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."
Everyone agrees on the importance of Houston's ethnic diversity to its dining scene. Culinary Capital includes Italian, Thai, Greek and French cafes. But no Chinese restaurant? "There is," Salvagio says. "Well, Vietnamese. I don't know."
Salvagio doesn't give the impression of being much of a foodie, but she clearly has a passion for the basics: "chickn," to be sure, but also raw commodities such as paper, steel and oil. These were the types of products she marketed for Enron. That perhaps explains her affinity for Sysco, which deals in huge quantities of goods such as milk, beef and soybeans.
"You know, the days of a company like Sysco being able to just provide the paper napkins and the food products and all that without any creative intervention are over," she says. "There's so much competition that a lot of these suppliers have a chef working for them, and they come up with ideas for restaurants."
Some restaurateurs chuckle at the notion that Sysco is calling the shots behind the swinging kitchen doors of Houston's putatively original dining spots. "That works in cases like the chain restaurants," says Gerard Brach, owner of Chez Nous, "because they don't have chefs."
Brach and others such as Pope pride themselves on buying fresh, seasonal produce directly from small, independent producers, many of whom are local. "We can't use most stuff" from Sysco, Brach says. "I can't get the kind of meat that I want, stuff that is aged long enough, because they deal in huge numbers and they have to freeze it."
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Being left out of the book hardly concerns Brach. The native of France does note that the "crème de le crème" reference in the press release should be "crème de la crème."
"At least they are trying," he adds. "You know, like when they came out with Bartles & Jaymes, the wine punch. It wasn't that great, but it was a step in the right direction."
"I don't know that I am necessarily saying that if you are not in this book, you are not the top talent in Houston," explains publicist Paula Murphy, who wrote the press release. "But I am saying, 'If you are a top talent, a lot of the top talent is in this book.' And I think most people would agree with that."
At Chick-fil-A, Salvagio finishes her wrap and declines a free refill on the diet lemonade. A busy day of restaurant hyping remains, and she's happy the book is doing some of the work for her. People can buy it at Borders and Barnes & Noble. "What's the other? There's a third bookstore that's famous," she says, "but anyway, those are the major ones."