Stefan Bowers walks us through his career as a cook–not “chef.” He discusses the struggles in the industry, the challenges of growing too fast, and his exciting new venture. Stefan is an advocate for his industry workers and a good person who tries hard to build up his colleagues. We had a fun exchange.
Justin: Hello and Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here. All right, welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Stefan Bowers of the Goodman & Bowers group in San Antonio. Stefan is first and foremost a chef, I think it’d be fair to say, right?
Stefan: Yes, I call myself–
Justin: I don’t want to call you an executive or one of those things.
Stefan: Yes, you can call me chef, I’ll call myself a cook.
Justin: All right, there you go. Not only that, he’s a veteran, a prolific social media poster, which we’ll get into in a little bit. I think one of the more interesting things about you that set you apart from whether you like it or not, you’re a celebrity chef in this city is you are less about the self-promotion than a lot of our celebrity chefs. You’re very big in promoting your industry to the lowest level employee in the restaurant. I think that sets you apart in a lot of ways and that you glorify and you celebrate everybody that’s back in the kitchen as opposed to people that are glorifying themselves all the time.
I think that’s an interesting part of your persona. I think it’s an important part of your persona and I like reading about it. I know that you have a very loyal following, not only from people who love your food, but also people that work with you, it seems like. We’re going to have you on to talk a little bit about the food industry. I don’t want to belabor the point of what’s going on with COVID. Everybody’s talking about that ad infinitum, but we’re going to talk a little bit about that. I’m going to blame you probably for me putting on about 15 pounds during the shutdown due to your pizza, right? I get the pizza a lot.
Justin: I do this with everybody, I start and I think you’re going to have insights that a lot of people would want to know. Just some general questions about who you are in San Antonio, when and why did you end up in San Antonio.
Stefan: I ended up in San Antonio in 2005 via Houston. I moved to Houston in 2003 to go to culinary school, moved there blind. I was living in San Diego with my wife. Believe it or not, San Diego didn’t have any culinary schools.
Justin: Is that right?
Stefan: That’s right. They had one in, I want to say– I don’t want to say La Mesa, but there wasn’t one anywhere local to where I was when I was living in Pacific Beach. All my wife’s family’s from Texas. She’s got one of these cliched giant Texas families. She wanted to move back to be my family, so we moved to Houston. Then I did school there. My wife got in two really bad car accidents while we were in Houston. After the second one, we wanted to get the hell out of there. I was time to go to San Antonio, and that was it, we moved here in 2005.
Justin: What was the school in Houston?
Stefan: It’s called the Alain and Marie Lenotre Culinary School. Just small French school, and that’s why I picked it. It only had financial aid for GI. It didn’t have government financial aid at the time, so of course, classroom size was tiny. There was around three to five people in each class. We even went down to around two people. All Expat type chefs that were there, that were recruited or brought over from France that were there, basically, almost enslaved. They were paid very little and they were held on in order to get their visas by Alain Lenotre. They were grumpy, underpaid, and very qualified.
Justin: So classic French training?
Stefan: Very classic.
Justin: Did you work in Houston [unintelligible 00:03:49]?
Stefan: Yes, I worked in Houston. That was where I springboard was. I worked in San Diego for a couple of time [unintelligible 00:03:54] but the real first full-service kitchen that I worked in on the line was at a place called The Sam Houston Hotel Downtown. At the time, it had just relaunched their new restaurant 17 and the talent there was special. Everyone that’s worked there that I know of, that I worked around has gone on to very successful things today.
Justin: That was a great place to start. I lived in Houston for a little bit no 09, 10, 11 time and Mark’s was just about to close and that was the nicest place ever in Houston.
Stefan: I have forgotten about Mark’s. [crosstalk] Aries and Mark’s and those were–
Justin: And Da Marco down the street from Mark’s. How did you get into cooking?
Stefan: Looking back at my childhood, I should have known that I wanted to be a cook. I have just a natural pension to just go into the kitchen and create. It was an easy way for me to exercise creativity, I was not good at drawing, I wasn’t good at painting or any of that sort of thing. It seemed like in the kitchen, I could walk in there and I could just throw things together. As high school progressed and we cut school and smoked a lot of weed, we’d go into the kitchen and I’d start to cook and I would just start to make stuff, barbeque, steaks, whatever. milkshakes, anything, hamburgers.
Stefan: Yes, milkshakes all the time, cheap milkshake non-stop. We did that. Then it never materialized in my head that I should cook, no one ever suggested to me, “You should maybe go into cooking.” It wasn’t until I was in the Navy that I realized, once I had gotten married that I did like to do the cooking.
Justin: I’m going to ask you about restaurants in a second, but are there any off the beaten path, hidden gems in San Antonio that you like? I’ve had people mentioned weird trails or historic homes, are there any sort of things in San Antonio that you recommend, out of town guests, “Hey, this isn’t going to be in the guidebook?”
Stefan: Restaurant wise–
Justin: I’m going to get there. Touristy type spots.
Stefan: Touristy type spot, my ashes are gonna be spread at Hardberger Park, right on the Savanna Trail. That’s my favorite place to be in the world in this city. I’ve walked that path countless times and I walked it even to the– The resurface did about five years back, that was heartbreaking to me because it was such a pure simple three-foot trail. That to me, I take anyone in my family that comes here on that park in an oak loop on that part, that trail and it’s very personal to me and I love it.
Justin: Savanna Trail is your trailer?
Stefan: The Savannah loop within Hardberger or the–
Justin: I’ve never done it.
Stefan: You got to do it.
Justin: I know, I need to.
Stefan: It’s good, especially in the morning. Plenty of rabbit, deer, plenty of armadillo just peaceful, quiet. That’s where they’re going to be putting over the land bridge.
Justin: Now, restaurants.
