To know Houston is to know our diverse collection of dining spots, which can range from Ethiopian to Tex-Mex and Italian, all within a few blocks of each other. The city is a foodie paradise, and no one celebrates its culinary delights quite like openly gay foodie extraordinaire Chad Mercer.
Although Mercer is well known in local circles as a contributor to the Food Network, his culinary journey started almost by accident. He had moved to Houston from Atlanta to be closer to family, and he had to find a way to support himself.
“It was an adventure—or a misadventure. Phoenicia Specialty Foods asked me to work for them as a general manager. About two months into that, they sat me down with the executive chef and said, ‘You’ll be over all the executive events now,’” Mercer says.
Even though he didn’t know a thing about portion sizes or how to run executive events, the experts at Phoenicia promised that they’d teach him. Soon enough, he was impressing everyone—himself included.
“I was there for seven years, and did more than 20,000 events while I was there. I helped build their event business from zero to more than $2 million in revenue,” Mercer adds.
“When Guy Fieri needs a place to go, Food Network will contact me and I’ll tell them where to go. If Rachel Ray or Ree Drummond needs a new recipe, I get one for her. I’m like a scout.”
Like many people, he wanted to stretch his abilities, so two years ago he left the grocer with the idea that he would form his own catering company. He took on that challenge for a few months, but as luck would have it, he discovered bigger things were in store for him.
“A good friend of mine from the Food Network invited me to judge the World Food Championships in Dallas. From there, the Steak Cookoff Association asked me to judge for them,” Mercer recalls. “Before too long, I got a call from the Food Network, and they asked me to join [their team] as a judge and contributor. This is my second year with them.”
He describes his role as being a Food Network ambassador across the world.
“When Guy Fieri needs places to go, Food Network will contact me and I’ll tell them where to go. If Rachel Ray or Ree Drummond needs a new recipe, I get one for her. I’m like a scout,” he says.
As it happens in television, the Food Network is always looking for ways to evolve its programming and expand its offerings to fit the needs of the everyday viewer—something that Mercer is right there to help them with.
“What we’re trying to do is get away from celebrity chefs and get more into what people really want to eat. We ask, ‘How can you cook this at home? What’s the simplicity of this?’ The television food industry is also slowly moving away from theatrical chefs like Gordon Ramsey. People want to go back to Paula Dean-type chefs [who teach them] to cook and make great meals for their family. It’s more about relationships, and connecting with an audience [that wants to see] how to cook, versus showmanship,” he adds.
While Mercer leaves the cooking to the professionals, he does note that he is a sommelier.
“I’m a level 3 sommelier through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It’s really a different curriculum than the Court of Master Sommeliers because all our exams are handwritten, and they’re graded by old-school sommeliers in London. You take an exam here, and six weeks later you find out if you passed. It’s not electronic at all,” he explains.
As expected for someone associated with the Food Network, his travels across the globe have garnered unique, unforgettable opportunities.
“My number-one favorite memory is from Glasgow, Scotland. I’m working with them right now to bring the concept of Houston Restaurant Week to them. Anthony Bourdain has a designated spot at a restaurant in Glasgow, and they asked me to come visit with them and sit in his spot,” Mercer gushes. “To work on the concept of Houston Restaurant Week on an international level is a dream come true.”
He’s also worked with Iceland Pride for their wine competition, and last month he was involved in Texas’ largest drag brunch, which welcomed more than 450 people to the Toyota Music Factory in Dallas.
His schedule keeps him busy and often away from Houston, but when he’s in town, he says he’s not too picky about which restaurants he visits. “I’m a very ‘comfort food’ kind of person. It doesn’t have to be the most upscale restaurant. It just has to be good food. Tonight, I’m dining with a friend at Bollo Woodfired Pizza on West Alabama, but I also like La Tapatia on Richmond, and Barnaby’s. I also like Java Lava Brew, a Hawaiian place. There are so many places that are overlooked in Houston.”
He also likes exposing people to destinations they’ve never tried before—even places as unexpected as Texas’ favorite fast-food burger joint.
“A good friend of mine [who was visiting from out of state] had never had Whataburger. I was like, ‘I’m going to change your life right now!’” Mercer laughs.
To keep up with Chad Mercer, follow @AChadChoice on Instagram and Facebook.
This article appears in the April 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.