Chef Michael Cordúa has earned his fame by introducing juicy churrasco-style steak to Houston, Texas. (Photo/Courtesy Cordúa Restaurants)

Chef Spotlight: Michael Cordúa on bringing a Nicaraguan specialty, churrasco, to Texas steak country

Vitals: Born in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua, Michael Cordúa is a 2011 James Beard Foundation award semifinalist and to date, the only chef from Texas to have been named to Food & Wine magazine’s “Hall of Fame” for his contribution to American culinary history. Cordúa has a head for finance – he moved from his native country to study economics at Texas A&M – and began his career in the shipping business, but during the drop in oil prices in the ’80s, decided to pursue his passion for food, and specifically Nicaraguan-style churrasco. The grilled cut of steak is now the hallmark dish at his first restaurant, Churrascos in Houston, Texas, as well as six other restaurants Cordúa owns in his adopted home state that has traditionally been home to Tex-Mex and barbeque. He is a father to four grown children, and is happily married to his childhood sweetheart.

Experience: Cordúa never received a formal culinary education, refining his skills in the kitchen as a college student with a heart (and stomach) for the food he left behind in Nicaragua. His first restaurant, Churrascos, was the first pan-Latin American restaurant in Houston, Texas and each of his seven restaurants in the Lone Star State prides itself on the use of heritage ingredients, cooked with European techniques to reflect Latin American cuisine at its finest. Named one of the “Top Ten Chefs” nationwide by Food & Wine, Cordúa is a member of the United Congress of Chefs & Sommeliers and has been recognized for culinary excellence with the Robert Mondavi Award. But one of his proudest moments? When Churrascos  – Cordúa’s flagship restaurant which he opened while still in his 20s – was included in Esquire magazine’s list of “Best New Restaurants in America” in 1989.

Why Nicaraguan-style churrasco is a steak without compare: Forget everything you know about churrasco, says Cordúa. That’s right: he says the Nicaraguan stlye-version of this dish is nothing like the Brazilian version or a mere grilled flank steak. “Churrasco should be made from a center cut of the best beef filet tenderloin money can buy. In Brazilian churrascarias, what’s offered isn’t usually a select cut – the emphasis is on abundance, not quality. For a true Nicaraguan churrasco experience, only the best cut is used – and that makes all the difference especially in the land of steak, here in Houston.”

Texan restaurateur and chef Michael Cordúa.

Texan restaurateur and chef Michael Cordúa. (Photo/Courtesy Cordúa Restaurants)

On the biggest challenge in bringing Nicaraguan and Latin American food to Houston, Texas: “When I first arrived in Houston in the ’80s, there were no restaurants other than Tex-Mex, BBQ joints, steakhouses and the occasional Italian restaurant. So when I opened Churrascos, everyone assumed from the name it was Mexican. That was the biggest challenge for me: to make people realize there was a cuisine beyond Mexican food that was worth exploring. “

Five ingredients he can’t live without: “Butter, mayo, milk, ice cream and bacon. That’s awful sounding, but it’s an honest response. I think you can always make something really delicious with those ingredients, and that’s why you’ll always find them in my fridge.”

The signature Nicaraguan dish he adores: “Whenever I return home, there’s one obligatory stop. It’s an off-road stall on the highway between the city I’m from, Managua and where my wife used to live, Chinandega.  They make fresh quesillos – essentially a fresh corn masa tortilla folded over mozzarella cheese – topped with a cortido of soft onion with good vinegar and hot peppers. You eat it like a burrito, and the heat of the peppers, the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the masa – there’s not much I can say to describe it other than simply delicious.”

The best advice he’s ever received: “’Take the time to understand who you’re supposed to be.’ Someone told me that almost thirty years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s important to find out who you really are, and discover the passion that gets you out of bed in the morning. Once you discover what your true passion is, then you can do what really matters. Self-discovery should come first, and that’s something I learned first-hand as I was figuring out how to transition between finance and the culinary world.”

On his fantasy last meal: “For me, dining isn’t just about what’s on the plate – it’s about the experience and the company. So I’d want to have a 25-course tasting station of hors d’oeuvres at a large reception instead of just a sit-down meal.  My son, David just made these amazing Twinkies that I would have to include on the menu. They were challah bread boats filled with mascarpone cheese and topped with caviar – absolutely amazing. There’s also a corn smoked crab fingers appetizer that I serve at my restaurants that I’d love to include at my reception if I were to put something together.”

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