Chef Chat, Part 2: Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte & Piqueo

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During our interview, Gerry Sarmiento, the chef-owner of Mezzanotte and Piqueo restaurants, mentioned that he and his wife Adriana wanted to create the kind of place that they would patronize themselves. Part of that job is to create an atmosphere where customers feel recognized and cared about. I personally experienced what that meant a little less than two years ago.

One night, I was on my way from downtown to a group dinner I'd arranged at Piqueo. There aren't that many Peruvian restaurants in Houston, so I invited about eight friends to meet me and my family for a shared culinary adventure.

On the way, I stopped at a gas station and when I came back to my car, it wouldn't start. A kind stranger tried to help me with no luck. It was now time for our dinner reservation and I was still 35 minutes away. It was my idea, I had arranged it and I wasn't even there.

I imagined my friends sitting around waiting for me and my stress, embarrassment and frustration grew. I called my husband to let him know the situation. Of course, he offered to come get me, but I asked him to stay at the restaurant with our kids, be a good host, tell everyone to order dinner and not wait for me. One of our friends attending the dinner came to fetch me, sparing me a $40 cab ride to Cypress.

By the time I walked into the restaurant, I was an hour late.

Gerry had been informed of my situation. Instead of getting upset that a table of 12 people was holding off on ordering their dinners and tying up a big table for an hour, he and his lovely wife gave me a hug and a glass of wine. He said, "We're sorry you got stranded. We sent your friends some wine to the table to keep them calm while they were waiting."

Our group had a great dinner, ordered more wine and that was good, for when I returned to pick up my car... it had been towed. But least I had a nice dinner with people that I cared about before I had that unhappy discovery.

I've always been grateful to Gerry and Adriana for salvaging that evening. I don't know how many restaurants would have done that for its customers. But that's how they are.

I'll let Gerry Sarmiento speak for himself about the restaurant business, a hobby that he works on to support his business and how he stays in touch with customers about the menus and specials that he's forever tweaking.

EOW: So, since it wasn't enough of a challenge to open an Italian restaurant with no experience, you said, "What I really need is another restaurant!" But you finally got to open your dream restaurant, Piqueo. How did you arrive at that decision?

GS: Well, we had another stop in between: Capriccio.

EOW: Oh, that's right! I'd forgotten about that.

GS: After we turned business around [at Mezzanotte}, we were doing so well that we thought, "Ah, this is a piece of cake. We can do a second restaurant." So, off we went and I found a place on Jones Road near 1960 and we opened a Spanish tapas restaurant. We learned a lot in the process. We learned how not to do it. We lost a lot of money there and ended up selling it in the end. But, you know, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I can tell you that we're much stronger now.

EOW: How long did you have it?

GS: Two years.

EOW: Ultimately, the people who bought it couldn't make it work, either.

GS: Yeah, they didn't do what they were supposed to do. At that point, I knew needed to be done. The restaurant had a lot of potential. I had run out of money at the time so couldn't go anywhere with it so we sold it. Then I told Adriana, "I will never do another restaurant unless the conditions are right." Guess what? The shop four doors down [from Mezzanotte] opened up for lease. It was a restaurant before, too, so I told her "The conditions are right."

EOW: Were there any particular challenges with getting Piqueo open?

GS: We didn't realize what bad condition [the space] was in when we signed the lease.

EOW: Wasn't it a Mexican restaurant before?

GS: Yes. So, we thought we were going to just refresh the paint and maybe do little touch-ups here and there but once we started looking deep into everything, we found out that it needed a total rebuild. We learned something else there. It's never-ending learning.

EOW: When you opened Piqueo, did people come in with an understanding of and appreciation for Peruvian food?

GS: No! Our neighborhood is 80% Americans and 20% Latins. Our percentage of Latin clientele is not big at all, so the Peruvians who come here are even smaller... maybe 1%. So, we're in an educational mode, letting people know that we're different from Mexican and we're different from Central American. That's why we changed our name from "Peruvian" to "Latin." People don't understand what Peruvian is and it's very hard to explain. Most people have seen plantains and black beans, so that makes them come in easier than if you say "Peruvian." It makes them more comfortable.

But there are a lot of dishes that are popular in Peru that aren't understood in this market. So, we're constantly [changing] the menu.

EOW: Tell me about your photography. Usually we shoot our own photos for the Chef Chats, but I already knew you were a good photographer in your own right, so we're going to feature some of the work you've done. How did you get into photography and how serious are you about it?