Stefan: Restaurants are always tough in terms of being asked where I like to eat because once I had kids, the options really dropped off the table. They were adventurous in the beginning and as I’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten less and less adventurous and all the places that that most people do. I’ve loved Carnitas Lonja’s for lunch. I think that’s just one of the more solid place I get.
Justin: Have you been to Loncheria del Popo?
Stefan: No, I haven’t been to these new–
Justin: This is a strange place that has three sandwiches, they’re 225 and they come with a bag of Lay’s chips. It’s on San Pedro. It’s from Laredo, 50 years there, but it’s got just this weird cult following.
Stefan: I’ve got a confession to make, over the last, of course, it’s– I’ve got a horrible short term memory. It’s terrible. Remembering names and remembering places and having a kick out places on the spot, it never works out. I’m going to get my car and I’m going to remember 50 when I’m driving home. Something has happened, there’s definitely been a sea change in San Antonio over the last year, I’d say where there’s a lot of killer small places that I’m seeing, especially on social media.
I am definitely the one that needs the inside on where to go because there’s so many– it’s hard to stop–
Justin: Your social media following, I’m sure you could just ask and you would get thousands of recommendations.
Stefan: I do. I do get them and then I’ve just–
Justin: Loncheria del Popo, even your kids would like. I think it’s like a hamburger, like a weenie burger. It’s just this strange place that has this huge following. You get a little thing of pickled peppers and onions as part of the deal.
Stefan: That sounds great.
Justin: Super simple menu. You’re talking about the food chains you’ve seen over the last year? How would you describe the food chains since you’ve been here? I moved here right after you moved here in ’07. Back then there was like two nice places to eat and then lots of chains, but it’s been a quite a big progress for our city in terms of the culinary scene, right?
Stefan: Yes. The first restaurant that I had introduced to me while I had first moved here and my brother-in-law was moving here was driving down I-10 and then pointing out Mama Margie’s to me, that was the option for me to get a job at. I thought I was completely, I was like, I’m fucked.” I’ve done some research, I knew that Weissman was here, I knew that. There was the four guys at the top, there was Weissman, Auden, Mark Bliss-
Stefan: -and Daddy, but I didn’t know about Daddy.
Justin: You’d been then.
Stefan: It was Weissman, Auden, Bliss, and Damien Watel. Those are the godfathers of San Antonio fine dinning in my opinion in the city. I was going to work for one of them when I was coming here. I wrote a letter to Andrew I got no reply so screw you, Weissman. I did letters to all of them I got replies, but they didn’t have any jobs and I mean that in jest, but I did end up getting a job for Jeff Balfour at Valencia in 2005. That was the right Hotel experience, worked there for six months, and then discovered Danny in a little pamphlet. Went out and literally tracked him down while he was building Bin555 and got my job.
Justin: When you moved here did Damien have that monster complex thing-
Justin: -they were building over there? That was after that?
Stephan: Damien was still in his almost location. 2005 Weissman was just really ramping up to become just the zenith that he was about to attain with the New York Times about a year away from that New York Times article where he got I think it was three stars. Then big on the banks was what it was I never really inquired what have you but-
Justin: It’s still just solid.
Stephan: Yes, it’s probably the same then as it was as it is today other than a few decore changes.
Justin: I don’t think many decore changes. [laughs] Still a bunch of big dried gourds. I always look at those every time I come on there. You told me one time what is your favorite cookbook. For anybody listening who wants to try their hand at cooking what would you recommend? You recommended a Mediterranean cookbook and I opened it up and thought, I don’t know what the fuck any of this stuff is. I didn’t even know the ingredients.
Stephan: Was it a person or was it generic?
Justin: If you said the name I would remember.
Stephan: Mediterranean cook oh, was it a Silvena Rowe cookbook or?
Justin: I say Mediterranean there was just a lot of Mediterranean ingredients in there.
Stephan: I’m sure there was so when Feast opened in 2011. I feel I was a little bit ahead of the game and I was trying to bring something new into the city that hadn’t been done. I really went deep into eastern med and basically Gaza Strip style food and brought a lot of those North African flavors. Now it’s commonplace to see Harissa and all these things all over menus, but back then I thought we were pretty much the only ones doing it on a non-ethnic base restaurant scale.
Justin: For a beginning cook any books you recommend-
Stephan: The Joy Of Cooking. The best cookbook in the world is the Joy Of Cooking.
Justin: That’s not the one you told me. You told me one and I remember thinking, I don’t even know the ingredients.
Stephan: I was probably still a snob at that time and still really cared about it, but no The Joy Of Cooking.
Justin: Your lamb lollipops over there those had a lot of Mediterranean flavors in them.
Stephan: Big time totally taken from definitely readapted, but taken from a Silvena Rowe recipe. She’s a chef out of England, but she’s, plus I don’t want to probably overstep myself here, but I feel like she’s Hungarian. That’s the direction I went. I bought all our cookbooks before we open Feast and I just studied anything I could that had Eastern med flavors.
Justin: People get drunk and they talk about stupid shit and one day we we’re sitting around talking about the best three things we’ve eaten in the city. Mine were lamb lollipops, your steak at Rebel right when you all opened and you all had those duck confit potatoes that came with them right?
Stephan: I’m so glad you remember those.
Justin: Yes, so good.
Stephan: That’s badass that you remember those. Those are the rooster potatoes that we had sourced out through Benny Ki to make duck to make confit potatoes.
Justin: Yes those two things and then the third was it was almost like a Beef Wellington that McHugh did right when Cured opened. It was fantastic, but you made two of the top.
Justin: Then I remember you all were retiring the lamb lollipops and I was very sad, but I wasn’t sad to see Feast go because that building seemed it was about to fall down.
Stephan: Rock hard and put up wet.
Justin: It smelled like it was put up wet sometimes. You have a feud going with burger boy I see on Facebook? Soul feud?
Stephan: A foe feud yes. They got upset. I think there’s more of a deeper there’s an undercurrent going on between they’re very busy during the pandemic fast foods boom.
Justin: They are long line right now.
Stephan: Everybody’s it’s easier obviously it’s safer feeling to go through a drive-thru. They blocked the parking of people that are trying to that are at little desk shopping and they can’t get out. They probably tried to be reasonable whatever and there’s just nothing we can do about it situation. One morning when we were doing our pop up the guy was just out there and he’s just stickulating at me definitely as we were setting up and on his phone and what have you. Then the cop showed up at the end of the day. The cop came and said there’s nothing I could do. I was called because no one’s wearing masks, but it’s everybody sitting down eating not wearing masks.
Justin: They’re allowed to, also outdoors.
Stephan: Also outdoors. It’s chill now.
Justin: Nobody likes having competition next door.
Stephan: I’m not picking a fight with Burger Boy. I know who, I respect the hustle.
Justin: You go sell 100 and they sell 100 every two hours probably.
Stephan: 15 minutes.
Justin: What’s your favorite thing to cook and what’s your favorite thing to eat?
Stephan: I would say my favorite thing to cook is I love making Sunday night pasta. I love making a good simple, but very long stewed beef ragu with spaghetti.
Justin: You post a lot of it.
Stephan: Yes I love that. We usually this is thrown through a loop because it’s Sunday night dinners every night. Back when there was really an important night right before school started. We would sit down every night for sure and have pasta. Eating wise I love hamburgers.
Justin: Me too.
Stephan: Straight up. I’m simple. I’ve always have been my dad’s taken me to all kinds of places growing up. I just like a good burger.
Justin: That’s my favorite thing to drink with wine or take it with wine.
Justin: It’s a cheeseburger and a good glass of wine. I actually had that as one of my questions. What do you think the secret is to a good hamburger? Me smoke. I do grill put mesquite wood in it and just smoke the hell out of them. That’s my way of doing it.
Stephan: To me that question is crazy because what you’ve got is each category within inside from top to bottom bun. One thing that I feel that the bond can ruin everything. Patty that has no flavor that’s too thick. The quality of meat. To me, the most important the best burger I ever had in my life was at Zuni grill in San Francisco. It was as basic as it get, but it was about a six-ounce burger. It was a thick guy, but the flavor of the meat was just beyond anything that I’ve ever tasted. I just never had tasted ground beef like this. They’re probably getting real sustainable. Really well cared for beef. It was unbelievable in its flavor in its simplicity.
Justin: You still remember it?
Stephan: I remember it like yesterday. Buns to me ruin burgers. That’s why the bun we’d use it when we do them, we get a very small bun because to me a burger is not a two-handed meal. I’m really real picky about it. Burgers are fast food to the ultimate extreme to me. Sitting down pulling up to your chair your table, putting a napkin in, and grabbing a burger with two hands and eating it is to me the most stupidest unnecessary eating action that you could occur. Burgers to me are something you have in one hand and you’re filling out paperwork with the next or you’re driving to a location or you’re trying not to listen to somebody talk to you while you’re enjoying eating it.
Justin: Like White Castle size?
Stephan: Yes. I love that. I love there’s a lot in there. I like this Smashburger because what I like for the burger to be when you bite into it and eat it is you literally taste everything is in one big bite. You get the different layers all come together into one not to be too pretentious about it, but you can taste a lot of burgers.
Justin: How do you keep them from falling apart that thin though?
Stephan: The good beef. They always contract. They get smashed super thin and then they contract on the griddle.
Justin: A griddle is different than a grill.
Stephan: There’s no smash burgers on a grill. The grill burger is an amazing thing to. Burger King used to be it for me. I was always Burger King.
Justin: The flame?
Stephan: Yes. That’s a funny story because that’s what you’d asked me earlier how I knew when I was going to cook. I should have known when I was going to cook because in the second grade we went on a Burger King, we were going on a tour of the kitchen at Burger King. It was a Burger King that I used to go to in Berkeley with my mom. I was literally, it was Disneyland. I was going to the back of the kitchen they were going show us everything. We get there and they cancel the fucking tour on us. I was irate-
Stephan: Devastated. Truly as though Christmas was canceled or something was canceled. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to see where the magic happened. I love that char broil flavor too.
Justin: This one on here, but that just brings up a point. Do you do any sort of outreach with younger kids that want to get into the kitchen and learn if that’s their passion? I’ve really never thought about it like you just said, there are a lot of creatives who do not have drawing skills or writing or whatever those creative outlets are, but maybe that’s their outlet. They’ve never got to try their hand at it. Do you do any involvement with that?
Stephan: I would love to I don’t think it’s very popular anymore. I’d love to see a kid. I even have positions open at my restaurants that start at $14 an hour.
Justin: Is that right?
Stephan: You don’t even have to know how to cut an onion. I need to teach you how to cook a burger and fry a wing and we want to pay a wage that we know will pay your cell phone and get you parking or whatever. It’s a partially livable wage, but they don’t work through the door. I very, very rarely have seen a young kid coming and saying, I just want to cook.
Justin: Look at a high school kid do you all hours.
Stephan: Sure. They could. I’ve got one high school kid working for me over at Rebel as a busser especially now.
Justin: You moved here in 2005, you sent out a bunch of letters. You ended up at–
Stephan: I ended up at Citrus.
Justin: Citrus. I was going to say [unintelligible 00:20:59] but–
Stephan: Valencia, yes.
Justin: Citrus, how long were you there?
Stephan: Six months and then saw a little brochure that had a picture of a composition Jason Dati had and it was the first time I ate a lot of– We went to a lot of nice restaurants in San Diego, but it was the first time that I went to a restaurant intends on hoping to get a job at that restaurant. I went there, I did this tasting menu. I spent $250 of money I absolutely did not have on my wife and I and then went back and was like, I got to work for this guy.
Justin: You went there for the tasting menu to just get exposure to him.
Stephan: To see what it was that I was going to be working for.
Justin: When it was at artisans alley or whatever that was called.
Stephan: That was at the lodge. That was the Logic Castle Hills.
Justin: All right. Is there where you ended up working?
Stephan: I did. I ended up working there a little over two years becoming a Sous Chef.
Justin: Two years at the lodge, and then you went to 29?
Justin: There you were Head Chef.
Stephan: Yes, the famous story is I got fired. Jason Dati, she kicked me from the lodge. We just were two. I was very, very passionate, and very over the top and I just saw myself out essentially. I was crazy back then.
Justin: I read kitchen confidential. It sounds like there’s that consistent issue in high-end kitchens.
Stephan: Right. I don’t want to be self-aggrandizing, but I was just very, very driven. I was on 60 to 90 milligrams of Adderall. I was basically a speed freak in the kitchen that also had the same, would go to bed reading the French Laundry every night and also in work. I came out of that last bit of generation where people were very hardcore in the kitchen. It was not a softer kitchen when I was still working, I would get screamed at in the kitchens and I would push the guys around me push them very hard because that’s how I would push myself.
Stephan: I was also even on Adderall, no Adderall it didn’t matter. There was nothing that was going to prevent me from moving up the ranks in the career I had chosen. It was war for me to climb the ladder.
Justin: Coming out of classic French style school and then having those aspirations, is your goal at that point to have a French Laundry or some high end dining French restaurant? Was that a long term goal?
Stephan: No, because Italian was always my first passion. Prior to moving to Texas, I had worked for two Italian ladies for a year for free doing a stodge with them. I worked lunches for them, I’d work from around 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM for them then I’d jam over to the junior college, knock out a couple of classes and then come back and wipe tables for them at night. I went broke working for them at night. I came out of Navy and just went broke working for them. They were real shady the way they shared the tip share, they tip shared with themselves, they would take half your tips they give it back to themselves.
Eventually, I just was running out of money in San Diego’s, and cheap and I had to get a job as a waiter until I moved out here. At the same time, Italian cuisine because it’s so comprehensible and so pure, I was able to wrap my head around. I got the introduction to the scuffie style of French cooking.
Justin: Which means what.
Stephan: Which is just extremely ornate. Very detail-oriented, multi-layered compositions that require unbelievable amounts of finite prep to achieve an end result. It can just become just too tedious whereas you watch. When I was in the Navy watching Mario Batali knock out three dishes on his show before he was disgraced.
Justin: [unintelligible 00:24:50] I don’t know if we want to talk about him on the show.
Stephan: Brilliantly just cooking three dishes from beginning to end in 30 minutes, no edits, and the purity and the simplicity of his comprehension really was attracted to me. I went to French Culinary School because I wanted to learn the absolute technique. I wanted to take technique and then, of course, how to make stock, how to make corns, how to make knife cut anything like that, butchering. I did that. I went to culinary school for that and it was worth it.
Justin: All the Italian cooking schools specific for that?
Stephan: There’s a PCS in Rome.
Justin: Over there, though.
Stephan: Yes, over there there’s–
Justin: Those culinary schools are French-style cooking schools, right?
Stephan: Yes, because the French have mastered the fundamentals.
Justin: I always think Italian foods are more comfort food.
Stephan: For Sure. More of my level.
Justin: I did get lucky to go to French Laundry one time and it was impossible to get into. We’ve got on a waitlist, we get in and it was great. Lots of little overblown, I thought, and crazy expensive.
Justin: It was pretty cool afterward, they took us back out to meet all the chefs. It’s a full display when you go there.
Justin: You stayed at 29 for three years.
Stephan: Three and a half years.
Justin: Then since then is when you and Andrew got together and–
Stephan: Andrew Winton dying to 29 and I was on his radar. He was getting out of his industry of the scent business and just wanted to figure out he had the split in the relationship. He wanted to just figure out what to do with the rest of his life basically.
Justin: Y’all open up these did you just generally have free rein on the menu there.
Stephan: It was collaborative. I wanted to make sure we had a restaurant that- I’ve always wanted to put food on the menu that he likes and that we have both like. Andrew is more of a diner than he is a businessman, I’d say even. He knows what he likes when he eats up, he eats up pretty much every meal every day of his life. He’s definitely more in tune with what people like. There are things that I want to cook that I know a lot of people aren’t interested in, but I also want to run a business first at the end of the day.
Justin: I hate running a business. It’s the hard part of it. There’s no passion about it, but you have to do it and it takes up a ton of time. How long was feast going before you all started Rebel?
Stephan: Rebel started in late 2015, about five years.
Justin: It seemed like y’all had a long run at Feast and then Rebel battalion playland all came pretty quick there.
Stephan: That was fast.
Justin: I guess this is the question. How do you even attempt to maintain the quality that your food is when you grow at that kind of speed?
Stephan: Well, luckily at battalion I’ve got Zeke. Zeke has been with me since 29. I’ve worked with Zeke actually, all the way back. I pulled Zeke from the lodge after I got fired. He came with me. I gave him an opportunity to be Sous Chef for me at 29. I’ve worked with Zeke’s for on and off for about 14 years.
Stephan: Zeke understands, he’s grown a lot. The other ones let’s say Rebel was very shaky for a period of time, now I got a guy in there who’s been there since day one. Him and I are on the same page and he knows flavor and he does it right. Playland has been the toughest. The bottom line is pizza is far more difficult than frying fish, searing meat, or doing anything.
Justin: Is that right?
Stephan: Woodburning cooking makes all the others look like a joke because it’s a true craft. You can take the most fine-dining chef out there, stick him on a pizza station with a wood-burning oven and he won’t have a clue what to do. It’s really caused me to have a really difficult time finding people and then, of course, you have the fine dining guy. If he sucks at the things, I don’t really like pizza. He can’t find the poetry in it. What you got to do is you got to find somebody who just likes to work with their hands, likes repetition, and likes the nuance of working with fire.
I’ve finally have gotten that, it’s taken over two years, I finally have that there, but there’s a lot of work on the managerial side that these guys need. They’re not very good managers, they’re not very good kitchen overseers. They’re not good. They don’t upgrade or we probably put systems in place and I’m just trying to get them out of bed sometimes. They can make freaking consistent pizza, sir. It’s tough, but consistency wise I wouldn’t do it over again. I would not open up four separate concepts that are completely different from one another. Because you can’t oversee them all at once. Simply can’t,
Justin: Especially at that high level. If you talk about tacos, maybe.
Stephan: It’s high stakes level and there’s a lot of stress. Just, no.
Justin: I talked about this at the start. You give a lot of credit to others in what you do and always from every restaurant I think you’ve been at, but let’s just talk about Playland. From the time y’all have opened and your love of that damn oven to I think after that there was a bunch on tomatoes, then a bunch on peppers, the [unintelligible 00:31:01] was your flour that you found out of Austin that you said was the flour. What is your philosophy on every single element has to, I guess it has to reach what you think is the proper level of quality, to put it together. How do you go about that?
Stephan: Well, you first come to this conclusion that you’re never going to make any money by liking everything that’s nice. That is high quality. Are you going to struggle or you better charge? Which I’m just learning how to do. If you give a damn, the product speaks to you, and so does the work of the people that do it. You’re talking about the tomatoes and the peppers, you’re talking about Linda and Larry Starns, who are out of Bebe, Texas that are both in their 70s and work in this weather that we can’t be out in for more than 15 minutes at a time during the day to create a bounty of this incredible produce. It’s a story in itself.
The reason why I highlight these things so much, and you talked about earlier about how I become passionate about the more blue-collar nature of this business is because that’s where the real poetry of this business lies, and that’s what’s so overlooked. Not to romanticize it because that’s boring, but the fact that there hasn’t been a story done on Linda and Larry Starnes and what they’re doing by any national magazine or any of this thing, just shows how much the lens it’s just so wide, it can’t see anything. Yes. If it’s hot and it’s in Nashville or it’s in Austin, or if it’s what have you, yes, they’ll focus that lens down in on there and get that story because it’s going to get some clicks, but I feel like it’s my duty to do the best I can, whether it’s through writing about it or discussing it or be in trying to be as literal as I can about the world.
Justin: Let’s just take Larry and Linda, for example, what makes them different? Is it the diversity of what they’re growing? Is it the time they put into it? Is it all of the above? What makes their product different?
Stephan: It’s all of the above. First off, she’s growing an array of peppers that no one else is growing in in Texas. It used to be too many strains, 25 different strains. Two, they’re both in their 70s, it’s brutal weather over in Bebe, the environment is brutal, but she’s tenacious and works. Nothing breaks them and Larry is tougher than steel. He’s right there and just doing the heavy lifting for her and they just refuse to quit.
Justin: Where is Bebe Texas.
Stephan: Bebe Texas is about 15 miles Southeast of Sutherland Springs.
Justin: Southeast. Heading towards Victoria?
Stephan: Yes. Right in that zone. Right in that Sandy soil area.
Justin: How did you get to know them?
Stephan: I saw them at a farmer’s market in Burney Stage Farmer’s Market. I was shopping and she had about 25 different dried varieties of chilies out on her table, it was about four packets each. I said, “I’ll take them all.”
Stephan: That was it. That was it. Larry came up to me. Larry doesn’t ever talk. Larry is a man of almost zero words. He used to be a high school football coach out in Gonzales and he never talked. He came up to, and he just said, “Who are you, what’s going on, why did you buy all those peppers?” I said, “Well, I’m just going to use them at the restaurant.” Then I came back the next week and she had a little fresh and dry and stuff, and I bought her out. Then the relationship blossomed out. It’s been about almost five years since the beginning of Rebelle [unintelligible 00:35:11]. Now she just directly sells to us, but she also sells to Clementine and to Botika and numerous other restaurants now.
I’ve tried my best to get people involved with her, but a lot of chefs just like the fuck around and digitally with her and she doesn’t want to do that. She’s not going to drive all the way down for $35 in sales or whatever.
Justin: Is that sort of, kind of a good example of how you go about all your ingredients then?
Stephan: It depends. Seafood, you’re at the mercy of the market, beef, somewhats the same. It’s hard to stay consistent if you’re doing high volume and working with small growers. That’s changing with Dean & Peeler. They’re really starting to put out a lot of stuff and quantity of it of quality. Produce to me is the most important thing, but it takes a lot of time and effort to lasso it all up. Grandma really took a big weight off our shoulders doing that. If it’s olive oil, we try to get the best we can afford. [unintelligible 00:36:19] just find the best.
Pizza is another thing, we try to bring in the best mozzarella that we can find in the best pepperoni. We used to use Barton Springs Mills flour. Unfortunately, they got too expensive. Just couldn’t even handle the price.
Justin: Is that right? For flour?
Stephan: Yes. For flour. He was up there in his flours. We were spending an insanely larger amount of money per week than we would have if we– The problem is that we’re just not in the market where people give a shit. We’re not the best marketers and talking about what we do, but I had to sacrifice one thing.
Justin: You all started using them right before the pandemic too. Right?
Stephan: Pretty much about three or four months before. We did stop pre-pandemic, but Playland just always been a complicated market to hit. One, the name does it signify?
Justin: The bumper car in there, that gets it across.
Stephan: Right. Little by little, the pandemics has actually been good for Playland in the sense that it’s opened up a broader audience of locals. Tourism is hard to nail down there. It’s just, there’s no parking. It’s been a tough ride there.
Justin: We slept down probably about once every other week. That’s the one place we’ll go and grab something down there. Your pizza’s great. You had a famous letter in June of this year that got a bunch of attention, the struggles of the restaurant scene in San Antonio with the COVID. You did a question and answer with Sutter, I think it’s who it was. I think one of the things that people don’t realize is that when you all shut down, all of that inventory gets tossed for the most part. When you reopen, you’ve got to restock all that inventory and it’s just a huge expense, fair?
Stephan: Fair. We divvied it out to all of our staff. That’s what we did and we did that at Rebelle. That was a sour memory for me. It was good seeing it, but watching Rebelle get completely picked over of all the things that we’re going to perish by the staff when we were closing it down and I was sitting there and at the table that looks right into the kitchen was just a– I was glad the food is not going to waste, but it hurt.
Justin: How are things we are past the shutdown? I think we’re at 75% allowance now, but that don’t really speak to the realities of the industry. How are things going with the older restaurants now?
Stephan: I’m considering none of our restaurants or fast food, I would say Playland is not hot. It relies, obviously on downtown business. Locals are not going to pay $20 Cosa to fricking eat a pizza that cost $18.
Justin: The park you mean?
Stephan: Yes. Rebelle is doing fantastic.
Justin: Is that right?
Stephan: Yes. For what it’s worth, for it being in a 50% mandate, I guess it’s 75% now, but being at the 50% mandate Rebelle is doing amazing. People are going balls to the wall in terms of ordering. We have just over the last year, when we switched over to seafood, we really just pulled the brakes off and just started doing things that are taking big risks and having lots of fresh lobster, crab legs just over the top items and people love over the top items and they loved to take over the top items and add them with other stuff like beef with crab legs, with lobster, with shrimp and scallops.
We’ve seen this sort of– It’s amazing and I’m enjoying every second of it, but people have expendable income and they’re spending it at Rebel. It’s basically we do about 30 to 35% of birthday parties. People are doing their birthdays or special occasions there. They’re prepared to go all in. Rebel is doing good.
Stephan: Yes, totally. I’m very excited about it and [crosstalk]
Justin: Is it locals? Is it tourists? Is it business travelers?
Stephan: It’s all. It’s everything.
Stephan: It’s the whole gamut. It’s everyone. I just made that little birthday cake and posted it that I’m doing for everybody because there are so many birthdays there. It’s really gaining a reputation and it’s going beyond the boundaries that it had before. Where it was really just more the travelers and a couple of people in the know, or people that were very– Liked gourmet food.
Justin: I did a birthday there one time. I’ll have to tell you about it off to here, but as we were leaving, Andrew showed up and was like, “Well, you all don’t go. If y’all hang out, I’ll give you some free wine.” Andrew doesn’t give free anything. It was going to be one of those nights. It was a great time. Is Battalion open?
Stephan: Battalion opens October 6th.
Justin: Okay, I thought so.
Stephan: They’re going to give it a roll of the dice.
Justin: Okay. Now, let’s talk about what you’ve been doing. I looked on Facebook today and there was something about sodomizing your dad, and this is the marketing for your hamburger pop-ups that are going on. Your dad is in quotations because it was a T-shirt. We’re not actually talking about somebody’s actual father. You are doing-
Stephan: That’s right.
Justin: Yes. I missed it, yes. I’m going to look you right in the eye.
I have to actually mark on these episodes if they’re explicit or not. I try to never have to mark, yes, so, I put that in there. It’s like-
Stephan: This is definitely going into the–
Justin: Well, they’ve never said anything to me. You started selling burgers at Playland at some point and calling them Pumpers.
Stephan: I was in the Navy from ’96 to 2001.
Justin: Scissor’s a soundboard I wish I had in the Navy by the village people to play right when you said that, but I don’t.
Stephan: I’ve got enough village people in my life right now.
Stephan: In the Navy, when you’re in a helicopter when you land and you keep the prop going, it’s called a hot pump. Cold pump is when you refuel, and with the prop off and a hot pump is when you refuel with the prop spinning. We were looking at a property that was a gas station and I wanted to call the gas station. I want to say it was the pump room. I was looking at, what’s a cool name for a gas station? It’s pump room. Then, that fell through and I was like, “I’ve got this burger idea I’m thinking about, I need a name for it. That’s not boring, what have you, but I hate eating burgers two-handed. I like burgers to be fast.”
It came into my mind, “The hot pump.” I was like, I can’t call them hot pumps. That’s just two, too much innuendo there. ‘Pumpers’ was where it came from. It’s this mishmash of different ideas. I like the name, Pumpers. I also know there’s a ton of play on words that you can do with it. They kind of fall into the context of burgers, you just pump them out and just eat them and just knock whatever it is.
Justin: I thought there would be some grand answer to this. No, it’s just a mix-mash of ship.
Stephan: It’s a mix-mash of ship. Exactly, but it makes perfect sense and that’s usually– It also has something that has to be interesting. Instead of saying like Hot Dad’s Burgers or these stupid shit, you’ll be like, Dad Burger, whatever it is. I’m like, okay, this sounds original. It’s coming out from Left Field and I’m into it. Then, just-
Justin: Was Hot Dad’s burger Andrew’s idea for the name of it?
Stephan: No, it’s just the first thing that came to mind. I always hear dad, all the kids say dad now.
Stephan: They always say, ‘what’s up dad’ to me every single– I’m just like, “Okay.” Let’s clear the record here. That’s actually a really cool story behind that and it was a tattoo that I saw from a girl that does all my art for Pumpers. That she’d gotten a picture from a former police officer that shared it with her, that used to take pictures of tramps that would hang out at Travis Park and stuff. That would be, if they ever found him dead, how they would identify him.
Justin: No joke?
Stephan: Yes, that’s how they did.
Justin: It just took a turn for the dark.
