entire restaurant experience that gave rise to Eculent in the first place, as he himself confided to the group of diners assembled in his lab. The idea came while he was on a long flight to China. “I’d had a really bad meal at the airport that stayed with me for the whole flight,” he told them. And so Skinner took out the notebook he always keeps with him for thought experiments, asking himself, “What restaurant’s never been done?” Every cuisine had its eateries, he concluded, and so did most of the fusion cuisines. Yet no matter how different the fare, one thing was usually constant.

“Every restaurant basically has a static atmosphere,” he said to the guests. Behind them loomed an imposing row of shelves with hundreds of plastic containers filled with dry ingredients—sour cream powder, buzz bells, Cyprus flakes, Anasazi beans, blazei mushrooms, miracle berries, cattail pollen, you name it. “The tables and chairs are always the same, the music’s always the same, the lighting’s always the same. So I thought, what if we made everything dynamic?

“So tonight we’ll change the smells, the lighting, the artwork—and the music will all be choreographed to go with the courses. What we’ve figured out is a way to go after all your senses at the same time.”

“David’s definitely a mad scientist,” said Barry Coffing, whose company specializes in licensing music for film, TV, and advertising, and represents 16,000 record labels in 78 countries. He and Skinner worked together to create what might be termed the Eculent soundtrack—dozens of pieces of music, each precisely timed to coincide with a particular course. Coffing calls such work sonic branding, and most restaurants’ efforts in that vein are as obvious and unremarkable as the food proffered—doo-wop for a ’50s-style diner, contemporary country for a barbecue joint. Needless to say, Eculent posed a unique challenge. “It was basically like scoring a movie, creating a backing track,” as Coffing put it. Even as Skinner takes guests on a gastronomic journey, the music takes them on an aural one that starts with “mysterious, ethereal New Age stuff,” before segueing into Latin-tinged EDM, instrumental world music, old soul, and more. 

Back in his food lab, Skinner had gone on another tangent, showing diners the machine he’d used to make strawberries taste like bacon. He talked about the printer he hopes to load soon with a liquid parmesan toner, shared his experiments with the toothache plant (which numbs the mouth), offered thoughts on a flaxseed churro, and told of various attempts to concoct a perfect crab-flavored ice cream. (“I haven’t got that one quite right yet.”) All roads led back to a meditation on the ethos of Eculent, though, whose website boldly claims it to be “the first restaurant in the United States to create a fully immersive, multisensory dining experience.”

From the start, Skinner explained, he knew that smell would be the hardest of the senses to manipulate in a restaurant environment, and so he consulted with a prominent Los Angeles–based fragrance designer. “If you went to one of Katy Perry’s concerts where the whole arena smelled like bubble gum, this guy did it.” A woman in the group nodded. “You know how Starwood Hotels all smell the same? That’s his handiwork too. If you go to one of those haunted houses and smell vomit and asphalt and stuff like that—he also does that.”

An edible wedding bouquet 

Image: Amy Scott

Skinner told the designer to mail him every one of the scents in his catalog, and Skinner spent months evaluating 3,000 packets labeled things like “citrus” and “seaside mist.” (“Does it smell like the sea? No. Does it smell like mist? No.”) After homing in on a few key fragrances, he set about the task of determining how and when to introduce them to diners. That project led to some consulting work with NASA, after a few Eculent-loving astronauts asked if Skinner had any ideas on how to improve space food, which they described as unspeakably terrible.

“They said, ‘We are trying to figure out this mission to Mars,’” Skinner recalled. “All the supplies have to be sent up a couple of years ahead of time, so they’re worried about the degradation of the food, but they’re also really worried about making it taste good.”

The main problem, the astronauts told him, was not the food itself but the condition of the person eating it. “Because it’s weightless up there, your sinuses don’t drain. So you have this perpetual head cold. That’s why their favorite course up there is shrimp cocktail.” NASA apparently serves it with an Oregon-made cocktail sauce that contains three times the typical amount of horseradish. “It opens up the sinuses so the food really tastes like something.”

In his conversations with NASA, Skinner recommended that the agency’s food scientists take a tip from Eculent and treat smell as a spice. “They said, ‘Oh, we don’t think of smell that way.’ But you could basically create these packets that the astronauts could tear open, smell them, and open up their sinuses before they eat. They’re working on that now.”

“It seems like every day he comes to me with a new idea, whether it’s for a delivery method, a new plate we’re going to use, a recipe we’re going to use, or some new way we’re going to engage the customers,” said Mullen with a chuckle. “But this is what he’s passionate about. He’s worked hard all his life. Now it’s his time to have fun. He’s being a kid now."


