By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson ~
Maybe you’re a foodie and you pride yourself in making multi-course meals in your gourmet kitchen and serving them by candlelight. Or maybe, for you, “multi-course” means pouring a can of tomato soup into a microwaveable bowl and chasing it down with a slice of not-quite-defrosted Sara Lee All Butter Pound Cake. Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle.
No matter. Wherever you stand (or sit) on the gastronomic spectrum, one thing is true for us all: We eat. And thus, we depend on food — not only for sustenance, but for comfort, health, company, diversion… and for bringing us together.
“For me, the best part of cooking comes down to family,” said Rebecka Evans, a Houston-based chef who is one of 1500 chefs, home cooks, and pro teams competing in the World Food Championships this November in Dallas. “I love how food memories evoke emotions that are wired deeply in my brain. Just one whiff, and I’m back in my mother’s kitchen.”
For Rebecka, Dallas’s Kent Rathbun and Adrian Cruz from San Antonio — all award-winning chefs affiliated with this year’s World Food Championships in Dallas — a love for food and cooking began in childhood.
Here’s how they honed that love, and the sometimes-circuitous paths that led them to where they are today.
Rebecka Evans • Houston
Rebecka grew up intoxicated by food fresh, be it from the vine, from the dirt, or from trees. Her father was in the military, and whenever the family moved, Rebecka’s mother, Anne, would take her and her three older brothers into nearby nature. The plants they discovered might eventually make it back to their kitchen.
In Colorado Springs, Rebecka remembers foraging for chokeberries in Cheyenne Canyon and scavenging wild asparagus from around sage brush trees in the Garden of the Gods. In Chicago, they’d pick berries the size of silver dollars. In New Mexico, the pinon nuts they scraped from inside pine cones left their hands messy and satisfyingly sticky with sap.
“My mom is still an amazing gardener,” Rebecka said. “Dad was adventurous, too. At one point, he was stationed in Japan, and we were eating all kinds of crazy Japanese food. It was really a gift both our parents gave my brothers and me: Enjoying food. We all have great taste and love to eat everything in sight.”
But eating didn’t translate to cooking for a living — at least, not yet.
Rebecka’s first love was opera, but the cost of studying it full-time was prohibitive. So she opted to put herself through beauty school, opening her own salon at age 23. Meanwhile, she was also studying voice at a nearby university, where she belonged to a small choir.
Eventually, she joined the Colorado Springs Chorale, a tight-knit group that, as she recalled, “enjoyed food and music.” Those nights of fun and camaraderie led to her heading up a chefs’ gala for the chorale’s annual fundraiser. She was soon one of the chefs — and, from there, caught the competitive cooking bug.
She dedicated the next several years to raising her two children and, later, three stepchildren. But after that?
“I needed something for me,” she said. “A friend had posted a blog all about wine. I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
She started her website, athomewithrebecka.com,10 years ago and began posting recipes of her own.
Her recipe for chocolate tamales won a national recipe contest.
“That re-sparked the flame,” Rebecka said. “Five years after starting the blog, I went to the World Food Championships.”
Her chosen category? Bacon.
“I had a choice between seafood and bacon,” Rebecka said. “I’m a landlocked mountain girl. I figured I’d better stick with what I know, and bacon I know.”
That first year, 2016, she placed fourth, even though she said she had no idea what she was doing. In 2017, she won the entire competition. In 2018, she placed in the top overall.
Last year, in 2019, she took a few risks and ended up placing 24th — which, when you realize she was competing against thousands of fellow chefs, is still pretty darn good.
“You take the good with the bad,” she said.
She’s learned lessons along the way: To be buoyed by the sight, the touch, the smell of fresh foods. To be at her best surrounded by family and food.
While she cooks, she sings opera, likening her time in the kitchen to that on the stage. There’s the adrenaline factor. There’s wearing a costume (in this case, a chef’s coat). There’s the memorization:
Not song lyrics, but recipes.
“When I was performing,” she said, “I listened to a guy do a class who told us, ‘If you’re giving 120 percent while practicing, and when you can perform, you can only give 80 percent, no one else knows because you’ve practiced beyond.’”
She continued, “I use that same method in my cooking: I practice enough so I could do this in my sleep. But if something goes wrong — something is lost in the process or in unpacking or the oven doesn’t work — I’m OK.”
If you had one hour all by yourself to cook whatever you wanted. what would it be? “Fried green tomatoes, sauteed onions, okra, and red heirloom tomatoes with poached eggs.”
What are three traits of a great chef? “Organizational skills, creativity, willingness to accept criticism.”
What are three ingredients you always have on hand? “Garlic, bacon, fresh herbs.”
What is one secret chefs know the rest of us don’t? “Honey in its natural state and stored in sealed jars will never go bad.”
What is one misconception people have about chefs? “People tend to think chefs are angry people. Strict rules about food safety, recipe creation, consistency, etc. are paramount to a chef’s success but may come across as mean spirited to some people.”
What food brings back the fondest memory for you? “Rose petal jelly. Something magical happened when the roses filled our house with their scent; an unspeakable calm came over me.”
Kent Rathbun • Dallas
When your mother is the maître d’ at one of the most elegant restaurants in your hometown — carving chateaubriand, tossing Caesar salad, and preparing bananas foster tableside — how can you not be enamored by food?
But Kent Rathbun’s restaurant career didn’t start at the five-star La Bonne Auberge where his mother worked. Instead, Kent began working at more of a Denny’s-esque coffee shop when he was only 14. “I started as a dishwasher,” he said. “That very first night, I thought I needed to not be a dishwasher.”
