Telling a delicious tale of food and family with chef David Cordúa ’04.
The sizzle of churrasco steak and Gulf red snapper, the tang of beurre blanc, the clang of pans and thunk-thunk-thunk of knives chopping, and the insistent clatter of the kitchen ticket printer, announcing orders from hungry diners: It’s another evening in the kitchen at Américas. The restaurant is in Houston, Texas, with a menu that highlights the gifts of the New World. And things are going full tilt.
Executive chef David Cordúa ’04 pivots with a careful choreography, a dry towel in his left hand to grab hot pots, his right hand free to use tongs. When cuts happen, they’re on his left hand; burns are on his right.
“Yallah! Yallah!” a cook shouts. It means “hurry up” in Arabic—and it’s a phrase the team uses to break the tension.
Cordúa has known this kind of energy his whole life. His father is chef and restaurateur Michael Cordúa, recognized for bringing Latin flavors to Houston in 1988 with Churrascos. Now eight restaurants fall under the Cordúa brand, and the family is widely acclaimed for their impact on Houston’s food scene. In the short time that 31-year-old David has been working alongside his father, he’s brought his own fervor and flair to the family business, with revamped menus and a new approach to wine and cocktails. In November, father and son celebrated the release of their first book, Cordúa: Foods of the Americas (Bright Sky Press, 2013). Written with Houston-based food writer John DeMers, it’s part cookbook, part memoir of the family’s first 25 years in the restaurant business.
A reluctant immigrant
The fact is that the family didn’t plan on remaking the food scene in Houston. Michael Cordúa was born in Managua, Nicaragua. He came to the States in the late 1970s to study finance at Texas A&M University, aspiring to become a banker back home. Instead, the Nicaraguan revolution and rise of the Sandinistas turned him into a reluctant immigrant.
Michael stayed in Texas, married, and got a job shipping equipment for oil exploration and production. But the early 1980s oil glut sent prices plummeting. Exploration and production staggered, and Michael found himself out of a career. Calibrating what he wanted to tackle next, he found that memories of the great dishes prepared in the kitchens of his childhood kept coming back. He enjoyed cooking, but it wasn’t something that men of his background did for a living. In the end, he decided the stereotype didn’t matter.
He opened Churrascos, a restaurant named for the traditional Nicaraguan fillet, served grilled and topped with chimichurri sauce. At the time, the concept of Latin cuisine was new to Houston. It wasn’t Tex-Mex or Mexican. Diners were disappointed that there were no tortillas on the table.
To Paris and back
For David, growing up in the 1980s in Houston was about blending his Latin and American cultures. “I learned English watching MTV,” he says. (He’s not entirely joking.) “I was the one who explained to my family what was ‘normal’ for America.”
Family was important—at home and in the restaurants. David’s mother, Lucia (née Callejas), served as hostess and did payroll while his father was in the kitchen. Various uncles worked there as well. Life was chaotic, but Lucia says she and Michael made sure there was time for the kids. “Breakfast became our family meal,” she says. “And we had a rule that there was to be no scolding at the table. Everyone was meant to know that the table was a safe, welcoming place.”
David figured out early that his family and the food they made were both something special. In high school, he sold lunches to classmates: waffle sandwiches made with maple syrup, cream cheese, ham, and bacon for $8. In college, he had his family ship him vacuum-sealed packages of gallo pinto, Nicaraguan red beans and rice, which he used to make tacos with creamy cilantro sauce. Sometimes he sold these as late-night snacks, too.
On more than one occasion David was punished by having to wash dishes. But he was never pressured into the restaurant business. The only stipulation his parents placed on him concerned his education. “It had to be Jesuit,” he says. “And when I went to college, I had to study business.”
David first visited Santa Clara with his grandfather, Alfonso Callejas ’48, who took him along for his 50th class reunion. (Callejas has his own incredible story. Following his graduation from SCU, he became a civil engineer and went on to serve as vice president of Nicaragua before he broke with President Anastasio Somoza when his term ended in 1972.)
David fell in love with the Mission Campus and appreciated the Jesuit approach combining faith and social justice. As a student he volunteered with the Santa Clara Community Action Program, assisting job seekers with résumés and ESL skills. When an opportunity came up at San Jose First Church, in the kitchen, cooking for a homeless shelter, “I jumped at it,” he says. “It was a chance to put some family skills into it.” The reward was palpable, and immediate. “You are taking care of someone’s most basic need.”
He also began a supper club with some of his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers and his sister Michelle (Cordúa) Mirshak ’06. David was responsible for the menu, making dishes from the Culinary Institute of America cookbook and from family recipes—including churrasco steaks. “We even found someone to ship us live crawfish for a Gulf-style crawfish boil,” he says.
During his junior and senior years, David took a job at Citrus, the restaurant in San Jose’s Hotel Valencia, as a breakfast cook, as well as a weekend gig in Sonoma at Popina restaurant. Summers and school breaks found him studying in Cuba and backpacking in Thailand. Discovering the world this way, he learned a new appreciation for what it means to break bread together. “Food is often people’s first encounter with another culture,” he says. “It’s also very intimate by nature: We put it in our body; it requires trust.” In Cuba, he says, “Strangers invited me into their homes for meals. They had little to share, but they were honored to host a foreigner. Or, in Thailand, the only thing I understood from an old woman was her pantomimed instructions about how to eat with sticky rice as a utensil. I understood the language of food she was trying to communicate.”
