About a month before Theodore Rex debuted its third pandemic pop-up, chef-owner Justin Yu told his chef de cuisine that the menu would be entirely up to her. And so, Kaitlin Steets launched Littlefoot, a five-course French tasting menu concept at Theodore Rex that runs until the end of April. Here’s what you need to know about the project, and the Houston rising star chef who has already racked up a James Beard nod.
Littlefoot is a love letter to culinary fundamentals.
After learning that Yu was leaving her full reign of Theodore Rex’s next pop-up menu, Steets went back to the basics: the culinary fundamentals she learned at her alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.
“To me, those are the most exciting parts of cooking,” Steets says. “If you understand the basic fundamentals, you’re already halfway there.”
What interests Steets most is the essence of cooking, the theory behind. It’s the how and why behind a really good purée that electrifies her, the know-how of building a sauce, the way a certain protein or vegetable should be cooked in order to extract the best flavor possible, and how everything translates across cultures.
Take her first course, a spin on the classic bistro salad. The frisée comes with a carrot purée studded with mint, dill, and rosewater. But what Steets really delved into was the accompanying condiment, which incorporates a spice blend reminiscent of ras el hanout.
“I go and I do as much research as I can… to sort of translate it in a way I want to understand it. But also doing it respectfully,” Steets says. “[It] kind of brings in the Northern African, Moroccan flavors a little bit.” For Steets, the extensive research is how she processes ingredients, a flavor, or a dish. Throw in the exceptional Gulf Coast produce she champions, and Steets’ 2020 James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year comes into sharper focus.
“I definitely am somebody who is like, how do 50 different people cook this ingredient or dish? What kind of cultural references exist in this process?” she says.
Steets knows her Texas vegetables.
When you visit Littlefoot, you’ll be presented with two $65 choices: The degustation menu featuring meat and fish, or the vegetable tasting menu. For Steets, an all-vegetarian option was always a given. You can see it in the way she plates wedges of Badger Flame beets with a fondant of braised greens and black garlic, or how she roasts lion’s mane mushrooms from Flying Saucer Farms over coals and dresses them up with Bordelaise sauce: Steets has a reverence for Texan produce.
This started early on in her career with one of her first kitchen gigs as a cook under Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, who emphasized building relationships with farmers.
“That was really a place where I learned how Houston seasons work,” Steets says.
The vegetables were also what struck her when she first dined at Oxheart, Justin Yu’s first restaurant before it closed and made way for Theodore Rex. “You could tell that the product was super intentional,” Steets says of the meal, still remembering an okra and sunchoke dish. When she later joined Yu’s team as a line cook at Oxheart, it’s something he instilled in her over the years.
“There are so many different ways that you can be careful about your costs in a small restaurant, but product, especially when it includes supporting the small businesses, the small farms, and the local purveyors, that is when you don’t cut corners,” she says.
Littlefoot is very much a reflection of that mindset, with Steets calling on her cherished T-Rex purveyors for her solo debut. That means limes and her favorite mushrooms from Flying Saucer Farms, frisée greens and beets from Joshua Rosas’ Jordan Ranch, and sorrels from her go-to sorrel guy at Plant It Forward.
“Learning what people are growing, how they’re growing it, how to use it, going to the farmers’ market and having those relationships,” Steets says, “That’s my favorite part of the job, hands down.”
She rose from line cook to chef de cuisine.
Steets has been working with Justin Yu for nearly six years, but when she started with him, she was an entry-level cook. And Oxheart’s small open kitchen setup and tasting menu format meant that you couldn’t hide anything from Yu.
“He saw me do everything wrong as a cook,” Steets says. “And I see that as a good thing.”
The Oxheart kitchen, with its 70-hour work weeks, was a high-pressure environment. Still, Yu stressed the importance of transparency when it came to running things, whether it be about ordering, doing inventory, or understanding business numbers — something Steets was immediately sold on.
When Oxheart closed in March 2017, Steets let Yu know she wanted to be a part of his next project, and later that October, Theodore opened in the same building. Steets was still a cook, but Yu trusted her and quickly promoted her to junior sous chef and then chef de cuisine in a span of 15 months.
In pre-pandemic times, the Theodore Rex à la carte menu was a mutual back and forth between the two chefs. “Nothing is without the other,” Steets explains, “We’re both very honest about what works and doesn’t.”
When the pandemic hit, forcing dining rooms across the nation to shutter in mid-March 2020, T-Rex pivoted to its first pop-up, the takeout-only Moneycat inspired by Yu’s Chinese roots. Next up was Yuston’s in May, the team’s playful ode to the Hillstone Group restaurants — French dip and spinach artichoke dip spins included. By December, Yu and Steets were toying around with the idea of doing a tasting menu for T-Rex’s third pop-up, in part as a nostalgic wink to Oxheart’s format of lore, partly as a new creative outlet to explore.
What Steets didn’t realize then was that she was going to have full creative reign. “It’s definitely required Justin to put a whole lot of trust of me, and I know that’s a little scary for him,” Steets says. “I’m very grateful that he has trusted me with this.”
…And just like a young plant-eating cartoon dinosaur, this is her coming of age tale.
Similar to “The Land Before Time” dinosaur that her pop-up is named after (yes, really), Steets feels she is coming into her own during a worldwide crisis.
“Parts of it have forced me to gain a level of confidence I probably didn’t have before,” she explains. Not only in terms of creating her very own tasting menu, but as a leader, both inside the kitchen and out.
She feels lucky to have a restaurant team that has been immensely supportive and helped her through every step of the way, from wine buyer and sommelier Justin Vann on wine pairings — “He’s so good at his job, he makes me like the food more” — to Diana Kendrick, the maître d’ leading the front of house. But the people she praises the most are her cooks.
“I really enjoy watching them learn. That is so cool to me. It’s not an easy kitchen to work in, it’s hard, but watching them work through all that, oh my god, my heart just explodes,” Steets says.
She sees her role in the kitchen as that of a teacher, giving her team the tools and resources to develop their skillset to become stronger cooks. This not only goes back to the culinary fundamentals she looks up to, but also the need for transparency that Yu has long upheld: She doesn’t want her cooks to simply recreate her menu, no questions asked.
“I’m asking a lot of them and the last thing I want is for it to not feel like they’re growing and learning through the process,” she says. “I want to have cooks here that can go out and make other restaurants great, too.”
This can only lead to a better restaurant industry she believes, and Steets intends to play her part in it, too.
“It’s a little surreal sometimes, when it’s my food and not Justin’s,” she says. “I really appreciate him being like, ‘You need to develop what your food is, and not my food.’”
“And that’s been fun.”
Littlefoot at Theodore Rex is open for indoor dining Friday through Monday for dinner, for a $65 five-course tasting menu (vegetarian option available) until the end of April. More information here.