Robert Del Grande is serving barbecue to 1,000 people at the James Beard Awards reception on Monday night, and he's not quite sure where his meat is at the moment. Normally, that would be a problem—but being one of 30 chefs asked to fly out to New York City for the year's biggest culinary event means that some logistical sacrifices must be made, such as shipping your supplies and ingredients ahead of you via FedEx.
"I don't know where the food is; it's over some state at high altitude," laughs Del Grande, who flies to New York himself tomorrow morning. "But the terrine improves if it sits for a couple of days. It's actually getting better now, wherever it is on the way."
The terrine he's referring to is a clever cross between Texas barbecue and classic French cuisine: a brined and slow-smoked brisket that's been shredded and packed into ramekins with its own drippings, blended with red chiles, tomatoes, and aspic to bolster the terrine. "It's almost like a rillette," says Del Grande of the dish he'll be serving at the reception. "It's kinda neat."
This sort of inventive cooking is how Del Grande—who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry—made his mark on the national culinary scene beginning in the 1980s with Cafe Annie, the Houston classic that was later reborn as RDG + Bar Annie in 2009. Along with Dallas chefs Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, Del Grande was one of the originators of Southwestern cuisine—work for which Del Grande himself won a Beard award in the Best Chef: Southwest category in 1992.
In keeping with his background, Del Grande says he wanted to bring a dish to the reception that would "represent the state, and represent Houston." But the brisket rillettes he'd dreamed up during the planning that began back in February, when he was first asked to cook for this year's awards reception, weren't quite enough for Del Grande—nor for his audience. "Because it's New York, they had to be elevated."
His plat de résistance? "Have you ever seen The Big Lebowski?" Del Grande asks. "There's this scene where The Stranger walks up and says, 'Say friend—you got any more of that good sarsaparilla?' Ever since then, I've always associated sarsaparilla with something Western." So to add that final Western flair to his modern Texan dish, Del Grande made what he calls a "little red chile sauce that's between mole and barbecue, and we made it with sarsaparilla." A flourish of bright green root beer-flavored hoja santa leaves pulverized with olive oil will add a final burst of color to the dish. Del Grande was pleased to report that he'd grown the hoja santa himself.
On Monday night, Del Grande will be reunited with his brisket terrines, which he and a small team will serve to a madhouse scene ahead of the much-anticipated awards ceremony. Del Grande remains the most recent Beard award winner from Houston, something this year's delegation of three Houston chefs hopes to change. Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Justin Yu of Oxheart, and Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, and Caracol have all been nominated in the same category Del Grande won 22 years ago, though Del Grande is loathe to pick a single horse to win that race.
"They're all friends of mine and I admire them all," says Del Grande. "I've known Hugo for years, I've known Chris for years, Justin used to work for us at Discovery Green." But it's not friendship or even politeness that prevents Del Grande from making a pick. "I think Houston is at a disadvantage when you have three chefs from the same city nominated, because you have the split the vote problem," he notes. Regardless, he argues, winning isn't the point of the James Beard awards anyway.
"It's more fun to be nominated because once you win, you can't be nominated again for a while," Del Grande says, "and to be nominated every year is great." He compares the acknowledgement of a nomination to a continual recognition that your work is important and appreciated. "Would you like to be nominated once and win or be nominated 20 years in a row and not win?" Look at Meryl Streep, he says, with 18 Academy Award nominations in 35 years—and only two wins.
"Just have a fun time," says Del Grande. "Don't worry about the winning and losing too much or you miss the party."