Food and kitchens go hand in hand, and it doesn’t get any better than Houston’s diverse dining scene, which includes everything from American to French to Vietnamese. As we at John Daugherty, Realtors prepared The Menu, our list of more than 500 restaurants in and around Houston, we couldn’t help but wonder, “What about the person beneath the toque?” We didn’t have to go far to find four top restaurateurs willing to share a glimpse of life in their very own personal kitchens. So, just what do these culinary artists eat on their day off? If we opened their refrigerators, what would we find inside? What is it about their own kitchens that makes them feel at home? Read on to find out what’s cooking with these masters of the kitchen. And remember to check back with us often, as we will be featuring more wonderful cuisiniers in the future. Pictured: Cheri Fama, President and COO and John A. Daugherty, Jr., Chairman and CEO
John Daugherty, Realtors Chairman and CEO John A. Daugherty, Jr. recently had the pleasure of taking a peek inside the personal kitchens of four top Houston restaurateurs: Hugo Ortega, Johnny Carrabba, Tony Vallone and Chris Shepherd. These masters of the kitchen shared with John Daugherty their favorite tools, their ideas of the perfect kitchen and kitchen must-haves, some of their memorable moments with family and friends, and so much more. We hope you enjoy their delightful conversations on this page and those following.
Hugo’s, which brought authentic regional Mexican cuisine to the forefront of dining. In 2013, Hugo and Tracy opened their third concept, Caracol, a Mexican coastal kitchen celebrating their love of seafood found along Mexico’s 16 coastal states. Hugo is a five-time finalist for Best Chef: Southwest at the James Beard Foundation Awards (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016); has made three guest-chef appearances at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City; and was named Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year in 1999 and Chef of the Year in 2002 and 2012 at the Houston Culinary Awards, among other accolades. His restaurants have been named Top Table by Bon Appétit, Best Restaurants in America by Eater, one of Houston’s Four Top Latin Restaurants by Forbes Travel Guide, and included in “What Makes Houston the Next Great American City?” in Smithsonian magazine, among others. His cookbook Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico was selected by Saveur magazine as one of just six “essential Mexican cookbooks.”
design the cabinets so you can get the sizes right; have a place for everything. JD: How would you arrange a kitchen, to make it the most functional? HO: I recommend drawers instead of cabinets, because they make accessing things and cleaning much easier. Also, if you have a large enough kitchen, consider a second sink. We love ours! JD: What is your go-to dish at home? HO: Chicken soup. It feeds the body and the soul. JD: When your children are home, what do they insist you cook for them? HO: Pasta. Our daughter Sophia just loves pasta! JD: What would we be surprised to find in your fridge? HO: Popsicles.
When he is not in the kitchen, Hugo enjoys riding the bike trails of Houston and the Texas Hill Country.
Hugo’s humble beginnings:
In the words of Hugo:
Hugo Ortega is executive chef/co-owner of three of Houston’s top restaurants – Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s and Caracol. He is a five-time James Beard Awards finalist, among other accolades, and has been recognized locally, nationally and globally for his inspirational story and his passion for sharing traditional Mexican cooking and culture.
JD: What one word best describes your home kitchen? HO: Spacious. There’s so much room to move around.
Hugo’s American Dream story begins at Backstreet Cafe, a neighborhood bistro started by Tracy Vaught in 1983. He began his career in the restaurant business first as dishwasher and busboy and later as a line cook before graduating from culinary school and later becoming Backstreet’s executive chef. He and Tracy married, and together they have created an award-winning Houston restaurant family that also includes Hugo’s and Caracol. Hugo was born in Mexico City, the oldest of a family of eight children. At 15, he began working at one of several Procter & Gamble factories in Mexico to help support his family. In 1984, he immigrated to Houston with no contacts or job leads but determined to make a life for himself in the United States. Slowly, step-by-step, Hugo began to set down roots in the bustling oil capital. He shared an apartment with several friends and followed up on leads for jobs in nearby restaurants. He was happy to find his first job, as a dishwasher, at a popular bar and
nightclub. While the pay was meager, Hugo seized the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of the restaurant business and find contacts to help him improve his English. Later, Hugo cleaned the floors in office buildings to supplement his income. In an unexpected turn of bad luck, his roommates moved to California, and he lost both of his jobs. He had no income and no place to live. A friend asked him if he wanted to wash dishes, and Hugo jumped at the chance. The friend took him to Backstreet Cafe, and that’s where the turning point of his life happened. Hugo worked hard and showed an interest in working in the kitchen. In Mexico, he learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother. He was given a position on the line in the Backstreet kitchen, and he continued to advance from there. Impressed by his hard work and dedication, Tracy offered to enroll Hugo in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College. He jumped in with both feet. Hugo graduated from HCC’s Culinary Arts program in November 1992 and assumed the role of chef at Backstreet Cafe, then executive chef in 1995. Hugo is passionate about sharing the traditional foods and culture of his native Mexico with diners. In 2002, he opened the critically acclaimed
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JD: Do you consider your kitchen to be the hub of your home? Why? HO: Yes, it is literally located centrally in the house. We meet there when passing from one end of the house to the other, to get something to eat or drink, to cook, to hang out.
Street Food of Mexico should be in everyone’s kitchen. A personalized copy can be ordered at chefhugoortega.com and comes with a 9-ounce Mexican Chocolate Tablet, a molinillo for frothing the perfect cup of Mexican hot chocolate and two Hugo’s mugs to serve it in.
JD: What is your late-night snack or indulgence? HO: Popsicles and cereal.
