Though she has lived in Hawaii for decades now, chef Amy Ferguson was a key figure in the development of the culinary movement known as Southwestern cuisine. 

A style and philosophy of restaurant cooking that emphasized regional Southwestern American and Mexican dishes, combining them in original ways, Southwestern cuisine began in several different states—Texas, New Mexico, and California—in the mid-eighties and in a few years had spread across the country.

Ferguson grew up in Houston and, as a twenty-something, found herself thrust into the spotlight thanks to the popularity of the Southwestern movement. Best known for her work as executive chef at Charley’s 517, a small, clubby Houston restaurant popular with theatergoers, Ferguson found that she was not comfortable with the media attention that she was suddenly receiving as a prominent chef.

She moved from Texas to Hawaii at the height of the Southwestern movement, returning briefly to Dallas to work at Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh (both Southwestern restaurants) before moving back to Hawaii to pursue a career there. Although she lives on the Big Island, in Hawaii, Ferguson says she’s a still a Texan at heart.

Were you interested in food from an early age, or did that come later?

I grew up in a house that was devoid of “gourmet” food, but I found the “Larousse Gastronomique,” which is a French culinary encyclopedia, when I was eleven and read it from cover to cover. My mother would say, “Why don’t you go out and play?” And I would say, “No, no, Mama, I’m reading this. I’m reading about cooking.” I cooked with my grandmother and always looked over my mother’s shoulder,  but I still had a desire to learn more. My brother had a paper route with the Houston Chronicle. He would bring me home these little international “cookbooks,”  when I was about 9 or 10. They actually were pamphlets of recipes that the Chronicle produced but honest to God they were really good! I would play with those recipes. I faithfully watched Julia Child on TV, and Graham Kerr, too, who was known as the Galloping Gourmet.

How did you get your start in Southwestern-style cooking?

At Charley’s 517 I drew on everything that I experienced as a kid growing up: barbecuing, smoking, preserving, pickles and such. I also was smoking quail and venison and working with wild game. I had area farmers and gardeners bringing herbs to me, so I had a farm-to-table thing going on. It was very cool. For the smoking, we used everything from hickory to grapevine to oak, back in the alley behind Charley’s. I thought of my style as Texas cuisine, although of course it was also Southwestern, because that’s where we were.  

Aside from learning from your grandmother and the Larousse Gastronomique, how else did you explore cooking and food?

I learned a lot from traveling. As an adult, I’d say, “Hey mom, do you want to go down to Mexico for the weekend?” And because we were in Texas, it was easy to go down to Cuernavaca. We’d eat in Cuernavaca and I’d go, “Oh my god this is delicious what’s in this?” and I’d come back home and do some experimenting. I’d head over to Las Cazuelas, which was a popular restaurant in Houston, and see these peasant-y dishes and go, “Wow, what can we do with that?” I’d eat my way through New York and I’d come home and put a Texas twist on different things. That’s how I gathered my inspiration. I absorbed everything around me.

What was it like to belong to the first generation of  celebrity chefs?

I would say it kind of freaked me out. I was so young. My relationship with food is personal. I do it from the heart out of love, and that’s pretty intimate. I felt exposed. Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky to get so much media attention. Gee whiz, I wish I had been a little older. I wish that it could have happened today; I would’ve handled it a little differently.

As a young chef, what was one of your most memorable experiences?

Julia Child came to visit me at Charley’s 517 because she had heard that I was an up-and-coming young woman chef. I must have told her at some point that I was self-taught, because she said, very kindly, “Honey you cannot be self-taught because you don’t know anything.” I said, “All right, then what am I?” She goes, “You’re well read. You experiment, you practice.” I said, “That’s exactly what I do! I practice until I get it right.”

How can women promote themselves in the male-dominated culinary industry?

Women have to speak up for themselves. Women don’t have to stay in the ranks, they don’t have to be pantry cooks, they don’t have to be bakers or pastry chefs. When I hear female culinary students say, “I want to be a baker, I want to be a pastry chef,” I say, “Why? Don’t you like butchering? Don’t you like sauces? How about being a chef that does everything? Why do you want to be a baker?” I ask them that, I push them further. I lay out steps for them so that they can get to where they want to be.

What are you doing now?

I became a private chef for a very large family in Hawaii, so I’ll cook for anywhere from five people to seventy people. I’m not retired from cooking but I have time to travel and to learn new things. Right now I’m working on an idea I have for west Hawaii which would entail a community center educating people about sustainable crops and how that idea relates to their life on an island. I’m active in in the Slow Foods organization, I still travel the globe, and I still learn. I guess I’m a perpetual student, and I give back wherever I can.

Interview by Patricia Sharpe. Q&A prepared by Claire Landsbaum.