Chef Profile: Walter Smokey Waters

The heat of the kitchen guides this chef

Walter Smokey Waters’ name is a tribute to his grandfather (Walter) and great-grandfather (Smokey), but the corporate chef for Taco Cabana has also lived up to the moniker.

“I was notorious for burning everything,” says Waters, recalling his youth spent preparing meals for family and workers at the 2,700-acre south Texas farm he grew up on. “I would get so excited about stuff, walk away to do something else and come back to something unrecognizable.” 

Those kitchen fire days are done, replaced by honed skills and love for a different kind of smoke. Waters, 31, is sweet on mesquite and oak for smoking brisket. He loves the simplicity of these flavors, a passion he carries into his role at Taco Cabana, a 162-unit, fast-casual Mexican concept in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

“We try to bridge that gap between what everyone knows, like a beef taco, with guajillos (chiles) and cilantro,” Waters says. “For a street taco from Guadalajara, we do a charred salsa that can be added at the fresh salsa bar, but we add some ranch dressing and sour cream to cut some of the heat and round out the flavors.”

While variety comes by way of menu specials every six months or so, the focus now is on consistency and freshness, from tortillas made in-house to flame-grilled meats and charred chiles. 

“You have to do what you are known for doing great, like cooking from scratch and retraining all the cooks so that every restaurant makes rice and beans the same exact way,” Waters says. “This is what I’m fired up about now.” 

STUFF YOU OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT ME

Graduated from The Art Institute of Houston. Started as a dishwasher at Houston-based eatZi’s. Took a pass on fine dining because foams and nitrogen didn’t do it for him. Married. Loves what he’s doing now—allows for creativity, travel and a normal life (off on holidays, late nights and weekends). 

The World According to Waters 

Ingredient you’d kill for: Cilantro on a taco 

A burger is not complete without: Blue cheese

Cookbook you’re reading right now? “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” by Rick Bayless (again)

You’d throw a shoe at the TV when this is on: “Top Chef.”  So overplayed

My culinary sense would be questioned if people knew I loved: A Big Mac

What would you rather do—clean the grease trap or fire an employee? Clean the grease trap  

Would you ever eat supermarket sushi? I’d like to say no, but I have

Worst kitchen crime you’ve committed? Left a fish carcass in the kitchen toolbox of a co-worker who used to give me a hard time. It was the middle of the summer in Houston

Which actor would play you in your biopic? Zach Galifianakis from “The Hangover.” I’m kind of a goofball

Dumbest thing a cook has ever done: A guy put ice in the fryer. It shut the kitchen down

Best hangover cure: Menudo (tripe soup)