Stephan: I saw the tattoo and I looked at it and it manifested every emotion that I feel. Not pumping your dad, but just the Spartan-hat wearing-
Justin: Oh, that’s right.
Stephan: -finger-giving dude.
Justin: You can see this tattoo on his Facebook if you go check it out.
Stephan: You can buy the shirt on my website too.
Justin: Okay, all right.
Stephan: Shirts are available. Chad Carry liked the shirts so much that he printed them out just without even really– He just printed them out. He just couldn’t wait. He was wearing it yesterday.
Justin: I don’t really know Chad. I’ve met him before, but right when his bar opened, I was meeting a buddy there. I was on the phone. There’s nobody there and people were like, “Where are you?” I was calling to some people to come meet me. I just kept being, “That death bar. Death bar.” I think he corrected me three times and then, I just kept saying it because I couldn’t tell if it was annoying him. When I left, he was like, “Maybe I’ll rename it Death Bar.”
Stephan: That sounds like Chad.
Justin: Yes, I couldn’t remember what the name was.
Stephan: The thing with Pumpers is we’re looking at it more– We do want to go more into like this clothing aspect of it and sort of the fashion aspect. Which is just, again, a disrupter of ideas in terms of food. People don’t put the two together. Michelle Dobbs’ art, to me, is brilliant, it reminds me of art crumb from the comic books, Weirdo back in the day, that my dad used to have. She’s a phenomenal artist and-
Justin: She’s got a real ’80s feel to it.
Stephan: She does.
Justin: Max Headroomy kind of feel to some [crosstalk]
Stephan: She does and that was Robert Chrome’s heyday. He’s world-renowned. Her art is just– It’s 100% spawns from her own imagination. It’s disruptive, it’s not boring. After, you have to tow one line for commercial-style restaurants, but Pumpers doesn’t have to play by any rules.
Justin: Right. I’m speaking out of turn because I don’t know, but it seems like it is created a rallying cry, or a rallying point for industry people, who have all been– People aren’t working together like they used to, and they’re not getting together at bars after all the restaurants shut down anymore. It seems like this has been a place for people to come back together, and catch up and see each other and just get outside of this shutdown and pandemic, which we are doing.
Stephan: Yes. What it is, is it’s essentially– I hope, if it does one thing, it shows how easy it is to live your dream. Most guys, most cooks, myself included, do not come from money, do not have the capital backing to open a restaurant, but they have a passion for something that they’re interested in. This proves and shows that with a minimal capital investment, you’re capable of starting. The little American Dream still exists within cooking in regards to if you’re going to be serious about it, you do have to take it seriously. You have to be crafty, and you have to be efficient and you still have to have an amazing product.
Pumpers isn’t shit food just for the sake of being funny and being clever. It really is an amazing burger. If it’s anything, this pandemic has shown that people– And that’s what it showed me that restaurants are somewhat flat-footed. The pandemic has proven that they can be blown over without even ‘what’s next’. It’s always been this way in the restaurant. What’s the hurricane coming that’s causing the restaurant to be slow? Is it icing outside, has the stock market crashed? Is Ebola coming? It’s always something. It’s better to be-
Justin: People will always want to eat. If you can change with the people, it seems like there’s always a market for it. It’s just whether your market matches whatever fear or economics or whatever going on at the time. Just for people that don’t know, you’ve taken the Pumpers concept off the Playland menu. It’s still on the Playland menu, but you are also doing these pop-ups on Sundays at Little Death on the strip and it’s kind of become this party.
Stephan: Yes, it was fun. It gets a small crowd. There’s around 30, 40 people there. 30 people there and they’re sitting at the picnic benches outside of Little Death. There was a massive horrible line the first– Of course, there’s always FOMO in the first– First day we did it, it was just ridiculous, but now, it just is a nice, smooth 120, 150 burgers for right now going out in a day, which is easy for us. It’s pleasant. It’s one day a week. It also buys me one day a week where I’m able to truly– I feel like experience cooking at its purest form. No one calls on sick on me, dishwasher machine doesn’t break, there’s nothing– Whatever it may be.
Justin: There’s this protest downtown, then lock the door.
Stephan: Protest– There’s no inner working fights that are always occurring. There’s always stress, were restaurants are always filled with these stress markers throughout the day like any profession. The one difference between restaurant profession and the majority of other professions is that they have an immediate result on the customer. The customer is immediate and they don’t have a clue of what’s going on. That in itself causes just a massive stress build-up that you can’t explain or rationalize to the guest, “Listen, this is what’s happening,” They don’t care. Not interested, “You’re open right?”
Justin: That’s right.
Stephan: “Feed me.” I’ve never really–
Justin: I grew up in a very small town in North Texas, I moved here in 2007. Football coach dad, school teacher mom, and leisure eating was not a thing. We didn’t go to Red Lobster even, or Olive Garden. If we went out and they fried catfish, that was a big night out. It wasn’t until I got here and it’s such like a familial get together in a lot of restaurants.
I think Feast Brunch had that, there are certain restaurants you go out and you’re there to eat, you’re there to get to know each other, and it’s the process of it. It’s the slowly, maybe having a few too many drinks.
Justin: I never ran into that before and you have that here. I think even in the pop-up situation, people show up and they’re eating burgers and they have a little bit of wine, and they see friends they haven’t seen in a while. I think it’s great, because there is nothing to do that anymore. We go out and we sit outside whatever restaurant we are at, and we want to make sure that other table is far enough away from us because you are avoiding the thing that I loved about going out and having food here for so long.
Stephan: Exactly, that was Andrew Goodman’s biggest skill set. Andrew knew how to layout a dining room. When we opened Feast, the patio was in the back and I thought, “This is a great patio in the area in the back,” And he’s like, “Absolutely not, we are going to do it in the front where people can be seen.” You want to be seen, you want to be communal. Many people have partied with him, had his own restaurants, and what have you, he loves that party mentality going off his restaurants. It’s sorely missed right now, never knowing what could happen or who you’ll see or how large the party will grow.
