Chef Chat: Dominick Lee, a Southern Gentleman
While describing the way he sees the world with determination and clarity, all embellished in a charming New Orleans drawl with twinkling eyes to match, Dominick Lee is a little bit philosopher. The calculated chef embarks upon his first gig as the dude with the opening of Poitín set to happen very, very soon.
Lee attended the Art Institute of Houston and most recently served as executive sous chef and right hand to chef Kiran Verma at the venerable Houston staple, Kiran’s. Now, he teams up with award winning owner and Irish restaurateur Ian Tucker as well as general manager Todd Leveritt to create a buzzy congregating space in the new Sawyer Yards community.
With a breathtaking view of the Houston skyline as backdrop and choo-choo trains adding industrial ambiance the location will feature craft cocktails and “a menu of inventive dishes incorporating bold flavors from locally sourced ingredients.”
Yes, they’ll have a train shot.
The smell of fresh paint hung in the air, workers busily hammered and sawed and playful monkeys from the wallpaper tuned in as Chef Dominick Lee and the Houston Press walked about the naturally well-lit Poitín…
HP: How do you pronounce Poitín?
DL: Potcheen. I’ll let you drink some in a little bit.
HP: What is it?
DL: Irish moonshine.
One worker approaches chef Dominick Lee…
Worker: (To Lee) Where do you want to hang the towel dispensers?
DL: (To worker) Four inches above every hand sink. Do we have enough for every hand sink?
DL: (To Houston Press) Let’s start outside. Whenever I go out to eat I like to sit outside. We spend our lives sleeping inside, going to school inside, working inside…I like to sit outside. I can sit out here and enjoy Houston, it just feels good.
HP: It does feel good.
DL: When I used to [live] at home (New Orleans), we would sit on the patio and have happy hour, like the one we’re going to have here, where the gulf oysters are half-price. We would order like six dozen charbroiled oysters and just chill all day. Just like this, the wind that shoots through like it did now. Know what I mean? Just have a good time.
HP: What’s the outside vibe going to be like?
DL: It will be real relaxed, we’ll have music and hanging lights. Erin Hicks is doing the entire patio with planters that span the [railing.] I’ll have lavender, citronella, all the different herbs you use, growing.
HP: What was the initial spark into this life for you… flavor, the work, creativity?
DL: Easy. (Smiles) it really started because I love to eat. My mother always cooked, she loves to cook. I’m her youngest child, whenever I was young I would make her presents, cook for her, like for Mother’s day. I made her risotto and didn’t even know it was risotto. I just thought it was rice with cream and parmesan cheese. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 18 years old. Then six, seven years ago I thought to myself, I love doing this, I don’t want to be a lawyer, I just want to cook food. I came here to go to [culinary] school.
HP: Would you recommend culinary school to-
HP: People trying to get in the business?
DL: Absolutely. You know how I was able to answer that guy’s questions so confidently? It’s because I’ve been to culinary school. You get that education of the restaurant business, of how to do things. If someone came to me and said, “hey, you want to open a restaurant?” I would have never known that in order to know the kitchen equipment I need, I first had to build a menu. Cooking, like the science of it, how a mayonnaise can be manipulated by different oils, or how a hollandaise can be manipulated with different butters. Some chefs would tell people not to go [to culinary school], but I would tell them that they are wrong. It was vital to my career.
HP: You absorbed a lot from it.
DL: It’s vital. But, I love what I do, it’s never a struggle to get out of bed. My grandma passed away a year ago, when that happened, my boss asked me if I wanted to go home. I told my boss I just wanted to cook her recipes. She left me all her recipes and all her cookbooks. She was the first foodie in our family. One day, in a different concept, I will cook all of her food.
HP: That’s awesome, what was her name?
DL: We called her Nana, in Italian, and Mama D. Her last name was D’angelo.
HP: You have Italian roots.
DL: Yeah, of course. In New Orleans you have a mix of everything. So, I’m Italian, my father is black.
HP: Anything you can talk about on the menu that you are excited about making?
DL: Everything, obviously, will be made from scratch. I come from working under one of the best woman chefs in the country. She makes everything from scratch. I won’t make naan bread since we don’t have a tandoor oven, but I will make fresh bread every day. For example our bread service, a fresh rye brioche with whipped turnip butter and bacon jam.
HP: Sounds delicious.