Further mastering the grammar and syntax of what makes a dish and a meal put David on the road to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu, where he earned Le Grand Diplôme in Cuisine and Pastry in 2005. It was an intense program, requiring 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week, practicing over and over to master each dish.
“I learned how to treat and cure duck at La Tour d’Argent in Paris,” he says. “Today at Américas in Houston I cure it similarly and smoke it with corn husk and serve it with a blueberry balsamic and sweet potato soufflé—French technique with American ingredients. For me, it’s like harmony in music, how a chord has different notes that come together. Food is the same way, with the different elements of taste working in concert.”
|Fervor and flair: Since joining the
family business in 2007, David Cordúa
has brought his own style to the
Cordúa restaurants. Photo by Julie Soefer
In 2007, following a stint as food and beverage manager at the Dolce Hayes Mansion Resort and Spa in San Jose, David came home to help the family open Américas in The Woodlands, a chic suburb north of Houston. Now, as executive chef, he oversees quality, execution, and menu development for the family’s eight restaurants, as well as Cordúa Catering.
Private-label wines have been added to the menus, including a Malbec from Patagonia that David christened Majorem, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Ad majorem Dei gloriam.” And each year he updates the menus at all four restaurant concepts. At Amazon Grill, he’s recently incorporated what he calls “street food and carnival fare”: things like Cuban-style pressed sandwiches and chicken tinga fries with white poblano queso that eat like a chipotle chicken poutine. At Churrascos, he’s added a quartet of ceviches and more sharable plates, such as shrimp margherita flatbread and calamari chicharrón—plantain-crusted calamari served with jalapeño, queso frito, and pork crackling.
As the restaurants evolve, though, David keeps in mind his father’s edict on food: “First, it must be yummy.” They sought to capture that philosophy in writing Foods of the Americas, an exercise that Cordúa says required him to get to know the recipes at a deeper level. “Having to simplify the scale of them, and think [about which] ingredients and tools are available to the home cook, I had to really work at that,” he says. Many of the recipes are from the family’s four restaurant concepts—Amazon Grill, Américas, Artista, and Churrascos—but about a third are entirely new. For Michael Cordúa, the book allowed him to revisit the past and recall how grateful he is for the opportunities he’s had. One of those, he insists, is working so closely with his son.
“We complement each other completely,” he says. “David is always pushing the envelope. He pulls me out of my comfort zone, and I keep him Latin.”
|Photo by Julie Soefer
If there is any signature entrée at our restaurants, this is it. Voted top 10 steaks in the U.S. by Esquire, it often makes up half of our ticket orders in the kitchen. The word churrasco means many things to people across Latin America: In Argentina, it’s skirt steak; in Brazil, a shoulder cut. What we do with beef tenderloin and chimichurri in our Houston restaurants, however, is unique to Nicaragua. You will find it here with us, in a few Nicaraguan places in Miami, and then in Nicaragua itself. That’s it.
3 bunches curly parsley
6 tablespoons minced garlic
4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 (2-pound) center-cut beef tenderloin
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the stems from the parsley and rough chop. Then combine all parsley, garlic, about 1 cup of the olive oil, the vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano in a food processor. Liquefy by pulsing and let sit for at least 2 hours. Transfer the mixture to a cutting board and chop with a knife until fine and smooth. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the remaining oil. (This recipe makes more chimichurri than you’ll need for this churrasco, but nobody ever complains about having leftover chimichurri.)
Trim any visible fat and gristle from the beef tenderloin. On a cutting board, cut the tenderloin crossways into two 16-ounce halves. Set each pointing out from you and, using a sharp knife, cut downward about 1⁄4 inch from the left side till you reach about the same distance from the bottom. Keeping the knife straight up and down, saw gently back and forth while pushing the beef to the right and creating a fairly uniform 1⁄4-inch-thick rectangle. Cut the rectangle in half to produce two approximately equal squares. Repeat with the other half of the tenderloin. Season with salt and pepper. Generously brush with chimichurri. Grill over a very hot fire to desired degree of doneness. Serve with Brown Butter Béarnaise. Serves 4.
Brown Butter Béarnaise
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup white wine
1/3 cup diced shallot
1 tablespoon Tabasco pepper sauce
1 tarragon stem
3 sticks butter
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
In a pan, prepare the vinegar reduction by combining the first six ingredients over medium-high heat and reducing until nearly all liquid has evaporated. About 2 tablespoons of the shallot-vinegar mixture should be left.
Brown the butter in a pan until the color of a toasted bagel, then strain through a fine sieve to remove the dark milk solids. Over a double boiler, whisk together the egg yolks, water, and wine until they resemble custard and coat the back of a spoon. (Or, swipe your finger across the bottom of the pan; the line should remain.) Whisking to emulsify, slowly add the browned butter to the egg mixture. Add the tarragon leaves and salt. Remove from heat and cover for 30 minutes. Makes about 1 quart.
Recipes from Cordúa: Foods of the Americas, Bright Sky Press, 2013.