 

Image: Amy Scott

Ponca City, Oklahoma, where Skinner was born, a town of 25,000 that sits roughly 20 miles south of the Kansas border, is known today chiefly as the former hometown of Conoco. Many of Skinner’s family members worked for the company, and later he did too, but even as a child he dreamed of a different path. His greatest influence was his grandmother, the owner of a cooking shop called The Wire Whisk who “was known as that person around town who you’d call if you want a wedding cake,” Skinner remembered. “So when I was four, I said, ‘I want a carousel cake,’ because why not?” A photo of Skinner standing with his grandmother’s creation—a confectionery merry-go-round almost as big as the boy himself—graces the Eculent website, and Skinner remains awestruck by the cake to this day. “That really impacted me …. It was like, wow, you can make something that looks like something real, and then you can eat it.”

When he was 12, Skinner set about the task of working his way through every recipe in Julia Child’s mammoth, two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and at 16 he opened his own restaurant, La Vie en Rose, in a back room at The Wire Whisk. Skinner opened a second eatery in 1985 while an undergraduate studying finance and economics at Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

And then, after finishing college, Skinner abandoned professional cooking for almost 30 years, focusing instead on becoming, first, a commodities trader and later the head of “one of the world’s largest energy-focused strategy firms”—again per Eculent’s website—and writing Introduction to Decision Analysis. The latter grew out of his work advising Conoco and other petrochemical giants on which assets to keep and which to divest, where to deploy double-hull tankers and so on, a skill that brought him and his wife to Houston in 1997. That expertise also brought him to the attention of the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, where he has been a lecturer on business strategies since 2005.

Skinner hates the term molecular gastronomy, which seems somewhat odd given the fare at Eculent, but acknowledges the debt he owes to the genre’s godfather, Ferran Adrià (who also hates the term). Skinner has met the Spanish chef, and even made a pilgrimage to the remote Spanish town that’s the home of Adrià’s landmark eatery, El Bulli. Whenever Skinner is asked the question of why Kemah?—and he is asked that question at nearly every meal—his kneejerk response is to point to Adrià. “A lot of the best restaurants in the world are in out-of-the-way places. El Bulli took two hours to get to from Barcelona. It’s kind of in that same tradition.”

Out of the forest and into the dining room: Skinner unveils a signature creation.

Image: Amy Scott

But there is another answer to the why Kemah? question, one that Eculent’s Friday-evening patrons eventually coaxed out of Skinner after he’d returned them to the restaurant and segued out of a conversation on yet another planned project, lofting edible bubbles into the dining room. 

“On September 8, 1998, my life pretty much changed,” he said. That day Skinner was working on an oilfield project in a Venezuelan jungle when he received word that his wife, Kristen Hopper, then just 31, had suffered a massive stroke in Houston while teaching an aerobics class at a local fitness center. “At the time I had one of those first big brick cellphones,” Skinner recalled, “and when I finally got through to the doctor at Memorial Hermann, all I heard was my wife screaming in the background.”

Even as he began rushing home from his remote location (no easy task as it had required a puddle jumper from Caracas just to get there), Skinner learned that his wife’s prognosis was poor, so much so that he would need to make a potentially life-threatening decision for her before even returning to Houston. “They said, ‘Look, we want to do this experimental treatment on her. We want to put her in a hypothermic state to slow down the swelling in her brain.” Hopper would be just the fourth person to undergo a procedure that had killed two of the previous patients and left the third severely paralyzed.

And so Skinner pulled out his notebook and began weighing his wife’s options using the same sort of decision tree he’d developed for Conoco. The analysis, which among other things took into account his wife’s age and otherwise good physical health, indicated that the hypothermic procedure might work, so Skinner gave Memorial Hermann’s doctors the go-ahead. After the procedure, as well as several months of surgeries and rehab, Hopper emerged from the hospital with some paralysis but with a good quality of life and prognosis.

“As we were going through all this physical therapy, her biggest fear—even to this day—was falling down,” Skinner said. “I told the doctors, ‘What if we had a stable-unstable platform for her to get used to rebalancing herself?’ And they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

What he was talking about, Skinner said, was a device that would help his wife “get used to unstable environments” and regain her balance—a device known as a boat. “And so we bought this 32-footer, and every Friday we’d pack up her and the dog and come down to the ocean for the weekend.” Later he traded up for a 42-foot motor yacht, which the couple named Aqua Therapy, and not long after that they traded Houston altogether for a home near Kemah.


 

Trees of Life atop Eculent's bar/Chinese puzzle box

Image: Amy Scott

Back in the dining room, the visitors seated themselves on six high stools at a bar that Skinner and a carpenter had transformed into a long Chinese puzzle box. At various points throughout the evening, Skinner would instruct them to open drawers revealing companion tableware for various dishes, or give them keys to unlock courses cleverly concealed within the bar itself. And always he watched them, monitoring their intake, trying as best he could to make sure no one got too full too quickly, that everyone would have room for more food to come.

“Your stomach when empty is about .49 liters, and 2 to 4 liters when full,” Skinner said at one point. “You should leave satiated but not so full that you’ll need a wheelbarrow to get home.” The diners looked at each other. Yes, but after dozens of courses?

