Story By Angelique Gammon | Photos by Monika Laird
Just as it has for 11 years, Madden’s Casual Gourmet will close for New Year’s Day, a well-deserved break after the graduation and holiday rush. When it reopens at the usual time for the first lunch service of 2016, all the favorites will be the same: Southern fried chicken breast with mashed potatoes, vegetables, and gravy; seared crab cakes with fried polenta, cilantro aioli, and greens tossed with smoked tomato vinaigrette; and don’t forget the grilled meatloaf with sautéed cabbage, cornbread, mashed potatoes, and tomato sauce.
The staff, the menu, and the gracious, personal service that has made Madden’s a niche of inspired dining since Peter and Tara Madden opened the restaurant in 2004 – all just the same.
What will be new in the New Year are the primary owners: Chef Tai Lee and his wife Christina. It’s a pairing as perfect as a glass of Reynolds Family Pinot Noir with Madden’s seared smoked duck, cornbread-apple-pecan bread pudding, and spinach tossed in brown butter and apricot jam.
After all, outside his own ventures – Veritas Wine & Bistro, Paolo’s Italian Kitchen, and Chef Tai’s Mobile Bistro – Madden’s is Chef Tai’s favorite place to eat.
Neither regulars nor newcomers will notice the change in ownership; both chefs want it that way.
Theirs is an inspiring friendship and a unique foodie buddy tale. Sitting together at a sunny table inside Madden’s, Peter and Tai laugh, talk, finish each other’s sentences, trade good-natured digs about Peter being the “older” mentor, and smile as they talk about their shared vision for Madden’s bright future.
Most of all, they smile.
In their words, this is the story.
Peter Madden: [There is] no real transition other than the fact Tai will be the primary…It’s been hard to keep a lid on things [about the sale].
Tai Lee: Our whole mission from the get-go is, this is my favorite restaurant outside of the restaurants I own and operate, and I did not want anything changed. I love this restaurant for what it is. I’ll be taking over a little more of the day-to-day, become the head figure for the back of the house…I’ll continue to consult Peter on how to do Madden’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Peter: We’ve known each other nine years; that’s a long time…I have a lot of admiration for him, and what he has been able to do...
[Madden’s] has defined me for 11 years, helped make me who I am…[we] didn’t have kids when it started; we have three now. It’s been a huge part of my life. So, it’s hard to let something go. I don’t know what would have happened [if Tai didn’t buy Madden’s]. I do know Madden’s isn’t my future…Mad Taco is my future…
I called Tai, and said, “Hey, listen…”
Tai: I got a phone call…I’ve got a deal you can’t refuse…[laughter]
Peter: I called him. We had coffee. I said, “Would you have any interest in taking it over?” My goal was not letting it end or let it just dwindle away into mediocrity.
If I was to sell it to someone else, I don’t know that I would let the name go. I am comfortable with Tai having the name and the recipes…I don’t know if I would entrust that to someone I don’t know.
Tai: Great shoes to fill. It just goes back to my great memory of dining out at Madden’s. The first time, it was my church member who took me out on a lunch…Right away, I actually told the landlord Kay Conlee the same thing…when I got the food it was nothing I’d seen in this town. It was so upscale, so gourmet and so creative…I thought, I don’t know who this chef is, but this guy rocks. So immediately I became a huge fan. I’ve pledged to him, to myself, and to the staff, that really it’s not about transforming it to my style of cooking because Madden’s is unique, and I really adore the uniqueness.
I trust our great staff that Peter has trained the past 11 years…I’m just hoping to add something on top of that to move forward…Peter’s menu is so diverse. Even though it is the new American with an emphasis on the Southwestern cooking, he has definitely demonstrated some of the Asian flair. One of the dishes I loved is the sesame seared tuna with a little soy and a little cilantro, and I’m like, wait a minute, this is something I would do, and Peter’s doing it!
Peter: An interesting fact about what’s happening in this transition is that the person who is going to be Tai’s sous chef here…used to work here many years ago…he was one of my right hands for two or three years before he went to work for Tai…he’s familiar with my style. It’s going to help the transition a lot.
Tai: Crab cakes and meatloaf and southern-style fried chicken are some of my go-to favorites here. Desserts are great…his Crème Brule…his bread and the dipping oil, it’s simple as that…I love it.
AG: When was the first time you really connected with each other?
Tai: Wine dinner for me…
Peter: I think the food trucks really brought us together…we were a couple of ships in a huge ocean…five years for Tai, four years for me…we were consulting and already friends, but that was bonding…
Tai: For me it was the first wine dinner…it was a Dearfield Wine Dinner; I came as a guest…
Peter: Robert Rex.
Tai: The Robert Rex wine dinner…I was blown away. I was 28 and Veritas was already open and I was trying to mold myself to be someone significant in this town, and I saw Peter putting on a show like that…he became the target I wanted to reach…a certified executive chef, a great family, it’s a great story. As a youngster who is learning…[laughter]
Peter: [laughing] I’m used to it….I was [your age]…a long time ago…[laughter]
Tai: He very easily became an idol I looked up to and tried to emulate. Some restaurateurs are so secretive and don’t want to share a lot of information, where Peter was really open about it…I’ll never forget that, how he helped me out.
The important thing is, he has a great, loyal following. I want to make sure we take care of their needs first…That’s my top priority.
Peter: We opened up [Mad Taco] right around May 1, and the inspiration for it was the food truck…Three of the tacos on Mad Taco’s menu are the tacos I served on the food truck.
As soon as I sold Tai the food truck [laughter]…[to Tai] I’ve got my house coming up for sale soon…You’ll be getting a phone call…
Tai: Your house in Bryan? It’s a great house!
Peter: [laughing] I’m kidding…
…After I sold the truck to Tai, I started asking my followers via Twitter…about a stand-alone taco shop here in town and they were all excited about it.
Tara and I had already decided Mad Taco would be the name…but 70 to 90 percent of my followers came back with the name Mad Taco without me mentioning it. I wanted something that wasn’t defined necessarily by me being there…I like it now that people come in and think it’s a chain…
I’m now in my late 40s. When I think about where I want to be in 10 years, it’s not in the back of Madden’s peeling potatoes. We would like to open more [Mad Tacos] on our own. Texas is a huge market. I could easily grow only in Texas and have 100 stores. Proximity will be important in the beginning. A second location here in town is likely…Houston, Austin…after that, who knows?
AG: What will it be like for both of you a year from now?
Tai: Peter and Tara are always going be part of [Madden’s].
Peter: Tai wants it to be Madden’s. That’s my role, to keep him on that path. I’ll be the consultant. So it will always feel like Madden’s. That’s what Tai wants.
Tai: We are up to it, to give this place a long-term lease on life. Peter didn’t want to see it dwindle; it was his baby, too.
Peter: [To Tai] I am really excited about the transition. There is no one better to run
Madden’s than you. I’m excited for you. I’m excited for me. I’m excited for the future of Madden’s, Veritas, everything that you’ve got going and everything I’ve got going on. Thank you for the opportunity. I hope you take advantage of it, as well.
Tai: Thank you so much Peter. We’ll do the best.