Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Joe Macri of Up Restaurant, On Growing Up in a Southern Italian Family, and How He Moved to Houston Within 10 Days of Visiting for the First Time

This is the first part of a Chef Chat series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

Up Restaurant in Highland Village boasts one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the city. Above the bar, a gigantic, glittering Swarovski chandelier immediately wows before you step down into a sunken dining room with expansive views of Highland Village. Beauty is nothing if the food isn't good, however. And a recent tasting at Up had me so impressed, I decided to come back and learn more about the native New York chef who now helms the kitchen. Joe Macri came to Houston a little over a year ago on the promise of a good economy, good weather, and an up-and-coming restaurant scene. Let's get to know him a bit better.

EOW: Joe, I don't know anything about you, so you're gonna have to educate me. Tell me about yourself.

JM: So, I'm from New York. I grew up in Queens, close to Kennedy airport. And when I finally left Queens, I went away to college, got my bachelor's in business and then ended up two weeks after graduation starting at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

EOW: Oh, really? Okay. So you graduated from CIA. Tell me about some of the restaurants or food that you've done in the past.

JM: I'll give you my little food history, about how food has affected my life. Getting into this business -- you may have heard it before, but it's something that chose me. I'm from a big Italian family where every summer we would do a lot of jarring our own tomatoes. We made our own wine, we made our own cheese, our own sausage. Some of that still happens to this day. We stopped making wine when my grandfather passed and I'd gotten a little bit older. I don't have people in the restaurant business in my family. But we're food-crazy, but "at-home food" crazy -- not going out to dinner. I'm a first-generation Italian, so it's all about sitting at the table, getting together with the family.

EOW: There are many regions of Italy. Where are the roots of your family?

JM: So my mother, she's from Puglia, which is the heel part of Italy, the city of Barri. And my father's from Calabria, so it's all Southern Italian.

EOW: Southern Italian. Describe Southern Italian home food -- the food you grew up with.

JM: Well, in Barri, in Puglia, my parents growing up there always said, "We're the originators of sushi, of raw seafood."

EOW: No!

JM: Well, a lot of people think of Italian food, and they think of prosciutto and sausage and salamis, and truly what their diet consisted of was lots of fresh seafood and vegetables. When I went to go visit my family -- I did two summers in a row, a month at a time, and just got lost. I got a round-trip airfare with no reservations, and just got lost. I found my family, ending up cooking with a cousin that was a chef. It was the first time that I had raw squid, raw mussels, raw shrimp -- awesome! The calamari was crispy like a cucumber. My mom's first cousin, every day, she would just do an antipasto. She would open up raw mussels that she got four blocks away from the marina.

EOW: How do you eat raw mussels. Is it like oysters?

JM: Lemon juice, maybe some fresh parsley or oregano on it. Just a quick squeeze, that's it. It's not even marinating.

EOW: And what does it taste like? Does it taste like mussels as we know it?

JM: Yeah, but like any raw mussels or clams, the smell should be nothing but of salt water, and that's what it tasted like. Every bite was like getting hit with a wave down the street.

EOW: Okay, so your culinary exploration into your heritage -- did this happen after CIA?

JM: Well, I always had that influence, because we cooked as a family my whole life.

EOW: And you grew up cooking or watching?

JM: Well, I started at a pizzeria when I was 14, so I got my hands on food early. From when I was four years old, I would help pick through the tomatoes when we would do our canning at the end of summer. I remember helping my grandfather pick through the grapes, and getting the leaves and stems out. Dealing with food happened really early -- four or five years old.

EOW: Give me a little bit about your résumé, because you're not from Houston, and you just arrived here when?

JM: One year ago.

EOW: One year ago. So what were you doing prior to that? And how old are you now?

JM: I will be 41 at the end of March. I graduated CIA when I was 23.

EOW: There's a lot that happened in between 23 and 41.

JM: At 24, I became executive chef of a 200-seat restaurant called Candela smack in the middle of Union Square in New York City. I had the farmer's market right down the road Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, sourcing ingredients from different farmers.

EOW: What was Candela? What was the food like there?

JM: Candela was a Modern American restaurant. It was a melting pot of cuisines. I like that term more than fusion.

EOW: What is a melting pot of cuisines?

JM: It's influenced from New York City. You walk down the street, it's like walking through the United Nations. All different cultures, all different backgrounds and all different influences. The greatest chefs in the world come to work there. That type of environment helped me to decide to come to Houston. Because Houston has been going through that same type of renaissance. Great chefs are coming down. Houston is being noted as a very innovative city as far as cuisine.

EOW: Do you have any connections that brought you here?

JM: No, I actually made my decision in a week's time.

EOW: How did that happen?

JM: Well, I'd always worked in restaurants. A little more than a year ago, I decided to take a job in a banquet hall. The owner was a CIA graduate also, and I thought, any experience is a good experience. Ultimately, I was not happy there, and my wife always wanted to move somewhere warm. So we did a little research and in a week's time, we found Houston had a good job market, housing market, great economy, upcoming restaurant scene. So we visited for four days, and ten days later, I was driving down, and I left my wife back in New Jersey to pack up the house and move down here.

EOW: So, did you already have a job?

JM: I didn't have anything. I drove three days without a place to live or even a job interview.

EOW: You are crazy!

JM: I knew one of my wife's friends, so I stayed with him for one week. Within a week's time, I found a place to live. My second day here, I sat in front of a Starbucks and created my LinkedIn profile, and within two hours, two recruiters contacted me. So my first job here was working for the Mandola family, running Nino's, Vincent's and Grappino's.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Joe Macri.

Up Restaurant 3995 Westheimer Tel: 713-640-5416

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham