Chef Chat, Part 1: Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte and Piqueo

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I admit that I have a soft spot when it comes to Mezzanotte and Piqueo. They are some of the few fine dining establishments in my neck of the woods, Northwest Houston near Cypress. When I'm too tired to drive into town or just want to be treated nicely close to home, I go to one of those two places. I tend to gravitate to Piqueo, because my family loves Peruvian food, but we've had lovely family meals at Mezzanotte on more than one occasion.

It's not easy starting a restaurant from scratch with no experience, becoming a chef with no advance formal training or bringing a restaurant that focuses on a little-known ethnic cuisine to life in the suburbs. Yet Gerry Sarmiento has successfully accomplished all of those things, although there have been a lot of hard knocks along the way.

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat, find out how the Sarmiento went from would-be restaurant investor to Italian chef, then come back for Part 2 tomorrow when you'll learn more about what his two suburban dining concepts are all about.

EOW: When did you come to the Houston area?

GS: I came with Digital's acquisition by Compaq back in 1998.

EOW: At what point did you decide, "I'm done with the technology industry. What I really want is a restaurant!"

GS: Actually, that moment never came. Where I am today is due to lucky circumstances. I left Compaq when HP bought it in 2002. I played golf for six months trying to figure out what to do. I started an IT company in 2003 and it was a very good business but I didn't enjoy it. I moved to Cypress because my wife and I wanted to have a child, so we were looking for a house with a pool and a backyard and all that.

When we moved here, we started looking for restaurants. We moved from the Galleria area, so we were used to dining out. We couldn't find anything here. There was a little café nearby and that's how we came up with the idea of investing in a restaurant--not working in the restaurant but as an investment. We planned to just come and have wine with our friends and collect our profits at the end of the month. It didn't happen.

EOW: And that restaurant was Mezzanotte?

GS: Yes. We didn't know what we were doing. There was nothing but four walls of concrete. I've been involved with building houses before (I moved 11 times during my career), but when you hire a [residential] contractor, you just tell them "I want my floor this way and my bathroom this way." With the restaurant, it was just us. We had to figure out everything: air conditioners, grease traps, plumbing, electrical...everything!

EOW: So, when you started Mezzanotte, you never intended to be hands-on. What caused you to get so deeply involved?

GS: Well, I didn't know anything about commercial kitchens and I was at the mercy of anyone who was a chef here. I didn't know how to hire a chef, so anyone who walked through the door and said, "I'm a chef" and said the right words would be hired on the spot. Our first three chefs were not right for many different reasons. When the third one was let go, I had to figure out what to do with the restaurant. The options were either shut it down or somebody has to learn how to cook pretty fast. EOW: How did you learn how to cook?

GS: It came to me naturally, actually. It was very scary because, like most of us, I'd cooked socially. You have 10 friends over and cook two days in a row. I used to love to do that, but that's very different from cooking in a restaurant. In this case, ignorance was a blessing because I didn't know it was almost impossible to jump from one to the other.

I started learning by myself. Before the last chef left, I kind of had a premonition that this was going to happen, so I started standing in the corner and watching how things were done. The day that I had to take over, I just jumped into the line and started cooking. It was an amazing experience. It came natural and felt really good. At age 48, I started cooking... an age where most chefs are done.

EOW: You grew up in Peru. Did you have any early cooking experiences with your family?

GS: Not cooking, per se. If the term had existed at the time, my mom was a gourmet cook. This was in the early 60s. My mom used to take Italian, Chinese and Japanese cooking classes. At the time, being a chef was not a profession like it is today. Chefs at that time would supplement their income by giving classes in somebody's house. Ladies would go learn how to make cakes or how to make Chinese food.

My mom used to take me along to her cooking classes. I'd sit back in a chair and watch everything from about age six to nine. Then I decided I was too old to go. Of course, my mom cooked a lot at home and I'd hang out in the kitchen. She'd never let me cook, but I always watched what she did. Maybe I inherited some of that.

EOW: Now, you've written a book about your experience of opening Mezzanotte. When it is coming out and what's it called?

GS: The book is called Restaurant Inc. and I'm expecting it to come out in October.

