Chef Chat, Part 1: Domenica Catelli of Catelli's

This week on a very special Chef Chat: the California wine country edition!

Domenica Catelli might be the most prolific chef you've never heard of, with a hand in nearly every aspect of the food industry. She has been an executive chef, a private chef, a food stylist for The Oprah Winfrey Show, a national spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, a brand ambassador for O Organics (a Randalls/Safeway store brand), a cookbook author, a motivational speaker on the topic of healthy, organic cooking, the featured chef on Fox 26 Houston's Fox Grill, and a recurring judge on Iron Chef America.

A native of the Sonoma wine country, Catelli lived in Houston for nearly a decade before returning to her childhood home of Geyserville in 2010 to re-open Catelli's, a family restaurant that had lain dormant for twenty years. The reviews for the revitalized Catelli's thus far have been stellar, and it has already been featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. (Even though, as Catelli observes, the restaurant is none of those things.)

Eating Our Words recently sat down with Domenica Catelli to talk about reopening her family restaurant, how she became a celebrity chef, and whether she'll ever return to Houston.

EOW: How did you come to Houston?

DC: I never would have pictured myself living in Houston, but my husband's family is from there and when he finished his MBA at Northwestern, he took a job with Enron Broadband. But two days after he started, Jeff Skilling resigned, and that whole debacle began. So there we were in Houston. I met amazing people though -- Monica Pope was one of my first friends. She was still at Boulevard and Central Market had just opened, and the Houston Chronicle had a two-page spread of all these chefs in town, but only one of them was a woman and it was Monica. I said, "I'm going to find her." I went to eat at her restaurant, and she came out and it turns out she had done an internship years back at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino. And my first position as an executive chef was at Ravens' Restaurant, also in Mendocino. So we had this little spot of a town in common, and became friends.

Also, the first real farmer's market in Houston -- the one at Onion Creek, not the one on Airline Drive -- I was part of that and helping that gain momentum. When I came to Houston I asked, "Where's the Farmer's Market?" and people sent me to Airline. That's not a farmer's market. That's stuff bought off the back of the H-E-B truck and then put in a kiosk.

EOW: But eventually you left our fair city and returned home, to reopen the restaurant your grandparents started.

DC: I was in South Beach at the Wine & Food Festival and Guy Fieri and I were talking. I've known Guy forever and Nick, my brother, had worked for him for 14 years but had just given notice and was actually going to come to Houston for a bit. Guy said, "You and your brother need to do a restaurant." I told Guy that I would never do a restaurant unless it was Catelli's, and Santi [the restaurant formerly in the Catelli's location] has a lease that goes for another ten years and I'm not going to be fifty and open a restaurant. That's just not my thing.

Two days later, my dad called and said Santi was leaving their lease early. So I called my brother and said, "What do you think?" and he said, "Let's do it!" I talked to my husband, who's in finance, and he said, "You're crazy. We're not going to do that," and I said, "But I want to! It's a dream!" and we figured it all out. Family and friends helped with the painting and everything and we did it on a shoestring. And so we came back here to this little town that, as one of my friends put it, had a "memory in its mouth" of what used to be.

EOW: So you were still living in Houston when you had that conversation with Guy Fieri.

DC: That's right. I lived in Houston up until January 2010. We'd still be in Houston if this hadn't happened.

EOW: How was your cooking style influenced by your time in Houston?

DC: There's more grill and barbecue in my life. When the weather's nice, we do an Italian-style barbecue here on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I have a huge wood grill, and use oak and mesquite.

EOW: What do you miss most about Houston, food wise?

DC: Tex-Mex -- we lived across the street from El Tiempo. Also t'afia, and breakfast places, and any time of day places like Brasil. The great thing about Houston is that there are a lot of different restaurants to eat at, serving all different kinds of food, at all times of the day.

EOW: You said Catelli's was the only restaurant you had thought about opening. You never thought about opening up your own place in Houston?

DC: Well, now I would open this restaurant in Houston.

EOW: Really?

DC: If I did another restaurant and I did it in a city. I think this restaurant would do well in Houston, because I don't think anyone else is doing this type of food. The nicest Italian is Da Marco, and our pasta's better. Then you have Carabba's, but that's more of a chain. We make everything from scratch. It might sound banal and simple, but everything we do is with great, basic ingredients. I don't know that I could do the same food at the same price in Houston, though.

EOW: That was basically my next question. Given your emphasis on organic and local ingredients, would or could you do the same menu in Houston?

DC: It could be organic, but it couldn't be local in the same way. The tomatoes that we use for our tomato sauce are from the Central Valley, and you don't have the same quality of tomatoes in Houston, and I don't know that there's a commercial organic brand that we could get with the same flavor. Our olive oil is also from the Central Valley and it's really great. I could do this menu in Houston, but it would be California in Texas.

EOW: I understand you had a big party when Catelli's was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

DC: It was so fun. We had over 200 people here. Each room was full. We had a huge screen in this room and another one in the back. And the episode came out great, too. It aired on Monday night, and the next day at lunch we had someone who drove down from Sacramento and another person from Sebastopol. Some tourists, a couple from Idaho, were staying somewhere else but they love the show and when they saw it they drove over.

Tune in tomorrow for more with Domenica Catelli.

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