Tien Ho has a double grill on his patio and he’s not afraid to use it. You can’t keep him away from the twin flames, even on this sweltering, early-fall Saturday in Austin…in the direct sun…at high noon. “Grilling gives the food that layer of flavor and texture you can’t get cooking indoors,” he says as he lovingly nudges the Korean-inspired marinated chicken thighs, baby onions, broccoli, kale and savoy cabbage into charred perfection.
As a chef who’s created and run top restaurants the world over, Ho could just as easily whip up something in the air-conditioned kitchen of his Allandale home—an open, airy space he shares with his wife and fellow restaurant veteran Kate Wallace, daughter Ruby and a very lazy French bulldog named Bun. But since he returned to Austin in January to become the first-ever global vice president of culinary and hospitality for Whole Foods Market, the only meals he wants to make at home are those he can throw over a fire. “This is how I turn my brain off,” he says—flipping an imaginary switch at his temple.
This evening, Ho has invited over his senior staff so they can all turn off their brains together—a must when your job is to oversee the prepared foods and bakery operations of 450 stores in 12 regions (including overseas). Ho picked much of his team from the restaurant world, which may sound like poor preparation for working at a grocery, until you consider that Whole Foods Market is essentially a giant restaurant chain. The company sells several billions of dollars in prepared foods annually and runs 180 in-store bars. For Ho, staying on top of this massive enterprise is far more exciting than running a single restaurant, especially since he’s been there and done that.
A Houston native by way of Vietnam, Ho graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in history and philosophy and five minors. (“I just loved school,” he says with a laugh.) But when he put aside his planned Ph.D. in history to try cooking at Austin’s dearly departed The Belgian Restaurant, there was no turning back. Ho moved on to the kitchen of the Driskill Hotel before relocating to New York City in 2002, where he did a stint as the saucier at Café Boulud before helping Gray Kunz launch Café Gray in 2005. Loving the techniques of fine dining but tired of its exclusivity, Ho found a compatriot in soon-to-be-famous David Chang. “We wanted to strip away the bells and whistles and make something more approachable,” says Ho. Spearheading Ssäm Bar and Má Pêche as a partner and chef in Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group, Ho earned New York Magazine’s praise as one of five Best New Chefs of 2011.
By this point, Ho seemed poised to become another New York rock-star chef like his friends. He got French bistro Montmartre off the ground with partner Gabe Stulman and considered launching another restaurant a year later. Instead, Ho became…a hotel executive? He’d already been working—and loving—freelance work between chef jobs as a consultant for a few restaurants, and he just couldn’t pass up the offer from Morgan Hotel Group to turn its 13 boutique hotels around the world into food destinations. A year into the project, Morgan was about to change ownership and Ho didn’t know if the new regime still needed his unique services, but Whole Foods Market certainly did. Signing on with the corporation not only meant a challenge Ho relished, but a return home for his whole family—Wallace grew up here and the couple was thrilled for the opportunity to raise Ruby just down the street from extended family.
One of Ho’s first acts as head of the empire was to create a simple food truck. After strapping on an apron to dream up some sandwiches with the catering department, Ho sent the Tartinette truck on its way just in time for SXSW in March. Through Tartinette and its successors—the pupusa-centric Dina’s Pupuseria and breakfast-focused Scrambled—Ho basically created Whole Foods Market test kitchens on wheels. The effort underscores his dual mission to unify the stores but also to encourage the individualism they all enjoy. One minute he’s partnering with noted chef Erik Bruner-Yang on the ramen-themed Paper Horse at the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C., and the next he’s brainstorming with different stores on a universal “pasta concept” for every single Whole Foods Market in the world. “We want each store to do its own thing,” says Ho. “We’re just here to connect them together.”
Back in the cool comfort of his dining room, with “Islands in the Stream” wafting from the speakers, Ho and his team sit down to the grilled feast. Talk turns to weekend plans, inter-office karaoke competitions and, these being food people, a little restaurant gossip. Ho has no problem calling this gathering “team building,” but truth is, he’d hang out with these folks anytime. “I’m not really a corporate guy,” he says.
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Travis Hallmark