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By Dianna Wray
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Juli Salvagio, the director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, steps up to the counter, scrutinizes the value menu and orders a No. 6 with a diet lemonade. She has offered to discuss her new book over lunch at "someplace nice," and has chosen, after a moment of deliberation, to dine at the Meyerland Chick-fil-A.
"Yum!" she says, glancing down at a pile of brownies shielded beneath a sneeze lid. "Those are good!"
Salvagio has a unique eye for good food. The cover of her nationally distributed cookbook, Culinary Capital, boldly states that Houston is "America's premier restaurant city." Its 192 pages present signature plates from the "crème de le crème of Houston's culinary talent," a press release says. Many of these gastronomical luminaries work at restaurants similar to Chick-fil-A.
"I come here pretty often," says Salvagio, who carries her tray past a horde of screaming children and slides into a plastic booth. Above her, a poster shows a cow standing on two legs and holding a placard that says, "Vote chickn."
That Far Side marketing theme mirrors the weird experience of flipping through Culinary Capital. Among the 75 "top chefs" profiled in its glossy pages, for example, are employees of the global food wholesaler Sysco; the food marketer Institutional Sales Association; and restaurant chains such as the Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse, neither of which is based in Houston.
It's no surprise that Salvagio's editing judgments have landed the former Enron marketer in a familiar realm of scandal. Many of the city's most original and celebrated chefs were omitted, leading some to wonder if the grand claims in Culinary Capital amount to more of a "cooked book" than a cookbook.
In the restaurant association, "There does seem to be a correlation between 'If you advertise with us, or purchase this you will get this or that,' " says chef Monica Pope. "There is something wrong with that." Her acclaimed restaurant, T'afia, doesn't appear in the book.
Pope's suspicions appear to be borne out by the book. A jacket note says it was produced in collaboration with the association, but fails to mention that only association members could be included. Nor does it say that the project was funded, in part, through advance book orders.
Salvagio says some suppliers bought 500 books (the retail price is $24.95) at a time, with Carmelo's restaurant purchasing 1,000. Typical orders from restaurants were for 50 or fewer. She says that among those who didn't buy any, some are now "calling me and saying, 'Can I still get some?' "
Pope has no problem with chefs producing a book. But Culinary Capital takes it to another level: Not only does it exalt chains while claiming Houston is the nation's best restaurant city, but it's being shipped to bookstores, media outlets and potential Houston convention visitors nationwide.
The association "is really for the big, big chains," Pope says. "[B]ut it always, unfortunately, keeps supporting this idea of what Houston's food scene is like. That's part of what it's like, but then there is this whole other aspect."
Oddly enough, Salvagio seems to agree: "You know, a lot of cities have some great restaurants, but they are all huge chains," she says, clutching her Spicy Chicken Cool Wrap, "and there is only one guy who owns every restaurant in town. Houston is still a city that can celebrate diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. We have so many independent owners."
Dozens of independent restaurants do appear in the book, and many are of high quality, such as Cafe Annie, Denis' Seafood House and Niko Niko's. But that still doesn't explain why the Olive Garden, for example, is part of Houston's "crème de le crème," while the nationally celebrated Da Marco isn't. Or how the Olive Garden contributes to Houston's status as the nation's best restaurant city.
Pressed on this point, Salvagio goes for the idea that the Olive Garden franchises in Houston are perhaps better than the Olive Gardens in other cities. "Yeah, absolutely," she says. "We are focusing on and celebrating what we have here, and they are just as much a part of the project as anybody else." Promotional blurbs also indicate that the claim of Culinary Capital is based at least in part on reported stats that Houston has the most restaurants per capita and the most restaurant meals served per capita.
John Mariani, an Esquire columnist and contributor to Wine Spectator, wrote the foreword to Culinary Capital. He is hesitant to defend the book's selections. "Frankly, I would remove all chain restaurants," he says. "[J]ust because they are chains doesn't quantitatively remove them from consideration, but would I put in certain places? Of course there will be disagreements."
The ending of Mariani's foreword clashes with the "America's premier restaurant city" pronouncement. It says, "as someone who always looks for an excuse to dine around Houston, I know that I can eat as well in that broad city as I can anywhere else in the U.S.A."
So does Mariani agree with the cover's hype? "No, honestly, I don't get the, uh, chance to name the book."