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Chefs missing in action

Strange trend emerged over the last few years. Some of the best chefs in the city aren’t cooking.

Earlier this month Randy Rucker departed from Artista. I had speculated some time ago that Cordua restaurants were ready for a change, which just might restore some past glory to this tired Houston institution, but the new America’s menu looks like more of the same and Rucker ran into creative "differences" with the owners (read: he didn’t want to grill a hunk of beef 14 different ways and call it cooking). Guess I am going to cancel my reservation for the dinner Rucker was planning for March 17th to showcase some of his creations.

For now, you can look at, but you can’t touch, the dishes he creates on his blog. I hope someone comes to their senses in Houston and hires this guy.

On the other side of town, Philippe Schmit returned from a trip to France to get some creative ideas and found himself out of a job – booted unceremoniously from Bistro Moderne, which put Hotel Derek on culinary map. New hotel owners often change concepts, but to dismiss one of the best chefs in the city from a restaurant that was so successful after so many false starts?

Last Supper at Bistro Moderne

Schmit landed on his feet and scored a job with the Legacy Group, the people behind Antone’s and Ninfa’s on Navigation. The press release announcing his hiring promised a signature restaurant around, but the Chronicle story about Legacy today makes no mention of any such thing in the plans. The corporate chef job pays the bills, but is that really the best opportunity available in Houston for someone with Schmit’s talent?

Another sad story – Scott Tycer, who went to fat camp, shuttered Aries and now spends his time on commercial baking. Tycer has top billing as a chef at Gravitas, but for the most part it seems like a Jason Gould operation. Gravitas is a decent restaurant, but it far from realizing it’s full potential. You can tell the kitchen can turn out great food, but the menu lacks inspiration and seasonality to be a true draw. I rarely go there.

Maybe the most depressing story of all is that of Alberto Baffoni, who turned out some of the most refined Italian food in the city at Simposio. Since leaving Simposio, Baffoni had a string of odd jobs at places that don’t quite fit him, finally ending up at the most bizarre place of all – Bohemia, a sort of a macabre combination of an Italian restaurant, and eastern European supper club, complete with a band, disco lights and gypsy dancers.

I visited Bohemia a handful of times and it was but a sad reminder of what Baffoni used to accomplish at Simposio. For shits and giggles I ordered borscht and buckweat blinis, just to see how Baffoni was coping with his Russian owners. I wasn’t less amused when I realized I’d have to eat them. Both had all the right ingredients, but clearly cooked by someone who never tasted the dishes as they are supposed to be prepared.

Italian dishes were better, but not great. Ravioli were kneaded to glutinous mess and stuffed with lumpy, low grade beef. Baffoni’s signature dish, vitello tonnato – cold slices of veal with mayo/tuna/anchovies sauce, had a heavy mayonnaise profile that blew right past the delicate veal. Veal chops were perfectly cooked to medium rare and had a nice crust, but also sported a mayonnaise cap that seemed entirely unnecessary. The style of cooking was reminiscent of traditional Russian food, where zakuski are often dressed with higher fat ingredients that stand up to vodka. The menu was clearly tailored to suit Bohemia’s intended clientele – Russian immigrants who love to drink and dance first, and eat second.

Not all was bad. The Adriatic seafood stew one night was spectacular, full of deep fish stock with a profound bay flavor, and perfectly steamed seafood. The restaurant, however, was empty at peak dinner hour. Alberto Baffoni came out to personally thank us for coming in, looking a bit embarrassed. Few weeks later he was gone.

Will he turn up again at a place that might use his talents to their fullest? I hope so, but I am not holding my breadth. Houston seems to have a deep bench of excellent chefs and little opportunity for them.

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