It's Friday night, and the most fashionable restaurant in Houston is full to capacity. Glowing in his chef's whites, Cafe Annie's head chef and co-owner, Robert Del Grande, stands beside a table of VIPs including Houston Symphony conductor Hans Graf. The celebrity chef smiles constantly and laughs easily. He exudes a confidence that's balanced with disarming humility.
But when Del Grande returns from the dining room, he collapses against the work counter in the kitchen, shaking his head as if he's just survived a traffic accident. "I'm shy out there," he confesses. "It's exhausting for me to keep up with the conversation. I come back here and wonder if I just said anything stupid." Line cooks are juggling sizzling pans and giant mixing bowls inches from either side of him, but he doesn't seem to notice. "Back here I'm always relaxed," he says.
Robert Del Grande is much more comfortable as a chef than as a celebrity. He loves to cook but hates the spotlight. For more than a decade, he relied on his chef de cuisine, Ben Berryhill, to run the kitchen and pamper the celebrities at Cafe Annie while he supervised the 14 kitchens in the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group.
But not anymore. Thanks to a sweeping series of changes, Berryhill left to start his own restaurant in South Carolina. And in what seemed an odd move, Robert Del Grande took a step backward, returning to the front lines: the kitchen at Cafe Annie. The Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group also sold the majority share of its 12-store Cafe Express chain to Wendy's. Then came the news that its flagship restaurant, Cafe Annie, would relocate. And in the midst of all this upheaval, rumors about Del Grande's health began to swirl.
After the dinner shift at Cafe Annie, over a beer at a nearby bar, Del Grande speaks about the terrible moment, a little more than two years ago, when he found out he had cancer.
"A chill starts about here," he says, holding his hand near the top of his head. "And the coldness goes all the way down to here." He lowers his hand past his chest.
Blood work after a routine doctor's office visit had indicated elevated prostate-specific antigens, a red flag for prostate cancer. A follow-up biopsy confirmed that the disease was pretty far along. Surgery would be required.
"From then on, my life became a statistic," Del Grande says. His doctors told him prostate surgery is successful 80 percent of the time, and about two-thirds of patients avoid a relapse.
Immersing himself in work helped him avoid depression, he says. But it was painful to plan projects with a question mark hanging over them. "It's always there in the back of your mind," he says. "You are doing something, and you think, 'Wow, this is great. This is a blast.' And then you remember, 'Oh, yeah, there's that other thing.' You ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I doing anything?' "
Del Grande's prostate was removed November 22, 2002. The surgery went fine, but the cancer was more advanced than doctors had expected, so they had to remove lymph nodes from the area as well.
"I thought about hanging it up," he admits. "And I will if it comes back." The chef is tested every few months, and he says the latest test, a couple of weeks ago, looked good.
On November 1, Del Grande turned 50. The psyche of the American male generally hits the half-century mark like a brick wall. And his recent brush with mortality makes him even more vulnerable.
Asked how this birthday feels, Del Grande says, "Am I too old to start a rock and roll band?" And looking back over his career, he says, "I keep asking myself: Is this adding up to anything? Am I in the end zone yet? Do I get to spike the ball now?"
The questions sound odd coming from one of the most acclaimed chefs in America.
Robert Del Grande received the James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Southwest in 1992 and appeared on the PBS Great Chefs series with Pierre Franey that same year. In 1994, he was featured on Julia Child's show Cooking with Master Chefs.
Gourmet magazine named Cafe Annie one of "America's Top Tables" in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, while Food & Wine named it the "Best Restaurant in Houston" in 1999. Zagat rated it the "Top Restaurant in Houston" each year from 2000 to 2003. And Cafe Annie received the DiRoNa Award as one of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America in 1997.
Del Grande couldn't have predicted his course while he was earning his BS in chemistry and biology from San Francisco State or his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California Riverside. After finishing school, he started looking for a job in the medical field. In 1981, he moved to Texas with his future wife, Mimi.