DL: Yeah, we [will] also have a country style baguette that comes with an herb olive oil. We did a tomato fennel jam, and are making a gluten-free bread that’s made from rice flour and flax seed. Everything is geared towards, what I call, the kaleidoscope of Houston.
One of my chefs, he’s from Mexico, my pastry chef, Dory Fung, she’s Chinese, family has a Dim Sum kitchen. Houston is diverse. I want everyone to express their food culture. I allow that, I expect it. It’s an expectation to work here. You can’t come work here and not expect to put up food based on who you are. The palate that I have and you have is completely different, because I grew up eating something different than you.
HP: Do you remember getting any good burns from the tandoor?
DL: Of course. One, two, three.
HP: That thing is hot.
DL: Chef Kiran has, you know, maybe 40 spices. With learning what I have and practicing world cuisine, I have over 60 spices on my starting list.
HP: What are your favorites?
DL: I like Sichuan peppercorn.
HP: So hot.
DL: So good. I like dried chilies, like guajillos, those are cool. I like Maldon salt, it’s such a good finishing salt.
DL: Really, really good. I’ve become very interested in espelette recently. I may not be from Houston, but I embrace Houston, everything about this restaurant, from the locality of the food, to the farms, to using Marble Ranch Wagyu, to using Acornseekers pork, to using stuff from Alan Harrison, Harrison farms.
Me and these people are on a first name basis. It’s just important. When I used to farm vegetables in New Orleans, you can taste the difference in a vegetable that someone loved. And you don’t have to put anything on it. On my Instagram you can kinda see an evolution from New Orleans to Houston. This is a farm we built, these are some vegetables that we grew. Like fresh kale, eggplant, cucumbers…butternut squash, peppers, so spicy, squash blossoms. I know how much it requires to do it.
HP: Those sweet farmers, and they’re always giving away stuff too…
DL: Yeah, don’t worry, I insist on buying it.
HP: You’re at the farmers market almost every Saturday?
DL: Yeah, for sure, the only reason I wasn’t there last Saturday was because I went to my cousin’s wedding. He asked me like six months ago… so I had to go.
You know what? I like those people. I like everybody, but I reallylike those people. These people are about food, so why wouldn’t I want to be around other people who enjoy food? That’s just a natural thing.
Lee and the Houston Press walk into the kitchen…
DL: Welcome to the kitchen I designed…so steamer, double convection, I have an indoor smoking unit coming in so I can make bacon, smoke my fish for gulf fish rillettes. I have a seafood charcuterie [dish.] Everyone does regular charcuterie, we’re doing seafood charcuterie. Gulf fish rillette, pickeled shrimp, salmon pastrami, bluefin tuna tartare… a pâté or whatever it may be, with seafood. Any other questions you had?
HP: Call of Duty or FIFA?
DL: (Laughs) Video games all day, Call of Duty. What else?
HP: If the Caesar salad and the Wedge got into a fight who would you want to… die?
DL: I would want the Caesar salad to die. Man, that’s a hard question. I love Wedge salads. But ever since I learned a long time ago that the Caesar has anchovies in the dressing, I like that. Have you ever had like an Italian anchovy?
DL: Like that’s in the jar but fresh imported from Italy?
HP: Yeah, with the little bones.
DL: It tastes so good, I mean I’ll eat anchovies on pizza.
HP: What’s your go-to dish for a late-night guest?
DL: Whatever they want.
HP: That’s a great answer.
DL: Yeah, whatever they want. Very simple, I was just preaching this the other day. We were all cooks at one point in our lives. So, when a guest would walk in late, everyone would be like, “man!!” Start going crazy and making a big deal about it, right? You know what I’m talking about…
DL: But when you switch over and become a chef you realize that those people are some of the most important people. We get a chance to let them know we are not that restaurant. We are the group that welcomes you in late and makes you a meal because you’re hungry.
Let’s get you a Poitín.
DL: (Points at a question on the Houston Press‘s clipboard.) Fried chicken sandwich.
HP: Fried chicken sandwich, oh, for build us an epic sandwich?
DL: I call it the FCS.
HP: What’s that stand for?
DL: Fried chicken sandwich.
Todd Leveritt: It’s about that time.
DL: It’s about that time.
Lee pours three shots into little mugs…
HP: These are cute.
DL: In our quest to open a restaurant we’ve [gone through] about two of these bottles.
HP: Get those juices flowing. Is anyone else selling Poitín in Houston?