Brandon Silva was born, raised and nurtured in Houston. He currently lives in the Texas city, having diverted briefly through Denmark, and is the co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant Degust (distilled from “degustation.”) The exquisite Mexican/Spanish establishment has a Scandinavian feel with distinct Japanese influences.
Degust is small and, with room for 20 diners, intentionally and unavoidably intimate. The servings are visual art: small portions of delicious and immaculate preparations on beautiful clay plates.
“I don’t have that cliché chef story of growing up as a kid in restaurants my parents owned. Nor did I spend time watching my grandmother or mother cook and was always helping. I was always playing outside,” Silva tells me. “Long story short I got into cooking because of a girl. My mother always told me a way to a woman’s heart was food.”
He served his apprenticeships around Houston and gained further invaluable experience, and obviously inspiration, in Denmark, in the kitchens of some extraordinary restaurants, including Noma.
“I learned a lot when I was in Denmark,” he says. “Especially the importance of sustainability and waste in the kitchen.” (Degust proudly claims to be a “no-waste” restaurant.)
I asked him how growing up with Texas cuisine, or just in Texas, influenced his cooking.
“In Texas, everything is big. I mean we are the Lone Star State after all. We do things with big, bold flavors and with some heat. Especially being of Mexican and Spanish descent that approach has had a big impact on me.”
He says he’s inspired by acclaimed chefs José Andrés, Bo Bech and David Kinch
What was your favorite ever moment as a chef?
“When I left Copenhagen and came home revitalized. Before that time, I was in a very dark place. I was burnt out and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue on with cooking. My time in Copenhagen changed all that for me and made me fall back in love with cooking.”
What constitutes the perfect day in the kitchen? “A perfect day in the kitchen to me is being around my staff and just smiling, having fun, the music is on in the background and we are all in sync getting ready for service.”
These are his five favorite meals.
Growing up in a household of Mexican and Spanish descent, my grandmother would always make fresh flour or corn tortillas, while making carne guisada. My mother adapted her recipe and that dish served with fresh tortillas and Mexican rice and beans, was always a treat for our household. Now, that I am a husband and father, I have also adapted to making this recipe. It always brings a smile to my face and it definitely is a showstopper every time I get a chance to make it for my family or some friends.
I remember being in Tulum, Mexico, for the Noma pop-up dinner they were having. Don’t get me wrong that dinner was pretty spectacular. Each dish that was prepared and served was impeccable. But it wasn’t the dinner that made the night special. It was actually after dinner in Tulum’s downtown square where I had an all-time life changing dish. Even on a Sunday night the downtown square was alive with street vendors and people just walking around, eating, selling merchandise and just having a great time. As I was walking around the street vendors, one caught my nose. I smelled this amazing smoky aroma coming out of one the stalls. It reminded me of Texas BBQ. Then I noticed the long line. I remember telling myself, okay, I need to go check this out. Then I noticed as I got closer the sign read: “Smoked Barbacoa Pozole.” Bam! I was like, holy cow, this is amazing. Don’t get me wrong. I have eaten tons of pozole and menudo. But this was life changing. I will never forget that dish.
Now, to bring me back to my Noma Mexico experience, I couldn’t believe how the team took indigenous Mexican ingredients and put their Nordic twist on them. One dish was the octopus. They cooked the octopus in a clay pot while it was buried and wrapped in banana leaves. It was smoked for hours and hours. Then they’d bring the whole pot to the table and unveil the octopus. The aromas were just mesmerizing. Alongside fresh corn tortillas, they also served it with an old Mayan recipe called Sikil Pak. This sauce takes days and days to make and can be about six pages long for a recipe—just depends on which Mayan family is serving it! If I had one last meal before I leave this earth, it would be this dish.
You may think fried chicken—anyone can fry some chicken. Well, when I was working my second kitchen job ever as a line cook for one of my first mentors Mark Holley at Pesce in Houston, Texas, we would do these fried chicken dinners once a month and sell out. Always served family style for the table there were baskets of fried chicken, Southern collard greens, buttermilk biscuits, mac & cheese, yams and creamed corn. I mean the whole nine yards. Always a beautiful spread. But it was the first time I had some real deal, Holyfield fried chicken. We would brine and then soak the chicken overnight in buttermilk. Then we’d make a Creole seasoning flour and fry the chicken in cast iron skillets in duck fat and Crisco lard. Yes, that’s right…Crisco lard. The chicken would just come out so crispy, tender, juicy and amazingly delicious. He is an old-school Southern chef and I learned a lot from that man. Every chef and local knows Mark Holley’s fried chicken.
During my culinary career, I’ve had the chance to work for Uchi in Austin and in Houston. I was with them for almost five years. I finally had a day off and took my wife to have a meal at the restaurant. We sat down at the sushi bar and started to get served cold dishes and some hot dishes. Everything coming to us was delicious. Until this flight of nigiri came. I had never had kohada—gizzard shad, a member of the herring family that has a similar taste to sardine but is less strong, like mackerel. Sushi chefs salt them and then marinate them in rice vinegar. My God! The first time I had this my head exploded, it was just divine. The next two nigiris were an instant hit: the avocado and boquerones nigiri combo. It’s insanely delicious. You can eat them either way. Have the creaminess of the avocado first and then let the acidity of the Spanish sardine balance it back. You will order three rounds. I guarantee it!
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.