Stefan Bowers walks us through his career as a cook--not "chef." He discusses the struggles in the industry, the challenges of growing too fast, and his exciting new venture. Stefan is an advocate for his industry workers and a good person who tries hard to build up his colleagues. We had a fun exchange.
Justin: Hello and Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here. All right, welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Stefan Bowers of the Goodman & Bowers group in San Antonio. Stefan is first and foremost a chef, I think it'd be fair to say, right?
Stefan: Yes, I call myself--
Justin: I don't want to call you an executive or one of those things.
Stefan: Yes, you can call me chef, I'll call myself a cook.
Justin: All right, there you go. Not only that, he's a veteran, a prolific social media poster, which we'll get into in a little bit. I think one of the more interesting things about you that set you apart from whether you like it or not, you're a celebrity chef in this city is you are less about the self-promotion than a lot of our celebrity chefs. You're very big in promoting your industry to the lowest level employee in the restaurant. I think that sets you apart in a lot of ways and that you glorify and you celebrate everybody that's back in the kitchen as opposed to people that are glorifying themselves all the time.
I think that's an interesting part of your persona. I think it's an important part of your persona and I like reading about it. I know that you have a very loyal following, not only from people who love your food, but also people that work with you, it seems like. We're going to have you on to talk a little bit about the food industry. I don't want to belabor the point of what's going on with COVID. Everybody's talking about that ad infinitum, but we're going to talk a little bit about that. I'm going to blame you probably for me putting on about 15 pounds during the shutdown due to your pizza, right? I get the pizza a lot.
Justin: I do this with everybody, I start and I think you're going to have insights that a lot of people would want to know. Just some general questions about who you are in San Antonio, when and why did you end up in San Antonio.
Stefan: I ended up in San Antonio in 2005 via Houston. I moved to Houston in 2003 to go to culinary school, moved there blind. I was living in San Diego with my wife. Believe it or not, San Diego didn't have any culinary schools.
Justin: Is that right?
Stefan: That's right. They had one in, I want to say-- I don't want to say La Mesa, but there wasn't one anywhere local to where I was when I was living in Pacific Beach. All my wife's family's from Texas. She's got one of these cliched giant Texas families. She wanted to move back to be my family, so we moved to Houston. Then I did school there. My wife got in two really bad car accidents while we were in Houston. After the second one, we wanted to get the hell out of there. I was time to go to San Antonio, and that was it, we moved here in 2005.
Justin: What was the school in Houston?
Stefan: It's called the Alain and Marie Lenotre Culinary School. Just small French school, and that's why I picked it. It only had financial aid for GI. It didn't have government financial aid at the time, so of course, classroom size was tiny. There was around three to five people in each class. We even went down to around two people. All Expat type chefs that were there, that were recruited or brought over from France that were there, basically, almost enslaved. They were paid very little and they were held on in order to get their visas by Alain Lenotre. They were grumpy, underpaid, and very qualified.
Justin: So classic French training?
Stefan: Very classic.
Justin: Did you work in Houston [unintelligible 00:03:49]?
Stefan: Yes, I worked in Houston. That was where I springboard was. I worked in San Diego for a couple of time [unintelligible 00:03:54] but the real first full-service kitchen that I worked in on the line was at a place called The Sam Houston Hotel Downtown. At the time, it had just relaunched their new restaurant 17 and the talent there was special. Everyone that's worked there that I know of, that I worked around has gone on to very successful things today.
Justin: That was a great place to start. I lived in Houston for a little bit no 09, 10, 11 time and Mark's was just about to close and that was the nicest place ever in Houston.
Stefan: I have forgotten about Mark's. [crosstalk] Aries and Mark's and those were--
Justin: And Da Marco down the street from Mark's. How did you get into cooking?
Stefan: Looking back at my childhood, I should have known that I wanted to be a cook. I have just a natural pension to just go into the kitchen and create. It was an easy way for me to exercise creativity, I was not good at drawing, I wasn't good at painting or any of that sort of thing. It seemed like in the kitchen, I could walk in there and I could just throw things together. As high school progressed and we cut school and smoked a lot of weed, we'd go into the kitchen and I'd start to cook and I would just start to make stuff, barbeque, steaks, whatever. milkshakes, anything, hamburgers.
Stefan: Yes, milkshakes all the time, cheap milkshake non-stop. We did that. Then it never materialized in my head that I should cook, no one ever suggested to me, "You should maybe go into cooking." It wasn't until I was in the Navy that I realized, once I had gotten married that I did like to do the cooking.
Justin: I'm going to ask you about restaurants in a second, but are there any off the beaten path, hidden gems in San Antonio that you like? I've had people mentioned weird trails or historic homes, are there any sort of things in San Antonio that you recommend, out of town guests, "Hey, this isn't going to be in the guidebook?"
