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Food seems magical to me. The idea that you can take flour, eggs, milk, and baking powder and turn them into pancakes, or that you can cook a raw chicken over charcoal and it tastes incredible, is almost mystical.

I was born in San Francisco, and our whole family was focused on food. My mother was a good cook, and I learned to be one too. I knew the basic techniques and I had studied those French guys, but I never thought of it as a career. I got a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of California at Riverside, and I was taking a breather in 1981 when I decided to come to Texas. My girlfriend, Mimi, had moved to Houston, and I followed her. Her sister and brother-in-law owned Cafe Annie, so I started working there for fun and to make a little money.

I thought I might land a postdoc position somewhere, and I was still in that driven, overachieving, maniac graduate-student mode. I would go read up on something and come back to Cafe Annie and say, “Why don’t we do this? Let’s learn that.” After about six months, I took over the kitchen. A year later Mimi came on as general manager.

At that time Cafe Annie was a nouvelle-ish French American bistro, but I realized that we would never be able to prepare French food as well as the French do. About half our kitchen workers were Mexican people, and we always had really tasty food cooking in the back for the staff. We said, “Why not fix the customers the food we like best ourselves?”

I had been to France and Italy, but now I was much more interested in going to Mexico. I had also met Diana Kennedy and read her cookbooks on Mexican cuisine. She said to me once, “Never look to Europe for what to do with an ancho chile.”

At Cafe Annie we try, in a strange way, to go backward. We have moved away from contrived cuisine; we try to find the natural feel for an ingredient. These days we believe a little minced-up ancho chile is natural in a sauce; you use it as you would a tomato. Sometimes I used to worry that we were really just cooking Mexican food. So I would ask one of the guys in my kitchen, “Have you ever seen this before?” And he would say, “Yeah, kind of like this but different. This is more from Texas.”

Robert Del Grande’s
Cinnamon Roasted Chicken With Poblano Vinaigrette and Corn Pudding

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ancho or other pure chile powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven and roasting pan to 400 degrees. Rinse chicken under cold water and pat dry. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients and thoroughly brush mixture on chicken. Place chicken in oven, breast side up, and cook for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then lower heat to 275 degrees. Cook for 1 1⁄2 hours or until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Do not open oven for first hour. Cool approximately 20 minutes before cutting into pieces and drizzling with poblano vinaigrette (recipe below).

Poblano Vinaigrette

6 tomatillos
1⁄2 small white onion
2 cloves garlic
2 poblano chiles, charred and peeled, stems and seeds discarded
1 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1⁄2 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine tomatillos, onion, and garlic in a saucepan, cover with water, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or until tomatillos soften. Drain and cool, reserving liquid. Transfer to a blender with remaining ingredients and purée for approximately 30 seconds. Do not overblend; sauce should have some texture. If too thick, thin with several tablespoons of reserved liquid. Use at room temperature.

Fresh-Corn Pudding

4 or 5 ears fresh corn
2 cups milk
1⁄2 cup cornmeal
1⁄2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Grate corn through large holes of a cheese grater and set aside (should yield 1 cup). In a saucepan, bring milk to a boil and gradually add cornmeal, stirring constantly until mixture just begins to boil. Turn heat to low and continue stirring. When thick, add grated corn and stir until mixture is the consistency of whipped potatoes. Add salt and cream. Serves 4.