Chris Shepherd's business partner Todd Mason of MLB Capital Partners suggested that they celebrate the chef's birthday by dining Wednesday evening at Tony's. So Mason, his wife Janie, Shepherd, and Shepherd's fiancé, Lindsey Brown, dined at Tony Vallone's 55-year-old restaurant at Greenway Plaza.
"He was working the dining room," says Shepherd on Thursday afternoon. "He planned our meal for us. ... For the main course he said, 'I wanna get you this veal chop.'"
Shepherd says the meal was divine as always. Around 9:30 p.m. Vallone told Shepherd he was heading out, and the chef watched the owner and operator walk out of his restaurant for the last time.
"I got the call this morning," says Shepherd on Thursday. "Todd, called and said 'Hey, this happened' ... and I was shaking."
Vallone died Thursday morning at age 75. No more than 12 hours before, he was where he'd been nearly every day for the last 55 years: in the dining room of his namesake restaurant shaking hands, planning meals, and telling guests that whatever they wanted, his team could pull it off.
"He's touched so many people in the city. They've seen so many people come through there, celebrating cherished moments," Shepherd says. "And it's one of those places that it's not just for a special occasion, it's just delicious food. Looking at the pass and seeing the duck press, and having a conversation with [Vallone] about a duck press, and the giant soufflés that they execute at the highest level—those things you don't see too often."
Tracy Vaught, co-founder of H-Town Restaurant Group, whose restaurants are considered among the best in the city for hospitality, shares her many experiences with Vallone in an email to Houstonia. Primarily, she remembers him as a mentor, specifically during a lunch at Vaught's Backstreet Cafe around 2000.
"I remember hanging on his every word. He was warm and generous with his advice," Vaught writes. "I pummeled him with questions about how his kitchens were organized, how he trained his staff, and how he came up with new menu ideas. I considered it a great opportunity to talk personally with one of the best all-around restaurateurs in the country."
Just a few years ago, Vaught continues, Hugo's worked with Tony's for the Cattle Baron's Ball, a major fundraising dinner benefiting the American Cancer Society. Vaught writes Vallone knew which supplies to rent, how many serving stations to have, how many servers to bring, and much more. He was, she wrote, a logistics expert.
"He was aware of every last detail," Vaught writes. "That was Tony Vallone."
In 2003, Vallone sold two of his restaurants—Grotto and La Griglia—to billionaire businessman Tilman Fertitta of Landry's Inc. Fertitta said in a statement Thursday that Vallone was an influential force in hospitality.
"If there was anyone in the restaurant industry who truly motivated me, it was Tony Vallone," Fertitta said. "Every aspect of his business from culinary and service to hospitality, Tony took it all to a different level. Even in the last 20 years, I would regard Tony as one of the greatest, true restaurateurs in all of America."
Shepherd says he'll never forget his final chat with Vallone, just before he left the restaurant that helped define a generation of Houston dining and brought countless memories to everyone who walked through its doors.
"It'll change me," says Shepherd about seeing Vallone. "I don't know if he'll ever know that, or if his family will ever know that, but it will."