Houston’s Hospitality Community is Marked by Collaboration, Even When it Comes to Mental Health
By Chris Poldoian
I remember when I started working in restaurants, and my general manager walked me through a P&L statement and laundry-listed reasons why most restaurants fail. It was a sobering conversation, recognizing that good or even great rarely cuts it in this industry. With such microscopic margins, it’s easy to feel a sense of competition or even resentment with your neighboring establishments. Luckily, here in Houston, there’s a strong collaborative spirit amongst our industry.
The running joke is that Houstonians doesn’t know how to cook at home, which explains why our city’s residents dine out with such fervor. There’s no shortage of dining and drinking options for guests, but despite the ever-increasing number of eateries, there’s a distinctly collaborative spirit between us. Our collective goal is to elevate the city and live up to our reputation as America’s new best food city.
When I moved to Houston five years ago, I immediately picked up on a sense of camaraderie. I was running the bar program one of the Hillstone Restaurant Group’s outlets here in town, and within a couple of weeks had discovered a tight-knit network of food and beverage professionals. My first introduction to the city’s cooperative beverage culture came through the Houston Sommelier Association (HSA), which brought together sommeliers and wine buyers from all over town for weekly educational seminars. It was through this organization that I created a study group and decided to pursue my sommelier certification. Three years after attending my first HSA meeting, I took the wine director position at Camerata at Paulie’s Wine Bar.
People always talk about everything being bigger in Texas, but when I think of Houston, the city seems very small. Geographically, the city is built around a series of concentric, circular highways, and the innermost “loop,” bounded by highways 10, 59, 610, and 45, is full of vibrant restaurants, from Chris Shepherd’s maximalist flavor empire Underbelly Hospitality to up-and-comers like Nobie’s.
At the center of it all is the historic Montrose neighborhood’s main coffeeshop, Blacksmith, where bartenders, chefs, and somms alike all fuel up before heading into their shifts. Its owner, David Buehrer, has tirelessly created meaningful connections through thoughtful coffee programs. He and I have teamed up for pop-ups and other events, and it’s inspiring to see how much care he puts into his roasting company (Greenway Coffee Company) and his willingness to help those around him, even if their establishments don’t offer his product. He was one of the first people I met in Houston, and to this day is one of the biggest champions of the city.
Just down the road from Blacksmith is the boozy bastion Anvil Bar & Refuge, which has always served as the benchmark for Houston’s cocktail culture. Any time I have a question about drinks (like the perfect vermouth to gin ratio for a martini) or bartending policy, I know I can ask the bar’s Director of Operations Terry Williams. Terry has been an invaluable resource and a huge mentor, not only for his current staff but also for the community at large.
Since taking the reins at Camerata, I’ve helped host city-wide wine events. For the past couple of Januarys, we’ve hosted a celebration of Basque Beverage Culture called Texas Txotx. This past year, restaurants like Uchi and Nancy’s Hustle, along with fellow wine bars Vinology and 13 Celsius, all poured Txakoli (saline whites and rosés made from indigenous grapes like Hondarribi Beltza, Hondarribi Zuri, and Izkiriota), Sagardoa (Basque Apple cider), and red wines from Rioja Alavesa. Seeing our Camerata regulars venture outside their comfort zone and explore the rest of the city’s wine offerings will only benefit us in the long run. I love when a guest says that they got turned on to Sicilian wine by 13 Celsius’ wine director Adele Corrigan, and there’s nothing’s better than hearing from a first-time guest that they’re visiting us at the recommendation of another bar or restaurant.
But our city’s collaborative spirit comes out most during charitable events. Last year, during Hurricane Harvey, Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke helped bring in over half a million dollars for uninsured flood victims. As a volunteer for that the Southern Smoke festival, it was amazing to see the likes of Dave Chang and Aaron Franklin alongside local legends like Justin Yu, Ryan Pera, and Erin and Patrick Feges sling barbecue for a good cause.
Outside of Southern Smoke, I’m a big believer in the work of I’ll Have What She’s Having (IHWSH). Founded by collection of Houston-based female chefs and doctors, IHWSH is an organization that unites hospitality professionals for social activism: raising community awareness and funds in support of women's health while providing a network and community for women in the hospitality industry. In the past 12 months, IHWSH has donated more than $210,000 to local health organizations such as Legacy Community Health, Planned Parenthood, and The Rose.
Right now, I’ve helped IHWSH organize an event called WellWeek. This seven-day collaboration stimulates conversation about common medical problems: depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence. The #WellWeek Initiative aims to chip away at the stigma associated with mental illness that prevents many from seeking the help they need. WellWeek runs from Sunday, October 7 to Saturday, October 13, which corresponds with National Mental Illness Awareness Week and International Mental Health Day (October 10). Participating bars and restaurants will feature a dessert or non-alcoholic beverage on their respective menus and donate at least $1 from each item sale to our fund, which benefits the National Alliance for Mental Illness – Greater Houston, Legacy Community Health, and Southern Smoke. Heavy-hitting restaurants like Coltivare and Xochi along with bars like Public Services and Poison Girl are all teaming up, and we couldn’t be more excited to raise awareness and funds for mental illness, which afflicts one in five Houstonians.
Growing up with a clinical social worker for a mother, I have always been taught that mental health is health. Destigmatizing mental illness can only happen if we engage in honest, empathetic conversations. Depression runs in my family, and my own personal struggles with mental illness have been stressed by my career in wine. Working front-of-house means I’m expected to check my emotions at the door. The pain of wearing a mask of happiness and hiding my feelings when engaging with guests can exacerbate these negative thoughts. I’ve learned that drinking doesn’t take the edge off: moderation or even abstinence from alcohol can be helpful. One should never feel guilty saying no to a lagniappe shot of Fernet or a glass of Champagne. For me, #WellWeek is a chance for our industry to take a hard look at the connection between mental health and hospitality, not only for guests but also for our staff.
When you look at the nicknames that Houston has accrued over the years, the one that stands out is Hustle Town, which to me is a constant reminder of how hard each industry professional works to elevate the city’s reputation. Everyone I know, from the baristas at Blacksmith to the bartenders at Anvil to the badass women involved with IHWSH, has hustled to support one another’s personal and professional projects. I feel lucky to be a part of a community that is always looking for ways to give back to one another. Every time you visit a local restaurant, bar or coffeeshop, you are supporting this community. Thank you.
Chris is the Wine Director and General Manager of Camerata at Paulie’s, a wine bar located in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. When he’s not volunteering with IHWSH or slinging wine, he’s running marathons. He just completed his eleventh in Berlin and is currently organizing weekly F&B industry runs in preparation for the Houston Marathon in January.