Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Robert Del Grande

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Born in San Francisco, Robert del Grande earned an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry from the University of San Francisco and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Riverside. He credits a visit to Michael McCarty's seminal Michael's in Santa Monica, while he was a graduate student, for first making him think "maybe not science." In 1981, he traveled to Houston with his girlfriend, Mimi (now his wife), to visit her sister and brother-in-law, Candice and Lonnie Schiller. While there, he began experimenting in the kitchen of Schiller's restaurant, Cafe Annie. At home there, he and Mimi moved to Houston permanently, and he became the restaurant's executive chef. He remained in the position, becoming a co-owner with his wife and the Schillers, and helping to create a new American culinary genre, Southwestern Cuisine. In 2009, Cafe Annie relocated, reopening in the Boulevard Place complex, two blocks from the original location, and reincarnated  in 2009 Restaurant RDG + Bar Annie. The Schiller Del Grande Group also operates The Grove & the Lake House, at Discovery Green in downtown Houston. The group's other properties include the casual Taco Milagro and Cafe Express concepts and Rio Ranch steakhouse. Del Grande was named Best Chef: Southwest in 1992 by the James Beard Foundation, and has been inducted into the prestigious Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.

What's your earliest food memory?
My earliest food memories are of breakfast. For a hungry skinny little kid, on weekend mornings there was always that alluring smell of bacon sizzling in the skillet and the ceremony of stirring creamy scrambled eggs. But the indelible memory was of pancakes. They were my favorite food then and still are today. I remember it as pure magic —a transformation, an alchemy. Those simple ingredients — eggs, flour, milk, butter, sugar, things that we always had around the house — could be turned into something incredible. And of course then there was the maple syrup. Pancakes were the first thing I learned to cook. And I still cook them today. And I always have plenty of maple syrup on hand.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be a chef, and why?
As a kid I liked to cook. My idea was: "if you could make it yourself, you didn't have to ask anyone to make it for you." I wanted to be a self-sufficient eater; a "cooker" as my Mom said I called myself. Years later, when I was in graduate school, I cooked for my roommates. The gossip on campus was that we ate like we lived in a château. That was when I bought a book call The Great Chefs of France. I found it captivating — particularly the photos. It all seemed very magical and intriguing and very far from the standard home cooked meal. It seemed like an unexplored world. It seemed like a perfect blend of art and science. It seemed like something I should pursue. So I did.     

Who was your most important culinary influence?
Early on, I was influenced by people I only knew from books; the Troisgros brothers, Michel Guérard, Julia Child, James Beard, Jacques Pépin, Diana Kennedy. I learned a lot about the fundamentals of cooking and culture from those sources. Fortunately, I later had the chance to work with some of them and they continue to be influential. Certainly at the top of the list of major influences was Alice Waters. The idea that great product creates the possibility for simpler cooking, and that cooking should strive for simplicity with ultimate respect for the product, struck me and stuck with me. It led me to believe that the best cooks are those that are good at staying out of the way of great product, intervening only when necessary and appropriate.

What are the most important lessons you learned from those culinary influences?
It is an important lesson to learn that a substantial part of the magic of good food comes from the farming or procurement of the products. As the winemakers say, the wine is made in the vineyard. Similarly, cooking is the last step of a dish; therefore, cooking should always respect the origins of the product. I once gave a cooking class on fish. I said: there are two ways to think about cooking fish: one way is if you caught the fish and the other is if you bought the fish at the store. Fishermen always seem to cook their fish simply: therefore, the bulk of the miracle of great fish dish must be in catching the fish. If you buy a fish, just try to envision what it took to catch that fish. It will increase your appreciation of the product.

