Chef Felipe Riccio is the master of his own education. The inflection of his speech, when he describes his experiences, his philosophy, is eagerness in the purest form. He’s not afraid to try. He’s not afraid to ask the question, whatever it may be… because to him, what is the worst that can happen? They’ll say no?
After a two-year stint living and staging around the world with his wife Hayley, chef Riccio returns to Houston to join David Keck and Peter McCarthy as chef/partner at Goodnight Hospitality. The word “stage” (pronounced stahzje) comes from the French word “stagiaire,” which is fancy way of saying quiet intern who works for free.
Staging is very common and encouraged in the culinary world. While staging, you could be asked to clean the eyeballs and blood off fish being prepared for fish stock, turn root vegetables or even, gulp, make family meal for your peers. As a stage, it’s key to keep your peepers open, ask questions at appropriate times and have the work clean mentality so much so that if an apple peel hits the floor, the floor turns to lava… because everyone will look at you like it did.
Through a mutual friend, chef Riccio landed a stage at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, where chef Massimo Bottura holds court at arguably the best restaurant in the world. From there he staged at several other restaurants including Azurmendi in Bilbao, Spain and chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, his family moved to Houston when Felipe was a teenager. He started cooking in high school and most notably worked at Reef for four years (served as executive sous chef to Bryan Caswell), as well as helped open The Pass & Provisions and Camerata with David Keck.
The Houston Press, sat across chef Riccio on a picnic bench outside Goodnight Charlies to discuss his travels…
HP: What did Hayley do while you were staging all the time?
FR: She was doing her bachelor's at University of Houston and we were looking at her doing a master's [somewhere.] So we said, where do you (Hayley) want to go? I [told her] anywhere you want to go to school, I can cook. I can get a job. It might not be the most amazing job, but I can get a job and we will be fine.
Lucky for me she ended up picking Milan, and because my father is from Naples, [it] has always been a dream for me to live [in Italy.] Same thing for her, she was afraid of applying, but [we decided] if she didn’t apply we’d never know. She got accepted right away and was based out of Milan for a year. I kept traveling back and forth between Modena and northern Spain. Once she was done with school we traveled together for eight months. It was unbelievable.
HP: How did you land the spot at Osteria Francescana?
FR: So, it was actually through Daniela [Soto-Innes] (James Beard Award Winning Houstonian who is now partners with Enrique Olvera.) She knew I was moving there and we had a random conversation about it [Osteria Francescana.] She was like, “oh, totally, I’ll call Taka and get you in.” [So, I got in touch with them and] they said, “can you come down to Modena and chat with us?” I [got] on the train [the next day.]
I remember I turned the corner and [saw] Massimo Bottura come out of the building on his phone speaking in Italian very loudly and gesturing.
I walked in the door and when I did, he gets off his phone and looks at me and just shakes his head (in an approving way). And I just go into the office and he just goes about his day. (pauses and smiles excitedly) It was just that first time of seeing Massimo. He is such a character and a personality.
HP: While staging at Osteria Francescana, were there any jobs that Massimo Bottura personally gave you?
FR: One of the tasks for all the stages is to cook a dish for Massimo that represents you. And they don’t tell you when it’s going to happen. They tell you this [on] the first day you start, and you usually start in a group [of] six other people. Massimo would literally be in Singapore for one day, Los Angeles for another and Modena for three days at a time. When he was in Modena he was always in the restaurant.
So, four weeks in, I made cochinita de pibil [for family meal], which is actually on the menu now at Goodnight Charlies. I was lucky enough to find all the ingredients for [it] because there are all these ethnic groups that live in Milan. So, I make this for the whole kitchen and front of the house and we are all eating, because we all eat together every day for lunch and dinner. While we are eating, Massimo gets up, and he actually said it in english, “this is what I want to see from you guys when you cook the dish that represents yourself.”
I’m freaking out because I don’t cook Mexican food professionally. It was one of those things, my passion, I eat Mexican food, I grew up eating it, I was born in Mexico. He then announced, “okay on Tuesday, I want all the stages to cook a dish that represents you.”
And I’m just like freaking out, [because] also when he stood up in front of everyone he pointed at me and said, “I want you to cook me the most incredible taco.” So, at the end of the day I ended up asking him. “Hey chef can I talk to you?” And (in Italian) he said, “yes, but don’t say anything stupid.”
