Chef Kate McLean Makes Her Own Luck!
Photo of Kate McLean, Tony Vallone and Donna Vallone courtesy of Tony’s
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, The Social Book would like to feature a woman who is once again making tsunami waves in the restaurant community.
Houston native and food virtuoso Kate McLean has returned to her executive chef roots at the renowned dining destination, Tony’s. During her seven years at Tony’s previously, with almost three of those years as Executive Chef, this remarkable woman won many awards, including being named one of Top 5 Rising Chefs in the U.S. by Guide de Gayot in 2014.
Kate left Tony’s in the fall of 2017 to become a freelance writer, with pieces highlighted in Houston CityBook, Houston Press, Houston Chronicle, Houstonia and Cherry Bombe Magazine. She also spent a year producing a podcast called “Pre-Shift with Kate and Brossa,” which concentrated on the “behind the scenes” complexities of the restaurant industry as well as discussing food, wine and spirits. She also made her presence known at Houston Food Bank for over a year where she oversaw HFB’s largest food distribution sites at NRG, IAH and EcoPark. Her organizational skills helped her team service 5,000 cars a day.
Prior to Tony’s, Kate worked her way up through the “food chain” and honed her craft for almost eleven years. She traveled extensively throughout Europe, the U.S. and Hawaii, but her real love for anything Houston brought her back. Kate says, “I love Houston because it’s been 11 years and there is still much more of the city I have yet to explore. I love that you can get a snack at midnight, or 2 a.m. I love how tough we are as Houstonians—floods, freezes, pandemics—we just pivot and plow forward, and you see a lot of neighbors helping neighbors during these times. The way we are as a city makes me think of the way the restaurant is as an industry—giving, serving, fun, celebratory—can take a punch and get right back up.”
Kate’s exposure to fine dining growing up was limited, but she did inherit great food-appreciation genes from her parents─with a dash of divine guidance thrown in. When her dad, Scott, was 29 years old he was the youngest bank president in Texas, whose office was located in Greenway Plaza. At 29, Kate was made the first female executive chef at Tony’s (also in Greenway Plaza). Ironically, the night Kate was born, her father picked up food-to-go from Maxim’s to take home for his pregnant wife, Anna (and indirectly for soon-to-arrive Kate). Today, Kate goes to work at Tony’s on the exact site where Maxim’s stood then. What goes around, comes around! Anna, who currently leads a 300-person Christian Life Studies at St. Martins Episcopal, inspired her daughter’s love for food and they were frequently in the kitchen together. Kate’s culinary avocation would become her vocation after she picked up Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. Life would come full-circle when, as a writer, she got to interview Keller for a Houston Press article!
This woman is passionately multi-faceted. When asked about her passions, she said, “Passion? The more interesting, the better! I am passionate about work. I really have always just wanted to have a job and work at it—preferably creating. I am a published writer and have been working on a book, Iron Butterfly. I get really excited when I’m hungry—like, ‘what am I going to eat? I can’t wait!’ The answer is probably pizza! I am also very concerned about the food access issue. We must get more resources into the neighborhoods in our very own city, to our people, that walk to the convenience store for their breakfast. Together we can fight hunger in our city, and now is the time to focus on it. I’m kind of a daredevil and thrill-seeker, so do not tempt me with a high-speed chase. I will cliff jump in Hawaii, but I am afraid of heights, so no sky diving. I began researching and training to be a stand-up comic—and then Tony’s called!”
About rejoining Tony’s, Kate says “It just feels right. I miss Tony, and also, I feel him smiling right now. What a beautiful gift this opportunity is. Really, I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life.” She speaks fondly of the special relationships and working every day with Donna Vallone, Tony and Donna’s daughter Lauri Vallone Mazzini, and the management team and coworkers toward their mutual goal of providing guests with “the Tony’s experience” that manifests in myriad gestures, senses, and feelings. “From the moment you hand your keys over to the valet, to the draping of a napkin in your lap, to that first sip and taste—the experience should be singularly memorable. We want to entertain you with all the tools at our disposal: service, food, wine, show, music and world-class art, to name a few.”
Her plans for the gastronomic future at Tony’s? Lots! Her ideas are endless but one fact remains simple—really delicious food! Food, with the best ingredients creatively prepared to surprise guests, while respecting who they are at the same time. This level of sophistication is where the combination of preparedness, excellence and food education are brought to fruition. She plans, with Donna Vallone’s help, to always evolve in her passion for providing a one-of-a-kind experience for those who choose to dine with them.
Tony’s has, and always is, been about a dining experience that makes you “feel.” The experience is heightened over time with innovation—a new take on something old, such as Kate’s new Cheeseburger, which debuts this week. She is also excited by her new creation, Ahi Tuna Toast—tuna pounded thin and wrapped around crispy brioche with citrus aioli.
Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.” Oprah said, “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.” Whichever one rings true for you, Kate McLean made her own luck and is now reaping the rewards. Welcome back, Kate!