Key business takeaways
- Authenticity drives success—show your customers your values and who you are
- Through flavor, ambiance, and decor, tap into customers’ emotions and memories to create a meaningful dining experience
- Celebrate the praise you receive from customers; while not every moment will glow, enjoy the shining moments that come in even the smallest of gestures
At the age of five, Norm Theard could be found tucked away in the safe haven of his mother’s kitchen, soaking up recipes from generations past. While cooking dishes like their family’s famous gumbo inside their home, Norm and his family protected themselves from the prejudice they faced while living in a predominantly white neighborhood just southwest of Houston. Looking to celebrate his family’s culture and cuisine rather than shield it, Norm opened The Quarter Creole Cuisine in Claremont, California.
Inspired by his great, great grandmother’s Louisiana twist on French cuisine, Norm aspires to continue his family’s legacy through innovative comfort food. With dishes like catfish in brown butter sauce or garlic salad with melted brie and roasted corn, Norm experiments with ingredients while remaining authentic to his ancestors’ palates. Everything on the menu is something that would be in his mother’s restaurant, if she ever was able to open one, he said.
While his family has had a significant influence on the flavors and ambiance of the restaurant, Norm operates The Quarter Creole Cuisine independently—with the occasional visit from his mother. Leading the restaurant comes naturally to him, especially after years of leading a band following his musical studies at the University of Austin, Texas. To Norm, the personalities of the kitchen mimic the instruments that come together to create one beautiful piece, bringing smiles to listeners and diners alike.
We spoke with Norm to learn more about how he has persevered through adversity and continues to intertwine his past, present, and future through the restaurant.
How did you first find yourself in the kitchen?
Growing up in Houston was difficult because we were the darkest family, the only Black family in our neighborhood, Sharpstown, which is southwest Houston. We all made some friends, but we had some issues with moving in, and the neighbors, and not being accepted. Our little getaway from the neighborhood was to go inside and taste some of my mom’s fabulous cooking, so it was a good place to recharge.
I was always the one that somehow ended up in the kitchen with mom. For the holidays, when everybody’s watching TV and watching football games, I ended up in the kitchen because she needed help. Even at five or six years old, I was in the kitchen helping mom, and I was watching what she was doing. Nobody else was really into the food like I was, so somehow I started to grab these recipes as a little kid.
What other experiences from your childhood shaped your journey to becoming a chef?
For recess, it would be normal, if we’re going to play soccer or if we’re going to play basketball, for the teacher to pick two team captains. They would pick the teams and every single time for years and years, I would be the last one to be chosen, despite the fact that I was literally the best one—especially with soccer. I could beat everybody, but I would be the last one to be picked. The feeling of being unwanted is significant. It’s like, “Why is this? This happened to me. This happened to my dad. What’s going on here?” It was hard to really figure that out. It took years and years to figure out what that was, and it was just our skin color.
Right now, I’m experiencing the polar opposite of what I experienced as a child. As a kid, the only place we could go really to feel safe was inside of our house. Inside of our house, we had great food, we had the friendship of our family, and we had a couple close friends. That was the place where we were safe, and outside was where all the bad stuff could happen.
Here in this restaurant, it’s so unusual. This is a celebration of my family’s food, and now people can’t get into the restaurant [because it’s so busy]. It’s really interesting to go from one spectrum, where I was when I was a kid, to the complete opposite now, where everybody wants a piece of what we had.
What do customers experience when they walk into your restaurant?
When you come into The Quarter, you feel like you’re walking into a really nice hotel or a restaurant in the French Quarter, and that’s all on purpose. Every little piece was thought-out and to give you that feeling. There’s beautiful frames in the tile, and the tables I made myself, and the ceiling tiles are custom made… All those little things make a difference. There’s other restaurants you go to and then it’s hard to get that same feeling because all that stuff isn’t there… Here, you feel that cozy feeling based on all these things that surround you. Then, there’s that intangible of the incredible smells that you get in here, and then the feeling of the people that work here. It’s alive. It’s got its own heartbeat… The experience when you walk into this place is really kind of like walking into someone’s home.
What makes the food truly authentic?
The way I approach food is—it’s all historical stuff. It’s all stuff that my mom made. It’s all stuff that my grandmother made. The difference between this place and others, I think, is that I use only the [type] of ingredients that my mom had. I’ll come up with new dishes, but only with stuff that my mom had or could put her fingers on. I won’t use ingredients that don’t make any sense. I won’t do tacos or burritos or any super fusion stuff because it completely dilutes the concept and the feel of its authenticity. When you come here, you’re going to get authentic food like you would’ve got at my mom’s house.
In addition to the cuisine and ambiance, how else has your family influenced the way you operate The Quarter?
Dad was the business guy who can tell you and recite stuff from textbooks about business administration, which is great. Mom was the creative. She was the singer, the artist, and the incredible cook. She also had a beautiful house and could just do everything. This is the perfect combination of those two people. Dad’s business side, which people don’t see, is me in the office crunching numbers and making things happen, and making sure we have our payroll and paying our rent on time and all those important things, and then there’s all the creative stuff. Without one of those things, you’re in trouble.
What advice do you have for aspiring restaurant owners?
You have to have a thick skin… Don’t be surprised when you put out your best products and they just don’t dig it from time to time. You just have to forget that and remember the other 50 people in the last few days that told you how great it was. You can’t let those little negatives change your course. You have to just focus on all the good stuff out there.
What do you see as The Quarter’s legacy?
The meaning of The Quarter is to literally change people’s moods… When the food arrives, you can just see that there’s something changed. You can see that it’s lighter and it’s happier. Being able to transport people emotionally is what this place is about… It was more than just the food on the plate. All those little things together made their life better for that little moment that they’re here.
If I don’t keep the recipes like my mom did, and her mom, and her mom’s mom did, then all these future generations may not get to taste what this great food is. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t mess with it. That’s why people can taste the difference—because it’s the same thing for them. Some of those people did lose that connection when they didn’t bother. People I don’t know, that I’ve never met before, after they taste the food, need me to come out, and they start crying. It’s because they’ve missed that link between them and their ancestors, so I provide that for them now as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity; photos from Yelp.
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