Dishing Up Delicious: Fort Bend Chefs Serve It Up

By Sharon Hilburn –

Food is one of the ways we experience and enjoy life.  Interesting, fresh cuisine and excellent service are key. Three Fort Bend chefs are serving up just that by offering a variety of flavorful, mouth-watering dishes paired with excellent service.  From catering to appetizers to entrées and wine pairings, all three pay special attention to the details and continue to wow their customers!  Learn what inspires them, and read about some of their specialties that you can try at home.


Originally from India, Chef Namita Asthana has been a Fort Bend County resident since 1996. She began cooking as a child with the influences of her parents and infuses cuisine from across the world that she calls “Houstonian” or “Indo-terranean.”  She specializes in flavorful farm to table recipes using the freshest, local sourced ingredients. Asthana is also an active philanthropist and long-term contributor to the Fort Bend community.  She and her husband, Manish, opened Off the Vine BISTRO in 2015 to share their delights from around the world.

fit & fab:  What inspired you to become a chef? 

Chef Namita Asthana:  Traveling and living in interesting places inspired me with wonderful aromas of the world. Cooking has been enjoyable for me since I was a child. My dad was a hunter, and my mother was a vegetarian. My father taught me to focus on plating to make even simple food appealing, and my mom prepares the most wonderful meat dishes without ever tasting them. I have observed the preparation of all kinds of foods. If you quiz me on “20 ways to serve deer,” I would certainly pass!

f&f:  As a chef, what motivates you? 

NA: After moving from Europe to the United States, I realized how important nutrition is to my family’s health. I found that eating clean with simply prepared meals made us feel better and improved our overall well-being. I decided that others could benefit from my recipes. Through creating a line of Gluten Free/Sugar Free/Fat Free Simmer Sauces, the journey transformed from clean eating to opening the Bistro.  Through travel I have been motivated to try new dishes and have infused this in the Bistro wine dinners.

f&f:  What are your cuisine specialties, and how would you describe your cuisine?

NA: We offer a multi-cuisine menu, which we consider Houstonian or Indo-terranean, featuring my take on a variety of international dishes. With my Indian background, I use warm spices to present unique creations that are an amalgam of many different cuisines. Our menu changes typically every three to six months, offering a chance to share a variety of region-based dishes with my customers.

Spanish Paella with Seafood
Saffron Rice with Clams, Mussels, Salmon and Shrimp Chef: Namita Asthana, Off the Vine BISTRO

Ingredients

  • 2 Cup Spanish Rice
  • 16 oz Mussels
  • 16 oz Clams
  • 4 oz Salmon, chopped
  • 16 oz Shrimp
  • ¼ Red Pepper, sliced
  • ½ Tsp Saffron, soaked in 1 cup of warm water
  • 1 Level Tsp Salt
  • 1/2 Level Tsp Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Level Tsp Dried Thyme
  • 1/2 Level Tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 3-4 Bay Leaves
  • 2 Tbsps Olive Oil
  • 1 Lemon, cut in wedges

In a large shallow pan, bring the oil to medium heat and add the cumin, bay leaves, red pepper and thyme. Allow the spices to sputter. Add the rice, and stir in with the spices. Add the saffron water. Temper it with some turmeric if the color of the saffron is too weak.

Add 2 cups of water and the seafood, and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest and cover the pan for 20 minutes. Serve hot with the slices of red pepper and a wedge of lemon.

f&f: What is the key to being successful?

NA: The key is to stay dedicated and truthful to my philosophy of providing fresh, natural, simple and flavorful dishes to our customers without compromising quality. As a woman and business owner, change is exhilarating to me, so I enjoy presenting new and innovative dishes that keep the customers excited as well.

f&f: How do you select your ingredients?

NA: I personally source my ingredients to ensure the highest quality. Using the hormone-free and grass-fed meats and produce from local ranchers and farmers, our farm to table concept is showcased with an international flavor.

f&f:  What is the most important element in creating dining experiences for your guests?

