Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Bobby Matos of Ciao Bello, on Learning on the Fly in the Kitchen

Bobby Matos Ciao Bello 5161 San Felipe 713-960-0333

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Read Part 1 here and look for Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday we chatted with Chef Bobby Matos about why he became a chef and why he chose culinary school. Today we learn his experiences in the kitchen, who his mentors were and what he's doing now at Ciao Bello.

EOW: After culinary school, did you go back to California right away?

BM: I went back to San Diego and worked at this place called George's at the Cove, a well known place in San Diego. Trey Foshee was one of the pioneers of farm-to-table before it became a big movement.

EOW: And this was when?

BM: This was 2003 or 2004. There's a farm there called Chino Farms. Chez Panisse -- Alice Waters -- this is a farm in San Diego that they would send all the produce on a Greyhound bus up to Berkeley to serve that night. And what was cool for me is that I would go on the way to work and pick up all the produce for the day; it would never go in the coolers, we would prep it and serve it that night. That gave me love for that style and simplicity.

EOW: With all your experiences up until now, do you think that shaped you as a cook? How would you describe yourself as a chef?

BM: Yeah, I do. I really do. Trey is definitely one of the people who shaped the way I cook.

EOW: What was your role when you were there?

BM: I was a line cook. I was right out of culinary school. I worked on the salad station for so many months, then hot apps, then sauté. I remember the first time he put me in what we call "the middle" over there, which was like an entremet. I was responsible for just doing the vegetables for the grill guy. Some of the cooks have been there 18 or 19 years. (Smiles ruefully.) I remember the first time they put me on this station -- that taught me more about working in the kitchen and moving fast than I could have ever learned, 'cause it was learn by fire. Literally this guy would not help you one bit. His job was to cook meats and do it perfectly, and if you didn't have the sh*t on the plate by the time he was ready to cut it, you were not loving life. (Snaps fingers.) And we would crank out -- fine dining -- 400 or 500 people on a busy night.

EOW: So what was the biggest lesson learned?

BM: What was interesting there is when we changed menus, it wasn't like we would have a meeting and talk about it. There would be a recipe on your station when you got there, and you had to figure it out.

EOW: Really? There was no demonstration?

BM: No. When it was service time, it would be, "Okay, this is what we're going to do." And so you really had to be in his mind and figure out how he wanted it to make sure it was right by the time it got to that point. Trey still cooks to this day there, and he's well known in this industry all over the place. And he's a great chef.

EOW: So he was one of your mentors?

BM: I would say so, one of them. After I did my internship in Napa Valley -- a place called Pinot Blanc in St. Helena -- I needed a job because culinary school was so expensive. So I was working while I was in school at this place called Belvedere Mansion, an old mansion on a hill in Hyde Park that overlooked the river. There was this two-Michelin Star German guy -- Clemens Averbeck -- that ran the kitchen there. I had just come back from my externship, really had no experience, and he was like, "All right, you're the sauté slash meat cook, grill cook, everything," and I was like, "Uh, okay." He said, "Just figure it out." I mean, he's this mean, old-school, smoke-three-packs-a-day European chef -- but he was a mentor and he became a good friend of mine, and then after he left, he became an instructor at the CIA. I still call him up sometimes.

EOW: Sounds like you got tough love in your kitchens.

BM: Well, it wasn't really tough. It just got to the point where you took the leap and said, "I could do this," without them really knowing if I could do this.

EOW: Is there cooking theory that you learn in culinary school? For instance, the best way to brown a meat. If you're on the grill station, do they teach you what not to do? Or do they teach you what to do, and hope that you figure out what not to do?

BM: Yeah, they tell you all the stuff, what you should do, like when you're blanching vegetables you need a big pot of water and salt.

EOW: A big pot of water? (Laughs merrily.) I hope I would learn more than that.

BM: Come on, when you blanch green vegetables, you need a big pot of water. You'd be surprised when you go in some kitchens and you find someone blanching three pounds of broccoli in a sauté pan. Shortcuts abound in this industry. Anyways, they teach you these theories, why your broccoli turns brown if you don't cook it in enough water. The problem is, a lot of kids are just out of high school and they don't really know what they want and they don't pay attention. I was lucky. The good thing at CIA is that they group age groups for start groups. So my group, 95% of us had just graduated college, and we all knew that we wanted to be there.

EOW: Was your aspiration always to do fine dining? Do you go to culinary school so you can own your own restaurant, or do you go to culinary school so you can go into fine dining, or is it a combination of both?

BM: I think everyone starts with these high dreams. "I'm going to be Thomas Keller." And then realization hits that this is one in a million.