“There’s a cadence to it. The main course, which is the heaviest, comes toward the end, and as long as I feed you little bites that typically are a half-ounce to an ounce early on, then there’s plenty of room.” As the meal proceeds, Skinner added, “we pay attention to size, sequence, time, and digestion, and if you understand all of that, which again is a lot of science, then you get there. But if you just sit down and say, ‘Here’s 20 things to eat,’ people run into big, big issues.”

He served his diners an elaborate sculptural dish called Tree of Life, in which crostinis had been fashioned into leaves, nests of Amish-style butter and passionfruit pearls hung from branches, and tête de moine cheese clung to the trunk like feathery lichen. He served them goose foie gras with smoked trout roe on a cracker, a course so suspiciously normal Skinner had to warn that the plates it came served on were not edible. Floating Fire was his name for spicy cotton candy suspended over a glass containing pellets that grew into towelettes when Skinner added water. (“Those are napkins for your sticky fingers.”)

And then there were the bell jars full of smoke that Mullen set before each patron toward the latter part of the evening, opening them to reveal what appeared to be a plated primeval jungle.

“This dish is called Out of the Forest,” Skinner announced, before launching into another anecdote. “I had this girl and her husband come in for their anniversary, and she said, ‘Every time I smell the fork’—which the chef delicately scents with the smell of dirt—‘this takes me back to my childhood in Seattle when we used to go out and forage for mushrooms.’”

The construction of Out of the Forest involves two layers of “soils,” one composed of truffle oil and panko, the other a reduction of pistachios, black olives, and beets. “That gives it a very earthy taste.”

“On top of that are seven or eight different freeze-dried greens,” said Mullen, “whatever we’ve got growing.” (She and Skinner estimate that roughly half the produce used at Eculent is grown onsite.) Mixed in with the greens are enoki mushrooms from Korea, pioppinis from Italy, cauliflower mushrooms from France, lion’s mane mushrooms that Skinner sources locally, plus creminis, buttons, and morels. Finally, Mullen carefully places some sous-vide French escargot on top, and then serves the dish under glass after pumping in some applewood or hickory smoke. The whole thing takes roughly 30 hours to prepare from start to finish, but it’s a bewitching dish, to be sure, and one that not a few diners eye with skepticism at first. “It’s fun to make people a little more vulnerable than they normally would be,” said Mullen. “But then they take a bite and it’s like, wow.”

Confectionery wizardry: Floating Fire

Image: Amy Scott

Among Eculent’s biggest fans is Ruth McCartney, stepsister of Sir Paul. Over the past few years, she and her mother, Angie, have collaborated with Skinner on a number of charity dinners for the Linda McCartney Centre, which is dedicated to breast cancer research. In the past, the Beatles-themed events have featured everything from Strawberry Fields salad to Glass Onion soup to Sgt. Pepper steak, the latter served with Yukon gold potato slices that Skinner coated with one of his black soils to make them resemble vinyl records, adding a small Apple label. “It’s just out of control,” laughed McCartney, who has a name for the NASA adviser/oil and gas consultant/business book author/restaurateur—Chef Tesla, “because he’s so brilliant all over the place but nobody knows about him yet …. He’s the best producer and the worst marketer I’ve ever known.”

Still, word is starting to get out. A number of nationally known chefs are reportedly interested in coming to town to help Skinner stage a dinner for the James Beard Foundation, an event that, should it happen, will almost certainly raise his profile within the food world. What remains to be seen is whether that world will come to embrace a 54-year-old iconoclast. “You don’t see people his age that are cutting-edge,” said Coffing, acknowledging what Skinner is up against. “Usually they’re allergic to change, but this guy embraces it with both hands.

“David is super-immature,” Coffing said, laughing, “in the best sense.”

As they sat with their coffee cups at meal’s end, staring at each other with looks of both amazement and confusion, Skinner’s group of six faced its own rather difficult decision—what to make of Eculent. On the one hand, the experience had hovered on the edge of novelty and the sleight-of-hand, possessing all the substance of an edible bubble. On the other, the food had been delicious, even as it challenged some of their deepest assumptions about why restaurants exist, even as it took their imaginations to places eating rarely does. How had something off-the-wall managed to be so utterly scrumptious, they wondered? And what were they to think of the rogue résumé of Skinner, an outlier among notable chefs past and present? Perhaps it had freed him from convention, they speculated. It had certainly freed him from the profit motive’s constraints.

“The thing is, I don’t have to make a dime,” Skinner said, smiling broadly. “That gives you a lot of freedom.” The freedom to, say, create a faux library whose shelves contain not books but concealed desserts, the freedom to use lighting to change not just the appearance but the constitution of a dish, the freedom to create a soup of 5,000 flavors in which every bite tastes different from the one before, the freedom to create a whole new menu, which Skinner says he's planning to do. And most intriguing of all, the freedom to bring to life his most ambitious, perhaps monstrous creation yet—a one-night-only, 100-course meal that Skinner is in the final stages of planning for Houston this spring. Exactly where and when the dinner will take place is yet to be determined. Still, one thing seems certain. 

“It’s going to totally freak people out. And that’s the point.”

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