Stefan: Restaurant wise--
Justin: I'm going to get there. Touristy type spots.
Stefan: Touristy type spot, my ashes are gonna be spread at Hardberger Park, right on the Savanna Trail. That's my favorite place to be in the world in this city. I've walked that path countless times and I walked it even to the-- The resurface did about five years back, that was heartbreaking to me because it was such a pure simple three-foot trail. That to me, I take anyone in my family that comes here on that park in an oak loop on that part, that trail and it's very personal to me and I love it.
Justin: Savanna Trail is your trailer?
Stefan: The Savannah loop within Hardberger or the--
Justin: I've never done it.
Stefan: You got to do it.
Justin: I know, I need to.
Stefan: It's good, especially in the morning. Plenty of rabbit, deer, plenty of armadillo just peaceful, quiet. That's where they're going to be putting over the land bridge.
Justin: Now, restaurants.
Stefan: Restaurants are always tough in terms of being asked where I like to eat because once I had kids, the options really dropped off the table. They were adventurous in the beginning and as I've gotten older, they've gotten less and less adventurous and all the places that that most people do. I've loved Carnitas Lonja's for lunch. I think that's just one of the more solid place I get.
Justin: Have you been to Loncheria del Popo?
Stefan: No, I haven't been to these new--
Justin: This is a strange place that has three sandwiches, they're 225 and they come with a bag of Lay's chips. It's on San Pedro. It's from Laredo, 50 years there, but it's got just this weird cult following.
Stefan: I've got a confession to make, over the last, of course, it's-- I've got a horrible short term memory. It's terrible. Remembering names and remembering places and having a kick out places on the spot, it never works out. I'm going to get my car and I'm going to remember 50 when I'm driving home. Something has happened, there's definitely been a sea change in San Antonio over the last year, I'd say where there's a lot of killer small places that I'm seeing, especially on social media.
I am definitely the one that needs the inside on where to go because there's so many-- it's hard to stop--
Justin: Your social media following, I'm sure you could just ask and you would get thousands of recommendations.
Stefan: I do. I do get them and then I've just--
Justin: Loncheria del Popo, even your kids would like. I think it's like a hamburger, like a weenie burger. It's just this strange place that has this huge following. You get a little thing of pickled peppers and onions as part of the deal.
Stefan: That sounds great.
Justin: Super simple menu. You're talking about the food chains you've seen over the last year? How would you describe the food chains since you've been here? I moved here right after you moved here in '07. Back then there was like two nice places to eat and then lots of chains, but it's been a quite a big progress for our city in terms of the culinary scene, right?
Stefan: Yes. The first restaurant that I had introduced to me while I had first moved here and my brother-in-law was moving here was driving down I-10 and then pointing out Mama Margie's to me, that was the option for me to get a job at. I thought I was completely, I was like, I'm fucked." I've done some research, I knew that Weissman was here, I knew that. There was the four guys at the top, there was Weissman, Auden, Mark Bliss-
Stefan: -and Daddy, but I didn't know about Daddy.
Justin: You'd been then.
Stefan: It was Weissman, Auden, Bliss, and Damien Watel. Those are the godfathers of San Antonio fine dinning in my opinion in the city. I was going to work for one of them when I was coming here. I wrote a letter to Andrew I got no reply so screw you, Weissman. I did letters to all of them I got replies, but they didn't have any jobs and I mean that in jest, but I did end up getting a job for Jeff Balfour at Valencia in 2005. That was the right Hotel experience, worked there for six months, and then discovered Danny in a little pamphlet. Went out and literally tracked him down while he was building Bin555 and got my job.
Justin: When you moved here did Damien have that monster complex thing-
Justin: -they were building over there? That was after that?
Stephan: Damien was still in his almost location. 2005 Weissman was just really ramping up to become just the zenith that he was about to attain with the New York Times about a year away from that New York Times article where he got I think it was three stars. Then big on the banks was what it was I never really inquired what have you but-
Justin: It's still just solid.
Stephan: Yes, it's probably the same then as it was as it is today other than a few decore changes.
Justin: I don't think many decore changes. [laughs] Still a bunch of big dried gourds. I always look at those every time I come on there. You told me one time what is your favorite cookbook. For anybody listening who wants to try their hand at cooking what would you recommend? You recommended a Mediterranean cookbook and I opened it up and thought, I don't know what the fuck any of this stuff is. I didn't even know the ingredients.
Stephan: Was it a person or was it generic?
Justin: If you said the name I would remember.
Stephan: Mediterranean cook oh, was it a Silvena Rowe cookbook or?
Justin: I say Mediterranean there was just a lot of Mediterranean ingredients in there.
