Erin Smith, the executive chef for Main Kitchen at the JW Marriott Houston Downtown, has dazzled and delighted taste buds with her culinary prowess from New York to San Francisco—and to think she might have never been a chef! Fortunately she is though, and fortunately for the Houston food scene, which was just ranked the no. 8 Best Food City in America by Thrillist, she’s returned to her hometown where she has worked at restaurants like Blacksmith, Plonk! and spent nine months as the culinary director for the Clumsy Butcher restaurant group. But another lifetime and a few decades ago, Erin was a Girl Scout with the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council.
Last month we were happy to be reunited with Erin during a visit to the four-star hotel where she took a break from preparing the evening’s menu to share her amazing story of how she went from being a Girl Scout to college biology major and then became the executive chef for one of the best hotels in Houston.
GSSJC: When did you realize you wanted to be a chef—not a dentist?
ES: Between my junior and senior year of college I studied in Spain. I got the sense that women there are really strong, almost hard-headedly independent and, of course, that translates into a pride for their cooking. They are really passionate about everything they do, and they do things that they love. That made an impression on me. It wasn’t that I didn’t love dentistry, but I left Spain with a clearer idea of who I was and what I wanted to do: cooking.
GSSJC: How nervous were you making that career change? It’s really courageous, and you have to have a lot of confidence to decide to go from what you know into a field you had no experience with.
ES: I’ve always known what my interests were: I loved studying biology in college— but the question was, “How do I turn this into a career?” I thought I was limited to being either a dentist, a doctor or a scientist who worked in a lab. Spain opened my eyes, though, and showed me that food relates to biology—cooking is chemistry. All I needed to do was open my eyes and realize that I have the power to make the career I want. I never let the fear stop me. I’ve made a lot of decisions since then to work in positions that really challenged me. The fear was there, but I recognized that, “Ok, if I’m nervous then that must mean I’m excited about this, and I’m about to do something really great.” That understanding allowed me to take my life in another direction.
GSSJC: How do you think your time in Girl Scouts helped you?
ES: When I think about Girl Scouts, I always think about the good memories I’ve had with my mom and my friends. Certainly it impacted me when I stop to think about it. It’s the first time in a girl’s life where we are making friendships in an all-girl environment where there isn’t pressure to compete in a male hierarchy where your just trying to find a place. Every girl had a place, and we were learning to lead and work towards our goals.
GSSJC: And that team aspect plays well in the kitchen?
ES: Yeah, absolutely. In this hotel we have a lot of women in powerful roles, like our female pastry chef, and that’s interesting because we work well together. We have a lot of really strong, opinionated women here, and it works.
GSSJC: What was your favorite part about being a Girl Scout?
ES: Many of my fondest memories are of going to resident camp during the summer with my troop. A big part of that was about going into a different environment together and living those friendships. One memory I have is of building gingerbread houses together. It’s funny because that is something I do professionally now. And s’mores, of course. Not too long ago [at Main Kitchen] we featured a dessert that was our take on s’mores, and that certainly brought back a lot of sweet memories.
GSSJC: Did you cook when you were younger?
ES: Yes. I think the first thing I learned how to cook was eggs, and the ironic thing is in college, in one of the first chemistry labs I did, I learned about how the proteins in eggs change. The thing is cooking wasn’t a lifelong passion for me. I remember learning how to cook crepes for my family when I was younger and that was fun, but it didn’t become a passion until Spain. I didn’t have a lot of training, I didn’t know anyone who was a chef, but that became something I was proud of when my recipes turned out to be really good. I was able to say, “Wow, I did that, and no one helped me.”
GSSJC: So Girl Scouts can’t exactly take credit for making you want to become a chef. You weren’t making s’mores one evening at camp when you suddenly realized it was your life’s destiny to do so.
ES: No, not exactly. But Girl Scouts taught me how to own my decisions. You have to have confidence in yourself to do something that scares you. You don’t have to have the entire world’s support, but you do have to have your own support. The fact that you want to do it is the only reason you need.
GSSJC: How did Girl Scouts prepare you for the position of executive chef at the JW Marriott Houston Downtown?
ES: You learn very quickly, or relearn as an executive chef, that you can’t do everything by yourself. Restaurants don’t operate with just one person. You have to work with a team, and they have to want to work with you, too. So the key to running a kitchen successfully is being able to motivate people and work towards that common goal.
GSSJC: What is something you would want to cook for Girl Scouts if you took them camping?
ES: I think it would be fun to make a rustic cornbread, like they did in the old days with just a skillet and your fire. Maybe we’d even catch a fish and grill it. I was a really picky eater when I was younger, so fish may not be something girls would enjoy. There is something to be said about connecting nature with us, and we can do that through our food.
GSSJC: What would you tell the girls of today?
ES: Women are smart. We all have something to bring to the table whether that’s passion, brains or both. A lot of women feel societal pressure to stay in certain roles or careers, but you need to be able to step out and do what you want. You have to stand up for yourself and who you are. I did Girl Scouts because it was fun, and I enjoyed it—we need to do things when we get older for that same reason.