Interview with Chef Robert Del Grande of Cafe Express – Houston, TX

October 2011

Tina Fiore: 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, History… 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 I’d 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, who’s 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 Cafe Annie.
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 wasn’t 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 don’t you cook all the time and we’ll 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, I’ll go to Houston because Mimi’s there, I’ll figure out where the future is romantically and then I could work in the restaurant just for fun, just to see what it’s 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 that’s 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 don’t you do it.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Then the general manager left. Mimi took his place and we’ve run the restaurant for 18 years now – she runs the front, I run the back. I do what I’m 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, there’s 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 I’ll 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, you’re always told what can’t be done, there’s 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 – that’s not how you do it or it’s not done that way. And you ask why - why can’t we do it? So, that’s what I think the advantage is – you can come with a much more open mind to it as long as you don’t 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 what’s being distributed and maybe the person that hasn’t been trained in the business would say, ‘Well, I don’t want that, I want this. Why can’t we have this?’ It’s not done that way. But, I think you’re 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 – that’s 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 you’re not going to go to school, you may want to get into a kitchen that is more self-taught because they’ll 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. It’s a hard one because we’ve always taken on people like that – and if you can start slow, like if you come to Cafe Annie and say, ‘I don’t have any training; I’d love to work here.’ On the one hand, it would be a good spot, on the other hand, it’s very fast, very busy, there are a lot of things going on and we’re operating at, hopefully, a very high level – it’d 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. School’s fairly easy – you don’t generally get killed in class (laughs), you’re with a bunch of neophytes and it’s 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 – there’s 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 don’t run the standard military-type hierarchical kitchen. It’s 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. It’s still about the work that gets done, so you don’t 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 what’s 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. I’m not sure what we’ll do about it in the future, but there’s that sort of pressure. Sometimes I call it the Cafe Annie city; it’s a little city.

TF: That’s probably one of the reasons people keep coming back to the restaurant – it’s like dining in someone’s home…

RD: I think so because they come and see the same people all the time. If you think it’s important to generate a sense of pride, which I think reflects in what you do, you can’t have a sense of pride when you’re changing people all the time. You have to all be together to say this is how we function.

TF: Would you say that Cafe Annie’s cuisine is southwestern or has this definition transformed over the years?

RD: That’s (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 on this… some people get scared about this thing, saying maybe they don’t have intuition. Everybody has intuition about home (for example), you don’t have to explain it to somebody when they’re home and when they’re not home – you cannot convince them when they’re not home that they are home. When you’re cooking, think about what makes you feel at home about how you do things – that’s 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… I’m back from the airport; let’s we get some barbecue. So, I think that that, for me, is the final test for what we’re trying to do with the food. It has deep roots in what’s going on, but not overtly… so subtle that you can’t (define) it. I think that’s 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 they’re actually quite good now. The wine problem is the wine world is going in the opposite direction… 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 it’s very tempting because wine is sometimes bought like coffee – you don’t want to deny yourself Indonesian coffee or African coffee. I’ve never been to Ethiopia – love the coffee though. (Laughs.)
Wine sort of falls into this product that’s so easily transported – one of the easier ones. It’s the most difficult question, what happens when you love red Burgundy, but it’s not a local wine. I don’t know what you do – you adapt a little bit. I just used coffee as an example because we don’t grow any coffee here. We do grow some wine and some of it’s actually maturing quite nicely. We started back in the beginning. It’s so important to support the local thing, so we buy our coffee from a local roaster in town that we’ve 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 it’s local it’s 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 we’ve 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 your cooking?

RD: We use a lot because we like them and it fits in. We don’t 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 don’t put one chile and ten gallons of sauce just to get the name on the menu. I’m sure you’ve seen many menus written with catchy phrases, but the integrity’s not there. We’ve really tried to study them more and realize that you can do wonderful tricks… you don’t 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: What’s really happened is Cafe Annie has become more and more over the years a one of a kind thing. Here’s the Greek lesson of the day, (laughs) there’s appearance and there’s reality… there’s that imitation thing that always bothered Socrates and Plato so much… if we built another one (Cafe Annie), we’d have to copy it, we’d 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: You’re 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.) It’s a long story… 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 Grande’s 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. Dean’s got a great voice… I never liked to sing. Parties started happening… there would 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. I’m 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 don’t 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. We’re sort of growing that. And we have one Taco Milagro, which is a little self-service Mexican place. I love Mexican food, so we’re developing that. So, really, we’re just in the restaurant business.
I’d love to write a book, but I’m just fearful that it wouldn’t 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 doesn’t help your writing skills. (Laughs.) So I thought, I’ll 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 couldn’t 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: You’d probably have one of the few intelligent cookbooks on the market…

RD: You’re very generous. I’d want to write one that I would look at 5 years from now and I wouldn’t cringe, and one that if I’d look at 10 years from now, I wouldn’t 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 can’t 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 don’t think the world needs another roasted chicken recipe. I think it’s been well-documented.’ She seemed upset. I could see the speech she was working on… she said, ‘No, you’re wrong about that! You’re right about another roasted chicken recipe… we don’t need another one of them. But we want to know what you think about cooking, that’s 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, that’s why people publish only recipes; it’s fairly easy. The writing what you think part is a whole lot more difficult! (Laughs.) You’re 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: I’m still working in that direction and for me, it’s not a problem because I’m in absolutely no rush – I don’t have any ego problem about if I publish a book, I’ll be a bigger person. I just really don’t 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 don’t want to do that either. Maybe I’m stubborn. But I have little notebooks, and I write them on little pieces of paper – someday I’ll 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.)