By Laura Kaae
Killeen Daily Herald
Many couldn't stand the pressure of a professional kitchen – 10 ovens blasting heat into a workspace overrun with a dozen kitchen assistants and waitstaff, tempers flaring and temperatures soaring into the 115- to 140-degree range – but this is the place Shilo Restaurant executive chef Patrick McNamara calls his own.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
McNamara, 35, has had a passion for cooking since he was a child, watching his grandmother harvest all her own fruits and vegetables in the garden.
"She really taught me to give the best product to the customer," he said. "I want to cook for people as if I am cooking for a member of my family."
As a kindergartner, McNamara would run home from school at lunchtime and watch cooking shows.
"We got off school at noon, and I'd run home and watch Justin Wilson, a chef who had his own cooking show, on television," he recalls with a laugh. "My family thought I was a little odd."
After seeing all the shows, McNamara said he would want to try his hand at all the dishes he'd seen, a habit that helped him develop his palate at an early age.
"I'm drawn to the adventure of cooking," he said. "I have a passion for it. You could not do this job without a passion for it."
That passion is what draws McNamara to the kitchen, even though the hours are long (usually 12 hours a day), and the pressure can be intense, such as when 100 guests are out in the dining room, all wanting their food in a timely order, all made precisely to their special requests.
But his job is a "dream come true," McNamara said, a dream all chefs have of one day being able to create their works of culinary masterpieces in their own restaurant.
Some of the dishes he's known for at the Shilo Restaurant include the chicken and sausage gumbo (simmered with peppers, garlic and onions and served over rice) and the spicy jumbo prawn linguine (with andouille sausage, jumbo prawn, and peppers in a spicy tomato sauce). McNamara's signature dishes, he said, reflect his desire to bring "a touch of the South" to his cooking.
Though he's a native Texan, McNamara mastered the art of cooking out East. He attended Newbury College in Boston for a degree in culinary arts and was classically trained by master chef Tony Ambrose.
McNamara later moved back to the area to be closer to family and has recently worked at the Spa at Canyon Oaks and as executive chef at the Hilton.
Despite his East Coast culinary upbringing, McNamara said there's one thing he knows any chef in Texas has to master or he'll be eaten alive by customers – meat.
McNamara said one of his most popular dishes on the menu is the spice rubbed skirt steak (grilled skirt steak rubbed in dried chiles, cinnamon, garlic and brown sugar accompanied with a mole sauce and smashed Yukon potatoes).
"Meat is very important," he said. "This is Texas."
Still, McNamara said he likes to incorporate many flavors and unique dishes in his cooking, as he did with the introduction of the international buffet recently.
"It has been really popular, and the town has been really receptive of the international buffet," he said. "The most popular has been our French cuisine."
Despite his penchant for fancy fare, the chef admits his very favorite foods to cook and eat are simply comfort foods.
"All day long I see pt and fois gras," he said. "At the end of the day, we just want to go back to the dishes we grew up on."
At home, though, McNamara said his refrigerator is pretty bare, save for the condiments he keeps in stock, such as homemade mayonnaise.
"I'm here at 7 a.m., and I don't leave until 7 p.m. or later," he said. "So my meals are here."
What keeps him going at such a breakneck speed?
It's simple, he says. Passion.
"You wouldn't be able to do what I do if you didn't have a devotion to the job and passion for it," he said.
Shilo Inn and Restaurant is at 3701 South W. S. Young Drive in Killeen.
Contact Laura Kaae at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7464