I first met Andrea Weir in the kitchen of a Montrose dive bar—the type of bar you wouldn't even expect to have a kitchen, much less a Sunday evening menu of pig face–stuffed corndog bites or chicken-fried sweetbreads. I'd simply ended up at Grand Prize Bar on a Sunday night because I needed a drink. I'd spent the evening at a multi-course fundraising dinner and was looking to unwind after the rich parade of dishes that had marched across my plate. I didn't expect to eat again that night. But that was before Andrea Weir.
Grand Prize Bar
"Did you see that menu?" I asked my boyfriend as we settled in with cold pours of Lone Pint's Yellow Rose, a grapefruit-heavy IPA from Houston's newest craft brewery that's getting me through the summer intact so far. Grand Prize Bar hosts pop-up dinners from time to time—Austin King's Southern-style dim sum one week, ramen noodles from Jason Hauck another—but I didn't recognize either the menu or the chef. I did, however, recognize an immediate need to try the black garlic oxtail poutine that had been quickly scrawled on a chalkboard hanging near the tiny kitchen's service window.
My boyfriend and I ended up ordering all three entrees that night: the miniature corndogs filled with soft, slippery pork jowls and cheeks; the french fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and fatty oxtails under dusky, allium-spiked black garlic paste; and fried sweetbreads that carried the unmistakable scent of hickory smoke. "Were these smoked before they were fried?" I asked no one in particular, wondering over each crunchy bite that gave way to a delicate, velvety center.
"Who's working back there tonight?" I asked our bartender. He gave me the name of a woman I'd never heard of. I texted my friend Josh Martinez, the owner of Goro & Gun, asking about this mystery woman. Martinez knows everyone and everything. He'd know this Andrea Weir.
"Chemist turned cook," was his quick reply. "She's a badass. Worked at The Pass & Provisions, staged in Spain for a year."
Chemist-turned-cook sealed the deal. I had to meet her. I watched the kitchen until its pace slowed, then headed over and tentatively peeked across the pass.
I saw a woman who looked as if she could have far more adequately filled the Lara Croft role in Tomb Raider than Angelina Jolie did. The telltale burn marks of a professional cook criscrossed her forearms. Her hair was in a simple braid to one side. She smiled at me curiously.
"Andrea?" I asked.
"Yes?" she replied.
"I'm so sorry. I know you're busy. I just had to meet you. I needed to tell you how amazing your food is." It all tumbled out at once; I admit to being a little star-struck by this complete stranger, this woman who'd just turned out some of the best food I'd eaten all year.
She broke into a huge grin. I introduced myself. We hugged. I had the odd feeling that I was meeting a celebrity before her star had risen. I'll remember this hug someday, I thought. This cramped kitchen, these thoughtful dishes.
"Did you smoke those sweetbreads? Are you really a chemist? Where did you get those cheese curds for the poutine?" I had a million questions for her, which Weir gamely answered in succession. Yes, she cold-smoked the sweetbreads for a day before breading and frying them. Yes, she's really a chemist (with a degree in organic chemistry from the University of St. Thomas to prove it). She special-ordered the curds from the Houston Dairymaids; anyone can do it, Weir encouraged.
As it turns out, Weir's degree in organic chem may actually be the least interesting thing about her. Born in Houston, the 26-year-old was raised in Trinidad & Tobago after her geologist father was transferred to the Caribbean. After heading back to Houston for college graduating with a culinary arts degree from the Art Institute in 2007, she cooked around town at a few institutions: Catalan, the Houston Country Club, 17. And as she grew more interested in the molecular gastronomy movement that was sweeping the country five years ago, Weir decided that her culinary arts degree wasn't cutting it.
"The more I studied and the more I learned, the more I realized I needed a basic knowledge of chemistry," Weir says. "I wanted to study it more and more and more." A thirst to understand the science behind foams and emulsions led to Weir taking a handful of classes at St. Thomas, which then turned into a full-on degree and a four-year break from the restaurant industry.
When she was finished, Weir was eager to get back behind the line, but she wasn't done learning. So she got rid of her apartment, packed up her few belongings and set out to find work anywhere she could.
She went to Europe, staging in kitchens in Spain and Italy. "I just traveled and went from place to place," Weir recalls. " I actually lived at some of the places." She slept in bunk beds, got to know her fellow cooks as they all bunked down together at night. "There was a definite sense of family in those kitchens," Weir remembers with a laugh. "You had to leave your kitchen drama behind at night, because we were all living together and no one was going to put up with that."
After Europe, she headed to South America and found herself dazzled by the cooks and ingredients in Peru. She saw lúcuma for the first time, figured out how to work with sea algae pearls, stood in glorious defeat at the bounty of produce she saw every time she went shopping. "What you'll see at a farmers market is amazing," Weir says. "Hundreds of types of passionfruits, orange and pink and yellow."
Nine months ago, Weir finally returned home. She quickly found work at The Pass & Provisions, where chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan were doing the same high-concept, creative and wildly intricate work that Weir has always been drawn to. But she's found her real home at Triniti, where she now works as a line cook when she's not hosting bi-weekly pop-up dinners at Grand Prize Bar. In an it's-a-small-world-after-all twist of fate, Weir was brought on board by a man she'd grown up with in Trinidad.
"His father was my father's boss," she laughs. "And now he's my boss. What are the odds?"
The Triniti team—including executive chef Ryan Hildebrand and chef de cuisine Greg Lowry—has been nothing but supportive of Weir's pop-up pursuits. "I can't thank them enough for that," says Weir. They've given me room to be creative and grow on my own." She's especially effusive about the creative process at Triniti, wherein every single line cook is allowed to participate.
"We all collaborate. We all get input. We all talk about it and we all meet," she says. "Ryan and Greg are great about that."
Weir will be back in the Grand Prize kitchen on the evening of Sunday, June 9, and already has her next menu partially planned. As with her last, it's pig-heavy and pushing the envelope. "With every dinner, I want to push more outside my comfort zone," she says.
A pop-up dinner is the ideal venue for experimentation, whether you're a cook or a customer, which is the very reason Weir approached Grand Prize about allowing her to cook in their kitchen every two to three weeks. "I think [pop-ups] are so crucial for someone—as a line cook—who wants to develop a voice," she says. "It's a non-judgmental atmosphere."
Weir is planning on a pig's head and pig's foot torchon for June 9, although she hasn't decided whether to pan-fry or deep-fry the torchon when it's done. She does, however, have "interesting accompaniments" in mind. "Foams and gels and advanced things," she laughs.
"I'm also doing smoked cabrito tacos," she says, for which she's making a goat cheese queso fresco from scratch. She just picked up the rennet today. Pig hearts are also on the menu. "I'm slow-smoking them," Weir says. "They look like brisket." But that's not all.
She also found some pig tongues at the market, "so I'm doing pig lengua sandwiches with sorrel mayo, three-pepper relish, and pickles." Oh, and pork belly baklava. Weir and I both laughed when I asked her how she was going to pull that one off. "We'll see," she said. "I'm for sure going to baste the phyllo dough with leftover pork fat."
Weir hopes her pop-up dinners will continue to run at Grand Prize every two to three weeks, offering her a chance to experiment on a willing audience and offering diners the chance to taste inexpensive, creative dishes from an up-and-coming star.
"I'm definitely excited to see what I can come up with," Weir says. So am I.