When he turned 17, his mother asked if he’d like to apprentice where she was working. It was, he said, “a pretty big jump and a lot of fun.” At age 21, Kent became a chef at the 2121 Club, another top restaurant in Kansas City. “I realized this is something I really like, something I seem to be pretty good at,” Kent said, “something I want to put my head down and try to do as well as I can with.”
His epiphany appeared when he began speaking to the restaurant’s diners. They’d tell him the meal was the best they’d ever eaten. “That drove me to do as good as I could and better,” he said. “Having that praise is motivating.”
Seven years later, Kent moved to New Orleans and worked for the highly regarded Brennan family.
He returned to Kansas City to work at two more restaurants before landing in Dallas when he was 30.
His brother was there, working for restaurateur Stephan Pyles.
“I called, applied for a job, and have been in Dallas ever since,” said Kent, whose first job was as a chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
In 1999, he opened his first restaurant, Abacus, which won award after award. That led to more restaurants, such as Jasper’s, Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen, Lovers Seafood & Market, Shinsei, and Republic Texas Tavern.
Kent became well-known and well-respected, but he didn’t set out to be a famous chef. He just loved food and he loved cooking. And he loved making people happy.
His belief in the magic of food has never faltered. So, while the pandemic has affected some of his plans, Kent found ways to pivot.
“I’ve said from the beginning that if people don’t ‘pivot’ their business, this won’t be a great time for them,” he said.
Kent’s pivot? Rathbun’s Curbside Barbecue.
You can order salmon, sausage, and beef online, then schedule a pick-up in a Preston Center parking lot. His father, by the way, was a master at the grill, and Kent still uses “every single principle he taught my brother and me.”
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc with many restaurants, it has also amped up the time Kent spends with his family. His wife, Tracy, is also in the restaurant business, and they have two teenagers to take care of: their son, Max, is 17 and their daughter, Garrett, is 13.
“I’ve taken the opportunity to cook with my daughter and son and make stuff I hadn’t made in a long time,” said Kent, whose home has a bounteous garden of herbs and vegetables. “I baked bread and cinnamon rolls with my daughter. Chefs often think, ‘I wish I had more time to try that recipe and see how it works, and to hone my own skills better.’ And I’ve had that time.”
If you had one hour all by yourself to cook whatever you wanted, what would it be? “I cook so much meat because Texas is so meat-centric, so I’d say seafood. I’d either do that or bake a special dessert. I’m a big chocolate, caramel, and sea salt fan, so I would probably make a tart out of those.”
What are three traits of a great chef? “Be organized. Be able to articulate on a plate what’s in your head. Most importantly, you have to be a good leader.”
What are three ingredients you always have on hand? “Salt, salt, butter.”
What is one misconception people have about chefs? “Everyone thinks chefs are crazy nutballs. I don’t like that stereotype. I’ve had my moments, sure, but it’s a misconception that we’re all egotistical, crazy people.”
What food brings back the fondest memory? “Fried chicken. When I eat it, and especially when I make it, it reminds me of growing up with my mom and grandmother.”
Adrian Cruz • San Antonio
Growing up a migrant worker in Washington State, Adrian was in awe of the person who cooked for everyone: His mother.
“Just watching my mom cook and work the fields gave me that — wow,” Adrian said. “She’s the reason I’m cooking. She’s my inspiration. She always has been.”
He never thought he’d be a restaurant chef and certainly not a food competitor. He just figured he’d be cooking for field workers, too.
And yet, Adrian has earned many awards and accolades — including a spot as one of 200 chefs selected by the James Beard Foundation to showcase their talents at a dinner at Beard’s house in 2018 (his dinner guest? His mother, of course).
His Concha Burger — a jaw-stretching combination of beef, chorizo, pickled onions, bacon, a fried egg and (seriously!) strawberry jam — was named one of the top five burgers in the country. He’s an ambassador for Barilla Pasta as well as for Chef’s Roll, a global culinary community.
That didn’t come immediately, of course. At first, he was helping his mother cook and absorbing her prowess for making enchiladas, tacos, and fideo (a Mexican-type spaghetti) — recipes he’d eventually tweak and turn into his own renditions.
He dropped out of school in 11th grade and began working at a grocery store, then a pizza buffet, then a Burger King. At TGI Fridays, he worked as a dishwasher.
“I was super fast and so excited to see people cooking,” said Adrian, whose two brothers and three sisters also cook. “They were always telling me to get back to dishwashing. Then one day the manager said he wanted to talk to me after work. [He said,] ‘Hey man, how’d you like to work on the line three or four times a week?’”
Adrien continued: “I became employee of the month. There was a picture of me in the entrance.”
Alas, the very next day, the restaurant laid off all the employees. Adrian was disappointed but kept moving forward. So he took other jobs and absorbed all he could about food and culinary technique, growing along the way.
“Everywhere I went, I learned something,” he said. “I met different chefs who would help me out and help me learn.”
Adrian owned his own restaurant for a time and is now a chef at Tutti’s A Place for Foodies. During the first part of the pandemic, he stayed home out of concern for the health of his girlfriend and his beloved 8-year-old son, Damien, with whom he shares the tried-and-true dishes that filled his stomach as a little boy in addition to his new concoctions.
“With cooking, you get to create,” Adrian said. “You’re making your dreams come true.”
If you had one hour all by yourself to cook whatever you wanted. what would it be? “Fresh pasta for my girlfriend.”
What are three traits of a great chef? “Humility, leadership, motivation.”
What are three ingredients you always have on hand? “Pepper, black garlic salt, butter.”
What food brings back the fondest memory for you? “Cooking my mom’s recipes for my son and my girlfriend.”