But when Del Grande returns from the dining room, he collapses against the work counter in the kitchen, shaking his head as if he's just survived a traffic accident. "I'm shy out there," he confesses. "It's exhausting for me to keep up with the conversation. I come back here and wonder if I just said anything stupid." Line cooks are juggling sizzling pans and giant mixing bowls inches from either side of him, but he doesn't seem to notice. "Back here I'm always relaxed," he says.
Robert Del Grande is much more comfortable as a chef than as a celebrity. He loves to cook but hates the spotlight. For more than a decade, he relied on his chef de cuisine, Ben Berryhill, to run the kitchen and pamper the celebrities at Cafe Annie while he supervised the 14 kitchens in the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group.
But not anymore. Thanks to a sweeping series of changes, Berryhill left to start his own restaurant in South Carolina. And in what seemed an odd move, Robert Del Grande took a step backward, returning to the front lines: the kitchen at Cafe Annie. The Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group also sold the majority share of its 12-store Cafe Express chain to Wendy's. Then came the news that its flagship restaurant, Cafe Annie, would relocate. And in the midst of all this upheaval, rumors about Del Grande's health began to swirl.
After the dinner shift at Cafe Annie, over a beer at a nearby bar, Del Grande speaks about the terrible moment, a little more than two years ago, when he found out he had cancer.
"A chill starts about here," he says, holding his hand near the top of his head. "And the coldness goes all the way down to here." He lowers his hand past his chest.
Blood work after a routine doctor's office visit had indicated elevated prostate-specific antigens, a red flag for prostate cancer. A follow-up biopsy confirmed that the disease was pretty far along. Surgery would be required.
"From then on, my life became a statistic," Del Grande says. His doctors told him prostate surgery is successful 80 percent of the time, and about two-thirds of patients avoid a relapse.
Immersing himself in work helped him avoid depression, he says. But it was painful to plan projects with a question mark hanging over them. "It's always there in the back of your mind," he says. "You are doing something, and you think, 'Wow, this is great. This is a blast.' And then you remember, 'Oh, yeah, there's that other thing.' You ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I doing anything?' "
Del Grande's prostate was removed November 22, 2002. The surgery went fine, but the cancer was more advanced than doctors had expected, so they had to remove lymph nodes from the area as well.
"I thought about hanging it up," he admits. "And I will if it comes back." The chef is tested every few months, and he says the latest test, a couple of weeks ago, looked good.
On November 1, Del Grande turned 50. The psyche of the American male generally hits the half-century mark like a brick wall. And his recent brush with mortality makes him even more vulnerable.
Asked how this birthday feels, Del Grande says, "Am I too old to start a rock and roll band?" And looking back over his career, he says, "I keep asking myself: Is this adding up to anything? Am I in the end zone yet? Do I get to spike the ball now?"
The questions sound odd coming from one of the most acclaimed chefs in America.
Robert Del Grande received the James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Southwest in 1992 and appeared on the PBS Great Chefs series with Pierre Franey that same year. In 1994, he was featured on Julia Child's show Cooking with Master Chefs.
Gourmet magazine named Cafe Annie one of "America's Top Tables" in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, while Food & Wine named it the "Best Restaurant in Houston" in 1999. Zagat rated it the "Top Restaurant in Houston" each year from 2000 to 2003. And Cafe Annie received the DiRoNa Award as one of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America in 1997.
Del Grande couldn't have predicted his course while he was earning his BS in chemistry and biology from San Francisco State or his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California Riverside. After finishing school, he started looking for a job in the medical field. In 1981, he moved to Texas with his future wife, Mimi.