Man in charge – Fleming’s chef partner’s rise to the top

Eusebio Gongora II looks over the kitchen as chef partner of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar knowing that he has the best of both worlds. His father, also Eusebio, is from Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. His family came to the United States when he was a young boy. The first Eusebio fell in love with and married a proud Louisianan from the West Bank of New Orleans. With the Mexican heritage on his father’s side and the French and Italian roots of Creole New Orleans on his mother’s side, Gongora grew up with an incredible mixture of language, culture and food.

Gongora did not discover his true passion for the kitchen until he was enrolled at LSU to pursue a degree in biological sciences. While a pre-med student, he worked at area hospitals and clinics, but he soon realized he couldn’t see himself working in that setting for the rest of his days. He transitioned into the food world through a stint with LSU Dining as a display chef in the Magnolia Room and jack-of-all-trades in on-campus catering. Shortly thereafter, he took his first restaurant job as a cook at the newly opened Hooters on Siegen Lane. In 2005, Gongora found himself in the restaurant so much that he stopped going to school. He dropped out of LSU with only 12 hours left to finish his degree.?

Once in the profession full-time, he took a job at Fleming’s as a pantry cook, working on salads, desserts and some appetizers. He worked at Hooters by day then Fleming’s at night. Hooters soon became an afterthought as he moved into the kitchen at The Chimes by LSU for the day shift. Having gotten a taste of some different restaurant worlds, Gongora decided that his passion was to focus on a smaller restaurant and better hours.

“Hooters and The Chimes are pressure cookers,” Gongora told me. “They are high volume, and the goal is to push out food. Fleming’s on Valentine’s Day isn’t as rushed as Chimes on a Sunday brunch after a football game.”

In 2007, Gongora left The Chimes to work full-time for Fleming’s under then-Chef Partner Jeremy Coco.

By 2008, the young culinarian had worked his way up to sous chef, and after Coco left for the Louisiana Culinary Institute in 2010, it didn’t take long for the name on the glass by the front door to say Chef Partner Eusebio Gongora II. Within five years of working for Fleming’s, Gongora had risen from pantry cook to the man in charge of all back-of-the-house operations.

When I asked him what brought on his rising success, he said, “100% accountability and work ethic. Being a leader and a workhorse. Everybody always counted on me, so they might as well count on me to be chef partner.”

As a testament to his drive and ambition, Gongora enrolled once more at LSU in spring 2011. While working full-time as the chef partner, he took part-time classes until he graduated in summer 2012, right before his 30th birthday.

Gongora describes his culinary style as “looking for ways to fit food that I grew up with at the restaurant. I try to blend flavors from both sides of my childhood and use those techniques to create elevated comfort food.”

A perfect example of this is his Bacon Waffle Ice Cream. “It seemed fun. It just sounded good. I like the salty-sweet combo,” he says.

Despite working at a corporate restaurant like Fleming’s, Gongora still gets to play around with the menu. The local chefs, not corporate kitchens, create all the special features at the restaurant. The turtle soup, ice creams, sorbets and more are all conceptualized from within. He’s also making a bigger push into wine and beer dinners with full creative control of the menu. Recently he hosted dinners featuring Spanish tapas with Spanish wines, and a stunning beer dinner that made many hop-heads really happy. Keep an eye out for Gongora to continue to climb the rungs of the culinary ladder in Baton Rouge.

Jay D. Ducote is the author of the food and beverage blog Bite and Booze, host of the Bite and Booze Radio Show and co-host of Raise a Glass. You can find him online at biteandbooze.com.