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The post-Prohibition barroom known for its inventive cocktails, an endless wooden bar top, and widely acclaimed menu is saying farewell to the young chef who helped put the club back on the map in 2011.
Chef Brooke Smith, hired by Esquire Tavern owner Chris Hill in late 2010 to design the bar menu and build out the kitchen, has announced that her last day as head chef is July 16.
“It’s been a long, great experience,” Smith said. “It’s been a really great team. I’ve learned so much from these guys. It’s kind of time for me to do something a little bit different.”
After nearly nine years working 70-plus hours a week at the Esquire, she said, “it’s time to start thinking about where I want my career to go.”
Smith, 31, has had a career that would be the envy of any aspiring chef. After growing up in her mom’s kitchen, Smith attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and embarked on a professional life that included stints at San Antonio restaurants Silo and La Frite, in Austin at Enoteca Vespaio, and the Red Star Tavern in Portland, Oregon.
Guided by her mentor, Chef Mark Bliss, Smith was introduced to Hill, who was working to renovate and reopen the Esquire following a five-year hiatus. She competed against several male chefs for the opportunity at Esquire.
“I listened to what Chris wanted, which was Texas tavern food,” she said. “When I think of that, I think of food that makes you want to eat – spices, chiles, beef. We’ve tried to go a little bit unique with that, things you might not see on other menus around.”
In her years at the Esquire, Smith has hired, trained, and mentored more than 150 kitchen members. In addition to the Esquire menu, she has designed menus for the tavern’s Downstairs bar as well as El Mirador when it was acquired by Hill. She creates a new menu for the tavern twice a year.
For the last six years, Smith has been working closely with a team at the Esquire that includes Gary Baker, director of operations; Houston Eaves, beverage director; and Miles Worrell, bar manager.
“They’ve helped me grow and have the career I’ve had so far,” she said. “Chris means a lot to me. This team means a lot to me. The Esquire means a lot to me. I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into it. It’s a product of my creation. It’s been my life for a long time.”
In the process, she’s grown as a chef, she said. Five years ago when she felt she needed to expand her knowledge, Hill supported a “staging,” (pronounced STAH’-jing) during which she traveled to New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Mexico to work unpaid in restaurants there and learn from other chefs.
“Chris was really great because he allowed me to explore my creative side while pushing me at the same time to rein things in and tighten things up, to become better all around,” she said.
Hill’s commitment to investing in her growth, she said, is one of the aspects of the job she will miss the most – along with the tavern itself, which opened in 1933.
“The Esquire’s got a lot of history. People love this place,” she said. People tell her stories of visiting or working at the bar in past years. “It’s a way different place now than it was then, so it’s cool because it’s got a piece of everyone’s history from San Antonio.”
What she won’t miss are the long hours that come with the job.
“Kitchens are rough. It’s expected that you will work really long hours,” she said. “So I’m just looking forward to taking a breather and trying to figure out how to be able to contribute to the San Antonio culinary scene in a fresh way.”
Smith is already working with friend Ashley Bird to develop a food cooperative, similar to the membership-based food stores found in other cities, such as the Wheatsville Co-op in Austin.
“We are currently working on very beginning steps of a very long process,” she said. Food co-ops generally market locally grown foods, bulk ingredients, and prepared and canned foods and also are known for reduced waste.
“The thing that makes me really happy about cooperatives, in general, is every dollar spent is $1.60 back into the community,” she said, citing data from the Food Co-op Initiative. Smith and Bird will kick off their venture by spending a lot of time talking to farmers market purveyors in the coming weeks.
Smith also plans a return to her Silo roots to work as a server and bartender and will stick around the Esquire to help ensure a smooth transition for the new chef.
Hill said he will be following Smith’s post-Esquire career.
“Closing this chapter and saying goodbye to nearly a decade of Brooke at the center of it all won’t be easy,” Hill said. “While The Esquire will be welcoming a new chef, we’re excited to see where Brooke’s culinary journey takes her next.”