Candice and Lonnie Schiller, Mimi's sister and brother-in-law, had just opened a French restaurant called Cafe Annie in Houston. It was modeled after a bistro they loved in France. Robert Del Grande took a job working in the kitchen. He already loved cooking -- as a graduate student, he'd taken over all the cooking at the house he shared with two other students. He was so good at it, his housemates gladly agreed to do the cleaning and other chores in return.
The Cafe Annie gig was supposed to be temporary until a more suitable job turned up. But things didn't work out that way. His creations in the kitchen blew Cafe Annie's customers away. And at about the same time, news of the French nouvelle cuisine revolution began to reach the United States. With its return to homegrown local ingredients and artisanal foodcrafts, the French movement fit American sensibilities of the time. All across the country, a new breed of college-educated food professionals began tinkering with American cuisine. And Del Grande's intellectualism put him in the lead of the new movement.
Del Grande became one of a handful of cutting-edge chefs who gave birth to Southwestern cuisine. Pictured in food magazines with a guitar and a cowboy hat, or with his wife lying across his lap in a tequila bar, Robert Del Grande was the wild child of the movement. His famous recipes included rabbit enchiladas, crab tostadas and coffee-rubbed filet.
Other Southwestern chefs, such as Stephan Pyles, took advantage of the publicity to launch cookbooks and television shows. But Del Grande did something different: He entered the fast-food business.
Earlier this year, Wendy's paid $17 million to acquire a controlling interest in the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group's chain, Cafe Express. The Schiller Del Grande group retained a substantial minority share, and Del Grande remains the chain's culinary guru.
"We didn't get rich, we left the money in," Del Grande says when asked how much he profited -- as if investments didn't count in a measure of net worth. In fact, his share in the expanding Cafe Express chain could someday make Del Grande one of the wealthiest chefs in the country. But because he doesn't appear on television, few in the fine-dining public recognize him or his accomplishments.
"People are always saying to me, 'Emeril is so big, aren't you jealous when you see him on TV?' " Del Grande says. "Emeril is a great guy, I used to know him when he had a last name. We hung out. But I couldn't do what he does. I don't like being on TV much. I hate looking at myself."
And why has Del Grande never published a cookbook?
"I'm not a writer. I thought it was better to pick the thing that you're good at."
What Del Grande is good at is food science. He loves to develop recipes and tinker with systems. He once spent weeks figuring out why the brownies weren't equally chewy at every Cafe Express location. After considering every variable, he realized that his bakers were using eggs of different sizes. He solved the problem by specifying that the eggs be measured by weight rather than number.
Del Grande is enthralled by the engineering that fast food requires. The order comes in. The items must all be prepared and come out at the same time. And they must be consistent. He loves the direct link between the kitchen and the customer that the walk-up counter format creates. Here, the food experience isn't colored by the quality of the service. "Cafe Express is pure cooking," he says.
The Cafe Express chain was launched 20 years ago by the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group, which consists of the original partners in Cafe Annie, Candice and Lonnie Schiller, along with Robert and Mimi Del Grande. The chain, which grew to include 12 units, helped create a new industry category: "fast-casual."
What does fast-casual mean, exactly? "The restaurant business was traditionally divided into three categories," Del Grande explains. There was fine dining, which means white-tablecloth restaurants like Cafe Annie; casual dining, which means table-service operations like Chili's; and fast-food franchises like Wendy's. The new category, fast-casual, describes places that bridge the casual and fast-food categories by serving more expensive food from a walk-up counter -- in other words, places like the Del Grande creations Cafe Express and Taco Milagro.
Asked if he invented the fast-casual concept, Del Grande responds, "I am taking credit for that one. And it feels good. It wasn't really clairvoyance. We were just young and reckless enough to think we could do great food in a self-service format.
"Everybody thinks you eat gourmet food all the time when you work in an upscale restaurant," Del Grande says. But actually, chefs are in the back making themselves giant BLTs. He continues: "So we said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if you could do a restaurant that serves the kind of food chefs actually eat?' And that was the whole concept. Stuff we like to eat."
