Originally from Texas, Executive Chef Austin Simmons took to the toque at the tender age of eight. As a child growing up in Arlington, Texas, he bonded with his mother while they made dinner together after she arrived home from her first job of the day and before departing for her second.
Upon high school graduation, Simmons immediately pursued a culinary degree attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin. After graduating, he moved to Dallas in hopes of working at the famed Mansion on Turtle Creek. Turned away almost daily over the course of several weeks due to his lack of restaurant experience, his persistence finally paid off, and he was offered an internship.
It was there that Simmons found a reverence for fine dining and a respect of the skills and success of master chefs. Simmons worked the chef’s table at The Mansion for three and a half years, first honing his craft under James Beard award-winning Chef Dean Fearing, and later, John Tesar.
In 2009, after his stint at The Mansion, Simmons learned the management side of the restaurant business at Blackfinn in Dallas. With a desire to return to fine dining, Simmons left Dallas for The Woodlands to assist Chef John Tesar to open his eponymous restaurant, Tesars Modern Steak & Seafood. Upon Chef Tesar’s departure from the restaurant, Simmons caught a once-in-a-lifetime break, and with the support of the ownership, management, and customers, all of whom he had built strong relationships with, jumped on the opportunity to lead and redirect the kitchen in their newfound positions.
In 2010, following the closing of Tesars, Simmons was quickly invited to join the culinary team at the newly opened Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, whereby 2012 he was promoted to executive chef. Simmons was instrumental in elevating the level of cuisine by introducing a Pan Asian menu that highlighted his classic French technique. Adamant in wanting to tell a story through his cooking, Simmons is very simplistic in delivery using light, but flavorful ingredients that allows the natural flavors of the food to express themselves.
Simmons is pushing the culinary envelope in The Woodlands with his implementation of worldly flavors. He was named Eater Houston’s “Chef of the Year” in 2018 and Culture Map’s top 10 chefs of the year, as well as named in the top 25 in Houston Chronicle’s top 100 restaurants. TRIS has received numerous glowing reviews including from Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook and Houstonia Magazine’s Timothy Malcolm.
In addition to cooking, Simmons’ passion is to develop younger chefs to discover their own talents in the same way that he was encouraged.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Iwas inspired to become a chef because of my love to serve people and the direct feedback this industry has. I’m inspired every time I see guests’ face light up when they try something new or fall in love with a dish.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Before becoming a chef, I worked for my hometown city, Arlington, through high school where I earned minimum wage. After graduating from high school, I moved to Austin to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Like most students, I was a full-time student and worked a full-time job at well above the minimum wage.
When I was close to graduating, one of my culinary school teachers came to discuss externships. It was there where I learned of The Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas. When I went to apply, I was turned away. Over the course of several weeks, I applied almost daily but kept getting turned away due to my lack of restaurant experience. After multiple attempts, I was offered the externship, however, I was being paid well below the minimum wage, and my mom had to support me. I quickly realized it wasn’t just about the money, The Mansion taught me more than most chefs learn in a decade. Through my struggle, I learned how to work in a team. It didn’t just matter how good I was, what really mattered was how good the leadership and everyone around you was. I would do the entire experience again!
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
My menus are inspired by extensive travels around the world. I focus on dishes that have worldly flavors combined with my French classic culinary technique. When I travel, I I like to sample dishes I have never tried before. What I have discovered was how rich in flavors these dishes are. Whenever I come back from my travels, I always come back inspired and wanting to add new global flavors to the menu.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The number one element is creating something that guests can relate to. The Korean Butter Poached Crab I serve at my restaurant TRIS has an element of familiarity. Because of the guest’s existing relationship with crab cakes, they are willing to try something a little bit different.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
When I’m not in the kitchen, I enjoy chef tastings. I love observing other chefs’ creativity and the finessed foods that have a progressive movement. Typically, I look for six to eight plates that have a huge impact and are filled with flavors.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
A lot of my inspiration comes from my travels and the availability of the product. At TRIS, I serve a Pan Asian menu that is highlighted by my classic French technique. I utilize social media to see what other chefs are doing on a global level.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I have a lot of projects I’m involved with including developing relationships with different ranchers to implement new dishes into my menu. I’m working with HeartBrand Ranch on a 10-year- old beef program called “HeartBrand X,” as well as a ranch-to-fork concept serving exotic meats with Unique Meats. In addition to the TRIS menu, I am helping our sister restaurant Black Walnut Cafe with new menu items for their 14-unit operations.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateur to thrive and avoid burnout?
Chefs have to make sure they have the desire to cook good food. Famed chef Thomas Keller recently said “It’s not about passion. Passion is something that we tend to overemphasize, that we certainly place too much importance on. Passion ebbs and flows. To me, it’s about desire. If you have constant, unwavering desire to be a cook, then you’ll be a great cook. If it’s only about passion, sometimes you’ll be good and sometimes you won’t. You’ve got to come in every day with a strong desire….” Consistency is what creates good cooks and restaurants.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Restaurant” and why?
Five things I wish someone told me before I started are
1.) Creating food that relates to the guest; New chefs have to keep in mind that guests want some familiarity. Start with the basics and then you can add new elements from there, but mastering classic and familiar dishes is essential.
2.) How to deal with people critiquing your food; not all diner feedback will be great. Critiques provide insight into the culinary experience, giving a different perspective. In the age of social media, everyone is a critic and it is important to learn how to recognize quality feedback and to not take anything personally.
3.) Taste sensation; Chefs also have to keep in mind how guests react to different flavors. One of the things I love about being a chef is having real-time feedback from guests. Use the feedback to perfect your craft!
4.) Business acumen; One of the things I wish I had more in-depth training on was how to set up a sound and successful restaurant. The operations of a restaurant are just as important as the menu. Ask questions from various restaurant owners and mentors on how their restaurant operates.
5.) Service is as important if not more than food; Keeping your guests happy and establishing a relationship is a big factor on whether or not they will come back. I would say that the best food in the world can’t make up for bad service. Take the time to not only make sure your front of house staff is on point, but also meet with your guests and ask them about their experience. This feedback is vital to your restaurant’s success.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
The one dish people have to try is the Korean Butter Poached Crab at Tris.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Development of people. I’ve always believed that what you put back into people is important. Industry leaders have to set up the upcoming generation for success.