Attention to detail is chef Ara Malekian's trademark. When preparing a dish, he considers each ingredient in an effort to create a unique culinary experience. For example, the Swiss-born executive chef, who always wears a cowboy hat, only smokes his meat with oak wine staves - pieces of the barrels that retain the flavor of the vintage they held.

You can taste the difference in the smoke,” Malekian said. “To me, it’s worth the extra expense, because it sets my food apart.

He used the same focus on detail when designing and building his restaurant, Harlem Road Texas BBQ, which opened recently in Richmond. When Malekian could not find picnic benches that he felt were comfortable enough for diners, he decided to make his own. The restaurant, which takes its name from its location, 9823 Harlem Road, offers beef brisket and ribs, pulled pork, pork ribs, baked beans, beef sausage, cole slaw and potato salad. Desserts include chocolate bread pudding, chocolate cookies and pecan pie.

To prepare for the opening, Malekian conducted pop-up diners around town, inviting people to sample his signature recipes. Deborah Susman said she would gladly make the drive to Richmond from her home in the Galleria area. "His brisket is amazing," she said. "His barbecue sauce is the best." Susman said of Malekian, "He's a wonderful guy. He's such a character."

Malekian grew up in Switzerland and spent his childhood in the kitchen with his grandmother. "It all started with me being 5 years old and helping my grandmother cook," he recalled. "She was an amazing cook and baker. As a kid, I would help her make these intricate pastries."

He started working in restaurants early on and continued his career in kitchens when he moved to the United States in 1987. Eventually, Malekian was recruited to work as an executive chef for celebrity foodie Wolfgang Puck. "I spent a lot of time on the road, and it was a great learning experience," Malekian said. 

One of the biggest lessons he learned from the famous chef was the importance of interacting with diners. "He's always on the premise - and that's what makes Wolfgang who he is, it's the rapport he builds with his clients," Malekian said. For the past few years, Malekian has applied the same philosophy to his catering business. He likes to spend time talking to his customers. "I want to have conversations with my guests between courses and talk to them about the ingredients and the dishes," he said.

What sets my cooking apart is that I cook with love. To me, that’s the most important ingredient. It’s all about sharing that love with people. I’m blessed to do what I do for a living. I do what I love to do.

Malekian moved from the California Bay Area to Texas 10 years ago and became enamored with the state's national dish. "I love Texas barbecue," he said. "It's simple and yet it takes a certain knowledge. There's something primal about cooking on an open fire." Malekian believes that having the best ingredients is essential. He makes his own sausages, bacon, cheese and butter. He tries to use as many local products as possible.