” No English. No Money. Many Bills To Pay.”
MANUEL PUCHA, executive chef and, with three of his brothers, owner of the refined, recently opened French restaurant, Maison Pucha, in the Heights area, matter-of-factly explains how he found his passion. His simple statement illustrates the adage that there are many paths to success. Some aspiring chefs attend culinary programs, two-year community colleges or the four years of intense study at prestigious and expensive culinary schools. Manuel simply went to work in a kitchen as a result of necessity.
“My family moved from Ecuador to NYC. I needed to help pay bills. In Ecuador, I studied art for three years. But here, I had to work.” And he got lucky scoring a job during the glory days of the popular Union Square restaurant Steak Frites, learning the hospitality business from the bottom up and falling in love with it.
“At first it was just a job, a paycheck. But after a while, you get to love it. I put in hard work and think, why not pursue this as a career?”
He learned on the job from some of the best in NYC, absorbing French techniques and a reverence for tradition and fatefully crossing paths with Philippe Schmit. When Schmit came to Houston to open Bistro Moderne, Manuel came, too. When Schmit opened Philippe, Manuel was there – cooking, learning, absorbing and taking notes. “What I love about French cuisine – all the dishes, escargot, duck confit, beef bourguignon – everything was invented centuries ago. All the classics – people have expectations.” At Maison Pucha he honors traditional preparation techniques, adds a few flairs from Ecuador and feels that his job is to be creative in plating, adding “lots of color, lots of movement, lots of volume.”
Take the beet salad. Beets/goat cheese. It is a classic combination. Here Chef adds color, volume with fresh greens, paper-thin slices of yellow beets that look like lily pads and scattered pinwheel radish slices, textural differences with the pureed red beets, flavor depth with an accent of olives and lemon zest. Yes, it is a classical combination. “But,” says Manuel, “there is a lot of work, a lot of thinking behind every dish.”
“A plate is like a canvas. But a canvas can take three months or more to paint. A plate – in a matter of minutes – you have to create in the moment,” explains Manuel.
On plate after plate, Manuel’s artistry rings true. Mammoth Berkshire pork chops, deliriously moist having been brined in añejo tequila, slightly smoked from time spent with applewood, pretty and tender, most delicious. A stack of ratatouille demonstrates a dedication to vegetable sides as well. And a touch of his homeland garnishes the plate – Uvilla berries, ever so light acidic and pleasant sour notes. Color and texture and taste – a new holy trinity.
“I want someone to look at a plate and know that is from my kitchen,” says Manuel. Like the bowl of artfully balanced bouillabaisse, the Ecuadoran shrimp ceviche with the wisps of red onion and the accents of red and green peppers or the artful streaks of green (avocado) that run across the perfect oven-roasted Skuna Bay salmon.
It is evident that Manuel has learned well the lesson that good cuisine starts with the freshest and best ingredients, such as the Skuna Bay salmon from the cold, glacial fed waters around Vancouver Island.
And another dish not to missed, a special of the day, ponzu jumbo lump crab salad – pristine crab on a pool of pureed Granny Smith apple and uju kitsu juice. Sparkling fresh, exquisite flavor with micro greens delicately and purposely placed.
Manuel is not alone in this brave venture. Maison Pucha is indeed the house of Puchas, as his business partners are brothers and co-workers. VICTOR HUGO is the pastry chef extraordinaire – dedicated to excellence and the creator of the Noir et Blanc Souffle (a powerful puff made from Madagascar vanilla and Ecuadorian organic chocolate), a charming play of fire and ice as the hot souffle is served with melting ice cream. Front of the house, sommelier and beverage manager are attended to by CRISTIAN and the recently arrived brother GABRIEL.
“I like to work with my hands. And I wanted to do is something good with my life. Food brings friends and family together. I think that is a good thing,” states Manuel simply.
I think so, too. And I think the food at Maison Pucha is good. Very, very good.
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