GQ magazine may have just billed Dallas as the next best new food city, but to Houston chef Robert Del Grande, Big D has always been a big player.
Del Grande, a James Beard Award winner and executive chef and owner of Cafe Annie, was a pioneer in making Southwest cuisine popular in Texas, alongside local celebrity chefs Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing. Though Houston and Dallas have many bitter rivalries, culinary prowess has not been one of them, he says.
"It's funny, we always thought in Houston that Dallas was the big food city, and that's we were trying to do, to be. Then I was in Dallas a couple of years ago and [people] were telling me, 'We just gotta figure out how Dallas can be more like Houston in terms of restaurants,'" Del Grande says. "We've always been, I think, more collaborative than competitive."
That spirit will be on display Wednesday, May 16, when Del Grande hosts a pairing dinner with his buddy Fearing at Museum Tower as part of the Savor Dallas food and drink festival. The chefs will prepare bites to complement cocktails made with Roxor Artisan Gin, the recipe for which Del Grande developed. (Savor is produced by CrowdSource, a subsidiary of A.H. Belo, the parent of The Dallas Morning News.)
Update: The Roxor Spirited Pairing with Del Grande and Fearing has sold out.
Del Grande will be at several Savor Dallas events sampling Roxor gin. Before the festival, we spoke to Del Grande about what it takes to be a premiere food city and how creating the recipe for a new liquor is similar to preparing a sauce. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GuideLive: What ingredients do you need to make a renowned food scene?
Robert Del Grande: If you go all the way to the foundation, you need access to really good products. That's for sure. ... And just like music, you need great players and you need great audiences. You can't have one without the other. So I think all the chefs, not only the more established ones but the young ones who are doing things, and people who are open and willing to try it.
Dining has a good sense of conviviality to it. It's more than just the food, more than just the wine, but the excitement of being out. Going out to dinner shouldn't be like going out to church. You're supposed to laugh and tell jokes and have fun.
Where do you eat when you visit Dallas?
I eat wherever Dean Fearing lets me eat. That's pretty much how it's worked for our entire friendship, for the last 25 years or so. ... I'm that way in almost every city. If I have a friend there, I say, 'Wherever you want to go.' They're the insiders.
The last place we went to was Neighborhood Services. Everything was tasty and simple. You know, my philosophy to cooking is buy good stuff and try not to ruin it. It takes years to figure that out. So I think they do that. It was more about good flavor and ambiance than culinary tricks, trying to blow you away with something that's on fire.
You developed the recipe for Roxor gin. How does that compare to developing a recipe in the kitchen?
When I started cooking, it was a little more of the French system, but everybody wanted to be the saucier. That was the greatest position — the mystery and magic of making a sauce, which is basically blending liquids. Then I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're not sauciers. We're bartenders in the kitchen is what we are.'
There was always this bar aspect in the kitchen for the French style. We needed a little bit of vermouth for this sauce, a little cognac for that sauce. We needed, you know, a little Pernod for this thing, we needed a touch of Cointreau for the duck. So you can see it's an easy bridge.
And it's the same sort of flavor system as food — it's a little sweet, it's a little sour, a little bitter, a little spicy, a little tangy, salty. You're blending all those aspects of taste and aromas, too. There's a real kinship between the two.
How would you describe the gin's flavor profile?
It's all based on kitchen botanicals, the things we use all the time already. When I was making sauces, the younger saucier was always looking for a big, rich boldness. And I said, 'Don't forget perfume. How do you make it perfumey?' And that's what gin is all about. It's actually a perfumey vodka, is all it is.
Roxor is an American-style [gin], leaning more toward the great perfumes of citrus ... and then great botanicals from around the world, including the classic juniper for that signature identity for gin. But I've found that any botanical with a perfume could be used. I like really bright and clear and distinct flavors.
For more information about Savor Dallas, click here.