By Alice Levitt 10/23/2019 at 6:00am
WANT A CHATEAUBRIAND CARVED TABLESIDE? Head to Brennan’s of Houston. But when you make your reservation, be sure to ask for Marcelino Cantu.
The long center portion of the filet mignon is a luxury that’s fallen out of favor, but when Cantu started working at 3300 Smith St. on July 17, 1974 (yes, he remembers the exact date—he has an unerring mind for numbers), it was a popular staple. It hasn’t been on the menu at Brennan’s for years, but you can enjoy the whole affair, edible performance and all, if you plan ahead.
It’s all part of Cantu’s 45-year commitment to stellar service. According to Carl Walker, general manager at Brennan’s, the chefs aren’t thrilled by the special orders, but it’s those kinds of touches that have earned Cantu a devoted following for almost half a century. His steel trap mind retains all of his special guests’s birthdays and anniversaries and expects them in his section on those days. But they remember his, too. “I have some guests who know my birthday and come that day and bring me presents and everything,” he says.
It’s a relationship that for many fans has lasted a lifetime. “I still have some customers who would be a baby girl or baby boy in the car seat and baby chairs and now they bring their own kids. I still serve the whole family and they still request me. And we’re not talking one or two, we’re talking a lot of guests,” he says.
Why is Cantu so popular? “He is the elder statesman, maybe sometimes the godfather,” says Walker. He lives and breathes traditional service, making conversation only when guests initiate it, but always remaining friendly and attentive.
While he protests that he doesn’t do anything different from any other waiter, he does mention that his favorite task at work is cooking tableside. He relishes whipping up a bananas foster (which, as we know, originated at Brennan’s in New Orleans) and misses the days when he was flambéing crêpes Fitzgerald and cherries jubilee. (He does still have one loyal customer who habitually brings cherries with him to the restaurant expressly for the latter.) There were once many more tableside dishes, including Cantu’s favorite steak tartare (toss some capers in your purse and he might still make it for you), Caesar salad and trout Christine, prepared with lemon and capers.
But he is a legend for his skills with café Brûlot. The off-menu coffee cocktail is an ambitious piece of performance art that involves flaming brandy and triple sec, mixing them from on high while still aflame. This burns off most of the alcohol before he adds the strong coffee and sets an orange peel on fire multiple times, ensuring that it’s nicely singed before it’s added to the pot, too. The result, set off with a healthy dose of cinnamon and clove, tastes like a bolstering jolt of Christmas spirit. Through every step, there is joy on his face.
Cantu joined his brother, Mario, one of the original servers at Brennan’s, from their native Monterrey, Mexico, looking for a change. He has now been working at the restaurant for exactly half of the John Staub-designed building’s 90-year lifespan. Except, that is, for a year-and-a-half-long absence after a fire ripped through the restaurant in 2008.
Cantu remembers it was September 13 because he was on vacation in Las Vegas. He applied “everywhere” but failed to find another job until he and his wife went to dinner at Hugo’s, where he was friendly with the staff. Chef Hugo Ortega invited him to start as a server there a few days later. “I loved that job,” he recalls. When Brennan’s was close to reopening, he wasn’t sure if he would return or stay at Hugo’s. It was his guests that made the decision for him. He says 100 percent of his regulars followed him to the Mexican restaurant, but they begged him to return to Brennan’s.
Cantu will turn 72 in December and says he has no plans to retire. He has guests who tell him, “When you retire, we’ll never come back here.” He stays for them, and because he says he relishes the constant learning he gets to do as he meets a younger customer base. “I feel very proud of my profession,” he says. “That’s the reason I don’t retire.” And, he adds, “It’s my therapy.”
And if one man’s therapy is whipping up an off-menu filet mignon Rockefeller (yes, it’s what it sounds like, but there’s crabmeat as well as oysters), who are we to stand in his way, especially when we’re craving a taste of tradition.