What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out? [pullquote:left]
Be wary of falling in the love with the idea of a dish versus the taste of the dish. Understand the relationships of taste first, like a musician understands the relationships of notes; not just the name of the notes but the sound of each note from every perspective. The sounds of words may have no relation to the harmonization of flavors. A creative idea for a dish can sound very cool but words that sound good together sometimes don't taste nearly as well together. When you've freed yourself from words and can think only in tastes, then you can begin to think creatively. But stay within the rules (and learn them first) as long as possible. Remember, when you break the rules, sometimes you just end up with something broken. I understand that cooking can appear to be ultra-cool and the hype of TV has only amplified that appearance. My advice to would-be chefs is that if you're attracted to cooking because you think it's like stadium rock & roll, then reconsider. Cooking is more like the journeyman playing small clubs for the purity of the music, where sometimes the audience is not even listening. You have to do it for the pure love of it versus the roar of the crowd. But if the stadiums come calling, at least try and keep it edible.

You were a pioneer of contemporary Southwestern cooking, modernizing the cuisine of a particularly tradition-minded part of the country. Were there any special challenges in doing this, and if so how did you meet them?
In retrospect, the main challenge in those days was that cuisines were segregated into different levels of dining. Each cuisine had its "assigned value" or "prestige." We were trying to take what was viewed as a "cantina cuisine" and translate it upward to high-end dining, back when white tablecloth restaurants had white tablecloths and a coat and tie were required; very un-cantina-like. Now the levels and distinctions of dining are less quantified and a bit fuzzy. Back then there were strict rules and regulations dictating what was allowable and what wasn't. So we broke from the status quo arguing that there were as many levels of sophistication to an enchilada as there to beurre blanc. We saw, for example, the rich complexity and high art of the cuisines of Mexico as equal to the cuisines of France. Still, any time you try to desegregate something there are problems stemming from clashes of value systems. Each system has its own logic but the premises differ. The coat-and-tie people could never understand the new dress code. But we were young, so we had the energy for reckless persistence and determination. Maybe it was because we had already been through it once with our long hair. On the other hand, maybe we were oblivious and clueless and just outlived the nay-sayers, just as our grandparents grew too tired to argue with us.

How has the restaurant scene in Houston — and in Texas in general — evolved (and improved?) since you first opened Café Annie?
When I first came to Houston in 1979, there was still a country club type feel to restaurants and food: "Should we dine at the club this evening, my dear?" It was still common to have whiskey throughout the meal. California wines were still a bit exotic. And if the food & the wine was French, it must be better. It was a narrow sophistication but a sophistication none the less. Nouvelle cuisine was just arriving, which was certainly not country club food, and was ever present in the magazines so people had to take notice and broaden their scope. It was different and it stirred things up. If nouvelle cuisine preached to use what was best at hand, then that was the opening that led to Southwest cooking, a movement of local ideas and ingredients. At the same time, the city was rapidly diversifying culturally, which opened up possibilities for experimentation. To eat ethnic foods was to be cool. And the city has continued to diversify with nearly every cuisine very well represented. No one blinks when you mention a cuisine from any corner of the globe, or any island for that matter. And there are lots of young chefs exploring all the diverse avenues of cooking. The mood is open and accepting. It's all come a long way. Still, through all the years, Tex-Mex, as old as the railways, has held its ground. What was once a narrow path is now an open field.

What's the most surprising or rewarding thing that has happened to you in your years as a chef–restaurateur?
The most rewarding thing is the great diversity of people that I have met and have become friends with. And it was great to be part of a culinary movement in America, adding what I could when and where I could. And, of course, being a chef, it is nice to have something good to eat always so close at hand.

Do chefs and restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
I suppose that everyone should have at least a tidbit of social responsibility. Still, I think that the range of that responsibility is up to the individual. Some people feel the need to affect the entire globe, others just the neighborhood they live in, and others, maybe just the building they work in. The world can be improved if there is a beneficial summation of responsibilities, large and small. Being willing to be a part of that summation, in any possible way, is what's key.

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
I began my adult career, as opposed to my pancake days, in a chemistry lab doing various forms of chromatography. I've moved fairly far from those laboratory days. But now, I'm cycling back. I've been working on spirits distillation, basically flavor chromatography, and have been tinkering with making a gin and other botanical spirits. In the end, at the end of the day, it's nice to pour the results over ice and lean back and think philosophically about what to do next — real or imagined.