EJ Miller remembers the familiar comfort he felt the first time he lit the new smoker at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, one of his several stops en route to becoming an executive chef.
“I was just, ‘Oh man. My mom would do this,’” said Miller, whose mother bought a smoker and used it liberally during his childhood. “It was just that smell that hit me.”
The scent of oak that Miller recalls permeates the swampy Central Texas sky, providing a seductive setting for the natives and the newbies to this magical city. The newcomers bring their own customs and cultures: lettuce wraps stuffed with bulgogi and pickled vegetables, roadside chicken massaged with a citrus-and-chile marinade, and prosciutto and creamy burrata laid alongside fresh greens.
International Smoke, the highly publicized CityCentre collaboration between James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Mina and lifestyle expert Ayesha Curry, aims to capture what's happening today by binding the outrageous variety in Houston’s culinary landscape with smoke. The restaurant tapped Miller as its executive chef, offering the Bayou City native a major opportunity at running a kitchen.
“Being from Texas I’m really into smoked meats and barbecue itself,” says Miller, “but this was a way to branch out, marrying the diversity of the Houston culture with something we’re familiar with in barbecue.”
International Smoke opened July 5. Four days later, I sampled a modest quantity of menu items from inside the 6,000-square-foot dress-casual restaurant designed with black steel, sharp lines, and a whole lot of graffiti displaying the word “smoke” in different languages. Artists like LL Cool J, David Bowie, Madonna, and Beyoncé dominate the soundtrack, while early crowds seemed to all be celebrating something.