NA: We focus on quality and ambiance to create a relaxing and cozy experience where our guests do not feel rushed. Our music selection and lighting enhance the experience. Our goal is to provide exceptional wines, food, ambiance and service so our guests keep coming back.

f&f: What advice would you give to others who are just starting out?

NA:  Create a five-year plan.  Prepare foods that you enjoy, and gradually add and change to reach optimal performance.  Happiness, joy and motivation in what you do will translate to a positive customer experience.


Caterers Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Jennifer Lopez have been best friends since the first days of kindergarten. After 26 years of friendship, they started 26 Daisies Events & Catering, combining their love of friendship, food and fun! 26 Daisies offers many types of cuisine and works with each client to deliver a unique menu specific to their event, theme, guests and dietary restrictions.  The focus?  Fresh, flavorful and fun. 26 Daisies has been in business for over five years providing the ideal event and experience for each client.

fit & fab:  What inspired you to become a chef? 

Jennifer Kirkpatrick:  My mother is my inspiration. In the early 80s, she had a delicious recipe for a unique cheeseball that she would take to parties and serve at family gatherings. The demand became so great that she opened her own business and started manufacturing cheeseballs that were sold in grocery stores across the state. I have vivid memories of giant mixers, stainless steel tables and her labels with red lettering. I remember being so proud that my mom was a business owner and that people loved what she created!

26 Daisies has been in business for five years, but I’ve been cooking since I was old enough to reach the counter top. I served my first omelet at age seven, and the rest is history.

f&f:  What motivates you? 

JK:  Our husbands and children motivate us. I love that after a long day or after we wrap up a big event, I can walk in the door, and they all want to know how it went. We sit at the dinner table, share a meal and talk about our day. We know they’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and that pushes us to keep learning, growing and expanding.

Roasted Red Pepper Bruschetta with Burrata Cheese

Caterers: Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Jennifer Lopez

Ingredients

  • 2 Red Peppers
  • 2 Shallots, halved
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • ¼ Cup Fresh Basil
  • 1 Garlic Clove, minced
  • 1½ Tbsps White Balsamic Vinegar Salt to taste
  • 1-2 Balls of Burrata Cheese
  • 1 Loaf of Italian Bread, sliced

Preheat grill to medium high heat (about 350-400 degrees). Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the whole red peppers and halved shallots rubbing the olive all over the vegetables.

Place peppers on the grill. Grill each side for 3 to 4 minutes, until there is a char on all sides, and the pepper seems soft. Remove from grill. Place the peppers in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap for 3 minutes.

At the same time, place the shallots on the grill flat side down. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes, until there are grill marks. Remove from grill.

Remove peppers from the bowl and peel charred skin off. Dice the peppers into small pieces. Do the same with the shallots.

Add both the peppers and shallots to a bowl. Next add fresh basil, garlic, white balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt to taste. Toss everything together.

On a serving plate, add burrata and top with the roasted red pepper bruschetta.

Serve on toasted or grilled slices of bread.

f&f:  What are your cuisine specialties, and how would you describe your cuisine?

JK:  We don’t limit ourselves – or our clients – to one specific type of cuisine. We work with each of our clients to deliver a unique menu specific to their event, theme, guests and dietary restrictions. No matter what we prepare, our focus is always fresh, flavorful and fun.

f&f:  What is the key to being successful?

JK:  There are two things that helped us find success in this business: we love food, and we love people. It is as simple as that!

f&f:  How do you select your ingredients?

JK:  Selecting ingredients is easy, and it starts before we get to the store. During the menu process, we make sure that the options we are suggesting are in season and will be at their best. We personally select each ingredient, making sure that our clients are getting an exceptional product.

f&f: What is the most important element in creating dining experiences for your guests?

JK:  The most important element to creating a unique dining experience for our clients is paying attention to detail. Whether it is in a dish, décor or customer service, we want all of our clients to know they’re important and that we will take the utmost care with their event. This gives them the opportunity to be at ease and allows them to be a guest at their own event.

f&f: What advice would you give to others who are just starting out?