(Felipe getting more and more excited as he tells the story.) I’m like ahhh, I hope whatever I say doesn’t sound stupid. So I asked him, “do I need to cook Mexican food chef? Because I would like to show you other things.” He said, “no, no it doesn’t matter, cook whatever you want, but something that represents you.”
I was more nervous because I wouldn’t be able to find the ingredients for what I was making, if I had to make a taco. Like cilantro, it’s super hard to find. I ended up making this other dish.
HP: Go on…
FR: I made a Spaghetti with a sauce of roasted Sorrento lemon, clams, agretti & caviar. It is not a warm dish, the spaghetti is cooked and then tossed in the cold sauce. I explained it like this to chef Massimo in Italian…
“This dish represents me, it represents part of my palate and how it was formed by my experiences. I grew up by the sea and one of my best memories is the ever-present salinity in the air. The brilliant acidity and the bitterness of the roasted lemon of Sorrento, a lemon from my father's land, are two important flavors in my food, rooted in my time as a sommelier.
HP: Damn. What advice can you give to chefs who want to do a staging tour like you did?
The most singular advice I could give, is just do it. Because that is what is stopping a lot of people, the fear of “oh, I won’t be able to do it or I won’t get a response back.” Whatever the excuse… you just have to do it. You have to sit there and write an email and send it out.
I sat down and [thought about] which restaurants I wanted to go to and why. I tried to pick places that would align with my philosophy, or where I could see something different.
But just do it, get over the fear of: what if they say no. You’re never going to know unless you ask. A lot of them were all super gracious and helpful.
Each place is new, you try to figure out where the pots and pans and lids are, and [they speak] different languages, and [there are] people [from] all over the world, so it can be overwhelming, but you have to go in there with a mission that you’re going to learn something new every day. I had a notebook and every day I made sure to write down one new thing I learned. A new ingredient or technique, a restaurant I hadn’t heard of before. Go there with a mission and just learn.
HP: You’ve made some great choices as far as choosing how you want to be trained by working in the places you have. You trained with David Keck and earned a sommelier certification under The Court of Master Sommeliers. You staged for two years at some of the best restaurants in the world. What feels like the next step as far as your education goes?
FR: Everything, it all sort of happened, like moving [to Italy], and working under David [Keck] at Camerata. We never had a plan for how it was going to happen, but [I’d] always wanted to live in Italy. It comes naturally, I’m always seeking education.
I knew I wanted to stage at all these restaurants, I think it’s no secret, [it’s ambitious], what we are trying to build with Goodnight Hospitality. [The next step is] learning how to run a business, and also with the different projects that we hope to do, education, research, will be a [huge] part of [that.] Learning how to implement a business model into something people enjoy and that is delicious. I love history and geography so pulling [from] that for the food is going to require research... It’s going to be fun.
HP: From the butcher table, what excites you most when you see the delivery guy show up?
FR: It excites me to see whole animals coming in and how many things you can do with [it.] How can you pay respect to the farmer and the animal that is being used to feed your guest. [I like] trying to explore different animals. Like the Mangiamaccheroni dinners, where we were doing duck and geese, lamb and goat, all of these different animals that are not in the normal repertoire of a restaurant.
Pigeon is on every single tasting menu right now in Europe. Everywhere. It’s delicious and they treat it very well. I try to explore some of those off the beaten path fish, poultry, and land animals.
HP: How would you pack your ideal picnic basket and where would you take your girl (in the world)?
FR: When I was at Azurmendi in Bilbao, Haley was in school (in Milan) [full-time], she didn’t get to come. But, it’s one of the most magical, beautiful places that I saw. I would take her there, because I told her we would go. We would do a picnic in the northern coast of Basque country, with the mountains behind us and the sea in front of us, because she is a mountain girl and I am an ocean guy.
I’d pack it with a bottle of [Basque] cider, a bottle of Manzanilla Sherry, some olives, some sardines, boquerones. There are so many of these canned items that you get overseas. From octopus, to like five different types of clams and they all taste different and have different textures. That’s what I would do for a picnic. Just sit there and eat all of this seafood, drink sherry.
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HP: If there were a Houston chef calendar, which month would you be and why?
FR: March, my birthday month.