Some people are born knowing. Others fall into it naturally. Brent Gorman, executive chef at the University of Houston, was working in his uncle’s bakery in Greece at age 13 when he knew that life in the culinary arts perfectly suited his palate.
Heavily influenced by his father’s restaurant industry background and his mother’s passion for art, Gorman started sculpting, painting and sandblasting when he was “knee high to a grasshopper.” His specialty soon became “food art,” which accelerated his career from crafting dishes for a European cruise line to running the kitchen in prestigious hotels and venues around the country.
Despite his star-studded portfolio, Certified Executive Chef distinction and American Chef Federation medals (six to be exact, one of which is the coveted Presidential medal), Gorman is unassuming, without airs and utterly charming.
What was your first big culinary break?
I really made a name for myself when I started competing in American Chef Federation competitions. You need to do a lot of research in order to truly compete and understand complex cultures and culinary traditions from around the world. Through that process, I found my own identity as a chef and honed my expertise for blending strong Southwest and Southern-style cuisines with Mediterranean influences.
You have worked for the University of Houston for 10 years now—the longest you have ever stayed at a single place throughout your career. After all that time, what most excites you about your role?
More than 120 different countries are represented at UH. That allows for a diverse and constantly changing menu every day. My job is never monotonous: one day I will be cooking for President Renu Khator and the Counsel General of India and the next catering an alumni wedding or creating a new recipe for our student body. This role has allowed me to hone my skills and produce cuisine that incorporates influences from all over the world.
How have new technologies changed the culinary industry and the way you cook?
The culinary world is forever changing, and technology has made cooking more fun. For example, when we are working with the science departments, we use molecular gastronomy and additives to create really amazing edible art pieces. There is a lot of fun stuff you can do in the culinary world now that did not exist back when I first started down this path.
Why is sustainability so important to you and to the University of Houston?
There are so many starving people in the world. We often take for granted that we get to eat what we eat. I had the privilege of living abroad, and I have seen people who wake up every day and do not get to eat and are not sure if they will have a roof over their head. I have learned not to take anything for granted. That sentiment is echoed by UH Dining. Whenever possible, we use recyclable and compostable containers. We focus strongly on nutrition, portion control and small-batch cooking to minimize waste.
With hundreds of culinary influences and over 10,000 recipes in your database, is it possible to have a favorite?
I am very proud of UH Dining’s Asian fare. It is healthy, tasty, has some heat to it, and I love the flavor profiles: sweet, sour, spicy, salty. You get all of it in one big bite.
What is your favorite meal to cook at home?
I just love a great mesquite grilled bone-in ribeye steak, but shrimp carbonara or braised beef short ribs served with parmesan risotto are a close second.
You have cooked for countless celebrities—please share a few memorable moments.
My first taste of cooking for celebrities was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when I worked for the Radisson and Hilton hotels. The hotels were very prestigious and would host all of the local high-profile events. With Baton Rouge being the state capital, the Louisiana Governor was a frequent guest at my table, and I had the opportunity to work with members of The Guess Who, Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night, Aaron Neville and R.E.M.
When George Clooney was filming “Out of Sight,” he stayed at the Hilton and would eat in our dining room.
While George W. Bush was running for president, his campaign hosted a fundraiser at the hotel. As executive chef, I cooked for him and former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.
My most memorable celebrity-culinary service to date was a party held at the Downtown Aquarium and hosted by Tilman Fertitta, before he was the chairman of the UH System Board of Regents. As chef for special events, I served Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Dick Butkus, Vivica A. Fox and Sean “Diddy” Combs, among the 2,500 movie and sports stars attending the event.
You have worked with clients of all backgrounds and palates—any strange requests?
I was once asked to cook a wild game-themed dinner. During the planning stages, the clients shared that while visiting the Amazon, they had enjoyed the delicacy of “chocolate covered ants.” I soon learned that a particular species of ant goes deep underground during the rainy season, resulting in its abdomen filling up with a nectar that tastes like honeysuckle flowers. There is a very small window to harvest these ants before they are completely underground. I sourced the ants at $200 a pound through a specialty exotic food company and surprised the client at the dinner. I am an adventurous eater—there is no way I’d pass up the opportunity to try something that unusual and that expensive.
More and more, it feels like before you start a meal, someone at your table wants to photograph their plate. Has this growing trend influenced the way you cook, serve or plate meals?
I’ve long known that people eat with their eyes. Food should be attractive and appealing to draw you in, but it’s really the taste of the product that determines the dining experience.
What is the biggest mistake people make in the kitchen?
Lack of preparation. Before you start, I suggest setting up all of your ingredients and cooking utensils so you can devote all of your focus to the food.
Advice for those interested in a career in the culinary world?
Follow your passion. It would also be helpful to work in a professional kitchen before pursuing a culinary degree. Being a chef is an acquired taste and not for everyone. The profession is very demanding, and your reputation goes out with each dish you make. Prepare yourself for constant critiques and comparisons to competitors; you need to always be on your game. I can’t imagine doing anything else; it’s the perfect fit for me.