PaperCity Magazine

September 2019- Houston

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I n 1981, Robert Del Grande arrived in Houston to visit his girlfriend, and a year later, he would become one of four co-owners of Cafe Annie, the French bistro located in a modest strip center on Westheimer Road. Four iterations later — with name changes along the way — Del Grande is striking out of the original group and partnering with restaurateur Ben Berg to launch a rebrand, this time named The Annie Café & Bar. It began when the scholarly Del Grande, a 26-year-old Ph.D. grad student studying biochemistry at the University of California, Riverside, met his future wife, the outgoing, fun-loving coed Mimi Kinsman, who was also a California native. Fast forward to Mimi's college graduation, when she moved to Houston to work with her sister, newlywed Candice (or Candy, as she's known) and her husband, Lonnie Schiller, a Texan who ran an advertising and marketing agency. Candy and Lonnie had traveled to Europe during the late '70s; like so many during that era, they came home dreaming of opening a French bistro as charming as the ones where they had dined in Paris. And that's exactly what they did. The intimate bistro was dubbed Cafe BY LAURANN CLARIDGE CAFE ANNIE Annie. Off for summer break, Del Grande came to Houston to spend time with Mimi. He was enthralled with cooking. "I wanted to help out at the restaurant," he says. "I was cooking at home from cookbooks but was curious what it was really like in a restaurant kitchen … My only hospitality experience was scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins when I was 17." He read Jacques Pepin's ground- breaking La Technique cover to cover and voraciously pored over Michelin- starred chefs' cookbooks, from the Troisgros brothers to Michel Guérard, stars of the culinary scene who at the time were popularizing lighter, French- technique-driven nouvelle cuisine across the globe. "In school, you spent half the day reading in the library, but to my surprise, the French chefs at Cafe Annie weren't keeping up with what the chefs were doing in France," he says. After a short stay, Del Grande headed back to California to complete his Ph.D. Nine months later, when faced with the conundrum of what to do with the rest of his life, he contemplated moving to Switzerland or even Chicago to work on a postdoctoral degree, but his fiancée wanted to stay in Houston, so he returned to work behind the range at Cafe Annie. "I was the cook with the book who encouraged them to push this and that," he says. "I was used to working day and night in the lab anyway, but not everyone was. They relished a night off, but I wanted to be there. I think the chef really wasn't cut out for the job; he loved windsurfing and other things more and eventually left. When he did, there was talk of what we should do. Should we hire another chef? And I said, 'I have a lot to learn, but I can do this. I'll make this happen.' It was one of those sheer moments of opportunity." But jumping from the intricate, subtly flavored fare of France to what would become his trademark — the bold flavors of Texas and the Southwest — was a slow evolution. "We all wanted to be French WHAT STARTED AS A FRENCH BISTRO NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO MORPHED INTO ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS RESTAURANTS IN HOUSTON. ITS CHEF, ROBERT DEL GRANDE, WAS THRUST INTO NATIONAL FAME, AS HE STOOD ON THE THRESHOLD OF CREATING A NEW REGIONAL CUISINE. THEN IT WAS OVER. WHAT HAPPENED? Robert Del Grande in the kitchen of the original Cafe Annie on Westheimer, 1984 Robert Del Grande, early '90s

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