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In the kitchen of the gastronomically impressive Aries[4315 Montrose Boulevard, (713)526-8725], a photostatic copy of a handwritten note is taped to an overhead air duct. It is addressed to the owner and chef de cuisine of the restaurant, Scott Tycer, and it reads in its entirety:
4315 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006-5823
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I knew you were a liar, and now see you're a thief as well. You know you served the greens you refuse to pay for, and so do a number of others, including me.
I wouldn't piss in your ear if your brain were on fire.
The amount of greens in question, according to Tycer and confirmed by an invoice from Waters, comes to ten pounds. One can only conclude that they are very specialgreens. And, as salad greens go, they indeed are.
Camille Waters, according to interviews she has given other publications, got the gardening bug from her grandmother, who lived on a small plot of then-rural land near Ellington Field and who grew much of the food she consumed. Waters's interest in homegrown was such that in 1970 she opened a wittily named Houston restaurant, The Natural Child. It was one of the first organic vegetarian restaurants in Texas.
In 1992 she began growing salad greens on a vacant lot in the Montrose neighborhood not far from her current home. The seeds for the lettuces, edible flowers, tomatoes and other plants were not the sort one could pick up at Target or Home Depot. They were what are known as heirloom varieties, preserved by a handful of home gardeners over decades or even centuries and now reproduced for sale by an even smaller handful of nurseries. Growing and selling these varieties of vegetables and fruits today is becoming a big business. A chef can order all sorts of hitherto arcane items over the Internet from companies such as Fresh Point Consolidation, which is a subsidiary of Sysco.
Waters's greens are picked at dawn, refreshed in an ice-water bath, then mixed to order and delivered to some of the most serious restaurants in town, such as Cafe Annie[1728 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)840-1111], Mark's American Cuisine[1658 Westheimer, (713)523-3800], DeVille [1300 Lamar, in the Four Seasons Hotel, (713)650-1300] and, until a certain incident occurring around April 1, Aries. A pound of such recherché salad costs $11. Waters has told the Houston Business Journalthat she sells between 150 and 200 pounds a week of the stuff.
Scott Tycer, who is a third-generation native Houstonian like Waters, was pleased with her produce, even at a price that he says is double what other suppliers charge. He was not pleased, apparently, with a request from Waters that he appear at her charity event, scheduled for Sunday, April 1, on one of her growing plots, a bit of rented land surrounding a glassblowing studio on Blossom Street. Held for the past several years at various growing plots, the event this year benefited Urban Harvest and Chef's Collaborative 2000.
The chefs at the Garden Party, as the event is called, set up tables and gave away samples of their cooking, often using Waters's greens in some way. The public was charged an admission fee, which was split evenly between the two charities. "We had 320 paid admissions this time," Waters enthused, "the best attendance ever, and we raised $1,550 each for the two charities."
According to Tycer, Waters contacted him the week of the event and then supplied him on the Friday before the Garden Party with ten pounds of pricey greens for him to use at the charity affair, plus six pounds for the restaurant's regular weekend needs. Tycer, whose wife gave birth to their daughter some five weeks before the event, says that he did not agree to work the Garden Party, because he wanted to be with his family. He feels he was being strong-armed into supporting the event and is appalled by Waters's note; he adds that during a telephone conversation with the Aries bookkeeper, Gladys Oliver, Waters observed, "I feel sorry for your having to work for a thief and a liar." Oliver confirms that statement. Tycer is concerned that he is now the victim of a smear campaign within Houston's very small community (maybe four businesses in total) of organic produce providers.
Waters, in turn, whooped that "I can't believe he would want to air his dirty linen in public," when contacted by telephone. According to her, she had an oral commitment from Tycer to appear at the event, and she only found out he was not attending when she listened to her voice mail at noon that Sunday. Waters says a sous-chef, one no longer working at Aries, appeared at the Garden Party to help out, and was surprised to learn that his employer was not going to appear. (Tycer asserts that the sous-chef did know Aries would not participate, and went to the benefit only as a private individual.) Waters willingly claims authorship of the note. She also states that she received a voice mail message on Monday, April 2, from Tycer, stating that "If I wanted to discuss it, I should call him, and if I didn't, I should send him a bill."
Tycer acknowledges leaving the voice mail. Still, both parties agree he paid for only the six pounds he had ordered for the restaurant, and refused to pay for the ten pounds of greens earmarked for the charity event. "I composted the ten pounds," Tycer says. "They wilted before I could use them."
Restaurant publicist Dick Dace, who donates his services to the Chef's Collaborative 2000, comments that "Houston is a very small town in this respect. People who don't honor commitments they have made to charity events will find themselves blacklisted -- forever."
Waters's assessment in the end was less ominous. "I have wonderful, wonderful customers, and I can choose whom I do business with. I am not selling my greens to Aries."