This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Look for parts 2 and 3 in this same space Thursday and Friday.
Ciao Bello, Tony Vallone's lighter, more casual version of his iconic Tony's in River Oaks, offers some of the best Italian food I've sampled in Houston. Located in the Galleria area on San Felipe near Post Oak, it doesn't immediately strike you as a neighborhood restaurant, but that's in essence what it is. The prices are reasonable, the pastas are handmade, the pizzas are incredible and though it's probably not as "hot" as some of the newer restaurants that have opened this year, it's one of those solid places with food that is crave-worthy, and it's worth coming back to.
A lot of that is thanks to Chef Bobby Matos, the California transplant who took over Ciao Bello's kitchen some two years ago. We sat down with him for a chat last week to learn more about this new dad and chef.
EOW: I understand you're not from Houston originally.
BM: I'm originally from Southern California, by way of San Diego most recently, but really, from all over Orange County. I grew up in Riverside. Went to college in San Luis Obispo.
EOW: How did you get started as a chef?
BM: It started in college. I was majoring in Special Event Planning and Commercial Tourism, and we had this big senior project. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my project, and I didn't really want to be in the field I was in. I'd always loved cooking when I was in college, I'd worked at restaurants and so forth...
EOW: In what capacity?
BM: Cooking. I was a busboy -- worked in all the positions from the bottom up. I started as a dishwasher when I was 15. It makes you appreciate the hard work it is. I'd come home at 2 o'clock at night with steel wool under my nails, cuts and soaking wet.
EOW: You didn't wear gloves?
BM: You can't wear gloves because it just rips right through. So anyways, back to school, I was trying to figure out what to do for my senior project, and I loved cooking, so I started looking into culinary school and decided to do my project on the importance of going to culinary school in job placement.
EOW: Hmm, so what is the importance of culinary school in job placement?
BM: Well, that was the idea. I was trying to figure if people leaving school got paid more, if they ended up further in their career down the line, etc., etc.
EOW: How do you gather data for that?
BM: I just sent out surveys, thousands of surveys, to chefs all over California. I asked simple questions, yes or no, like "what was your first job?" But it came back pretty conclusive that it was important to go to culinary school, and being in the position I am now, I was surprised. The data showed that it was important monetarywise. You're gonna get paid more, you're gonna make more money.
EOW: How much more?
BM: It was significant. I don't remember, exactly, but it was more than 30 percent. Basically, it showed that you can get to the same spot by not going to culinary school, but it just takes about twice as long.
EOW: So you got your bachelor's, and then you did this project. So, did the results from your project make you go to culinary school?
BM: Yeah, it did.
EOW: And where did you go?
BM: I went to the CIA in New York, Hyde Park. I went there almost immediately, but took a couple months off first, traveled to Europe with a buddy, did the whole after-college thing. Then I went to New York for two of the coldest winters of my life, but it was nice, because I actually have family there in Hyde Park and Poughkeepsie, New York.
EOW: So the origin of your name, Matos, where does that come from?
BM: It's Puerto Rican; my dad's Puerto Rican, my mother's Italian.
EOW: So what did you grow up eating?
BM: We grew up eating everything. That's what really got me cooking. It's kind of cliché; "I love eating my grandmother's food," everybody says. But I love the idea of food, bringing family together. That's what drew it to me the most. All of our family gatherings, being Italian and Puerto Rican at the same time, everything revolved around food.
EOW: Describe a family dinner to me.
BM: My grandmother always used to say, "If we don't have leftovers, we didn't make enough food." There was just food upon food upon food. My Italian grandma would make homemade raviolis and pizza and lasagna. Brasciole -- that was always one of my favorites. It's a braised pork that's usually stuffed with provolone cheese and pine nuts. There's tons of ways to do it, but it's actually beef that you would open up, stuff with sausage. The thing about Italian cooking is that every region kind of has a twist on the same dish. So how my grandma cooked isn't necessarily how Mr. Vallone cooks.
EOW: Did you help her in the kitchen?
BM: Not so much. It was always the women in the kitchen. My aunt, my mom, my grandmother. The men would just stand around and pick off the plate. By the time you sat at the table, you're full.
EOW: Going back to -- you went to culinary school after this survey; was it kind of like you were doing that project to validate having to go to culinary school?
BM: I was trying to decide if I wanted to do it, one, and two, if it was worth the money.
EOW: So how much did it end up costing? And what is the degree that you get?
BM: $56,000 for two years, which is inexpensive compared to what it is now. I just got an associate's degree because I already had a bachelor's.
EOW: What's involved in an associate's degree?
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BM: A lot of cooking courses, very few math courses and English courses, just the barest requirements. But it's basically just a piece of paper in the end. Was it worth it? I guess there's two answers to that. I think it does get you further faster -- it gets you in the door, but I don't think it has any correlation as to whether you're a good chef or not.
Check back with us tomorrow as we learn more about Matos's background and what he's doing at Ciao Bello.