JK:  You can do this! There will be days that you feel like giving up, throwing in the towel and walking away. Instead, push through. There are times you do not have the answer or do not know what to do next.  Ask someone who does. There are days when you feel overwhelmed. Take a deep breath and give yourself a pep talk.  If your dream is to start your own business, you have to believe in yourself first and know that you can do it! We’ve been through it all over the last five years and luckily, always had each other to depend on. If you don’t have a business partner or a good support system, give us a call. We will cheer you on!    

f&f:  What trends have you seen in the industry over the past few years?

JK:  The food industry has its share of trends, some good and some that have totally overstayed their welcome. We accommodate our style to reflect current trends only when it comes to decorating for our events. Keeping up with these trends is key, and allows us to easily swap items as the trends come and go. When it comes to food, we’ve found that focusing on good ingredients, beautiful presentation and unforgettable flavor is something that never goes out of style.


Chef Ron and Claire Brandani opened Brandani’s Restaurant & Wine Bar in March 2015, which features American dishes with an Italian heart. Ron’s lifelong passion for cooking began while learning family recipes handed down from his grandmother and father, and his passion for cooking has been fueled by a distinguished career. Born and raised in the Houston area, Ron began working in the restaurant industry when he was 15-years-old. He has worked at several top restaurants in Houston including serving as General Manager at Pesce Restaurant and opening Bank Restaurant at Hotel Icon, a distinguished restaurant by famed Chef Jean-Georges Vongrichten. He also served as Managing Partner for the original Carrabba’s on Kirby in Houston.

fit & fab:  What inspired you to become a chef? 

Chef Ron Brandani:  I’ve been cooking since I was a child, alongside my grandmother and father. My love of fresh food and creating flavorful foods fueled my passion for cooking.

f&f:  What motivates you? 

RB: My motivation comes from wanting to be the best at what I do. I’m always searching out the freshest ingredients and coming up with new ways to prepare them.

Fresh Fish Brandani with Crabmeat

Chef: Ron Brandani

Ingredients

  • 7 oz White Fish
  • 1 Tbsp Minced Shallots
  • 1 Tbsp + 1 Tsp Pomace Oil, divided
  • 2 Tbsp + 1 Tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
  • 3 Garlic Cloves, sliced Pinch of Cayenne Powder Handful Maiitake or Hen of the Woods Mushrooms
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped & Blanched Asparagus
  • 3 oz Jumbo Lump Crabmeat Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Brussels Sprouts
Cut brussels in half, and place face down into a preheated skillet with 1 tbsp pomace olive oil and cook until golden brown. Place in the oven for 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the oven and place back on the cooktop. Add the 1 tsp of extra virgin olive oil, shallots, salt and black pepper, and sautee until the shallots are translucent.

Fish
Use a white flaky fish such as Grouper, Snapper, or my favorite, Tile Fish. Season with salt and white pepper and place in a hot non-stick pan with 1 tsp pomace olive oil. Pan sear for 5 minutes and turn over. Place in the oven for 6 minutes, or until cooked through.

Mushrooms and Asparagus
Sautee mushrooms on high heat with 1 tsp of pomace oil and salt and pepper until they are lightly browned. Add the asparagus tips and continue sauteeing for 5 minutes or until tender.

Sauce for Fish
In a cold pan add 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and add sliced garlic. Sautee slowly until the garlic is fragrant and starting to turn golden brown. Add pinch of salt, pepper and a tiny pinch of cayenne powder.  Remove from heat and add mushroom and asparagus mixture, jumbo lump crabmeat and fresh parsley and mix well.

Assembly
Place brussels sprouts on the bottom of the plate. Place the fish on top and use a slotted spoon to add the mushroom, asparagus, garlic and crabmeat mixture on top. Add a small amount of the olive oil from the pan on top and enjoy!