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Malekian plates sweet potato pavé.
The chef’s red snapper ceviche with shrimp and cucumber on a Texas tortilla.
His wine dinner table at an organic farm in Austin.
Thanks to a few seasonally inspired chefs, Houston weddings are going locavore chic!
Courtney Balestier | Photo: Mary Nguyen Matte | June 14, 2012
No longer the provenance of hyper-sourced restaurant menus, trendy farmers market fare—that of local, seasonal flavor—is making its way onto wedding catering menus. One of the foremost purveyors of this thoughtful cuisine is Executive Chef Ara Malekian of Aracan Kitchen.
A Texan via Switzerland—where his love of cooking blossomed while watching his mother and grandmothers—Malekian cut his teeth under celebrity über-chef Wolfgang Puck, who recruited him in the 1980s, while Malekian was cooking in California. Malekian worked for Puck for three years, opening new restaurants and designing menu concepts. He moved to Texas about seven years ago, to be closer to his young nephews, bringing with him the experience of catering Hollywood weddings and a devotion to organic local ingredients.
“What sets chefs apart are the purveyors we have access to,” Malekian says. “My main goal is to provide a great, memorable dining experience for people, not just put food in front of you.” That experience might include ingredients like prime Angus beef from a Brazos Park rancher, lamb from California’s famed Niman Ranch, or olive oil and cheese from Houston’s Urban Harvest Farmers Market.
What magic does he work with these ingredients? Whatever a client can imagine. Classically trained in the French style, Malekian will make anything from Mediterranean cuisine to haute barbecue—and, in service to his fresh-and-local ethos, he does it all on-site, in a 20-foot, self-sustained mobile kitchen. That might mean light dishes like summer caprese salad or fresh ceviche, and heartier courses like Hawaiian-style roast whole pig or seared duck breast confit topped with a sour-cherry reduction. Popular across Texas, Malekian says, is his smoked pork tenderloin stuffed with candied garlic—barbecue reimagined as fine-dining fare. “I actually did a wedding where I made elk tenderloin that way,” he says. “They loved game meats and that’s what they wanted.”
Malekian often trades ideas with his clients to find the perfect menu, but it’s just as likely that couples will leave the chef to his own devices. “That’s when I get to have fun and get creative,” he says. “It’s an incredible compliment when someone says, ‘Make me whatever you want.’”
Whatever he makes, Malekian’s work is certainly full-service: “Because of my personality and what I’ve learned from Wolfgang Puck and other chefs, I don’t stay in the kitchen. I come out and talk to people.”
ON THE MARKET
Some of Houston’s top restaurants also serve up locally grown catering—made with ingredients fresh from Urban Harvest.
The namesake Mexican restaurant of chef Hugo Ortega offers local options like squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and fresh tomato cocktail—with roasted corn, cucumber, onion, avocado, cilantro, jalapeño and radishes—served with corn chips.
Another Ortega restaurant, Backstreet offers catering clients fresh items like field salad and vegetable terrine, a dish of thinly sliced vegetables baked with local goat cheese.
Chef James Ashley is behind both this seasonal-leaning food truck and the like-minded Pure Catering. All menus feature local farmers market ingredients. Bare Bowls’ Jamaican menu—including jerked organic chicken thighs, steamed spring peas and smoked local basmati—is especially popular.
Owned by Executive Chef Ryan Hildebrand, the restaurant has its own on-site chef’s garden. The culinary team also uses local ingredients, from the Gulf snapper in its fettuccine to the Bluebonnet Hydroponic Produce heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and edible flowers that go into everything from cocktail garnishes to greens.