Chef Del Grande's thoughts on philosophy, science and design visit Reflections.
You have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, how did you get into cooking?
Robert Del Grande:
I enjoyed science and I was better at it than English, Literature,
that sort of stuff. So, I went to college and I was
going to medical school, but I liked biochemistry a lot so
I thought Id go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. My mother
asked why it was a good question, but I just kind of wanted
to do it. I thought it was a way to escape introduction to everything
to be like someone that was really deep behind the scenes
in the field doing stuff and nobody knew what was going on. So when
I was in graduate school I met Mimi, whos now my wife, my
girlfriend at the time. She was stretching out her undergraduate
career taking time off here and there, having fun. I guess what
happened was I sort of bet her that I could get my Ph.D. before
she could finish school. It was some silly bet like that. But then
she finished a year before me and she moved to Houston because her
sister had moved there. Her sister and brother-in-law had started
During my time in graduate
school, I was first living by myself, then I moved into an apartment
with two guys in a house and one of the criteria for this deal was
that it wasnt just a flop house, that we would eat dinner
together and have it be a household a home. I was all for
that. Dinner was always important to me. So, we would split the
chore of cooking, which I never really saw as a chore anyway. My
mother was a great cook, and when I lived alone I used to cook all
the time because that was the one joyous part of the day. So, they
cooked the first two days and I cooked the third day - I think we
had wagon wheels the first day, and meat loaf the second day, and
then I cooked a roasted chicken, like my grandmother used to do,
with red onions and potatoes, sort of caramelized along with the
chicken and I served that with a salad and they thought that it
was the greatest thing. I actually brought it to the table on a
platter versus taking your plate to the stove
it was revolutionary
at the time. My roommates loved to eat and they had good taste and
they thought that this must be what 3-star French restaurants were
like. In their euphoria, they said, Why dont you cook
all the time and well clean up all the time. So, virtually
for the next five years, I cooked and they cleaned up. Being a graduate
student I was 21 when I started I had a lot of energy,
real compulsive about everything. So I treated it the same as my
dissertation project get books, read stuff, try something
so I learned a lot about cooking and loved it.
When I finished my Ph.D.,
Mimi had moved to Houston and her sister and brother in-law had
just opened Cafe Annie, I thought, Hey, Ill go to Houston
because Mimis there, Ill figure out where the future
is romantically and then I could work in the restaurant just for
fun, just to see what its like. I had gone to school
basically nine years in a row
so I thought this would be great
for three months and Mimi and I would do what we were going to do.
So, I started working at Cafe Annie for fun and what happened was
20 years went by. (Laughs.) So thats sort of how I ended up
cooking just chasing a girl. Then, the chef left. I was the
only one in the kitchen doing stuff. The general manager said, You
seem to be on top of it. Why dont you do it. I said,
Sure. Then the general manager left. Mimi took his place
and weve run the restaurant for 18 years now she runs
the front, I run the back. I do what Im told. (Laughs.)
TF: You never have any regrets about not going
into a scientific career?
RD: I guess I never really think about it
much. I never really saw it as a what if. To be a good
scientist, you have to be fairly artistic too, theres a lot
of intuition to it
plus I love wine and food and the whole
idea of dinner. It really works well for me. Maybe Ill build
a lab in my garage someday! (Jokingly).
TF: What are the advantages and disadvantages
of being a self-taught chef?
RD: The advantages are there any advantages
that you can think of? Quite often in school, youre always
told what cant be done, theres a rigor to it. So you
go in thinking with greater possibility. Good technical training
on the one hand can be very important, on the other hand it tends
to generate the statement thats not how you do it or
its not done that way. And you ask why - why cant we
do it? So, thats what I think the advantage is you
can come with a much more open mind to it as long as you dont
get trapped too early by people who will try to force you to do
things a certain way. I mean, the produce companies will try to
sell you whats being distributed and maybe the person that
hasnt been trained in the business would say, Well,
I dont want that, I want this. Why cant we have this?
Its not done that way. But, I think youre much freer
to be innovative and from a personal style standpoint too, that
can come out more than producing the highly uniform, and uniformed,
chef that comes out and does things a certain way.
TF: Many of our users debate attending only
culinary school or both college and culinary school - What would
your advice be to an aspiring chef?
RD: The disadvantages are certainly going
to be you have to figure it out for yourself, and therefore you
have to do the trial and error. You can spend a year learning something
that you could have learned in five minutes if someone would have
told you. I always recommended college, if you can read well, write
well, and do some arithmetic thats the foundation.
Particularly, if you can read for information.
