Best New Restaurants 2022

The Star-Studded History of Brennan’s of Houston—in Chefs

How Brennan’s has shaped Houston’s culinary scene, one rising star chef at a time.

By Mai Pham Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Joel Kimmel

Even before you set foot inside the elegant Vieux Carré–style interiors of Brennan’s of Houston, you get a sense that you’ve arrived at a special place. Founded in 1967 as a sister restaurant to the legendary Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, Brennan’s of Houston is, in the Houston culinary world, as legendary as its famed predecessor. 

Within the walls of the handsome dining room—completely rebuilt in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in 2008—Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine filmed a famous oyster scene in the Academy Award–winning film Terms of Endearment. Countless Houston families have grown up on a tradition that included turtle soup and tableside bananas Foster: Sunday brunch in the courtyard. Brennan’s legacy as one of Houston’s longest-enduring, most treasured restaurants cannot be disputed.

Beyond what’s transparent to the consumer, however, Brennan’s has played a very important role that hitherto has been underacknowledged: for years now, in part because of its relationship with the Culinary Institute of America, Brennan’s has served as the de facto training ground for rising culinary talent in Houston and beyond. 

Indeed, the list of chefs who once held positions at Brennan’s reads like a national culinary who’s who. Daniela Soto-Innes, named World’s Best Female Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in 2019, held a pastry position at Brennan’s in 2010. Sarah Grueneberg, a sous chef at Brennan’s in 2003, would go on to nab the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2017. Kevin Rathbun, whose eponymous Rathbun’s in Atlanta was named among the best restaurants in America by Esquire, likewise served as a Brennan’s sous chef. And so on.

In Houston, Brennan’s paved the way for names like Chris Shepherd, Mark Holley, Danny Trace, Joe Cervantez, Bobby Matos, Patrick Feges, Martin Weaver, Matt Marcus, Nick Fine, Sean Hochstein, Lance Fegan, Mark Cox, Randy Evans, Jamie Zelko, and others—all of whom have gone on to own or helm their own restaurants and culinary concepts.

“If you’re a really good ballplayer, you want to come to the team with great ballplayers,” explains Alex Brennan-Martin, president of Brennan’s. “We created a simple truth: we create great memories for our guests. We’re open on big days and holidays; Sunday mornings for Sunday brunch. We do significant numbers. So among the young cooks, we got the reputation that if you can make it here, you can make it everywhere.”

Image: Joel Kimmel

Mark Holley

Davis Street at Hermann Park | Museum District

Mark Holley would not be Mark Holley had it not been for Brennan’s. In total, he spent 12 of the most formative years of his career with the Brennan’s family, first as a line cook, then as garde manger at sister restaurant Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, then returning to the position of executive sous chef before striking out on his own to helm Pesce, his eponymous Holley’s, and now Davis Street at Hermann Park. “Brennan’s gave me a road map to excel and perform,” Holley says. It also shaped his pan-Asian-Creole style of cooking, which you’ll find in dishes like his famous whole fried Thai snapper, served with kimchi collards, hoppin’ John, and Thai barbecue sauce.

Image: Joel Kimmel

Joe Cervantez

Pier 6 | San Leon

Joe Cervantez’s kitchen at Pier 6 in San Leon serves upward of 1,000 guests on weekends. That’s no small feat for any restaurant, let alone one with about 200 seats. But Cervantez was more than prepared for the task, having spent several years at Brennan’s, first as a banquet chef, then as their executive chef. You’ll see the Brennan’s influence here and there with dishes like crawfish empanadas and redfish on the half shell, but Pier 6’s menu, which Cervantez developed from scratch in collaboration with owner Raz Halili, has its own identity. The next step in his career? “We’re building a large party room by the marina for weddings and banquets,” he says. As a former Brennan’s banquet chef, he’s got that in the bag.

Image: Joel Kimmel

Danny Trace

Potente | Downtown 

Italian on his grandmother’s side and Southern from his grandfather’s (from Thibodaux, Louisiana), Danny Trace spent the bulk of his culinary career with the Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s family. In 2017, he left Brennan’s to open Potente, Jim Crane’s Italian fine-dining restaurant in Downtown, but his time with the Brennan’s family still informs much of his work. “Be consistent,” he says. “Don’t cut corners. It takes time to make lobster stock.” To this day, Trace refuses to compromise on quality, choosing to work with farmers for the best meat and produce he can find. He’s also letting a bit of Creole slip in here and there: Boudin and cracklins at Potente? Why not?

Image: Joel Kimmel

Patrick Feges

Feges BBQ | Spring Branch

When Patrick Feges worked at Brennan’s, he was but a young line cook. His big takeaway from his two years there: “As soon as they walk into the door, the entire experience is about the guest,” he says. “It’s not about me. It’s about the guest.” Feges’s career would take him to Underbelly, Killens Barbecue, and Southern Goods before he and his wife, Erin Feges, opened Feges BBQ. They now have two locations, but the Spring Branch location is where he flexes his chef muscles. “We’re the only place in Houston where you can get a whole hog platter,” he says proudly. It comes with hog fat cornbread and charred coleslaw and is served pulled and chopped, with cracklin on top—a hybrid of Texas and Carolina barbecue styles.
 

Image: Joel Kimmel

Bobby Matos

State of Grace, La Lucha, Superica | River Oaks, The Heights

Currently, he’s the culinary director over three Ford Fry concepts: State of Grace, La Lucha, and Superica. But when he moved to Houston from San Diego in 2010, Bobby Matos was an unknown. Citing its historic significance, his wife, Jessica, turned him on to a sous chef position at Brennan’s, where he worked under chef Danny Trace to reopen Brennan’s in the aftermath of their big fire. He says the experience left an indelible mark, showing him not only the magic and technique behind Cajun and Creole cuisine (which he still uses) but also how to execute fine dining on a mass level, without losing integrity.

Image: Joel Kimmel

Chris Shepherd

Southern Smoke

One of Houston’s most well-known chefs, Chris Shepherd—the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest 2014 winner—waxes poetic about his time at Brennan’s, where he worked in his early years after graduating from culinary school. Starting at the hot apps station, he recalls, “It was mind-blowing: so much work. It was crazy.” But in the same breath, he fondly remembers, “You had to be tight; you had to have it perfect. It was a lot of fun.” Shepherd recently parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality (Georgia James, Georgia James Tavern, Wild Oats, Underbelly Burger) to focus on his work with Southern Smoke, the charitable organization he founded after Hurricane Harvey. “We’ve had $10 million in funded grants since 2015,” Shepherd says. His next goal? Expanding charitable services to include free mental health care for the restaurant industry.

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