EOW: My question was, kind of, what was your aspiration?

BM: I didn't really even know. I just knew I liked to cook.

EOW: You wanted to be a chef.

BM: Yeah, I did. And I went in behind the eight ball, because I went in with this group that had a lot more experience than me. Most of them had fine-dining experience, and I was like the new guy on the block. I had worked in casual restaurants, had never done anything fancy, so it took me awhile to catch up. But for our internship, we were all following our aspirations -- "Oh, we're going to go to French Laundry" -- and the people who did get those placements ended up peeling onions for four months. And I found this great externship in Napa.

EOW: What did they let you do?

BM: I got to do everything. I got to work with the sous chef, and we did all the off-site catering all over Napa. And when I wasn't doing that, I was working the line, working pastries, whatever. By the time we got back to culinary school, many of my friends had plateaued -- they didn't get to learn as much, they didn't get to do much -- and just by going to this externship, my sous was one of the cooks that helped open French Laundry, so he got me in for a couple-day stage there. So I got to see in two days what these guys did in four months, and scored on both ends.

EOW: So tell me what brought you to Houston? You're from San Diego-Orange County. Tell me how many restaurants you've worked at.

BM: Pinot Blanc, Belvedere Mansion, George's at the Cove, The Modern in New York for a year and a half -- Terrence Gallivan was there when I was. From there, I went to Alto, then Suba, both in New York. Suba was on the lower east side. It's not there anymore. It was a Seamus Mullen restaurant; he owns Boqueria and Spanish Guy. At Suba we were going to do really modern Spanish. From there, went back to California, was a private chef, and then I was a chef at a place called Wine Vault Bistro in San Diego. It was me, my sous chef and one other cook, and we'd do four or five different wine dinners a week, five to 15 courses depending on the wines. We'd have wine makers fly in from all over the world.

EOW: Fun! What was your favorite wine?

BM: I really liked all the Super Tuscans. I like the blends. We have one right now, this Petrolo that's really good. We did winemaker dinners, we'd have Saturday prix-fixe menus. You can look it up, the Web site's a calendar. The owner is very minimal. It was all about bringing people in, it was inexpensive, we'd do wine dinners for $45 with the wine, five courses, 150 people at a time. It was good and bad at the same time, because at 10 a.m. in the morning, I'd be tasting wine. It was fun.

EOW: Then you moved here to Houston from San Diego.

BM: Yes. I moved here because I got engaged to my wife, and she told me if I was going to work anywhere, I should work at Brennan's, so I went there first and became a sous, helped them reopen.

EOW: Okay, so Ciao Bello. I remember coming here a couple of years ago and it wasn't nearly as busy and the food wasn't the same. What was your task coming here?

BM: It's been an uphill battle. The menu was a lot of the same -- what you could get at a lot of other places. We didn't have to do much. We changed the menu. Most of all, I put a lot of attention into the place, attention that was needed as far as consistency. And being a casual restaurant, people want to come back more frequently. And that's what it took here. Now we have the same people come three or four times a week because they know they can come and have good food in a casual setting.

EOW: What are your signature dishes?

BM: Our homemade pastas are outstanding. I think they're the best pastas in the city, our pizzas, too. We don't get a lot of love for them because we're kind of off the beaten path. We try to make every single dish memorable, it's what we strive for. We keep everything changing. Every week we change a portion of the menu, and I run four or five different specials a week. Italian food is different because true Italian food in Italy is seasonal. When I came here I wanted to take the experience of Mr. Vallone and his knowledge of Italian food and go even further back into the traditional, but with a little more modern technique.

EOW: For instance...

BM: Right now, one of the specials is porchetta, but we're using pork belly. Porchetta can be anything. Traditional porchetta is a sandwich, but it's really just a piece of meat. This is braised pork belly, glazed in saba (a reduced grape must), over smoked apple. We got some beautiful swordfish we're doing picatta style right now.

EOW: Do you vet everything through Tony, or does he give you free rein?

BM: We do two tastings every week. But it's great. Having Mr. Vallone in your corner is fantastic, because he has such a wealth of knowledge. And he loves it when you ask him questions. His friends aren't like us who are so enthusiastic about food, but he wants to tell you about that traditional Sicilian pasta dish that's been served for hundreds of years, which is cool. For a while we were playing around with Sunday sauce, which is basically the stew that grandma would make on a Sunday morning, very classic, and that's what we try to do, bring some of that classic into it. We were serving sardines a couple of weeks ago; there's a select few that can eat those, but we served them anyway.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Matos's food.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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