EOW: When someone who's interested in going into the restaurant business reads your book, what do you want him or her to take away from it?

GS: A shot of reality. Drew from Drew's Pastry Place wrote a blurb for the back of my book and he's told me he wished my book had been around before he opened his pastry shop. Many people have told me that they want to retire and do what I do.

EOW: And you say, "No you don't."

GS: Exactly. That's a nice thought but if you're really serious about it, let me know and we'll talk. It looks nice from the outside, but it takes hard work. It's not just about cooking; it takes business skills, persistence, capital... it takes a lot of things.

EOW: Tell me how your wonderful wife, Adriana, fits into this equation.

GS: When I quit HP I put in all the cash I had, plus more that I didn't have, to get it going. I had no idea how much capital I needed. With three chefs coming and going, every month we were bleeding red. My wife kept her job for several years. That's what helped us. We needed the health benefits and her salary. Thank goodness she had a good job. She was sick of the corporate environment as well though, so when the restaurant turned around and we saw the opportunity, she left and joined me. That was three years ago.

EOW: You went to culinary school, didn't you?

GS: I wanted to go to culinary school but it was a full-time commitment. I searched New York, Houston, Austin, France, Italy and everywhere was a big chunk of time; a one- or two-year commitment. There were no shortcuts. I had to create my shortcut, which was buying every single video that the Culinary Institute of America published--everything from knife skills to preparation of sauces, preparation of basics... So, I did self-teaching on all the techniques--baking, braising, roasting, grilling, sautéing, pan-frying, deep-frying... you name it. Every single technique--you name it--I did through DVD and hands-on training in my own kitchen.

I was lucky that I had my own kitchen and real customers. It was like changing the engine of an airplane mid-flight. I went three times to the CIA to take four- or five-day intensive cooking courses and at the end I went for my professional chef certification. It was the culmination of everything I'd done.

EOW: Why did you choose Italian cuisine as what you wanted to serve [at Mezzanotte]?

GS: I would love to tell you that it's because I love Italian cuisine, but it was more than that. It was a business decision. Being Peruvian, my first instinct was to do a Peruvian restaurant, but this was 2005. Nobody knew what Peruvian cuisine was. Today, it is a little bit better, not a lot, but a little. In this area, everyone knew Mexican, Chinese and Italian. We definitely weren't going to do Mexican or Chinese, so we chose Italian.

EOW: What was the initial reception?

GS: It was great! We put "coming soon" signs up and we had people dropping by asking, "When are you guys opening?" Unfortunately, we disappointed a lot of people with our first three chefs. We hired the wrong people. It took us a while to turn it around. We went into a deep, negative curve and it took us a few years to bring it back up. That's why I say it takes a lot of persistence to keep going.

EOW: At Mezzanotte on Friday and Saturday nights, you have some lovely singers that perform. Do you want to talk about them a bit?

GS: Yes, Karina and Kevin. From the beginning, we wanted to have a place that if we didn't own, we'd love to become regulars. It's about the whole experience: the hug at the door, the music, the great selection of wines, the good food and the ambiance in general. So, one of those pieces was the music and the first singer we had was Karenna [Lee]. We were having dinner at the bar and Adriana said, "We need music." Karina was there and said, "Well, I sing!" We said, "Can you?" She started singing right there, a capella. Some people applauded and we said, "Alright, you're hired!" She's been singing for us for eight years now.

We started looking for other types of musicians, too. Ronnie Stallworth has been with us for eight years as well. He's a saxophone player who plays beautiful jazz. Kevin [Weishaar] came to us through a customer who saw him at an event, brought his business card and said, "You have to hire this guy!" He's one of the favorite musicians here.

EOW: He's like Harry Connick Jr. or Frank Sinatra.

GS: Yes, or Michael Bublé. He sings with a retro microphone and that adds a whole ambiance. We're very much into "dining," not "eating" so sometimes there are guests who sometimes stay for two hours listening to him sing and drinking wine. That's what we like: the dining experience versus just coming for food.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 to find out more about the challenges of opening a Peruvian restaurant in the suburbs, as well as some of value that Sarmiento tries to add to his guests' dining experiences.

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