Foreword by Robb Walsh
The photo of Louis Lambert leaning on a wall that appeared in Martha Stewart Living in 1996 first brought him to my attention. I had to wonder: How did this young grad from The Culinary Institute of America who worked for, among others, Wolfgang Puck, end up cooking at Reata in Fort Worth and hanging out with Martha Stewart in Marfa, Texas?
I was even more intrigued by the food I saw in the article. Double-cut rib eye steaks with chimmichurri sauce, grilled red potato salad with warm bacon vinaigrette, brined corn on the cob—this stuff was nothing like the Southwestern cuisine that was in vogue at the time.
Every other chef on the scene in the mid-1990s had a label. There were “Southwestern Cuisine” chefs and “Cowboy Cuisine” chefs and “New Texas Cuisine” chefs. Louis Lambert stuck out because he seemed to be a chef without a schtick.
I got to know Lambert better by cooking his recipes. I loved his Shiner Bock-beer battered Texas 1015 onion rings, I still make his spicy bread and butter pickles, and I thank him often for his onion jam.
Today Louis Lambert has a bunch of his own restaurants in Austin and Fort Worth, and they continue to reflect his simple and direct approach to Texas cooking. There’s a barbecue joint, a steakhouse, a hamburger stand, and a couple of coffee shops. An idea he’s kicking around now is a coffee and fried pie trailer. The food at all of Louis Lambert’s restaurants is amazingly tasty. It also manages to be both unpretentious and sophisticated, which is a tough thing to pull off.
In the last couple of years, I have gotten to know Louis Lambert personally as we worked together with scores of other Texas food lovers, including his coauthor, June Naylor, to create a nonprofit called Foodways Texas. And I have admired his passion for the mission of the new organization—to preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas. His knowledge of Texas food history and culture is remarkable.
Lambert’s cooking never did get saddled with a label. I was curious how he would describe it. Some of the recipes in the book come from the ranch houses and cowboy camps of the McKnight Ranch in West Texas where he grew up and some come from his restaurants. Like most West Texas cattle folks, he is uncomfortable with any kind of praise or aggrandizement.
Personally I might describe the wonderful recipes in this book as “exciting, yet straightforward fare from a seventh-generation West Texas cattle rancher who graduated from the CIA in Hyde Park and cooked in New York and California before returning to Texas,” but that’s probably too long to fit on the cover.
If I had to come up with a shorter label for Louis Lambert’s exceptional Texas cooking, I think I would call it, the “Aw, Shucks Cuisine.”
It has always been interesting to me to try and figure out how chefs develop their culinary style and why they choose to cook the foods they serve—what motivates and inspires them. As a working chef, I know I have developed a distinctive style—there are certain ingredients I love to work with, techniques and methods I am drawn to, and flavor profiles and presentations I am most comfortable with. In the business, it’s known as a chef’s repertoire—the foods we love to cook and the dishes our customers associate with us. Home cooks also develop their own style and repertoire. My mother’s culinary repertoire was a selection of about six casseroles and three restaurants. I still make her version of Hungarian Beef Goulash—even though there’s really nothing all that Hungarian about it.
The chefs and cooks that I have always had the most respect for have one thing in common—the foods they cook have a depth of soul and flavor rooted in their life experiences. My father’s mother is a decedent of the original French Arcadians who settled in Louisiana. Whenever we visited Grandmom in Port Arthur, she spent all day in the kitchen making the foods my father grew up eating—stuffed deviled crab, Cajun smothered pork chops, and our favorite, shrimp gumbo, to name just a few. My earliest memory of eating barbeque was my father taking my brothers and me to Leroy’s Pit Barbeque in Odessa when we were kids. Leroy, like all the old timers, made everything he served from scratch—creamy cole slaw, tangy vinegar barbecue sauce, and plump spicy hot links. My grandmother’s shrimp gumbo and Leroy’s hot links are examples of foods that have such a deep and unique flavor and feel eating them comes close to being a religious experience for me. There is nothing fancy about either dish, but I’d choose them over a $200 dinner in most fancy restaurants.
My mother’s family has ranched in Texas for seven generations. I was raised in the West Texas town of Odessa, known for oil, ranching, and high school football when I was a kid. The closest big cities were El Paso and Fort Worth, each about a five-hour drive away. Growing up in the 1970s, there wasn’t a large variety to choose from at the grocers. Beef was king and iceberg was about it for lettuce. Grilling and smoking were the preferred cooking methods, and any discussions focused on what kind of wood to use, which dry rub was best for certain cuts of meat, whether to slow-cook or cook with a hot fire, whether to mop your brisket or not, whether to go with a sweet sauce or vinegar pepper sauce, and how to convert used oil field equipment into a grill and smoker. Holiday gatherings usually involved butchering and barbecuing a cabrito (baby goat). If the holiday had a religious tone to it, my father would roast a big leg of lamb.