Justin: In Pumpers seems to be kind of– Maybe not filling that void, but its close as we can get in light of what we have going on right now. There’s a buzz about food again as opposed to the buzz of, “How do we help our restaurants that are starving right now?” It’s a different kind of mentality and its–
Stephan: Luckily, they’re all fun restaurants I think esthetically, it gets pretty lively over at Rebelle, it gets really lively at PlayLand late at night, so when all the bars shut down, it became this late-night thing. Of course, we are taking it with a grain of salt because it’s a little distressing sometimes how we have to hire a person to run the door and everything-
Stephan: -because we are trying to keep things safe. Even still-
Stephan: -just to keep people, because people– It doesn’t matter whether it’s a restaurant or a bar if you’re not enforcing these distancing mandates and everything. They will break them.
Justin: Right now, yall’s group has Play Land up and running. What days is it open?
Stephan: It is open Wednesday through Saturday, right now. Just basically five to nine on Wednesday, Thursday, and then goes five to midnight on Friday, Saturday.
Justin: Is it doing delivery still with Slice?
Stephan: It is.
Justin: I’m outside the coverage area. Rebelle is open?
Stephan: Rebelle’s wide open seven days a week.
Justin: Is it really? Battalion opens when?
Stephan: October six. Tuesday, October six.
Justin: Is that all of them? Because Feast is gone forever.
Stephan: That’s it, Feast is– Rest in peace.
Justin: Then Pumpers, Sunday, at Little Death. Is this just going to keep going on Sundays for the foreseeable future?
Justin: All right.
Stephan: I’ve got a plan, I want to do a year worth of pop-ups on the Pumpers, so that I can understand the product and understand the methods and just keep having a good time.
Justin: Does Chad run any wine specials with the burgers?
Stephan: Not in particular, but he’s got a lot of reasonable wines there. I don’t think there’s a more diverse and–
Justin: It’s very diverse, I’ve never heard of a single wine there every time I go.
Stephan: Absolutely, he’s bringing in these wines that are made by– If you want to get into wine, you just have to talk to Chad because I’ve never seen anybody more passionate. Goes into like deep nerd ville of wine. He looks at wine like I look at a vegetable and he knows the growers and their stories, and they’re all these really cool dudes that are out in France that are just really going against the grain and trying to bring out natural wines.
Justin: Cool. I went to Spain this November, and I came back and Texas was having a cidra cider fest, and I was like, “Cool.” There was a website and you could find what restaurants were participating and in San Antonio only Little Death. I go there and I’m like, “Hey, what’s the cider?” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” “Well, ya’ll are on this list, do you know about the list?” “I don’t know about the list.”
That was my cider [cross talk], they were on the website tough.
Stephan: He is always going to do his thing.
Justin: I always end these with me saying who my guest wish list are you as a restaurant to where I have met some fascinating people in San Antonio. Anybody you recommend that I should try to get on the show and talk about whatever they’re passionate about. We are everything, we are just a San Antonio kind of focus thing, I mean, Pop is always my forever and ever cross my heart wish list and I’m sure he will never do this but–
Stephan: I’ll throw it out there to him when I see him, he will laugh at me, but I’ll see if I can pull a favor for you. I’ve never asked anything of him. Someone to get on the show.
Justin: Anybody you run into and you’re just like, “That guy’s got interesting stories,” like Hard Burger, I want to get on that.
Stephan: I don’t know if you had David Edelman on here, but I love his style. He’s just such a savy–
Justin: He owns a lot of properties right?
Stephan: He’s just a savy businessman and he’s been a great partner to work with over at PlayLand and super supportive, but just also cool as the day– He’s just so smooth, cool and great to work with. As well as his architect, Louise Miguel. He’s also a young enterprising guy who’s brilliant. They put up that 68 building and they did the Burn building, they did properties all over the place, but they sort of fly into the radar, when in reality they’re really moving the needle on this city.
Justin: I had a random guy back here one day, he was like, “I work for David Edelman.” He was asking me questions, that’s why I looked up who David Edelman was.
Stephan: Cool dude, and just always idea-driven.
Justin: Do they own the building ya’ll are in?
Stephan: Yes, they do. We owe them a lot of rents so I’m trying to plug him right now. I’m kidding, but at the same time, it’s hard to come right off the top of my head with people, but–
Justin: Does Pumpers have a website where people can buy the swag and all that stuff?
Stephan: It does, but be very careful when you put it in. Its pumpers.world not pumpers world. If you go to Pumpers World, you may have those issues, but you’re not going to want to–
Justin: You may get fired from your job is what you’re saying?
Stephan: You might. Well, they’ll actually feel sorry for you, I think it is an erectile dysfunction website. Penis pump.
Stephan: Pumpers.world and you can find the merchandise, it’s a terrible website, it’s got absolutely no graphics at all.
Justin: But you can buy shirts and stuff.
Stephan: You can buy shirts and–
Justin: Then you can stop by Little Death on Sundays, starting at noon until ya’ll sell out to buy a pumper, buy wine, buy a shirt.
Justin: All right, Stephan. Thank you so much for doing this.
Stephan: Thanks for having me.
Justin: We are going to come out probably this Sunday and buy some. I wanted the [unintelligible 00:58:49]
Stephan: I don’t when this is going to put it out. But we are close to [unintelligible 00:58:54] downtown so we are all taking a nap this Sunday and we will be back at it October 4th.
Justin: This one will be the October 4 show actually? It would be that week before.
Justin: That’s going to do it for this episode of the Alamo Hour, Stephan, thank you so much and we will see you next time.
Justin: Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Alamo Hour, you are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast, check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, viva San Antonio.
[00:59:38] [END OF AUDIO]