Chef Kate McLean Returns to Houston’s Fine Dining Mecca, Brings New Creative Touches — a Happy Homecoming at Tony’s
Keeping Tony Vallone's Visionary Restaurant RoaringBY Shelby Hodge // 01.13.22
Executive chef Kate McLean is poised to take the helm of the kitchen at Tony's, Houston's mecca for fine dining. (Photo by Julie Soefer)
Kate McLean returns to Tony's as executive chef and partner in February.
Chef Kate McLean, Tony & Donna Vallone during a food competition in 2019. (Photo by Roswitha Vogler)
The 'Three Graces' sculpture holds a dominate space in Tony's. (STP Images)
“I‘m on cloud nine,” chef Kate McLean says as she discusses her upcoming February return to Tony’s, Houston’s mecca for fine dining, as both executive chef and partner. Having worked in tandem with Tony Vallone for close to seven years, she is replacing executive chef Austin Waiter, who has accepted a position elsewhere in Houston. (Stay tuned for more on this.)
“Tony was incredible. I loved working for him,” a very excited McLean tells PaperCity. “Leaving him (in 2017) was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.”
But the young McLean was curious about the food world. She wanted to grow, expand her experience. In the interim, she learned much about food, food deserts, nonprofits and business, the latter of which will help her in assisting Donna Vallone in overseeing the restaurant. Donna Vallone has graciously continued her late husband’s tradition of attending every meal service and welcoming diners at their tables.
In that five-year interim from Tony’s, McLean explored a universe of food-related opportunities. She tended bar, wrote on a variety of subjects including restaurants for Houston Press, worked for the Food Bank in Sunnyside eventually running the Food Bank’s super sites at NRG and George Bush International Airport (for which she earned her forklift license), and organized fundraising events for nonprofits such as Urban Harvest and I’ll Have What She’s Having.
“I got to know my brothers and sisters in the industry. They are so resilient and talented,” McLean adds. “I feel so equipped now. I feel so ready.”
While the chef intends to keep many of Tony’s mainstays, McLean intends to put her culinary creative to work as well. Diners can count on favorites such pappardelle bolognese, the flaming salt-crusted snapper, Crescent Island duck press, Japanese A5 Wagyu and the stable of prime grade aged steaks and freshly flown-in dover sole and branzino.
Of her own volition, McLean will bring to the table an upgrade to caviar service (vodka in a block of ice served table side) with traditional and non-traditional accompaniments, happy hour bar offerings, curated music play lists, seasonal tasting menus and Kate’s Playground. The latter takes place in the wine library where a curated playlist is paired with a striking menu with the diner’s choice of seven, nine or 11 courses.
But perhaps the most exciting news is McLean’s creation of an annual Tony Vallone Day, an elegant black-tie celebration of the late master of Houston’s fine dining. The April 1 event will mark the date that in 2015 Mayor Annise Parker declared it “Tony Vallone Day” in Houston in honor of the restaurant’s 50th anniversary.
Tuxedos? In the roaring ’80s and ’90s, when jackets and ties were required for diners, Vallone dressed nightly in black tie.
“Tony loved to have fun and he translated that to his guests,” McLean notes. “Everything we do and create will stay true to what he had been doing since 1965.
“It’s a dream job.”