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Chef profile: Jasper’s Ruben Campos

February 25, 2019

Ruben Campos eats, sleeps and breathes the sleek, modern interior of Jasper’s in Market Street.

As head chef and general manager of Jasper’s, Campos has all of his fingers in all of the “pies,” so to speak. The key to running both the business and creative sides of a popular eatery? Delegation, Campos said.

“The day is not long enough,” Campos said. “The challenge is having people work with me that are talented enough to where I don’t have to have my hands in everything.”

If ever there was an industry where time and experience are the only way to advance, it would be the restaurant industry. For many, waiting tables and low-level prep roles lay the groundwork for a future farther up the ladder of responsibility in the culinary world. The profession is flexible, Campos said, and draws students and others in transitional roles — but if you want a future in it, you have to work your way up.

Campos, a Katy native, said he began his career as a dishwasher at age 14. After a stint at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Campos left the company in 1998, around the same time as then-CEO and current Jasper’s owner, Bill Hyde. Campos then spent 11 years in Dallas working for Hyde’s restaurant group, H2R Restaurant Holdings, L.L.C., before eventually opening a Cajun-inspired concept in Plano called Zea’s in 2005.

Then, in 2012, Campos began to search for a way to come back home. His father’s health was failing and he said he needed to be close to his family — Hyde and Campos arranged for him to become head chef and general manager of Jasper’s in The Woodlands.

Adapting to a new market presented its own challenges, Campos said — diners in Dallas are looking to revel in the dining scene, but in Houston, by contrast, it’s more likely that they’re out to experience the food, Campos said. Tastes are different, too, he said — seafood, for example, is more popular closer to the coast. Even within Houston, there are subtle differences — a customer dining out in the Inner Loop is looking for a slightly different experience that someone eating in Market Street.

“I can do what inside the loop can do, but their needs are different,” Campos said.

That’s proving true as Jasper’s seeks to expand and model its menu and services to reflect modern tastes — the restaurant recently revamped its brunch menu with unique offerings, like chicken and waffles and crab cake Benedict, rather than twists on the core dinner menu.

Although it’s a high-end restaurant, Campos said, Jasper’s’ location in The Woodlands also lends itself to draw a lot more families than a similar restaurant in the Inner Loop, and catering to all members of the family remains a high priority.

“If we can get more kids in, it’s easier for mom and dad to come to brunch,” Campos said.

Also unusual for similar restaurants, Jasper’s is working on a take-out menu with a system to ensure the best quality results when the food finally makes it home. It’s a sign of the times, Campos said, and the restaurant’s owners and culinary team are eager to please.

“If you eat out 14 times a week, it’s easier to pick it up and go home,” Campos said. “We want to make sure the food is just like it is in the restaurant.”

As for the menu, Campos likes to play around a little bit, like any chef, he said, but while also maintaining a core menu — wood-grilled pork tenderloin, smoked salmon and Parmigiano Reggiano-crusted trout — aids in building relationships with regulars. Expansion is on the horizon, Campos said, with a potential new location in Houston and another in Dallas joining the 11 concepts in H2R family of eateries.

“I like that we’re in the area,” he said. “I don’t want us to become a chain.”

Jasper’s, and the restaurant industry, remains a family affair for the father-of-six, both at home and at work. One of his sons is a sous chef in Arizona and his stepson works at Jasper’s, but even without being related, Campos said, the staff is a family. The restaurant has lower turnover rate on average and the company is still small enough to where the culture remains familiar.

“This is family,” Campos said. “That’s the atmosphere we try to have here.”

mrincon@chron.com