The Chef Who Almost Wasn't

Let's get a couple of things straight. Chef Zumm G. Escudier is not a man ("Name Above the Title," by Dennis Abrams, May 18, 2000), nor was she the chef at Renata's when the Houston Press published a rather scathing review naming her as such ("Out with the New," by Dennis Abrams, December 30, 1999). But she is a good sport -- she says she felt so bad for the writer that she sent him flowers, and she was willing to give us another try. So here's the truth: Escudier is a French-Vietnamese lawyer-chef who has turned the Angelika Cafe and Bar from a losing proposition off the lobby of the Angelika Film Center into a trendy downtown destination and budding politico watering hole.

The Angelika Film Center has never drawn the crowds of its parent theater in New York. "The movie theater is very inconsistent, and that is frustrating," says cafe owner Terry Shaikh. "Nights when the Theater District has plays, we do very well."

But once Tropical Storm Allison hit, both movie theater and cafe were drawing smaller crowds than ever. "We were closed for three weeks, and it was five months before we had our underground parking back," remembers Escudier. "The staff was carpooling just to get to work."

But today, word of mouth is getting around again about Escudier's exciting East-meets-West menu. And the Angelika Cafe is redoing its outdoor patio, expanding its hours and considering opening an additional location in the second phase of Bayou Place. Shaikh believes Escudier is responsible for the turnaround. "She's a great chef and a great manager who put together a very good team," he says. "She is serving great food at a reasonable price."

City controller Sylvia Garcia has begun holding executive staff meetings at the cafe, and members of the mayor's staff frequent the spot, as does councilman and mayoral candidate Michael Berry. "Zumm does a great lunch," says Shaikh. The draw, other than the walking-distance proximity to City Hall, is the casual dining with a light Asian-French flair: chicken curry salads in halved coconut shells, pasta presentations and Asian quesadillas.

Yet Escudier is the chef who almost wasn't. She was born to a French army pharmacist and a Vietnamese woman, but France had a policy at that time forbidding soldiers from marrying Vietnamese nationals. In a tale that should be a romance flick playing on one of the screens down the hall from the restaurant, Escudier's father returned to France, resigned his commission and joined the United Nations armed forces so he could go back to Vietnam and marry the mother of his child. Unfortunately, the war had intensified in his absence. Baby Zumm and her mother had fled North Vietnam to South Vietnam, and her French father could not find them.

"It is the greatest love story," says Escudier. "He got a bicycle, and every day after work he would go further and further, looking for us. It took him six months, but he found us." At last, her parents were married, and five more children followed. They lived in Vietnam but vacationed in France every year.

In 1973, Escudier, then 17, was sent to France to study medicine. It was her father's dream, but she hated it. "First year, we dissected rats. Some days your rat is pink, some days it is blue, some days it is shaved, because the older students got them first. I said, 'What is that? I can't do that!' "

As history would have it, the next year when her family came to visit her in Paris, Saigon fell and they never returned to Vietnam. Left with only a few childhood photographs, the family started life over in Paris. Emboldened by wine and changing French politics, Escudier told her father she was dropping out of medical school and going to law school. It was not a popular move -- her father proclaimed legal universities "schools for prostitutes" -- but she entered Nanterre University, a school known for its 1968 leftist student rebellion. Still, Escudier did follow in her father's footsteps to some degree. As a prisoner of war, he became the prison-camp cook in order to secure meat, cigarettes and wine for his men. She decided to pursue a culinary degree at Vincennes while attending law school. "It was a way to express myself artistically," she says.

Although she loved combining her Asian and French heritages into dishes, she went to work in a Paris law firm upon graduation. During her first year, she bought a Jaguar in three payments. But in yet another quirk of fate, her mother learned of a long-lost cousin in Houston and moved the entire family here in 1982. "My father said lawyers in this country make millions of dollars," she recalls. But not so lawyers with degrees from liberal French schools who could hardly speak English. She was offered a job at $600 a month, but she declined when she saw an ad for a French chef offering $600 a week. She cooked at Cleo's 21, then at Renata's and then became operations manager at North American Warehouse, the place where every coffee bean from the Port of Houston spends its layover.

She continued to cook and work on catering jobs, one of which provided the opportunity for Shaikh, president of Rushlake Hotels, to sample her wares. "He said, 'I have a challenge for you; the Angelika is the only one in my unit not making money,' " Escudier remembers. She rose to the challenge. Within three weeks, she had assembled much of her staff from Renata's, and it wasn't long before the Angelika was doing 150 covers for lunch.

"Thank God for Zumm," says Shaikh. "We aren't making money [in these tough times], but we haven't lost a penny, thanks to her."

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Marene Gustin