GS: Photography is something you have to do, I think, because everything comes through visually, whether it's through your web site, Facebook, Twitter... whatever you use, there's always a picture. You can say whatever you want about your chicken piccata, you can explain it, but until someone sees a picture it doesn't become appetizing. My choice was to hire a photographer or learn it myself.

Two things with photographers: one is cost and the other is flexibility. We do a lot of "just in time" photography. We do Tapas Night on Wednesdays and I always try to feature something new. I think about it the night before and come into the kitchen on Wednesday morning. We cook it up and change it a couple of times. By noon or one o'clock, we know what we're going to feature as a tapa. I make a dish, pull out my camera, take a picture and feature it in my [email] newsletter and send it to my customer base.

If hired a professional photographer, I'd have to make an appointment and then wait... EOW: Yeah, you'd have to wait for him to process his photos.

GS: Right, so I do it myself. I have become good--I think--at taking and manipulating my photos... changing the exposure and all the little technical things to make it look good. But I learned on my own. Again, it was another of those things of learning something that you need to do. So, I took correspondence courses over the Internet, bought books, DVDs, videos and things like that. I'm in the process of learning to be an electrician, by the way.

EOW: Seriously?

GS: Yes, I am serious and when I get my electrician's certificate, I'm going to go for air conditioning and heating after that. Every time something breaks, I want to know that [the repair service] is not tricking me.

EOW: It's like getting your car fixed, especially if you're a female and they think you know nothing about engines. GS: Exactly. It's the same with computers and electrical. Things break here all the time. There's always something. If it's not the compressor, it's the fans. I said, "You know what? I'm going to do the electrician thing first, because there's a lot of electric stuff that needs to be done, also." Fuses blow and we don't know why, circuitry goes wrong... so you have to be a Jack-of-All-Trades to own a restaurant.

EOW: Let's talk about your Tapas Night.

GS: The tapas concept came to mind back in 2010 when we had Capriccio. It was a casual thing. I thought "Hey, let's do $5 tapas!" and I put it in my newsletter. I sent my newsletter out on a Friday and scheduled the next Wednesday to be Tapas Night. I totally forgot about it. I remembered it, but I didn't pay much attention. You know, it was Wednesday night. I figured I might have three or four couples come for tapas.

I got a frantic phone call from my head waiter saying that they couldn't handle the volume of people. I had to rush back and become a waiter that night and help the kitchen and the front because the restaurant was packed. Everyone came looking for the $5 tapas.

We did $5 tapas at Capriccio until we sold it, then we started doing it at Mezzanotte and now we also do it at Piqueo. It works very well.

EOW: And Tapas Night is at both restaurants [Mezzanotte and Piqueo] on Wednesday nights? GS: Both restaurants on Wednesday nights. EOW: And you do [a three course] Steak Night on Thursdays.

GS: Yes, we do a petite filet mignon. At Mezzanotte, we do au poivre, which is the brandy flambé with peppercorns and at Piqueo we do filet chimichurri, which is the Argentinean version.

EOW: Now, I know that one of the starter options is the escargot, which I adore. In fact, every time I come to Mezzanotte, I have the escargot, the filet and the crème brûlée dessert spoon. That's a lovely little weeknight meal.

GS: And it's only $18! I really think it's the best deal in Houston. I haven't seen anyone doing three courses for $18. Sometimes I'll put in my newsletter "Tonight is no cooking at home night! Why would you? It's $18 and we even do the dishes for you!"

EOW: At Piqueo, how does the three-course meal work there?

GS: We have an appetizer, like a small version of the ceviche or the chicken chicharrón and we have the petit filet chimichurri. You can do that with fries or tacu tacu, which is rice with beans. Then, we have a small version of a flan or alfajores dessert.

EOW: Is there anything else you want people to know?

GS: We're very focused on the total experience, which is why we have an extensive wine list. We have about 160 different labels. We don't want to keep them in our inventory so we price them low so they move. We want people to actually drink the wines and enjoy them with the food and music. We're always looking for new things to do.

I send an email five times a week and say, "I have to give everyone a break!" and then will do it only three times a week. But I'm always sending something because there's always something new. You can just go to Mezzanotte's or Piqueo's web sites and there's a link to subscribe to the email newsletter.

One more thing: we do trips also, twice a year. We do one in April and one in September with customers of the restaurant. We're like tour guides because we'll go to wine regions that we know really well, except for the Peru trip, which is more of a gastronomic adventure, plus the Machu Picchu ruins... it's a whole fun-packed week of activities. In September we do either Italy or Spain. We've gone to Argentina, too. We take a group of 10 to 12 on our adventures.

EOW: If people are interested in going on one of those adventures, how should they go about it?

GS: Just send a note through the web site. It goes directly to me.

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