Chefs to Watch 2017: Ryan Lachaine, Riel, Houston

Amy Cavanaugh

When Ryan Lachaine was planning his Houston restaurant, he found inspiration by looking north to his homeland of Manitoba, and by going way, way back to the 19th century. In the mid-1800s, Louis Riel was a leader of Canada’s Métis, aboriginal people of mixed First Nation and European ancestry. Riel led two resistance movements that resulted in Manitoba’s founding, and his childhood home is not far from where Lachaine grew up in Winnipeg.

Riel, where Lachaine is the co-owner and executive chef, opened in January and explores the flavors and ingredient combinations that emerge when a Canadian chef with Ukrainian heritage arrives in Houston, the country’s most diverse city, and spends time traveling around the United States, Canada and Asia. It’s a multifaceted restaurant where crispy nuggets of redfish karaage with tangy housemade ranch dressing or slabs of Montreal smoked meat with messy squirts of French’s mustard sit alongside hanger steak with potato and Cheddar pierogi or a luscious borscht topped with crème fraîche and dill, a family recipe ($8, recipe).

“It’s a take on what my mom and grandmother made,” Lachaine says of the borscht, which also finds its way to the bar side in the aquavit-based borscht sour. “I think my mom’s is better, but this one is a little more refined. The one she and my grandmother did was more rustic, with chopped vegetables and meat inside. This one is more creamy.”

Lachaine played hockey and worked as a coach before leaving Canada in 2002 and moving to Houston, where his wife hails from. After trying out business school, he went in a different direction; he’d always enjoyed cooking, so he went to culinary school at The Art Institute of Houston. From there, he worked as chef de cuisine at Underbelly and sous chef at Reef, two Houston stalwarts that helped him understand how to work with the city’s often-challenging seasons and develop his seafood skills, respectively. 

“I couldn’t really be a sous chef or CDC at someone’s restaurant and work on my own place,” Lachaine notes, so he took a year off to travel. In Hong Kong, he went to the Canadian-owned Yardbird—“just seeing how they run their businesses was huge,” he says. “I went back up to Canada for a while. I was with my friend Scott Vivian in Toronto; he has a place called Beast and we did a dinner there. We took the train to Montreal and did Joe Beef. I had a great meal at Le Bremner and went to a sushi place called Park. That trip was a game-changer for me, seeing all that kind of stuff.”

Back in Houston, he put together a tightly edited seasonal menu that’s strongly supportive of local ingredients while maintaining a hold on his Canadian upbringing.

“We use what’s available, whether it’s fish or fruits or vegetables, and we make it work,” he says. “I’m not from Texas or the Gulf so I have to really look into things, but we use the ingredients from the Gulf Coast to do what we want to do.”

Q&A with Ryan Lachaine:

What restaurant is your dream stage location?
I would like to go back to Husk in Charleston. I’d go back there and do it again because it was a great experience. That was the first time I had ever staged in my life, and I did it because I was new to cooking and I knew nothing about Southern food. I was there for three weeks, and those guys were so great to me. Travis Grimes was the CDC at the time, and he was awesome and let me do everything. Sean Brock was great, too. It was an invaluable experience for me, a game-changer.

What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
Just not being thoughtful.

What music is usually playing in the kitchen? 
Our kitchen is usually playing hip-hop, like Wu Tang, or something.

How do you find calm in your restaurant?
If I need some calm, I go outside and sit on the milk cartons in the back parking lot.  

What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
I would be involved in hockey in some way, shape or form.

What’s your favorite ingredient?
I love using dill and I put hot sauce in everything.

What do you like to cook on a day off?
I don’t cook on my day off. I have five-year-old twin boys, so we go out to eat. We like to go to new restaurants. When I’m with my kids, I just want to go and eat with them and hang out. 

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