Chef Chat, Part 2: Maurizio Ferrarese of Quattro, on Running a Hotel Kitchen and What He Misses About Italy
This is Part Two of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.
EOW: The kitchen back there is massive. Tell me about the operation here. What do you oversee?
MF: I oversee the entire hotel operation in terms of food. We have 400 rooms in the hotel. We have room service 24 hours a day. We have Quattro restaurant, which is breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have the pool that we are open with busy season during the summer, and it's still open in the winter because Texas is never a winter. We have the Lobby Lounge, and actually we were able to implement a brand-new kitchen about six months ago. Before, all the food for the Lobby Lounge used to be cooked on the third floor.
MF: Tell me about it. And all the outside catering also.
EOW: How many people do you have working under you?
MF: Around 40.
EOW: So, what is a typical day like for a chef like you? When do you come to work?
MF: Usually, average I come to work around 9 or 9:30 in the morning and stay here until 11 or 11:30 at night. So I mostly oversee the lunch operation and the dinner operation. I do come in for breakfast sometimes. I'm around for brunch, we have brunch on Sundays. I'm trying not to be overnight, even though we are open overnight.
EOW: So if you come in the morning, does everyone already know what to do? How does that work?
MF: I have four sous chefs that report to me. I give them direction the day before, so they know exactly as soon as they come in what they need to take care of. One of my sous chefs opens the kitchen at 6 o'clock in the morning, and if anything happens, he will take responsibility for what is going on. And then I have two banquet chefs -- they come to work based on the banquets.
EOW: Do you have separate kitchens for the banquet?
MF: Yes, I do. I have a kitchen for the banquet hot line, a kitchen for the banquet cold line, called the garde manger, and then I have the kitchen for the restaurant.
EOW: And then you have the chef's table. How do you do that with everything else going on? What do people expect when they book a chef's table?
MF: People expect personal service. People expect conversation, explanation of the food. This is what I love, when we have a chef's table. I have time to go to the guests, explain the dishes, why we are doing something versus something else, talk to them, have fun, give wine recommendations, and make sure they enjoy the food. We have the chef's table in the restaurant, then we have one in the kitchen. In the restaurant we have three different PDR's (private dining rooms), and we do cooking classes, and we have La Cucina, which is the private dining room right in front of the kitchen with the big window.
MF: Seasonal stuff, simple food, I stick to the traditions.
EOW: What do you mean by that? There are so many regional differences in Italian cuisine.
MF: I have influences from all over Italy. My menu is not focused on the north or the south. When I say I stick to the traditions, I mean, for instance, osso bucco; it's an Italian tradition, correct? We have veal and tuna tonnato, a traditional dish from my region. Risotto, I can't get away from that. Fresh pasta. We make fresh pastas in house.
EOW: What pasta do you make fresh here?
MF: Ravioli, straccetti, which is a pasta made with saffron and served with artichoke, clams and beans -- it's for the dinner menu. We used to have a pappardelle, but I just removed it from the menu because we have to move forward. We have lasagna, homemade lasagna. We make the dough, we make the sauce. I also try to use local products that I can find. For example, the lasagna, I use beautiful Akaushi beef, which is from Texas, and it's beautiful. There's nothing to compare it with.
EOW: Okay, so tell me about you. You don't have much free time. Have you had much time to explore at all?
MF: We try to go out as much as we can, but lately, with my newborn daughter, who is four months old, it's difficult.
EOW: What's your favorite thing about Houston?
MF: There's a variety of everything around the corner.
EOW: Do you have a favorite food?
MF: I love pizza. If I had to choose a food, I would eat pizza every day.
EOW: Okay, burger or steak?
EOW: What do you miss about Italy?
MF: Being close to family is what I miss the most. Sometimes I miss being close to great products. I was born and raised with it, and I always took it for granted. In the summertime, figs, and peaches and tomatoes. And then by September, grapes. I used to take it for granted that everything I tasted was always great. When I worked in the South of Italy, I used to have these trucks come by each day with fresh produce -- zucchinis, tomatoes -- and the quality was so consistent, so great. But here -- and not just in Houston -- you can get tomatoes all year round, but the quality is not always so great. So I miss the ability to get great quality produce so easily.
EOW: So if you're in Italy, what is a typical meal? Because people here are in a hurry, right?
MF: The regular meal is an appetizer first. As appetizer, I'm not saying a salad. Because if you go to Italy and you give a green salad or Caesar salad, they'll say, "What is that?" So appetizer can be prosciutto melon, or tomato mozzarello, shrimp cocktail, beef carpaccio, or tartare, or mushroom salad. So you have a selection of those, then you would have a pasta. Then you would have a main course, which could be a meat or fish, and that's the point where you'd have a side dish, like roasted potatoes, mushrooms or asparagus, or mixed green salad.
EOW: So you would have your salad with your main course.
MF: It's a side dish with your entrée. You have mixed green with tomato and onion or whatever. After that there's a cheese course, and then you have dessert.
EOW: Okay, last question. If you were to have a last meal, what would you have? Who would make it?
MF: Can I make it myself?
EOW: Yes! It's your last meal -- it doesn't even have to make sense, whatever you want.
MF: I would do a nice beef tartare, a mushroom salad -- it reminds me of something my mom used to make -- with porcini mushroom, and a nice ravioli with duck.
Check back with us tomorrow as we try some of Ferrarese's dishes.
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