The best thing probably
is that you have to get into the right restaurant for the right
reasons for what your goals are. I probably would recommend if youre
not going to go to school, you may want to get into a kitchen that
is more self-taught because theyll understand it better and
they will have memories of what it was not to know anything versus
if you go into a kitchen and the chef particularly went to all the
schools and is very well-trained. If you could look around at the
spirit of the restaurant and the team itself particularly
at people who did go to the CIA, you get a feel for the blend of
the different skills. Its a hard one because weve always
taken on people like that and if you can start slow, like
if you come to Cafe Annie and say, I dont have any training;
Id love to work here. On the one hand, it would be a
good spot, on the other hand, its very fast, very busy, there
are a lot of things going on and were operating at, hopefully,
a very high level itd be a blur. But if you start smaller,
it can work OK, and the key virtues that you have to have when you
want to be self-taught are persistence, perseverance and courage.
Schools fairly easy you dont generally get killed
in class (laughs), youre with a bunch of neophytes and its
organized. In the kitchen, the chances of getting bowled over, or
clucked in the head, or cutting your finger off are greater, so
you need a certain amount of stamina and perseverance to make it
work theres not an easy answer to it.
TF: Have you had a lot of the same people
working for you over the years?
RD: People have stayed a long time. We take
a fairly philosophical approach; we dont run the standard
military-type hierarchical kitchen. Its run somewhere between
excellent craftsmanship and home, those two things together. Everyone
is equally important, but it is necessary that certain people make
certain decisions. You have that sense that this is one team together,
but then there are the levels that you supposedly earn by being
better that allows me to have a hair more say than other people.
Its still about the work that gets done, so you dont
have this chef yelling, screaming and throwing things.
So people enjoy being
in the kitchen and some of them, the people from Mexico who work
here, they want a home first, so you take care of them and you treat
them well, like human beings you treat everybody like human
beings. So people stay for a long time, and then you provide opportunities.
Even a pot washer does not have to be a pot washer for the rest
of his life
if he has an inclination and inspiration to do
something, he can move up. I myself have continually tried to get
out of the way. In other words, I have to figure out whats
the next position that I can take to vacate my previous one so someone
can have that one, and keep things going.
TF: What types of benefits or incentive programs
do you offer your staff?
RD: They all have insurance and those types
of things that are important. We try to do all the things that are
the best for them and their families. One of the things when people
stay a long time, at first I thought it was just nice and that it
was a sense of loyalty, then they get married, and then they have
kids and now you have not just them - you have their whole family.
Now, we can never close the restaurant because there are too many
people dependent upon it. Im not sure what well do about
it in the future, but theres that sort of pressure. Sometimes
I call it the Cafe Annie city; its a little city.
TF: Thats probably one of the reasons
people keep coming back to the restaurant its like
dining in someones home
RD: I think so because they come and see the
same people all the time. If you think its important to generate
a sense of pride, which I think reflects in what you do, you cant
have a sense of pride when youre changing people all the time.
You have to all be together to say this is how we function.
TF: Would you say that Cafe Annies cuisine
is southwestern or has this definition transformed over the years?
RD: Thats (southwestern) what people
say. I always use the word local. We try to have a local
effect, which I think is completely ineffable. I think one component
to good cooking is a sense of intuition you have to have
an intuition beyond reason about how things work. I taught a class
some people get scared about this thing, saying maybe
they dont have intuition. Everybody has intuition about home
(for example), you dont have to explain it to somebody when
theyre home and when theyre not home you cannot
convince them when theyre not home that they are home. When
youre cooking, think about what makes you feel at home about
how you do things thats the local effect that
you long for something that makes you feel a sense of repose. I
always feel like that when I travel and you come home
back from the airport; lets we get some barbecue. So, I think
that that, for me, is the final test for what were trying
to do with the food. It has deep roots in whats going on,
but not overtly
so subtle that you cant (define) it.
I think thats really what we strive for.
TF: Do you serve a lot of local wines?
RD: We have the best ones from Texas and we
always pour Texas wine by the glass
and theyre actually
quite good now. The wine problem is the wine world is going in the
it used to be France and California, now
we have Australia and Austria to deal with at the same time. (Laughs.)
The distribution channels are so great and its very tempting
because wine is sometimes bought like coffee you dont
want to deny yourself Indonesian coffee or African coffee. Ive
never been to Ethiopia love the coffee though. (Laughs.)
Wine sort of falls into
this product thats so easily transported one of the
easier ones. Its the most difficult question, what happens
when you love red Burgundy, but its not a local wine. I dont
know what you do you adapt a little bit. I just used coffee
as an example because we dont grow any coffee here. We do
grow some wine and some of its actually maturing quite nicely.
We started back in the beginning. Its so important to support
the local thing, so we buy our coffee from a local roaster in town
that weve become friends with. We try to buy whatever produce
and cheese locally with a critical eye because we have to
do that, otherwise everybody does mediocre work and because its
local its OK. (Laughs.)
TF: Do you travel to Mexico often?
RD: We just went about six months ago or so,
we used to go more in the past, but we have a daughter now and being
home is more important. But weve drawn great inspiration from
their culture too. We did that very early on, instead of imitating
France and Italy
Mexicans are very comfortable in Texas and
vice versa, and the types of food we eat are not that different.
