Chef Chat, Part 2: Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio of Hawthorn, on His Favorite Dishes at Hawthorn and Where He Likes to Get a Good Fish Sandwich

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This is Part 2 of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

EOW: So, Hawthorn. How did you get involved in this project? It was a different concept before.

RPG: The original owners intended this on being a private dining facility. They had so many concepts included. It was going to be a wine club with a 10,000-bottle wine room back here. It was going to be small plates. Members were going to be able to call 24 hours in advance and order whatever they wanted for dinner -- you name it, anywhere in the world, and they could have it, with notice. There was going to be a luxury car rental available with Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin for guests that wanted them. There was going to be a chauffeur service for people who wanted to come here pre-theater -- they were very ambitious. And that's just not Houston.

EOW: Were you brought in at the inception?

RPG: No. I was brought in after, but from the time I got here, and I heard the concept, and I watched day by day the directions they were going off in, I said, "This isn't going to work." And they finally realized it wasn't going to work. And they said, "What will work here?" And I said, "A restaurant," because this was full of lounge furniture -- sofas and tables and relaxed seating, so I said, "Get rid of all this stuff, put in tables and turn this into just a really nice restaurant." And that's what we did. We opened -- it will be a year this month.

EOW: And you're a chef and partner.

RPG: Yes, I am.

EOW: Obviously, you're in charge of the menu. Is there input from the other owners?

RPG: No, they're all silent.

EOW: So, your heritage is Italian, you're doing some pastas here. Is this an Italian restaurant?

RPG: No, we've hesitated to classify it as Italian because we're not what people typically think of as an Italian restaurant.

EOW: Yeah. Why?

RPG: Because most people's association with Italian restaurants is Italian-American, where you've got chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo and all the standbys. The style that I use when I cook here is Italian. I buy all fresh. I buy natural. I work the ingredients minimally and I coax the most amount of flavor from them, and I don't let any one thing on the plate be the star. I want there to be harmony on the plate, even though obviously the protein takes center stage. When I do come out in the dining room, I always encourage people, "Cut this, and put a piece of this on there and a piece of this on there and eat it together and get that experience." And a lot of Americans will eat their meat and eat their vegetable. I've got a niece that won't even let things touch her plate.

EOW: You change your menu every quarter?

RPG: And sometimes more frequently, depends. Like we just rolled out a spring menu, but the trout has a short season, so in a week or two, when it starts to run a little dry, that'll come off and I'll replace it with another fish.

EOW: So of all of the dishes you've made here, did you bring any back from Sabetta?

RPG: Yes, I did. The apple crostata -- that was on the menu at Sabetta. I also had the grilled octopus with the purple potato and arugula -- it's a hot and cold-type appetizer. That was at Sabetta as well.

EOW: So of all the dishes you're doing here, which are your favorites and which are the ones that everyone is loving?

RPG: Mine are the more simple ones.

EOW: Such as?

RPG: I love the tagliolini. It's with the guanciale and San Marzano tomatoes and caramelized onions. The lamb chops are incredible, because I love the sauce, and it's not Italian. I take whole grain mustard and blend it with a little raspberry vinegar, some fresh raspberry puree, a little bit of honey, some demi, wasabi, and that gets napped onto the lamb, and people go, "OMG, this is incredible." I love the flank steak because it's simple -- just a beautifully grilled piece of meat. It's got a little extra virgin olive oil, it's got fresh herbs and a little drizzle of balsamic -- things like that, they're simple, but when you put them together on your fork and you eat them, the flavor is intense.

EOW: Okay. So, on to you. You sold your Harley, you sold your house. Do you have them back?

RPG: No.

EOW: You still don't have them back?

RPG: No. (Laughs.) I have a Scarabeo 300 cc scooter that I ride back and forth to work.

EOW: So you live around here.

RPG: Yes, I live about three miles from here.

EOW: There was a lag in between Sabetta and here. What did you do? Did you work at other restaurants?

RPG: I'd told my wife, "I will not close this restaurant and owe anybody in town any money" -- as far as purveyors or anything -- "I will not do that, I don't care if I have to live in the streets, I'm not doing that." So, a gentleman bought all my assets, and it was enough that I paid everybody off -- we still had personal debt -- but we were able to walk away from it in good conscience. And, this gentleman said to me, "Would you like to work for me?" And I said "Doing what?" And he said, "I'm going to be opening a restaurant, and I would be willing to contract you as a consultant for three months to help me put this menu together and develop the recipes for the menu." So when my contract expired, he wanted me to stay, but it didn't work out.

EOW: Did you ever consider leaving Houston? Are you from Houston?

RPG: My wife is, and her family is here. Her parents are in San Antonio. Her two brothers live here. One of her brothers has ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease. It's this debilitating disease that your muscles start to go. Every muscle in your body, to where now he's confined to a wheelchair, can't talk and can't eat. We also have kids. My son's married, and he lives here. And when he has kids, I don't want to be too far away. We're very close, my kids, family. Family's important, so we're very close.

EOW: Do you have time to visit other restaurants?

RPG: Downtime, what does that mean? I would love to have downtime.

EOW: But you should because you only open for dinner, and you don't open during the day, so what are you doing with your downtime?

RPG: My kitchen is only 150 square feet. I don't have a walk-in. I have two reach-ins.

EOW: Not an ideal situation.

RPG: Horrible situation.

EOW: Okay, so that contributes to the lack of downtime.

RPG: Yes, because when my staff gets here, they start at 3 p.m -- When they're here, it's bumping in the kitchen. Even just the four of them, by the end of the night I'm just so weary from having to step aside to let people through (shakes his head). So I have to come in at 10 in the morning when no one's here and get all my work and prep done.

EOW: So you prep everything yourself?

RPG: I prep all the desserts, all the pastas. And because I don't have a walk-in, I can't necessarily buy large quantities of things. I have to go shop.

EOW: So do you run out of stuff?

RPG: Try not to, but I shop almost daily. So I get here in the morning, look at my list, see what I have to do, get on my scooter...

EOW: How much can you actually carry on the scooter?

RPG: Two bags, that's it. And then I come back and prep my dessert, prep my pastas, make my pasta fillings and I make all the gelato in house. Yeah. I wish I had more downtime. Monday's my day off.

EOW: What do you do?

RPG: I usually go eat lunch somewhere quiet. I really enjoy going to Hillstone, the former Houston's here on Kirby. They make, for me, an incredible fish sandwich. They use grouper, and they put a cabbage slaw and pickles. And they know me. I go in almost every Monday, and I'll have a fish sandwich and two beers. And that's my relaxed Monday.

EOW: So if you were to have a last meal, what would it be and who would make it?

RPG: I don't know what I would have for a last meal, but I think I would like to have it at The French Laundry, only because I haven't been there, and I would love to go.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Palazzo-Giorgio's food.

Hawthorn 3200 Kirby Drive, ste. 106 Tel: (713)523-3600 http://hawthornrestaurant.com/

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