Recently I went to Thirteen, James Harden's new restaurant at the edge of the Fourth Ward. The restaurant hosted a small, socially distanced tasting. Servers hurried about helpfully, television camera crews set up a remote in a corner of the dining room, and plates of finished food were on a display table and diners' tables. I had a perfectly fine run of elevated Southern-focused bar appetizers, like Thai pineapple chicken wings and a fun egg roll stuffed with crawfish, seafood, and macaroni and cheese.
While all of this happened, the television over the bar was showing—what else—basketball. Oh! The owner himself was on TV! There was Harden, shouting out instructions while wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey. Nets and Clippers. Good game! Harden had a triple-double and 23 points! But ... right.
The tasting wasn't about Harden, though. He wasn't anywhere to be seen—okay, other than on television—and the only other obvious reminder that he exists was that his signature is a light over some of the tables in the dining room. Instead, Thirteen looks to be about the servers clad in all black everything and the chef leading the charge. Tobias Dorzon makes it clear that the spotlight is now on him.
"This gives me a chance to show that this is about the food," says Dorzon. "He brought me here to shine, so that's exactly what I'm gonna do. I live for moments like that."
Dorzon isn't a stranger to spotlights, though. Growing up in his father's West African-focused restaurant in Washington, D.C., Dorzon took an interest in football. He spent two years as a running back at Jackson State University (under his given name Bloi-Dei) and managed to bounce around NFL training camps but never got to play in a game (he did, however, get in some time with the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers).
He found his calling in the kitchen, studying in D.C. and traveling to Italy before starting to cook for fellow athletes. Clients included Santana Moss, DeSean Jackson, Trent Williams, and NBA players Jeff Green and Jameer Nelson.
He named his company Victory Chefs, and his success led to a career in restaurants. More recently he took Victory to a brick-and-mortar, fast-casual spot in Bowie, Maryland. Quickly, he had another Victory in Miami and another in Washington, D.C. His style of eye-catching and elevated versions of Southern comfort and upscale staples—seafood macaroni and cheese, seared salmon, fried catfish in grits, and lobster tail—was on full display.
But Dorzon was doing something else on the side. When the NBA had a bubble in Orlando, Florida, during the end of the 2019-20 campaign, the 36-year-old chef took on the role of Harden's personal chef. He cooked every meal for the then-Rockets guard.
"We just built a relationship, and James is a phenomenal guy. He's seen the success I had from my own restaurants, and our styles match with each other so much," says Dorzon. "We just connected in so many different ways. And he said, 'I'm opening a restaurant and I want you to be executive chef; I want you to create the concept.'"
So only in the past few months, Dorzon left the Victory brand and moved to Houston. He studied restaurant menus, figuring he'd need to bring out large-format meat dishes (32-ounce dry-aged Hawaiian ribeye, 22-ounce bone-in ribeye, 14-ounce New York strip, 12-ounce strip steak with chimichurri) and fresh seafood (Maine lobster, deep-fried snapper). He also wants to raise the city's glutton game with a deep-fried lasagna served with a hot marinara sauce and, for brunch, deep-fried strawberry French toast.
He has plenty of more ideas for the near future of Thirteen. For help he may chat with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, who he considers a mentor. Dorzon has competed on (and won) Guy's Grocery Games several times.
He may also chat with the boss, naturally. His goal: Make Thirteen the place to be.
"I don't ever want it to be a miss," says Dorzon. "When me and James talk, it's just like basketball. Like, 'this was a 60-point night.'"
Considering the content created about Thirteen in the wake of Harden leaving Houston for Brooklyn, Dorzon will need to put up those shots. However, it'll be fun to see the new chef in town get to work.