Houston native Ryan Hildebrand graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and apprenticed with Chez Nous in Humble. Hildebrand is now Executive Chef at both Bistro Provence (13616 Memorial Drive) and Bistro Don Camillo (6510 Del Monte), which feature cooking inspired by the Nicoise region, the borderland between France and Italy.
What is an executive chef? That's a good question. Someone who can manage the kitchen day to day and still keep a handle on the cooking and is not afraid to get his hands dirty. I won't ask anyone to do anything I won't do. I will take the garbage out. I haven't graduated out of peeling potatoes. I think that attitude helps maintain the solidity of the crew.
How do you get Houstonians to eat andouillettes (tripe sausages)? You put a twist on it to make people more comfortable, including something they recognize in the dish, like an herb or sauce. Our sweetbreads are served with elements people recognize. I prepared frog's legs on Cleverley's Cooking Corner to show that they aren't grimy, slimy things.
Do you like cooking on camera? I get tense. You have such a short period of time to prepare the dish. It's not as easy as it looks. I prefer to be behind the scenes.
What are your thoughts on live music in the dining room? It adds new life to the restaurant. If we change the menu seasonally, I think we should change other elements like visuals and sound to engage all the senses--it adds to the experience. I wouldn't get a band every night, but we do have classical guitar and violin on Thursdays.
Weren't there complaints about your escargots wrapped in prosciutto? That was the first thing I thought about changing on the menu, but Robb Walsh loved them. And the consensus was that most of the guests enjoyed the dish. But it's not what people expect. If people like something, I don't have an ego problem; I don't need to change it. Most of the time, complaints happen when patrons get something they don't expect. I take complaints seriously, but not home.
Are you glad you attended CIA in Hyde Park? That's tough because I credit work experience more. CIA gave me a chance to grow as a cook. All the different chefs expose you to different styles. The training gave me the ability to adapt quickly to a number of different kitchens so I could go anywhere and work with the resident chef. Two years there cost as much as my degree from Baylor. But I met people from all over the world and gained a broad spectrum of knowledge. If I had to do it over again, I might take the money and travel the world learning about food, but the school did open doors into the profession.
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How would you say your work experience influences your decisions now? I learned how to be a chef from other chefs. I combine recipes and tweak dishes I've seen others make. I learned how to make paella from the great Lindell Mendoza at the San Luis Hotel in Galveston. Jim Mills at the Houstonian inspired me with the passion he has for the craft, and I learned a lot about plate structure and design from Mark Cox at Mark's. The first great cooks I knew were my mom and my aunt. I spent most of my time before each Christmas rolling meatballs.
Has economic downturn affected business? We have been incredibly lucky. Both restaurants are at or above what they were at last year. I think that's because, one, you can come in and get a nice meal for a reasonable price. We're also neighborhood-oriented. Our clientele doesn't have to drive far to get to us. Memorial and Wilcrest people don't want to drive into town for dinner.
What restaurants do you recommend besides your own? Ibiza. Charles Clark gave me my first exposure to tapas. I loved Chez Nous, where I trained. It's family-owned and operated; I learned a lot about bringing flavor to food from Gerard Brach. I loved working in a little house that had been transformed into a professional kitchen. The neighborhood was totally residential. The building and location are part of its character. That's true of Patronella's, too; there's so much history in the building.
Anything else you want us to know about your restaurants? People who haven't visited us will be pleasantly surprised. We are highly underestimated because we're small. Don Camillo's has really talented sommeliers in (owner) Jean Philippe and his wife, Genevieve; they create the wine list. We have all the right elements covered, and I think that will be proven over time.