Chef Chat, Part 2: Paul Petronella Tells the Story of How Camerata Wine Bar Came Into Being
Photo by Mai Pham Paul Petronella contemplates wine at Camerata.
This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
In Part One of this week's Chef Chat, Paul Petronella of Paulie's and Camerata told the story of growing up in an Italian-American restaurant family and what it was like to take over the family business and try to implement change. Since assuming leadership at Paulie's, Petronella has been instrumental in supporting young chefs by hosting pop-up events at the restaurant. In addition, he is part-owner of OKRA Charity bar, a not-for-profit that donates to charities in the Houston area. Petronella created the menu for the bar, picking up the slack on days when they are short-staffed. And somehow, in the midst of all this, he found the time to conceptualize and open Camerata, the focus of our conversation today.
EOW: Let's go back to you being a chef and being creative. Was there a formal education, or was it just growing up in the business?
PP: Just growing up in the business. I took a short trip to Italy for three weeks right when I came back to the restaurant. I tried to work where I could, but a lot of people didn't really want a white kid in their kitchens. I just ate a lot -- saw what was different from the Northern regions to the Southern regions to Sicily. Found out what I wanted to do -- found out really what I thought I could bring back and translate. Because if you opened a truly authentic neighborhood restaurant that you'd find in Venice or Tuscany, honestly, I don't think it would succeed here, because it's so simple. It's just like fresh pasta, maybe one herb and maybe a protein, and I think most Americans would be disappointed about how little was on that plate.
EOW:So you came back and took over Paulie's. Let's talk about Camerata. That was a good move.
PP: I tell you it was the best thing I've ever done, actually. The second best thing was changing the coffee program [chuckles]. First thing was opening Camerata.
EOW: How long was this project in the making?
PP: Two months.
EOW: Are you kidding? How did it come about?
PP: The space has always been this boutique -- clothes, jewelry -- called Silversmith. She'd been open almost as long as we have. Then about a year ago, she left. So this space has been vacant for several months. The landlord kept pushing me to take it and expand, but I knew that I didn't want to expand Paulie's.
PP: Because our kitchen couldn't keep up with an extra 1,500 square feet. We have difficulty now keeping up with our dinners. People are waiting 30 minutes, and we only have that small dining room.
EOW: How many covers are you doing?
PP: A day, we're probably seeing 500 to 600 people -- that's lunch through dinner, but it's a lot of people. And that kitchen is small and we do our best, but at this point, it is what it is. So I didn't want to expand, because our wait time is already 30 minutes at peak times, so if we added all this additional seating, the kitchen would get crushed.