Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Robert Del Grande of Café Annie on Gin, Love and Rock & Roll

Photo by Kate McLean
Chef Robert Del Grande at Café Annie.
Chef Robert Del Grande was gifted with the curious mind of a scientist. With a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest and two nominations under his belt, you can see why he’s been successful by the calm way he deduces the details laid before him, particularly the scent of things.

In 1981, Del Grande, who is originally from California, chased his college sweetheart, Mimi, to Houston. Her sister and brother-in-law were running the two-year-old Café Annie and needed a chef; Del Grande filled the wanted position.

Chef Del Grande and team transformed the restaurant into a Houston institution, all the while helping to father the southwestern cuisine movement. In 2009, Café Annie transitioned to RDG + Bar Annie, giving his creations a more modern platform. In 2016, RDG + Bar Annie shifted back to the classic Café Annie, and this past January they opened The Prime Room beneath the second-floor restaurant. Among other culinary projects he’s been involved with, including Café Express and Taco Milagro, the most interesting is his own brand and Texas’ first artisanal gin, Roxor.

If I’d been interviewing chef Robert Del Grande blindfolded, you could have told me I was sitting in the lobby of The Chateau Marmont, speaking with a Clark Gable-like movie star telling me stories about the way things were. While Del Grande could have easily been garbed in a dinner tuxedo with a martini to his right, he instead relaxed casually in his chef coat and apron in the elegant private dining room of Café Annie. The mixture of oak wood smoke, cooled by the air conditioner, wafted pleasantly all around us as the Houston Press began the conversation…

HP: You have Ph.D. in Biochemistry, but you don’t really use that title ever do you?

RDG: I’m just not that type of person. When I was in graduate school, the older professors, it was doctor this and professor that, but my generation [was] like, naaaaaaa. It goes like this, you would say, “Dr. Del Grande.” And [I’d say], “No, no, no, no call me Robert.” And that’s the last time you’d use that phrase again.

HP: You and Elliott Kelly (Chef de Cuisine at Café Annie) are kind of like Batman and Robin, tell me more about that.

RDG: I grew up in that generation. There was always The Lone Ranger and Batman and Robin. [Batman and Robin’s] skill set complimented each other. It’s always like, "how good is that chef?" Well, how good is his team? I always tell people, “don’t fear that someone else can do it better than you.”

HP: How do you complement each other?

RDG: Like I said, there are two types of relationships. Those you know how long you’ve known each other and those you can’t even remember [how long.] Let me grab the coffee real quick, I made a fresh pot…

Returns with two cups of hot coffee…

HP: What was it about Mimi that made your heart race for the first time?

RDG: Do you want me to answer the Elliott question first?

HP: Yes, yes.

RDG: You want to put two people together that excel at different things. Then you go, philosophically, well, how do they get along if they are so different? In terms of the vision [we’re] the same. I don’t mind real vague stuff, loosely thought out… Elliot doesn’t like vague too much, he kind of likes it typed. He has a clear path where he can make check marks…done, done, done. I sort of dream up the vague stuff and then he’ll bounce back with the ambiguities. But THEN, where it really works is he can actually improve [upon] the idea. We go back and forth.

HP: Circling back to Mimi, what was it about her that really got you?

RDG: Let’s see. You mean the obvious stuff? Real pretty, fun. Well, I’ll tell you what. (pauses) She and I are wildly different. I was in graduate school (University of California at Riverside), I had two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, a jacket, [and] a pair of tennis shoes. That was about the extent of my style. Mimi (who worked in the library) had all of this style, but not so good of a college student. So, I sort of admired her for all her style, and then she sort of admired me [because] I would do her homework for her.

I think it’s one of those things. Sometimes you’re most proud of the other person because they are so good at things you want to be good at. Mimi and I’s relationship, if you were to boil it down to one thing, and not romantically speaking, we are not competitive. What makes a good doubles partner in tennis? Well, not necessarily the best singles player, because you have to play together. Musicians [are] the same way. You can’t be competitive in the same band. You can push each other to be better.

HP: Are you still in a rock band?

RDG: Yeah, when we can.

HP: Who do you like to jam with?

RDG: Well, I’m very fond of playing by myself when no one is in the room because it always sounds killer (laughs). That’s the joke, right? One [more] person in the room and it’s open to interpretation. So, that band (The Barbwires), Dean Fearing, it was just the two of us. We [are] kind of a food festival band. We were [known as] the best eating band in America. Nobody eats better than us.

Then we have this other band that we haven’t really launched yet, it’s called The Blue Williams. [A few years ago, we discovered we both also had “William” in our name in the blue-tinted lobby of a South Beach, Miami hotel.]

We’ve been piling songs up and always say, this is killer, this will be great, so we work on it and work on it, and six months go by and then it’s like how did that song go again? Man, I don’t remember.

HP: What’s your favorite ax to play?

