Don’t be thrown by his distinct accent or his fast-talking ways. Bronx-born Scott Cohen knows a thing or two about Texas, especially the locally grown produce.
Since 1997 Cohen has served as the executive chef at La Mansion del Rio Hotel, in San Antonio, but initially he was attracted to Texas in the early eighties when he was working as a line cook at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas. He met his wife, Jamie, in 1982, married his Texan bride in New Jersey, and continued his cooking up East. But on annual trips back to Texas to visit his wife’s family, Cohen consistently scoped out crops across the state. “I’m always trying to find the next great product,” he says.
So when Texas Monthly senior editor Patricia Sharpe sought a Provencal-style menu that used locally grown ingredients for her July article “Stop and Smell the Lavender,” she immediately tapped the 42-year-old Cohen for the job. He enthusiastically agreed and whipped up a varied selection of recipes, including South Texas Ratatouille and Honey-Lavender Ice Cream. “He is the most fanatic naturalized Texan I know,” Sharpe says. “He really tries to educate people that the best produce is that grown closest to home.”
Cohen is a hands-on food aficionado. He’s more at home in the kitchen than the office, and he visits farmers to create personal relationships with his providers. “What I do is use indigenous Texas ingredients in about 95 percent of my food,” Cohen says. He cites morels and ruby red grapefruit as just two of the Texas-grown products he’s promoted.
A former student of famed French chefs Georges Blanc and Roger Verge, Cohen nurses a zeal for Provencal flavor. “It’s light, even though there’s a richness to the food. You can have a sensible meal and not feel like you stuffed yourself,” he says. “Texas and France are almost the same size with the same spirit. If you’re outside of Texas, you don’t think about that.”
Cohen, of course, did—he’s a chef with out-of-state origins who’s thought incessantly about the Texas-France connection over the past two decades. He got his start in the restaurant business at age thirteen as a pot washer at the Maywood Inn, in Maywood, New Jersey. His first promotion elevated him to dish washer, followed by busboy. In a subsequent job, he worked as a dough boy in a pizza parlor.
When Cohen graduated from high school, he decided that he’d rather attend the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, than study to be an accountant as initially planned. His mother, who specialized in “the Jewish style of cooking,” respected his wishes, and the kitchen remained his classroom.
Cohen earned his Associate in Occupational Studies in Culinary Arts degree, for which he completed an externship at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club, in Boca Raton, Florida. He secured his job at the Mansion under then-corporate-executive-chef Wolfgang Puck, the job that would link his fate to Texas. After a year in the Lone Star State, he returned to the culinary world of New York as sous chef at the Hotel Carlyle and later at La Reserve, where chef Andre Gaillard told Cohen that Provencal cooking is “cuisine that makes your life bright.”
Daniel Boulud, of Restaurant Daniel, in New York, can also take some credit for Cohen’s signature style of cuisine. He sent Cohen to France during the summer of 1990 to work as an apprentice at Moulin de Mougins, L’Amandier, Georges Blanc, and Le Bonne Auberge.
When he returned to the States, Cohen assumed the role of executive chef at Tatou, in New York, where he dished out American-Provencal cuisine. He worked there for four years before moving to the Stanhope Park Hyatt New York hotel on the Upper East Side.
By 1997 Cohen felt he had accomplished all that he’d set out to do in New York. He moved back to Texas, continuing his informal education by looking over his mother-in-law’s shoulder. “I used to joke that this is the greatest cooking school of them all,” he says.
Upon his relocation to the South, Cohen contacted the Texas Department of Agriculture and established a relationship with Robert Maggiani, the San Antonio-area chief marketing specialist who is a fellow advocate of the land’s valuable resources. He formed connections with Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, in Stonewall. He made contacts at the Diamond H Ranch, in Bandera, and the Love Creek Orchards, in Medina. And he got to know those in charge of White Acres Farm and Ranchers’ Lamb, among others.
His role as a San Antonio chef was actually years in the making. More than a decade ago, his perusal of Texas agriculture had coupled with an observation. “Jamie and I came here about fifteen years ago visiting the River Walk, and I remember walking through the lobby of La Mansion. I said, ‘I could work at a place like this one day.'”
Cohen shared the vision of La Mansion’s owner, Patrick Kennedy, as both men believed the restaurant needed a chef inspired by his surroundings. Cohen took over the kitchen of the hotel’s restaurant, Las Canarias. Finally he could incorporate native Texas foods into his cuisine. “It’s a bright future for Texas,” he says. “I think Texas is the new California.”
Just as cuisine in Provence fuses Spanish, Moroccan, Italian, and French influences, Cohen’s kitchen merges the tastes of Texas, Mexico, and France. Take, for instance, the Pizza Pissaladiere on his Las Canarias menu, which lists as its ingredients Texas goat cheese, 1015 onions, Mediterranean olives, and truffle oil. Or consider the Mesclun, Fennel, and Toasted Pecan Salad with Lemon Basil Dressing that he cooked up for Patricia Sharpe.
The San Antonio-based chef considers his current position the culmination of all his training and the application of all his beliefs. But despite all the hard work and preparation, Sharpe may want to thank destiny for bringing such an enthusiastic chef to our state. “I don’t think a chef could be a chef unless he’s driven to do this. This has to be almost like a calling,” Cohen says. Luckily for Sharpe and Texas Monthly, Cohen has answered that call.