During the fall and winter months, we spent evenings and weekends at the ranch hunting dove, quail, duck, and deer. My mother, the casserole queen, stopped trying to cook game by the time I was in junior high, leaving my brothers and me to serve up what we shot. During the spring and summer there were two big cattle roundups every year and my Uncle Robert would hire a camp cook, Lilo, who prepared three meals a day over an open fire for all the cowboys: big Dutch ovens were filled with sourdough bread and sweet cobblers; breakfast meant fried eggs, buttermilk biscuits, and hot coffee; other meals were always beef, usually grilled over an open fire with loads of chiles and spice. These were the meals of my youth—big, burly foods with deep flavors and rich textures. And when broken down into their components, foods that are pretty simple and straightforward, but unrepentantly from West Texas.
Today, my cousin Bob is the only one of eleven grandkids who wanted to stay on at the ranch. Meanwhile, I went into the chef business. After earning a bachelor’s degree in hotel-restaurant management and graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, I took cooking jobs in New York, Dallas, and San Francisco—the chef’s journey of paying his dues in big-name restaurants in big-name cities. Part of that journey is about figuring out who you are, what you want to cook, and how you want to cook it. It’s about discovering what will keep you passionate and excited about food twelve hours a day, seven days a week.
My awakening came when I was working at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco. I was working the different positions in the kitchen when I was given the chance to work in the butcher and charcuterie shop. There we butchered whole chickens, ducks, lambs, and fish into center-of-the-palate portions, taking the trim and tuning it into sausages, rillettes, and ballontines. All the hams, pastramis, smoked salmon, and sturgeon were cured and smoked in-house. Of course, all the techniques and recipes were old-school European, but to me they were straight out of my childhood, just citified and fancied up.
In San Francisco, we made duck sausage with dried fruit and pistachios. In Odessa, we made venison hotlinks with jalapeño and cheddar. Same technique, just different ingredients. At Postrio, I made a dish of maple sugar-cured and grilled Wolf Farms quail with wild blackberry compote. But it was just an urban rendition of an old West Texas standard that used brown sugar, chili powder, and small fryer chickens. It was then that I realized that I could cook the foods that I grew up with and loved while using the techniques and methods I had learned at CIA and big city restaurants.
When I moved back to Texas for good, in 1999 my sister and I opened Jo’s in Austin, an open-air coffee and sandwich shop. We made the decision to serve the foods we had a family connection to—fried pies, kolaches, and sloppy slow-smoked pulled pork sandwiches—which are still the mainstays of Jo’s menu today. In 2001, I opened the first Lambert’s on South Congress in Austin. A small neighborhood bistro-style restaurant. Even though we were a white-table-cloth restaurant serving steak, lamb, and seafood, we also offered chile con queso and venison pâté for appetizers, macaroni and cheese as a side dish, and maple bread pudding for dessert.
In 2006, I had the chance to partner with Larry McGuire, Tommy Morman, and Will Bridges and open Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue. I credit Larry with being the vision behind the restaurant and Tommy with steering the quality of the food that comes out of the kitchen. Lambert’s Downtown was built around the same philosophy of cooking—jalapeño cheddar hotlinks, smoked beef brisket, maple sugar and mustard crusted rib eye steaks, and crispy wild boar ribs—all foods we grew up eating, we just enhance the flavors with the best ingredients possible and proper cooking techniques.
Lambert’s Steaks and Seafood in Fort Worth was inspired by old-school Texas steak houses. The menu offers grilled quail, prime rib of beef, wood grilled steaks, fresh gulf seafood, and chicken fried steak with cream gravy. And for dessert, you can try to resist the buttermilk chocolate cake, the rich Mexican flan, the sweet peach cake cobbler, or Lambert’s fudge brownie with a big scoop of chocolate mocha ice cream.
In writing this cookbook, I’ve tried to take the same approach that I do when creating menus at my restaurants—I’m sharing my West Texas heritage by putting it right on the plate, with some urban updates. A recent restaurant review said of my food, “This is food that your grandparents might have served, if your grandparents had either had some formal culinary training, or had been seriously addicted to the Food Network”. I take this as a compliment. I think that like my grandmother and Leroy, my food is a reflection of the place and people I came from and my love and respect of what it means to be a chef.