Chef Chat, Part 1: Arnaldo Richards of Picos

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Our first Chef Chat for 2015 is with Arnaldo Richards of Picos. It used to be called Picos Mex-Mex when it was still in the Bellaire area. About eight months ago, though, the restaurant relocated to the former Ninfa's spot on Kirby at Richmond, and this November it changed its name to Arnaldo Richards' Picos. It gained a tagline, too: Seven Regions of Mexican Cuisine. This was to better highlight that Picos is serving authentic dishes from all across Mexico.

Richards has been cooking in professional kitchens since he was 14 years old and the original Pico's location existed for 30 years before the move. In Part One of this chef chat, we'll find out how Richards's culinary journey led him to open one of Houston's most beloved Mexican restaurants.

EOW: Where were you born?

AR: I was born in Mexico.

EOW: At what age did you come to the United States?

AR: I was 18.

EOW: So, you were in Mexico for all of your childhood. What were some of your best memories growing up?

AR: It's hard to say. I played football for nine years, so that was a big part of my life. My parents had restaurants since I was three years old, so I grew up in the restaurant business.

EOW: What were your parents' restaurants like?

AR: We had several. My mom started in cafeterias in hospitals, so she was basically feeding the patients' relatives. That's how she started out. She was given an opportunity by a doctor friend of hers. It was well known that she was a good cook. She started a restaurant. It was very successful, and then she went on to open other, different concepts.

She had a second cafeteria in another hospital. She did very well on that one. My parents opened their first high-end, full-service restaurant in '65. It was in a plush area -- like saying the "River Oaks of Monterrey." That's where I grew up -- in Monterrey. I was the only one of my siblings who was born in Mexico City. My parents went there for one year. I happened to be born there and they don't forgive me for that. (laughs) People from Mexico City have the same thing as people from New York here in Houston.

EOW: So, it's like you're a Yankee (laughs)

AR: Yeah, but I wasn't raised there, so I'm not a typical chilango. Anyway, we even had a fried-chicken place. It was called Pollo Frito Norteño, with the typical secret recipe with 27 spices. My mother came up with that and they were very successful. My mom and my dad were notorious for opening restaurants, building them up and selling them.

My dad also had the concessions for a plush country club. He did that for about three years, made it very successful, then sold it to a larger company that dedicated themselves to that.

The first place that I actually managed, I was around 14 or 15 years old, was in downtown Monterey. All we sold were flautas. It was only for lunch. My mother would drop me off with all of the stuff to prepare: the beef, the tortillas and the chicken. I had some employees, and all we did were beef and chicken flautas.

EOW: But still, you were managing your first restaurant at age 15.

AR: I was pretty much managing. Of course, my mother was very involved, but I was there from opening to closing. We opened, we made a certain amount of flautas and when we were out, we were out.

My passion for cooking came from the restaurant. I was helping my mother, but I was also making the sauces and boiling the chicken. It became easy for me

EOW: What brought your family to Houston?

AR: Actually, it was me who came to Houston. I was an exchange student. That's how I first came, back in 1976. I was in upstate New York because I had gotten a scholarship to Cornell from the Mexican government. I was staying in a town about 60 miles from Ithaca. I was going back and forth, doing the interviews and testing. Back in the '60s, we didn't have the luxury of the Internet or any of that, so you had to actually go there and use snail mail. It took weeks.

I had already gone and done the interviews and was told I needed to take some courses to refine my English so I could go to school. During that period, the gentleman who was my political sponsor in Mexico lost his job. There went my scholarship.

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EOW: Oh no.

AR: Even though I had gotten there by merit, you still have to have someone who can help you. I went to the University of New York in Morrisville. They had a two-year and a four-year program. I entered the four-year program, but you could go two years and then transfer to a higher-level school. I stayed in that area for a year. I had impressed my dean and he was the one who recommended that I go somewhere else.

At the time, I was 18 years old and managing a kitchen for a restaurant that seated 400. It was very intense going [to school] full time and managing a restaurant. Dr. Maven recommended me to go to University of Houston. At the time, it was very small -- only about 600 people. It was very selective. You had to be a Hilton, a Hyatt or a member of some royal family [to get in]. Everybody that I went to school with was very high-end and they were all on scholarships. I was probably the only one who worked himself through school.

When I got to Houston, I started working in different restaurants and hotels. My first job was at the Galaxy Restaurant at the Hilton Hotel at the University of Houston. (The restaurant is now called Barron's after Barron Hilton.)

From there, I went to work for The Houston Club downtown. I was there as a sous chef for about three months. I happened to meet Chef [Pedro] Moreno of the River Oaks Country Club. He called me. He had a need for a sous chef and I worked for him for about nine months. (Moreno passed away in 2010.)

Then I went back to Mexico to visit my family for the first time in four years. By then, I had been in enough kitchens and wanted to be more in front of the house. I wanted to get an assistant manager position or a waitstaff or a waiter.

I came back and went to work at a restaurant called Bud Bigelow's [Steakhouse]. I don't know how long you've been here, but at the time it was the steakhouse of Houston. That was back in 1978, when the economy here was rocking.

I thought I would just do that for six months and then go back to the kitchen, but I was making so much money, it was difficult -- to go from making $7,500 a month back to making $10 or $12 per hour. I was there for almost two and a half years. That really put me through school. I was making enough money to be able to afford my school and do it fast.

EOW: It seems that, for someone who wants to own his own restaurant, having both front of the house and back of the house experience is valuable, because then you understand both sides of the operation.

AR: Yes, and of course I had had that experience working with my family. We had a lot of banquet service back at the country club.

EOW: Where did you go after working at the steakhouse?

AR: I was actually in the process of building my first restaurant while I was working at the steakhouse. It was the first little one in Bellaire -- not Picos, but another one down the street that was called El Granero. It was a tiny little restaurant. It was 42 seats. In a short time, we built a patio and grew it to 78 seats. I had a partner from Mexico. I was still working my way through school, but I put a business plan together. My friend had a lot of money. I presented my business plan to him.

He presented it to his dad, who liked it. His dad came to Houston and bought the property and the building. He did more than I ever imagined. We leased it from him and it was a good investment for him.

(Unfortunately, the partnership ultimately dissolved and Richards soon went out on his own again. Come back for Part 2 tomorrow, where we'll find out how Picos came into existence.)

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