Beard Award-winning chef behind Houston’s legendary Cafe Annie announces retirement
One of Houston’s most accomplished chefs will be transitioning to a new, less hectic phase of his career. Robert Del Grande will be stepping down from his day-to-day role as executive chef and partner at The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s to spend more time with his family.
Moving forward, Del Grande will hold the title of Chef Emeritus and will continue in an advisory role with Berg Hospitality Group, the local company that acquired the restaurant formerly known as Café Annie in 2019. Berg Hospitality will name a new executive chef for The Annie and Turner's in the weeks to come, according to a representative. Jose Valencia will continue in his role as chef de cuisine for both concepts.
“I have really enjoyed working with the Berg Hospitality Group team to combine our strengths and create two concepts with which I am proud to end my career,” Del Grande said in a statement. He added, “While I am taking a step down from my day-to-day operations, I will still be around in my new role and continue to mentor my staff and ensure the success of The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s.”
Del Grande, who holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of California at Riverside, became a chef when he moved to Houston in 1981 and started working at the original Café Annie. He is credited as one of the pioneers of Southwestern cuisine, a culinary movement in the ’80s that articulated the then-radical notion that Texas ingredients and Mexican-inspired cooking techniques could be worthy of a fine dining restaurant. Dishes such as rabbit enchiladas, crab tostada, and Del Grande’s signature coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin became Houston classics.
“His food brought national attention to a city that previously was viewed as an expanse of middling Tex-Mex, barbecue, and fried shrimp baskets; in fact, it was in those beloved foods that Del Grande saw opportunity and innovation,” Houston Chronicle food editor Greg Morago wrote in 2016.
The pioneering approach earned Del Grande considerable acclaim, including the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 1992. He would be the only Houston chef to win the award until Chris Shepherd's victory in 2014. Del Grande remains an important figure in Houston's culinary scene, as demonstrated by his recent appearance as a guest judge on Top Chef.
Along with his business partner Lonnie Schiller, Del Grande opened a number of successful restaurants, including fast casual staples Cafe Express and Taco Milagro. They continue to operate two restaurants at Discovery Green: The Grove and The Lake House. (Full disclosure: Schiller founded CultureMap in 2009.)
“It’s been a wild ride since I arrived in Houston in 1981 chasing after my now wife, Mimi,” Del Grande said. “I am so thankful for everyone I met along the way and to those who supported me throughout our various ventures. I am excited for this next chapter of my life and cannot wait to be a grandfather and to spend more time with my family.”
Del Grande worked alongside Berg Hospitality founder and CEO Ben Berg to transform Café Annie into The Annie Café & Bar. The new restaurant kept some of Del Grande’s classic dishes but also introduced new tastes and plating updated for the Instagram age. In 2020, the duo opened Turner's, a luxurious, retro-inspired supper club in a space created by renovations at The Annie.
“It has truly been an honor to work with Robert Del Grande over the past three years. He is one of the most knowledgeable chefs I know, and I have learned more from him in the past three years than I could have ever imagined,” Berg said. “I will always consider him a friend and mentor, and we are grateful that he will still serve as Chef Emeritus and continue to be a sounding board for new menus, off-site events, and more.”
In addition to The Annie Café and Turner’s, Berg Hospitality operates restaurants such as B&B Butchers, B.B. Lemon, and Trattoria Sofia. Later this year, it will open B.B. Italia, an Italian-American restaurant, in Sugar Land Town Square, and two restaurants in the Autry Park mixed-use development: Annabelle's, an all-day brasserie, and Turner’s Cut, a luxurious steakhouse inspired by Turner’s.