Thinking about and preparing food fills chef Greg Martin’s daily schedule, even when he’s enjoying a day off. That’s the way it has always been for the proprietor and executive chef of Houston’s trendy Bistro Menil, which is located on the northern edge of the Menil Collection’s Montrose campus.
On one of those recent days off, Martin and his husband, biology professor Paul Garcia, retreated to their Lake Travis getaway with their extended family for spring break. They boated around the limestone cliffs, built a roaring fire to roast s’mores and, of course, enjoyed the fabulous dishes that Martin created for the family affair.
They also ventured into Austin to dine at Justine’s, another pleasure for Martin that grew out of his connections with various Sixth Street eateries while pursuing an undergraduate degree in fine arts at UT. “It was glorious, absolutely glorious,” Martin recalls about their trip to Lake Travis. “The weather was beautiful. We had a splendid time. Our first night in Austin, we had cassoulet with duck confit and duck sausage and Domaine du Banneret Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I love cassoulet.”
Linking food to fond memories of friends and family is key to Martin’s philosophy of fine dining. The chef said he wants Bistro Menil patrons to be reminded of the unique culinary experiences they might have had in Europe—a luxury not available today because of the pandemic.
“I realized we can bring those memories back,” Martin explains.“That is the goal of Bistro Menil.”
The creation and operation of a stylish Houston bistro is the realization of a near-lifelong dream for Martin. The chef, who grew up in Houston’s lush Memorial area, credits his restaurant jobs in college with giving him the practical experience he would need to fulfill his dream.
“I always knew I wanted to be a chef since I was a teenager,” Martin says. “I realized what great cooks there were in my family. My maternal grandmother and my mother were amazing cooks.”
At 22, Martin returned to Houston after college and began working in a variety of restaurants. The chef loved Austin, but he wanted a restaurant “where people dressed up to go out to eat,” and he knew that would not happen in casual Austin. His work toward becoming a chef de cuisine continued with roles in fashionable Houston eateries such as the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group’s Café Annie and their fast-casual Café Express offshoot, where he stayed for 23 years.
Under the tutelage of Robert Del Grande (who in the 1980s was becoming Houston’s first celebrity chef), Martin developed the culinary repertoire that serves him so well today. His association with Del Grande also took him to New York City to participate in the production of Julia Child’s television series Cooking with Master Chefs. He refers to Child as “the medium between classic European recipes and American housewives,” recalling her funny, down-to-earth conversations in the studio during breaks in filming.“The phenomenon of the American celebrity chef happened because of her,” Martin says. “We were inspired by her. That’s why she was so important.”
Martin went on to work for the Houston-based food supplier Sysco and later served as the food and beverage director for Central Market, where he opened cafes in several H-E-B grocery stores. He opened Bistro Menil in 2014.
Martin’s fine-arts education assisted him in developing the European-inspired American cuisine he wanted to offer at Bistro Menil, including entrées such as roasted salmon, lemon-thyme chicken, and beef short ribs in port wine. Trips to France, Spain, and Italy—where he first discovered the joys of dining in museum restaurants—inspired him to modify several classic recipes for his Houston museum venture.“We’re trying to evoke, not copy the dishes,” Martin says.
The bistro is also developing more of an international atmosphere as Martin adjusts to the pandemic restrictions with expanded patio seating on the museum grounds. “It feels like you are in Europe,” Martin notes.
When asked what makes a great chef and a prized restaurant, Martin explains that by treating the entire staff with respect—from the kitchen assistants to the dining-room personnel—they will develop the commitment to excellence that is needed. “The recipes are non-negotiable, which requires getting the team to do it over and over again and getting it right.”
Bistro Menil offers craft beers, wines, and breads that are also inspired by Martin’s research in Europe, and everything he serves promises to be fresh, healthy, gluten-free, and delicious.
Martin became a sponsor of Houston’s nonprofit Recipe for Success Foundation in 2014 because he is interested in helping aspiring entrepreneurs. The project operates a seven-acre urban-farming showcase in the middle of an underserved “food desert” neighborhood that grows affordable produce while also nurturing small-business and workforce development.
After accomplishing so much in his 40-year career as a master chef and successful entrepreneur, what might come next? Martin sees retirement on the horizon as he looks forward to spending the next chapter in his life with his soul mate. “This time, it’s for Paul and me,” he adds.
For more information on Bistro Menil, visit bistromenil.com.
This article appears in the April 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.