Triniti Reunites Key Chefs For Its Five-Year Anniversary Dinner
It is impressive how many talented sous chefs, pastry chefs and chefs de cuisine have emerged from the Triniti kitchen and went on to make their marks on the local and national culinary scene. Take, for example, Daniella Soto-Innes, who spent a year there before winning the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year last May for her work at Cosme in New York. Greg Lowry and Matt Lovelace would go on to revamp Bradley Ogden’s Houston concepts, Bradley’s Fine Diner and start up Pour Society. (Alas, those concepts were ill-fated, but it was good experience nonetheless.) Pastry chef Samantha Mendoza now helms the dessert program at Killen’s Steakhouse while her predecessor, Jose Hernandez, is executive chef at acclaimed Radio Milano. Former sous chef Kerrick Robertson relocated to Dallas but is also coming back to Houston for the anniversary.
They are part of Triniti’s legacy, and testament that executive chef Ryan Hildebrand knows how to cultivate talent—and let them go gracefully when it’s time. He’s bringing many of those chefs back to Triniti for its fifth anniversary dinner on December 20. (Hernandez and Soto-Innes aren’t likely to make it, but the latter is sending a recipe for a dish.) Hildebrand says that when asked to come back for the special night, most chefs responded, “[Expletive] yes!” Most of them worked at Triniti for about three years and Hildebrand says they’re all still friends.
Cocktails will be served at 6:30 p.m. and the celebratory eight-course dinner starts at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $95 and wine pairings can be added for an additional $45. Call (713) 527-9090 for reservations.
It’s a significant birthday for an ambitious restaurant that hasn’t always had it easy. It opened to great fanfare on Christmas Eve of 2011—on the cusp of a restaurant revolution that put Houston firmly among the best culinary cities in the nation. Triniti was followed in rapid succession by Oxheart, Underbelly, The Pass & Provisions and a Houston location of Uchi, which started in Austin.
Hildebrand started Triniti after being the executive chef at Scott Tycer’s restaurant, Textile. That restaurant existed at the advent of the tasting menu trend and Hildebrand would offer those at his own restaurant as well. In 2011, he may have been slightly too far ahead of the curve.
With that in mind, Hildebrand wants to get back to those roots. “I’m getting back to some of the ideas we started with but marrying that with everything I’ve learned over the last five years: how people like to dine, how the dining scene has changed in Houston and celebrating the fact that the stage is set so it won’t be as turbulent as it has been,” he said.
The turbulence included closing for 11 days shortly after opening to redo the flooring and restructuring an excessively large dining area that was great for 270 people but cavernous for a crowd of 70. To remedy that, the bar was expanded to have a comfortable lounge area and given its own name: Sanctuari. In addition, construction in front of the restaurant on Shepherd Drive hampered traffic—and business—for two years.
While all of that caused Triniti’s staff to be in what Hildebrand calls, “a constant reactive state,” the fact that they’re still here to tell the tale is testament to their creativity, can-do attitude and flexibility, too.
Triniti is now dinner-only Wednesdays through Sundays, which Hildebrand says has allowed them the freedom to create intensely seasonal dishes, as well as the ability to offer customer-directed tasting menus on the fly. “We’re doing a section of the menu that we change weekly if not more frequently,” he said. “We still do the tasting menus, but we do them by request and off-the-cuff. We’re giving the guest the freedom to dictate the number of courses and style of the menu. [Tasting menus at Triniti must be five courses minimum, otherwise diners are encouraged to order a la carte.] We do a lot of vegetarian and vegan menus now.”
Hildebrand points out that when the tasting menu trend first started, chefs completely dictated the meal. Now, a more sophisticated dining public wants their preferences heard and have more involvement in the selections. “It’s another level of interaction with the guest. In the beginning, it was us showing you what our interpretation of the season is or how these dishes are and not really asking questions of you to guide us. It was just us doing it and hopefully you’d like it. Now, if we greet a table and they want to do a tasting, the conversation begins—and it’s an actual conversation instead of a dictation,” he explained.
Hildebrand is very proud of the current wine program—one with a low markup and designed for several price points by sommelier Rick Stiles. “Rick is an ace on the pairings and doing an amazing job with the list. He’s changed all the pricing structure. The wine list now is very aggressive but we’re still serving boutique stuff. Rick gets a kick out of showing people new things and the only way for him to exercise that is to do it at an aggressive price point.”
Now that it’s been five years, what advice would Hildebrand give himself if he could go back in time? “Relax!” he laughed. “I was very stressed out. When I say ‘relax,’ I mean listen to the guests a little more. I was laser-focused on the plate and while that’s required to do what we do, you’ve got to look up and see what’s going on in the dining room with your guests. Make sure they’re happy, because that is the most important part.”
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.