Robert Del Grande
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Robert Del Grande

Jim Poris / May 2007

Food Arts presents the May 2007 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Robert Del Grande, the Houston chef who has been one of the inspiring leaders manning the vanguard of the American food revolution for more than 25 years. At his enduring restaurant Cafe Annie, Del Grande helped wean Americans from the norms of starched, Continental-inflected fine dining by presenting the rustic hallmarks of local food culture in a more refined, stylized manner. For him, that meant the Mexican-influenced food of Texas, which he (and others in that quadrant of the country) fashioned into a genre that was dubbed Southwestern as its vibrancy spread to chile-starved corners of the country.

"When I'm driving down the road and I see a fast-food place with a sign touting its chipotle chicken, I think, ‘Oh my God, I think I started that'," says Del Grande, 52, who recalls smuggling chipotle chiles into Houston from forays to Mexico in the early 1980s. "Along with Dean Fearing, Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles, John Sedlar, and others, I helped give an identity to the cooking of the Southwest, which takes in a large part of the country, from Texas all the way to Southern California."

A Bay Area native, Del Grande received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California at Riverside in 1980 and then followed his girlfriend Mimi Kinsman—now Mimi Del Grande, the restaurant's general manager--to Houston, where her sister and brother-in-law—Candice and Lonnie Schiller—had started Cafe Annie. Del Grande, who had cooked nightly for his graduate school housemates and courted Mimi in student-budget Mexican restaurants, thought he'd help out in the French-influenced kitchen while he sorted out his move into the research world. When the chef left, he took over. And when he served his guests the "quasi French/Mexican rabbit enchiladas we ate at staff meals," and they took off, the menu changed and a genre of American cuisine was born.

"As a scientist, I know you have to have an intuition about the answer before seeking proof to figure it out," notes Del Grande, "and I guess I had that sense about food. I mean, could we be any better at cooking French food than the French? Do we want to be better? We should be best at what's local to us. As a self-trained chef I didn't have a sense of what was allowable or what was within the rules. So, could you really serve an enchilada in a fine dining restaurant?"

Yes, as he has found out. And success has enabled him, Mimi, and the Schillers to start up the made-from-scratch fast-food outlets Cafe Express (Dallas, Houston) and Taco Milagro Restaurant & Beach Bar, a Mexican-style cantina with four Houston area locations.Del Grande modestly confesses that he "maintains some sense of insecurity that I'm not so good at all this." He then adds: "In the end, you have to absolutely be in love with something to be able to do it to the best of your ability. There are times I'm so exhausted from a night in the kitchen I don't know what's what. But then I get up in the morning, and I can't wait to do it all again."