But what really made it possible to sell fancy restaurant-quality food at a lower cost was the elimination of the waitstaff. "I don't want to alienate all the waiters in Houston," Del Grande says. But, he explains, Cafe Express's walk-up counter service removes a whole layer of complexity. It's not just the waiter -- it's the hostess, the stations, the forms, the taxes. And without a waiter, customers can come and go as they like. You can sit around. Or you can get in and get out really fast. And you never have to sit there looking for your food or your check.
"Robert Del Grande is one of the pioneers of the fast-casual concept," says Ron Ruggless, Southwest bureau chief of Nation's Restaurant News. Other restaurants experimented with the format as early as 1984, the year Cafe Express opened, says Ruggless. "But nobody else was looking at bringing quality to the fast-food arena."
Mary Chapman, editor in chief of Chain Leader magazine, doesn't agree that Robert Del Grande invented the fast-casual category. Restaurants like Fuddruckers, Schlotzsky's and St. Louis Bread (now Panera Bread) had already started the fast-casual category, she argues. But they were all starting from the fast-food model and trying to take it up a level, she explains. Del Grande was coming from the other direction: "What's unique about Robert Del Grande," she says, "is that he brought a higher dining experience to a more casual setting."
In October, Jack in the Box unveiled plans to convert some 300 of its fast-food outlets into new JBX "fast-casual" restaurants. Instead of conventional burgers and fries, the new restaurants will feature Greek salads and burgers with apple-smoked bacon and hand-sliced avocado on ciabatta bread. The plan sounds a lot more like Cafe Express than Fuddruckers or Schlotzsky's.
In the kitchen of Taco Milagro on Westheimer, Robert Del Grande picks up a bright green bowl and bounces it in his hand, judging its weight. "It's melamine -- feel how much lighter it is than the dishes we're using now," he says. The high-tech plastic weighs much less than the ceramic Fiestaware-type plates they now use at Taco Milagro. The melamine doesn't chip or break, either.
There may be a lot of melamine in Robert Del Grande's future. When the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group sold the controlling interest in Cafe Express to Wendy's, they set up Taco Milagro as a separate company and bought out their other investors. Now they're making plans to build nine more Taco Milagro restaurants in Houston. Which makes this a perfect time to tweak the operation.
Eli Millan, the kitchen manager at Taco Milagro, shows Del Grande a nopalito salad that's in development. It will be offered as a side with an order of enchiladas or tacos. "The Tex-Mex tendency is to add rice and beans to everything. We are trying to come up with lighter alternatives," Del Grande says. The menu at Taco Milagro also includes such Southwestern-sounding items as sweet-potato-and-Swiss-chard enchiladas with guajillo sauce.
Del Grande is the last of the "fathers of Southwestern cuisine" who's stuck by that cooking style. Most of the original Southwestern chefs have gone on to other things.
And Southwestern cuisine ain't what it used to be. A few blocks from Cafe Annie on Post Oak, there's a Dallas-based Southwestern chain restaurant called Canyon Cafe. "To create Southwestern cuisine, I reached back to my Mexican heritage...," writes Jose Amaya on the back of the restaurant's menu. The menu features Southwestern pasta and chicken piccata along with lots of nachos and bar food.
"I don't remember seeing Jose at those early Southwestern cuisine meetings," Del Grande jokes. But everybody serves Southwestern cuisine these days. Del Grande recently saw a sign at Jack in the Box advertising a Southwestern chicken salad.
He recounts some of the awful food that has passed for Southwestern over the years. "In the beginning, it was a shtick cuisine." You always had a tamale, an enchilada and a tostada on the menu. If you wanted to make Southwestern lasagna, you substituted chorizo for the Italian sausage. "And if you didn't think a dish was Southwestern enough," says Del Grande, "you sprinkled black beans and corn over it."
On the stainless-steel counter of Cafe Annie's kitchen, the father of Southwestern cuisine is trying to slice a lobster aspic. "It's too soft," he tells his sous chef, Clinton Davis. "I think it needs more gelatin."
