Rags to Ruggles
Nowadays, lots of middle-class kids want to grow up, become a celebrity chef and make millions. They go to fancy cooking schools; they do stints in Europe; they have fancy resumes. And they dream of presiding over an A-list restaurant like the ultrachic (and recently renamed) Ruggles Grille 5115 Saks Fifth Avenue [5115 Westheimer, (713)963-8067].

But 5115's new executive chef, Pedro Silva, took a completely different career path, one that resembles nothing so much as a Horatio Alger story of a plucky, industrious lad bootstrapping his way to the top.

Silva, now 36, arrived in Texas at age 14, a farm kid from the isolated mountains of western Mexico. He began his culinary career at the bottom of the food chain, as a dishwasher at Ma Maison, and rose rapidly: from the sink to pantry supervisor to saute chef to grill chef.

All the while, though, he hid a serious shortcoming from his employers: He was illiterate. Once, he remembers, a chef asked him to bring vanilla ice cream. He had to open seven containers before he found it.

So at age 24, he entered a school for the first time in his life and learned to read and write through Literacy Advance of Houston. For two years, he juggled full-time employment and full-time classes, spending mornings and evenings in Ma Maison's kitchen and afternoons in the classroom. After midnight, he did his homework.

"I had to start just like a little boy," Silva says, "but those people were so wonderful and patient. Now I can spell better than a lot of Americans. Do you know how many people can't spell 'zucchini'?" (He brags that for help with tricky words, he now calls his ten-year-old son, a spelling whiz.)

In 1993 Silva became grill chef at Ruggles, Bruce and Susan Molzan's original restaurant on lower Westheimer. By then, he'd become a United States citizen and had mastered both literacy and classic French cuisine through his stints at Ma Maison, La Reserve and the Cite Grill. But his posteducation schedule proved no less hectic: He cooked by day for the Molzans and by night for Tim Keating, then executive chef at La Reserve. Even more astonishing: In the next five years, Silva reports that he never missed a day at work, never called in sick, never had "one of those six-hour flat tires."

From Ruggles, the Molzans spun off the minimalist, ritzy 5115, located in the Saks store at the Galleria. December marked the departure of its French chef Frederic Perrier, whose Gallic attitude reportedly never meshed with Bruce Molzan's free-for-all American approach. To replace him, the Molzans turned to Silva, then their sous chef at the original Ruggles.

Bruce Molzan and Silva worked together to design a new menu for Ruggles Grille 5115, which premiered February 1. Silva describes his repertoire as "Southwestern cuisine cooked by a French chef who was born in Mexico." His energetic Franco-Latino fusion juxtaposes a grilled veal chop with foie gras and truffle butter sauce, for example, with tuna and roasted jalapeno/ sun-dried tomato pesto, topped with lump crabmeat and mango salsa.

To say the least, Silva's come a long way. "The first time I came to Texas, my brother and I waded the river at 3 a.m.," he says. "The next time, I flew over that river in an airplane. I can't tell you what that means to me."

-- Margaret L. Briggs


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