RDG: I have a Martin guitar, I guess a Taylor too... you know I’m not as bonded to them as some people. When you take out an older guitar a series of memories comes back to you and you think, "oh, remember that?" They are kind of like old friends, you know?

HP: Can you play Wonderwall?

RDG: Wonderwall (chuckles). I’d have to work on that one.

HP: It’s such a catchy one.

RDG: (laughs) It is such a catchy one. You know it’s funny too, and maybe this is a lot like cooking in a way… But I’ve got friends that are like how about [you play] this one [song], it’s a good one, everyone knows it. I mean. I’m not a jukebox, you know?

We [like to play] the [song] that no one has heard of. So, that’s why no one hangs around and listens to us, because what’s that song? So, [with] chef’s it’s like…

HP: There’s that artist mentality.

RDG: People are like, can you just do a Caesar salad? And [we are like], why? And people are like well, uhhh, everyone wants it. You know? I always have that battle. There’s that whole chef thing where you have to put your stamp on something.

HP: Over the years you have helped to define southwestern cuisine. How did that come about?

RDG: Very simple. That’s it. That’s my answer, very simple.

HP: I love that.

RDG: We were fundamentally American. I realized there is no way that an American cook could really cook [French] food better than the French because the French would not allow that. [We thought,] what’s something that we could do the best and call our [own?] Something that is part of our culture, and also, how could we elevate it more than, say, Tex-Mex. We built it around that [mentality.] The revolution was, and it seems to be all the rage these days, taking street foods, taking cantina cuisine and putting it in a white tablecloth restaurant. Dean [Fearing,] Steve [Pyles] and myself, were [trying to take] something from Mexico, [with] all that history, and make it our own at the same time.

HP: Have you ever played the game; marry, fuck, kill?

RDG: Say that again?

HP: You have to choose three, but let’s do it with spices or botanicals. Which would you marry, have a passionate affair with, or be okay with killing?

RDG: (long pause) Alright, you ready?

HP: Yes.

RDG: So, if I was married to one, it would be fennel seeds. I use them all the time and because of the vertical aromatic, if you think about flavors having [depth], I think how high, what’s the vertical, in terms of smell. For me, [they have] a lot of depth of flavor.

On the fuck one, I would say orris root, it’s a lily plant root, and the smell is also in women’s perfume, pretty savvy. The smell is just exotic, It’s just like, wow. So, I remember once, when I was in graduate school. Mimi worked in the library, and sometimes she would come [visit me in the lab.] [One day] I came up the elevator and stepped off and thought, whoa, it smells like Mimi’s been here. I walked down the hall and thought, yeah. Maybe. In the lab I [asked,] “hey did Mimi stop by?” They responded, “yeah, she was just here, how did you know?” The orris root in [her] perfume. I love fragrance it’s so interesting. A lot of cooking is managing the way it smells.

If I had to kill one, right, which is tricky because, well to be fair I won’t mention imitation stuff. The only reason why I would kill it is because of its overuse. [It] would be cumin seeds.

HP: That’s interesting coming from you…

RDG: Only because it became the overt flavor of southwest cooking. They thought that was the flavor of southwest cooking because there is a lot of [it] in chili powder. My complete theory is that there are subconscious flavors. The old saying is, “if you can taste the nutmeg you put too much.” I put cumin into that category.

HP: Along with Don Short, you helped create Texas’ first artisan gin, Roxor.

RDG: I went back to my laboratory skills and did all [of] the formula and stuff. It was exactly the same as the southwest cooking movement; could you make a gin, normally identified as a British thing, although they stole it from the Dutch, I guess, but could you make an American one and could it have personality? With Dean [Fearing], Stephan [Pyles] and I, and particularly beginning the southwest movement, it was great because we weren’t competitors, we were working together. Our styles were so different they [weren’t really comparable.] Like rock and roll guitarists.

So, I picked [up] on the things that American’s like; citrus, prettier things. Roxor is more floral, hibiscus, orris root, very perfumey. Same approach [to gin,] but very American.

HP: You are on a deserted island and have ingredients for one cocktail, what would you make?

RDG: First of all, I assume it’s somewhere in the Caribbean or Hawaii, where the weather is nice?

HP: Yes.

RDG: I think a gin would be nice, colder climates I might go for a darker whiskey. What else can I put in it?

HP: Anything you want…

RDG: Wow. So, a deserted island has no one else on it, but they could have stuff there, like [fruit] tree’s. Well. I am a classic, simple drinker, I usually don’t put more than one, two, three in it. I don’t know why when you said (pauses)… Do we have ice?

HP: Yes!

RDG: (relieved) Okay good, thank you. I love Hawaii, I wonder if you could do a little sugar cane and a plumeria flower in it, you know, the smell of that? Might be fun. A tropical [combination] is interesting with gin, I could imagine gin and guava?

HP: Sounds delicious.

RDG: (dreamlike) Yeah, that would be good wouldn’t it?