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New Executive Chef Joseph Perez brings ‘hunger to learn’ to the reopened Esquire Tavern 

  • Courtesy of Esquire Tavern
It’s been a crushing year for the food and beverage industry, but revered River Walk fixture the Esquire Tavern is determined not to let 2020 be a total loss.

Closed since March due to the pandemic, the craft cocktail haven appointed new leadership behind its bar and in the kitchen and made productive use of the shutdown. It reopened earlier this month with new dishes, new cocktails and a renewed focus under recently named Executive Chef Joseph Perez.

Perez, known as “JP,” to coworkers, first joined the Esquire team in 2014 under the watchful eye of then-executive chef and boss lady Brooke Smith.
Under Smith’s instruction, Perez learned the ins and outs of house-made charcuterie and whole-animal butchering in the small kitchen of Downstairs, the river-level bar underneath the Esquire. At the time, Perez possessed no formal training, but he quickly climbed the ranks, becoming Downstairs’ sous chef in 2018.

Until its closure, he also served as sous chef at Southtown staple El Mirador, also owned by Esquire Tavern proprietor Chris Hill.

After a short stint at Olmos Park eatery Evolution Restaurant, Perez has returned to the River Walk, simultaneously bringing his laid-back attitude and a genuine excitement to the culinary landmark.

Esquire Sous Chef Emilio Baez was also on hand for the interview.

Tell us about the new influences you’re adding to the Tavern menu.

Perez: We kept a lot of the older items like the bologna melt and the Big Red empanada, because people want to come back the Tavern from the pandemic to some kind of familiarity.

A lot of the new items are Chilean- and Argentinian-inspired, as Emilio and I constantly try to find ways to add our backgrounds to the Esquire’s line up.

Baez: Texas is so big, and there are so many different worlds of food. With this new menu, we want to respect Texas but bring in flavors from Central America. You know, pebre sauce is a classic Chilean condiment, but when people find out its just cilantro, onion, olive oil, garlic and habanero peppers, they’re like, “I eat this stuff all the time!”

Perez: We want to stay true to the Tavern, but we don’t want it to be so heavy that it’s not approachable.

About 95% of your kitchen staff is brand new to the Tavern. Tell us about that dynamic.

Perez: The culture we’re trying to create, it’s really electric and built on a hunger to learn. Our team is picking up new, more positive technical habits and trying to grow and gain more experience. We’re building a culture that centers around making sure our guys know that we know that we can’t do this without them. Emilio and I met last year, and when the pandemic happened and we had to shut down, we basically put our heads together and worked on the menu all summer. We’d be texting about new books or ingredients we discovered, and we really began a partnership that’s built around a love of food.

Baez: After so many years, a lot of cooks and chefs look at food as just a job, so it’s rare to meet someone who is just as excited about food as I am. JP and I connected right away and immediately worked well together.

Tell us about your culinary journey to this new post as executive chef.

Perez: I was working on food trucks here and there, but The Esquire Tavern was my first jump into building a culinary career. On my first day at the Tavern, I didn’t have the lid completely on the VitaMix, and I accidentally splattered chicken liver pâté all over Brooke [Smith, former executive chef]. She just looked at me and said, “We’re gonna get through this, JP.” I knew then that I was going to gain a lot from her if she had that kind of patience! And I did, I learned so much from Brooke. She was constantly juggling projects on top of projects, and I’m so grateful to her for trusting me enough to take the reins of Downstairs when that time came.

Speaking of Downstairs, what’s the scoop?

Perez: We are working on a plan to reopen, and while I can’t tell you when, I can say we won’t be doing charcuterie down there. It’ll be more fine dining, avant-garde cuisine — dishes that we’re working on developing now. At first, though, we’ll just offer an extensive cocktail, beer and wine menu.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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