“For me, food is a beautiful thing. It’s how I celebrate.”
And Brooke Smith, the 24-year-old head chef of the Esquire Tavern, one of the River Walk’s most interesting and delicious restaurants, has much to celebrate. In a city dominated by alpha male chefs, Smith presides over the imaginative menu at the city’ oldest bar, despite her relative youth.
Smith, a San Antonio native, has been at home in the kitchen for most of her life. “My mom, one of her lessons was that she would not let any of her kids leave the house without learning to cook,” Smith said. “She made us get into the kitchen with her at a young age.”
By age 17, Smith was preparing the family dinner every night and aspiring to life as a professional chef. Mark Bliss, of the restaurant Bliss in Southtown San Antonio, took the eager Smith under his wing at Silo Restaurant and Bar while she finished high school at Alamo Heights. In her words, “I was prepping at that time to see if I would get the feel of it. I ended up liking it a lot.”
After graduating from high school, Smith moved to Austin, where she spent a year in the kitchen of Starlite, a French Asian fusion establishment that has since closed. There, Smith worked her first line job in the kitchen, garde manger or the “cold line.” It was a prankster kitchen: “They used to steal my keys and move my car to a different parking garage,” she said, laughing.
Smith’s formal training in Vermont at the New England Culinary Institute began after one year in Austin. She accepted an internship in Portland, Oregon, subsequent to her first six months of school. Working at the Red Star Tavern and living with her aunt and uncle, Smith dug into Red Star’s pastry program. The second year of culinary school brought another six months of training and a final internship at Enoteca Vespaio in Austin, which she calls “one of the finest restaurants in Texas.” “It’s Italian food and they make everything in house. They bring in whole veal and whole cows and whole pork and they break them down there. They make their own sausages and bread and everything. It’s a large kitchen.”
After culinary school, Smith took over the pastry program at Silo, making all of the desserts for both locations. Bliss later left Silo and Smith decided to make a change as well, moving to La Frite in Southtown. When an opportunity to cook in the Virgin Islands came up, she packed up and within two weeks was gone.
She cooked Caribbean style food at Rhumb Lines in St. John for six crazy weeks. “They would get a six-pack for each person working on the line and put it in the cooler at the beginning of the night. Toward the end of the night, everybody would just start drinking, and then you would go to the bar and keep drinking. It was insane.”
After Smith returned to the States, Bliss recommended she get in touch with Chris Hill, a San Antonio architect, developer, and “occasional preservationist” who was in the process of renovating the old Esquire. Several conversations ensued, culminating in Smith holding a tasting for Hill and his friends at her parents’ home. “I made what I was comfortable with: fried pickles, which you’ll see on the Esquire menu, a pulled pork sandwich, fish tacos, an empanada, Mexican chocolate mousse. It was basically just a party.”
Fortunately for Smith and all future Esquire diners, the dinner was well received. “I think I was one of five applying for the job. I was the only female and the youngest person. It was kind of a feat.” Hill had this to say: “I can vividly remember the dinner. I chose Brooke from other candidates not only because her food was a fit for The Esquire Tavern concept, but also she was the only chef I interviewed who didn’t sweat and labor producing six tasting items for 10 people. In fact, she asked at point, ‘Would you like to take a break?’”
The Esquire Tavern opened April 1, 2011. Smith was its first employee. “We planned it so that if we couldn’t open, it would be like, ‘April Fools!’” she said.
Jaret Peña, the bar manager, came a few weeks later. “Then, we kind of just shoved our heads in the ground and started digging for gold. I’ve never done anything like it before. I don’t know if I would do it again anytime soon, but it was fun.” She noted that her small, tight-knit kitchen feels more like family than coworkers.
Smith is committed to the Esquire for at least two more years. “I like where it’s going and I like who I’m working with, and I like that Chris is invested in me. I don’t know if I see myself running a kitchen forever, though. I’ve kind of realized what it’s all about. It’s hard work! I want a family one day and I don’t know if the two go hand in hand.” Smith also indicated her interest in traveling and, one day, starting a line of specialty food products.
Smith supports the San Antonio Chef Coalition. “I know all those guys. I’ve been to most of those events. It’s good to be in that community,” she said. “This is a growing industry in San Antonio and I think it’s growing in the right direction… We all believe that it’s got to be quality food. We all do the same thing; we all slam pans around a hot kitchen all day long. So you can bond in that kind of way.”
Though Smith admits that her field is somewhat dominated by men, at least in San Antonio, she’s quick to assert that women can do it, too. Why aren’t more women in her same position?
“It’s not glamorous. But I went to school with quite a few women and they’re doing really well.” She also noted that she has seen many more women in pastry programs (which, in her words, “take a lot more patience,”) than on the hot line.
For fun, Smith loves to spend time outdoors and to eat–food that other people make, that is. Before running her own kitchen, she often cooked for friends and family. Now, she prefers to go out and does so frequently. “I love the dining experience. You’re serving people all day long, so it just feels good to be on the other side of it.” In San Antonio, she frequents Nikki’s Tokyo Inn, Dough, Van’s, The Monterey, and La Frite. On her own menu, the fried apple pie is her favorite item. Her favorite ingredient? “Butter. Can you blame me?”
No, Brooke, I can’t.
Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]