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Creating Sophisticated Cuisine — Bold Women and Bold Bites

“Don’t be afraid to take risks. I have failed as much as I have succeeded—which is why I’m still here. It’s a great time for women to become chefs,” smiles Chef CJ Trahan of Crush Wine Lounge and Restaurant.

The Woodlander recently met up with 2 celebrated female chefs in The Woodlands, CJ Trahan, age 43, and Hilda Ysusi, age 29, while relaxing at Whole Foods Market® in Hughes Landing. Trahan is the Executive Chef of Crush Wine Lounge and Restaurant, an upscale wine lounge and classic American bistro overlooking The Woodlands Waterway. Ysusi owns and is the Executive Chef of Broken Barrel, a luxury global-infused restaurant and wine bar facing Lake Woodlands.

First off, what are you both drinking? 

CT: Karbach Brewery’s Love Street. It’s a beer with interesting German floral hops with a clean malt profile. Karbach is a brewery in Houston.

HY: Lindeman’s Framboise, a raspberry lambic beer from Belgium. Before hops were common in most beers, fruits were used to season them.

Where are you from and how did your interest in cooking begin? 

CT: I’m from Humble, Texas. My Irish Grandmother was an amazing cook and fond of making elaborate meals. She taught me about gardening—growing fruits and vegetables and cooking. I’m also part Cajun so cooking has always been part of my life, but it wasn’t until 5 years ago that I understood I could make a career of it. I spent my early 20’s working at Texas Marine repairing boats and later became a paralegal. Although I was good at it, I was miserbable. As a creative person, I felt chained to my desk. Meanwhile, my friends were always praising my home cooking and would beg me to make either my Shepherd’s Pie or Fettucine Alfredo for their own family celebrations. By the way, I could never have been a chef in my 20’s when I was in the thick of motherhood. Now, in my 40s I am able—I have the time.

HY: I was born in Mexico City to a family where my father, in addition to my mother, would do a lot of the home cooking. He liked to pull ingredients from whatever was available in the pantry fridge or garden—to challenge himself to try new flavor and texture combinations. As a result, I grew up around this type of wild, unabandoned and super creative approach to cooking. In addition, I visited The Woodlands throughout my childhood and always loved it. To have my own restaurant in The Woodlands, now, as an adult is a dream come true for me.

How did you get your start in the culinary industry?

CT: One day, a dear friend of mine, Kaicee Crowling, a chef at a Houston-based catering company, asked for my help last minute when a staffer was ill. I jumped in and worked in the kitchen as her sous chef and had the best time! I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to have so much fun. I couldn’t stop smiling. And the rest, as they say, is history. I haven’t left the kitchen since!

HY: I pursued my culinary passions early in life as a teenager, traveling to Switzerland in 2005 to study at a Le Cordon Bleu sanctioned culinary and pastry program. Then I staged food at Jean Georges in 2009 and received 2 degrees from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in Baking and Pastry Arts in 2010 and Culinary Arts in 2012. Subsequently, I worked for the Nestle Corportation and then moved to Florida to become the corporate chef for Sushi Maki.

What inspires you?

CT: I like to make new desserts and find ideas on Pinterest. I love watching Chef’s Tableand Ugly Deliciouson television.

HY: Traveling, trying new foods and experimenting with new ingredients inspires my international style of cooking. I love watching Top Chefand Salt Fat Acid Heaton television.

Ironically, the joke is a chef’s own fridge is usually empty, but what would we find it we did peek in your fridge today? 

CT: (laughing) Nothing! So true! Maybe a few ingredients to make up a cheese and charcuterie board. We chefs pretty much keep doctor’s hours!

HY: (laughing) Similar to CJ! If you’re lucky, maybe just eggs, turkey breast and a cheese. Wine, however, is abundant!

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the Office for National Statistics, fewer than 20% of kitchens in the United States are run by women. What do you say to women working to become chefs? 

HY: Every day more and more women are entering the culinary world in the kitchen lines of famous restaurants in New York and London. It’s slowly building to become an even playing field.

CT: Don’t be afraid to take risks. I have failed as much as I have succeeded—which is why I’m still here. It’s a great time for women to become chefs. My entire kitchen staff is female.

(They clink drinks, take their last sips and then shop the Whole Foods aisles.)

Cheersto Chef CJ Trahan and Chef Hilda Ysusi whom share a love of dogs, comfortable shoes, and an inspring passion for creating incredibly delicious food at Crush Wine Lounge and Broken Barrel.

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