"It's a dish we're doing for a party at Rebecca Cason's house," Del Grande explains. "Some guys from the Louvre are visiting, so we're trying to keep it French."
Is this a sneak preview of the food at the revamped Cafe Annie? When a new building takes over its current space a year and a half from now, Cafe Annie will relocate to a site nearby. The move will give Del Grande and company a chance to redesign and enlarge the restaurant. He hints that the atmosphere and menu will change.
"Is it too late to start a rock and roll band?" he asks again.
"We have to get that reckless thing back," the former boy wonder says. "We've got to stop thinking about it so much. I want to get back to the original spirit of Cafe Annie. I want it to be a city restaurant, a drop-by place, not a place you have to call five weeks ahead of time."
When asked what the menu will be like, he jokes, "Well, it's not going to be Chinese food. Call me boring if you want. But I'm not going to sell Southwestern cuisine up the river."
A few years ago, at a conference on terroir in Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago celebrity chef Charlie Trotter explained the problem facing chefs who try to stay faithful to American regional cuisines. "I can get fresher fish jet-flown from Hawaii than I can get from local suppliers around the Great Lakes," he pointed out. He listed sources of exotic fruits in Florida, microvegetables in Ohio and new ingredients he discovered traveling. Developing local sources is great, he said, but you have to be some kind of Luddite to ignore ingredients from the rest of the world.
Del Grande is familiar with the problem. His best supplier of Gulf red snapper gets more money for his fish in New York, where snapper is exotic, than he does in Houston, so we get very little here. But Del Grande hasn't hemmed himself in. "You can do whatever you want now, and nobody cares anymore," he says. "It's wide open. As long as the food can be fun. We used to worry if the food was elegant enough. Now we wonder if it's fun enough."
"Rare tuna salad with roasted beets and toasted pecans" is one of his most distinctive new dishes. It doesn't matter if the sashimi-grade tuna doesn't come from the Gulf. The pecans and a little minced serrano in the tuna tartare are the Southwestern accents, but they're subtle. "It ain't an enchilada," he jokes.
"There hasn't been anything like Cafe Annie or The Mansion on Turtle Creek in years," says Ron Ruggless. "It's mostly generalized New American cuisine these days. The consumer looks for something not so exclusively regional now. "
So why does Del Grande hang on to the Southwestern label? "I guess paternity is a pretty strong motivation," Ruggless says.
Did the timing of the Cafe Express sale have anything to do with Del Grande's health? "Not unless they weren't telling me something," he says in mock suspicion of his wife and in-laws. The timing of the lucrative deal may have just been a coincidence.
"I was trying to have a positive attitude, running every day, watching Rocky films," he says. "But there were always doubts. Sometimes things don't work out, and you have to be prepared for that, too."
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And what about Ben Berryhill? The former Cafe Annie chef de cuisine didn't really want to start his own restaurant, Del Grande says. He wanted to be the chef at a new restaurant with his old mentor's backing.
If it hadn't been for the cancer, Del Grande would have opened a new restaurant with Berryhill, he admits. But he has no regrets. "It turned out for the best," he says. "Ben is happy and doing well. They are opening a restaurant outside of Charleston, South Carolina, close to his wife's family. His wife is ecstatic."
Of his cancer, he says, "It was a major distraction." But now that he has been given a clean bill of health, he's ready to put the whole thing behind him and join Lance Armstrong in the cancer-survivors-who-kick-ass club.
And by the way, Del Grande, who, despite the cancer, is extremely fit and a very young-looking 50, really does have a rock and roll band. It's called the Barbwires. He plays rhythm guitar, and Dean Fearing plays lead. The rest of the band is a rotating bunch of celebrity chefs and food writers who wish they were musicians. The Barbwires play their next gig at the Hill Country Food & Wine Festival in April. Turns out when he's got a guitar in his hand, Del Grande doesn't mind the spotlight after all.