Stephan: I'm sure there was so when Feast opened in 2011. I feel I was a little bit ahead of the game and I was trying to bring something new into the city that hadn't been done. I really went deep into eastern med and basically Gaza Strip style food and brought a lot of those North African flavors. Now it's commonplace to see Harissa and all these things all over menus, but back then I thought we were pretty much the only ones doing it on a non-ethnic base restaurant scale.
Justin: For a beginning cook any books you recommend-
Stephan: The Joy Of Cooking. The best cookbook in the world is the Joy Of Cooking.
Justin: That's not the one you told me. You told me one and I remember thinking, I don't even know the ingredients.
Stephan: I was probably still a snob at that time and still really cared about it, but no The Joy Of Cooking.
Justin: Your lamb lollipops over there those had a lot of Mediterranean flavors in them.
Stephan: Big time totally taken from definitely readapted, but taken from a Silvena Rowe recipe. She's a chef out of England, but she's, plus I don't want to probably overstep myself here, but I feel like she's Hungarian. That's the direction I went. I bought all our cookbooks before we open Feast and I just studied anything I could that had Eastern med flavors.
Justin: People get drunk and they talk about stupid shit and one day we we're sitting around talking about the best three things we've eaten in the city. Mine were lamb lollipops, your steak at Rebel right when you all opened and you all had those duck confit potatoes that came with them right?
Stephan: I'm so glad you remember those.
Justin: Yes, so good.
Stephan: That's badass that you remember those. Those are the rooster potatoes that we had sourced out through Benny Ki to make duck to make confit potatoes.
Justin: Yes those two things and then the third was it was almost like a Beef Wellington that McHugh did right when Cured opened. It was fantastic, but you made two of the top.
Justin: Then I remember you all were retiring the lamb lollipops and I was very sad, but I wasn't sad to see Feast go because that building seemed it was about to fall down.
Stephan: Rock hard and put up wet.
Justin: It smelled like it was put up wet sometimes. You have a feud going with burger boy I see on Facebook? Soul feud?
Stephan: A foe feud yes. They got upset. I think there's more of a deeper there's an undercurrent going on between they're very busy during the pandemic fast foods boom.
Justin: They are long line right now.
Stephan: Everybody's it's easier obviously it's safer feeling to go through a drive-thru. They blocked the parking of people that are trying to that are at little desk shopping and they can't get out. They probably tried to be reasonable whatever and there's just nothing we can do about it situation. One morning when we were doing our pop up the guy was just out there and he's just stickulating at me definitely as we were setting up and on his phone and what have you. Then the cop showed up at the end of the day. The cop came and said there's nothing I could do. I was called because no one's wearing masks, but it's everybody sitting down eating not wearing masks.
Justin: They're allowed to, also outdoors.
Stephan: Also outdoors. It's chill now.
Justin: Nobody likes having competition next door.
Stephan: I'm not picking a fight with Burger Boy. I know who, I respect the hustle.
Justin: You go sell 100 and they sell 100 every two hours probably.
Stephan: 15 minutes.
Justin: What's your favorite thing to cook and what's your favorite thing to eat?
Stephan: I would say my favorite thing to cook is I love making Sunday night pasta. I love making a good simple, but very long stewed beef ragu with spaghetti.
Justin: You post a lot of it.
Stephan: Yes I love that. We usually this is thrown through a loop because it's Sunday night dinners every night. Back when there was really an important night right before school started. We would sit down every night for sure and have pasta. Eating wise I love hamburgers.
Justin: Me too.
Stephan: Straight up. I'm simple. I've always have been my dad's taken me to all kinds of places growing up. I just like a good burger.
Justin: That's my favorite thing to drink with wine or take it with wine.
Justin: It's a cheeseburger and a good glass of wine. I actually had that as one of my questions. What do you think the secret is to a good hamburger? Me smoke. I do grill put mesquite wood in it and just smoke the hell out of them. That's my way of doing it.
Stephan: To me that question is crazy because what you've got is each category within inside from top to bottom bun. One thing that I feel that the bond can ruin everything. Patty that has no flavor that's too thick. The quality of meat. To me, the most important the best burger I ever had in my life was at Zuni grill in San Francisco. It was as basic as it get, but it was about a six-ounce burger. It was a thick guy, but the flavor of the meat was just beyond anything that I've ever tasted. I just never had tasted ground beef like this. They're probably getting real sustainable. Really well cared for beef. It was unbelievable in its flavor in its simplicity.
Justin: You still remember it?
Stephan: I remember it like yesterday. Buns to me ruin burgers. That's why the bun we'd use it when we do them, we get a very small bun because to me a burger is not a two-handed meal. I'm really real picky about it. Burgers