Celebrated designer Jordan Mozer and master chef Michael Cordúa have collaborated on four Houston-area restaurants, including Américas and Churrascos Sugar Land (shown). Their partnership is unique, based as much on shared historical, literary, and cultural interests as on cuisine and design. In a panel on Wednesday, May 15th at 2:30 p.m., the two will discuss their work, their friendship, and the source of their mutual inspiration. Mozer shares a bit here.
How did you and chef Cordúa first meet?
In the early nineties we were invited to Houston to design a Mediterranean restaurant/nightclub. We based the design on Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, set on an enchanted island between Italy and Tunis. The play’s themes include service/servitude, enchantment, love, escape. Michael came to visit Tempest as we were finishing it up. He had leased a space at the same complex. As we walked through he became excited about the relationship of the narrative to the design.
Michael was born in Nicaragua. He worked for many years in the oil shipping business but had a passion for cooking. He left the oil business and opened a South American steak restaurant. It was successful, but he wanted to be more adventurous at his new restaurant. Michael’s recipes employ foodstuffs indigenous to the Americas irreverently applied to hybrid European/Pan-American recipes, resulting in American originals.
We had recently finished a Bay Area restaurant which explored what ‘American’ design might be in an effort to find an appropriate environment to promote California cooking and wines. Working with Michael expanded our ideas about what ‘American’ meant. It enlarged to include the entire New World.
Talk about your shared love of literature and how it affects your professional relationship.
When I met Michael I had never been south of Mexico. We connected through our mutual love of restaurants, modern South and Central American literature, and cultural anthropology. Before earning degrees in industrial design and architecture I was an English major and a huge fan of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and the magical realist Gabriel Garcia Márquez. We discussed the rich hybrid results of mixing European, African, and indigenous American cultures in parts of the New World. Working with Michael reinforced ideas about hospitality design as a form of walk-in magical realism.
How much input does he have on your design of his restaurants?
Michael pushes us. We spend lots and lots of time on the plan to make sure the room functions well. Michael won’t approve a design element for the front of the house if there isn’t a narrative associated with it, a narrative consistent with the restaurant concept and his philosophy. We have designed four projects together. On the second one he thought our designs were too tame and he asked me if someone cut off my balls since I saw him last. We work on the narratives together. Michael will introduce an idea with a cultural or anthropological source, and we will research the idea and come up with a series of design ideas inspired by them.
What books have you been exchanging with one another recently?
Perhaps the most exciting anthropological work we read together recently was 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann, a book that entirely rewired my understanding of the Americas. We read it just after we both completed Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, one of my all time favorite books. The most inspiring recent literature I read for the new Americas restaurant in River Oaks was Blood Meridian, a surreal novel about the war between the Europeans, Mexicans, and Indians for Texas by Cormac McCarthy. We have also drawn inspiration from the flora and fauna of South America, colonial mythology, and contemporary South American popular culture.