When State of Grace, the restaurant by Atlanta-based restauranteur and native Houstonian Ford Fry opens later this fall, Bobby Matos will be its executive chef.
Ford Fry, for those who don’t know him, is not only a Houston native but one of Atlanta’s most respected restauranteurs. His privately owned restaurant portfolio currently includes nine restaurants, among them, JCT Kitchen, St. Cecilia, The Optimist, and Superica. His website states, “I want to create restaurants that strike a timeless emotional chord. Restaurants that don’t pander to trend, but draw generations of families together.”
Asked why he wanted to locate his tenth restaurant in Houston, Fry is a nostalgic. "Growing up in Houston, I have a lot of great food memories and would love to play off of them in a fun way,” Fry said. “Houston is also so culturally diverse, which excites us as chefs, and gives us ‘license’ so to speak to incorporate that into our cooking."
Referring to the Lamar-River Oaks Shopping center, which will house State of Grace (3256 Westheimer Road), Fry adds, “As a kid, this is where we road bikes around – my old stomping grounds. We would go to the Baskin Robins that’s still there, and get candy from the 7 Eleven.” Additionally, he and designer Sid Mashburn are friends, and Sid’s opened a spot there, too. “I like being in company with Sid. He lead the way and found that area, and I like being next to him.”
Fry did his research before selecting Matos for his Houston project, calling on his contacts to get suggestions for potential candidates. “I didn’t know about the restaurant, actually,” said Matos in a phone interview. “One day, I got a call from Ford saying ‘Hey, I’m in town, would you like to talk to me.'”
That evening, Matos met with Fry and Drew Belline, Fry’s Vice President of Culinary, for some beers. “We didn’t really talk shop. We had a couple of beers. He’s a really cool guy,” Matos recalls.
That Houston meeting was followed by a trip to Atlanta, where Matos did a tasting for Fry and his team using the kitchen at St. Cecilia, Fry’s coastal European restaurant in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. During that trip, Matos also checked out three of Fry’s restaurants — King & Duke, The Optimist, and Superica.
“It all happened over two days,” says Matos. “His restaurants were amazing — great service, great food, a lot of attention to detail. I think that’s what helped me make my decision to take this position.” Additonally, “Ford , Drew, Toby [Franklin, Fry’s COO] and I just get along really well.”
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Earlier this week, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle broke the news about Matos' placement. The news was followed by a brief press release by Fry's team. Matos heads for Atlanta next week for some in depth training. He’ll also spend some time recipe testing, before coming back to Houston to put a team together.
The announcement of Matos’ new role with State of Grace coincides with his departure as executive chef of Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello. During his tenure at the restaurant, Ciao Bello was awarded Best Italian Restaurant by the Houston Press. His pastieri de mare, a savory Neopolitan seafood dish, also topped Kaitlin Steinberg’s list of 100 Favorite dishes in 2014.
“I’ve had a great four and half years at Ciao Bello,” says Matos. “I learned a lot from Tony Vallone. It was a nice time there and I wish them the best.”
State of Grace is slated to open in early Autumn. “The menu is going to have food that is influenced by the Gulf. It’s going to utilize local ingredients whenever possible, and is going to be technique driven, but approachable,” says Matos. “It will include reminders from the past, memories that Ford has from his time in Houston.”