TF: Do you experiment often with chiles in
RD: We use a lot because we like them and
it fits in. We dont use them in the caricature-type blazing
hot way much more subtle, intricate uses, but always trying
to maintain a sense of place and integrity to the ingredient. For
example, in chile sauce, we dont put one chile and ten gallons
of sauce just to get the name on the menu. Im sure youve
seen many menus written with catchy phrases, but the integritys
not there. Weve really tried to study them more and realize
that you can do wonderful tricks
you dont have to sit
in a dining room sweating bullets in Mexico not everything
is fiery hot; there are very delicate uses.
TF: I realize that Cafe Annie is based upon
local cuisine, but would you ever consider expanding - opening a
restaurant outside of Texas?
RD: Whats really happened is Cafe Annie
has become more and more over the years a one of a kind thing. Heres
the Greek lesson of the day, (laughs) theres appearance and
theres that imitation thing that
always bothered Socrates and Plato so much
if we built another
one (Cafe Annie), wed have to copy it, wed have to imitate
ourselves and that just seems so foreign to us now, 20 years down
the road. Certain restaurants can do that quite well, but just not
this one. It would seem weird to me to have two of them one
would have to be a copy of the other. One would have to be unreal.
TF: Youre also a musician; tell us about
The Barbwires, the band you were in with Chef Dean Fearing from
The Mansion on Turtle Creek
Are you still playing gigs?
RD: We sobered up. (Laughs.) Its a long
I was a classic guitarist, but I had an acoustic guitar
too because Woodstock happened and we all got acoustic guitars.
I ran into Dean (Fearing) and Mimi (Chef Del Grandes wife)
had told him that I played guitar. So we did a dinner, and after
the dinner we snuck off to his room and played for a while and had
a blast. So, it was almost a little joke, we started a little band,
The Barbwires. It was the two of us. Deans got a great voice
I never liked to sing. Parties started happening
be 20 people in a hotel room, room service cars piling in. And we
did a couple of little things just for fun. Now, Dean has two kids
we stay home more. We still get together just for fun. Im
learning the piano more; I love classical music. When I get home,
I try to play a little. Over the years we had fun. We still get
together sometimes, make some margaritas
TF: In general, what are your plans for the
future? Have you thought about getting more involved in the media
maybe doing television?
RD: People ask about television and my answer
has been the same I dont even watch television, so
I probably have no right being on television. I just never even
get to it outside of a couple of PBS things "Masterpiece
Theatre" and stuff like that.
So, we have Cafe Annie,
which is now in its 20th year, and then we have Cafe Express
we have 20 of those. Were sort of growing that. And we have
one Taco Milagro, which is a little self-service Mexican place.
I love Mexican food, so were developing that. So, really,
were just in the restaurant business.
Id love to write
a book, but Im just fearful that it wouldnt be great.
I had what I thought was a good idea 10 or more years ago. I wanted
to learn to write real well first. Being in science doesnt
help your writing skills. (Laughs.) So I thought, Ill just
start reading great works of fiction and poetry this would
give me a sense of writing. The more I read, the more I had a fear
and anxiety that I couldnt do it. (Laughs.) Plus, I look at
all the books in the store, and to be honest, out of 100 books,
how many do you think are really good a thin slice.
TF: Youd probably have one of the few
intelligent cookbooks on the market
RD: Youre very generous. Id want
to write one that I would look at 5 years from now and I wouldnt
cringe, and one that if Id look at 10 years from now, I wouldnt
die from embarrassment. There would have to be that sense of polish.
Also, I think it would have to be a contribution to the field. What
I learned when I got a Ph.D. is that your research has to be original
and a contribution to the field. You cant publish something
that has already been published. It would have to be something that
I felt needed to be printed
not just a rehash or a trendy
sort of thing.
I was with Julia Child
once in an airport. She asked me if I was working on a cookbook
and I said, Julia, I just dont think the world needs
another roasted chicken recipe. I think its been well-documented.
She seemed upset. I could see the speech she was working on
she said, No, youre wrong about that! Youre right
about another roasted chicken recipe
we dont need another
one of them. But we want to know what you think about cooking, thats
what we want to know! So, I said OK and I flew back home and
made a note: write what you think. And then I realized, thats
why people publish only recipes; its fairly easy. The writing
what you think part is a whole lot more difficult! (Laughs.) Youre
faced with the idea that this is what I think, but somebody else
has thought of it already. (Laughs.)
TF: But I can see you writing about the philosophical
side of food and cooking, something very artistic and inspirational
RD: Im still working in that direction
and for me, its not a problem because Im in absolutely
no rush I dont have any ego problem about if I publish
a book, Ill be a bigger person. I just really dont care
about that at all. I figure that patience is the thing. And people
would tell me to just get a writer to write it for me, but what
would that be? You see these people who sort of rush this marketing
tool to bookstores, I dont want to do that either. Maybe Im
stubborn. But I have little notebooks, and I write them on little
pieces of paper someday Ill get all the scraps out.
And then the more I read the more I learn about things and
you really want to find something solid. And then a couple of cocktails
that really helps. (Laughs.)