BOWS TO HOLLEY Mark Holley confesses that interviews make him nervous. But the 44-year-old executive chef of Pesce, a seafood restaurant in Houston, is going to have to get used to the attention, especially if the accolades keep rolling in: My Table, the Bayou City's foodie magazine, recently named him chef of the year.
Did you have a food epiphany, a moment when you knew that this is what you'd be doing for the rest of your life?
My stepmom, Mary, would make late-night snacks. Her favorite was a relish plate of olives, cheese, salami, sardines, and sometimes hogshead cheese and pickled pigs' feet. Eventually those things became favorites of mine, and I took charge of making them. By fourteen, I was cooking breakfast on the weekends for my entire family, so I knew at a young age that I had a passion for food.
What brought you to Houston from your home city of Dayton, Ohio?
Well, one reason was to get out of Ohio and away from the cold weather. But I also wanted to pursue a restaurant career and get closer to an area that had more indigenous seafood, produce, and so on. In the late eighties I worked at Le Meridien, a fine French-owned hotel in Houston, where I picked up European fundamentals.
You eventually worked for the Brennan family in both New Orleans and Houston. What did you learn there?
Working under them gave me a feeling of professionalism. There was a sense of urgency, and they always pushed me to be a better culinarian and to focus more on the customers—their needs and their tastes.
What do you like to eat on your day off?
Sweet and simple: My wife's cooking, red beans and rice. Just good, homey comfort food: It's something she does from her heart.