JD: What do you and your family most enjoy about your kitchen? HO: We really love the spaciousness and comfort of our kitchen. JD: What is your favorite memory of your kitchen? HO: There’s nothing better than preparing a Thanksgiving meal with the family. Each year is more memorable than the last. JD: What kitchen gadget or piece of equipment can you just not live without? HO: My blender. I use it to make sauces, soups, smoothies, etc. I love its versatility. JD: What advice do you have for someone designing their own kitchen? HO: I would say include plenty of counter space and cabinets; measure plates, serving pieces, etc. before you
JD: What five people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party? (Guests may be from any time period.) HO: Ralph Lauren, Winston Churchill, Alice Waters, Richard Branson, Plácido Domingo. JD: When you cook for someone, what is the most important memory you hope your guests take away? HO: I hope they will remember the friendship that we shared over our meal. Whether at the restaurant or at my home, I hope that my guests can feel the love that I have for cooking in my food. JD: A dual-fuel range, which pairs a gas cooktop with an electric oven, is the prized possession of many a serious cook. Yours is very special. Tell us a little about it. HO: Our range offers gas and electric, a flat-top griddle and high-BTU burner and a number of interchangeable racks, trays and surfaces. It is really amazing. It was the starting point for our kitchen remodel. We loved it and designed and built the kitchen around it.
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JC: My four grandparents who have passed away — Mary and John Carrabba Sr., Grace and Tony Mandola — and my wife Randi, who was not fortunate enough to meet my grandparents. That’s my five. I would serve a traditional Sicilian meal, pasta with sugo, stuffed artichokes, baked eggplant and fried chicken (the chicken is American).
Born to be a restaurateur, native Houstonian Johnny Carrabba worked in family members’ restaurants before launching Carrabba’s in 1986 with his uncle, Damian Mandola. With a focus on having fun in the kitchen while also taking cuisine seriously, Chef Carrabba has magically created informal dining atmospheres at his family-owned and -operated neighborhood restaurants — Carrabba’s, Grace’s and Mia’s Table — for traditional Italian food with local Mexican influences, as well as eclectic cuisine of his own crafting.
JD: What is the most important memory that you hope a guest at your restaurant or home will take away? JC: That the food and hospitality came from the heart! JD: Who is your favorite person to cook for? JC: My wife, two children and my parents — my immediate little family. JD: How often do you cook at home? JC: At least two times a week, and my children love to jump in and help me.
JD: Is your kitchen the center of your home? Why? JC: When drawing up plans for my home, I started with the kitchen and then built the rest.
JD: Are your children interested in cooking? JC: My son Johnny has a great palate. He has a really good touch with food. My daughter Mia loves cooking as well and recently has gotten into making ice cream.
JD: When do you and your family most typically gather around the kitchen table for a shared meal — breakfast, lunch or dinner? JC: Dinner with the family, wife, kids and parents.
JC: Spaghetti with a Bolognese sauce (meat sauce) and some great pecorino cheese grated on top.
JD: What is your favorite memory of your kitchen? JD: When your children are home, what do they want you to cook? JC: Going to our garden and picking fresh JC: They love my risotto with Marsala wine, mushrooms and tenderloin of produce and making fresh homemade pasta, beef. They text me from school and request it for dinner. then cooking the whole meal. JD: What is the best part of your kitchen? Why? JC: My grandmother’s Chambers range, which is about 70 years old and in mint condition! Why? Because it brings back the best memories with her. JD: What kitchen gadget or piece of equipment can you just not live without? JC: A really great Shun knife and my grandmother’s cutting board.
A strong sense of family is endearingly engrained into Johnny Carrabba’s life. Treasures, such as his grandmother’s Chambers range (Johnny had a special alcove built in his kitchen to showcase the range. It is pictured to the left.) and his cookbook which is a memoir of Carrabba’s filled with special family recipes, are true testaments to his love for his family.
JD: Do you have any family recipes that you won’t share with anyone? JC: No, not one I wouldn’t share. Sharing a recipe is the true pleasure of life. I don’t have a stingy bone in my body. If you want my recipes, I’m flattered; you’ve got it.
JD: How do you and family enjoy the kitchen? JC: We all just hang around in the kitchen cooking or just talking. It’s our meeting spot.
JD: What is your go-to dish at home?
JD: How does travel influence your food? JC: I do love to travel, especially to New York and Italy. Travel motivates me. Seeing what others do gives me great ideas, as I can tend to be a creature of habit. When I’m on the road, I like to eat where the locals do.
JD: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be in the restaurant business? JC: When I was pretty young, probably around 14 years old. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching my uncles who were already in the business. They were so good at what they did and always seemed to be having a great time just enjoying cooking for people. I really have fun doing what I do.
JD: What does your kitchen symbolize? JC: Family and warmth.
JC: I think a trend we’ll always see is classics. Classic dishes will never go out of style. Just look around Houston — you’ll see good classic Italian, Mexican and barbecue concepts that are always in good taste!
JD: What would people be surprised to find is always in your fridge? Name three items. JC: To-go food from Shandy’s, Hershey chocolate syrup, Pillsbury biscuits. JD: What is your late-night snack or indulgence? JC: Common Bond Bakery’s granola at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. I love it! JD: What is influencing you now? Can we expect to see it on your menu? JC: Old-school food, traditional dishes done the right way. Food that is not trendy! Classics never go out of style. JD: Name the one dish that you feel best represents your palate. JC: My grandmother Mandola’s Chicken Soup. It’s hearty, warm and pure comfort. Makes you feel loved! JD: What five people would be included in your fantasy dinner party? What would you serve? (Guests may be from any time period.)
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JD: You have a new cookbook. How did that come about? JC: For years, whenever I hit a big anniversary (10, 15, 25), I would start to think about doing a book. And before I knew it, 30 years had passed, so I decided now is the time. The book is really my gift to my employees who are like my family, and to my family and friends. I have almost 60 employees who have been with me over 15 years. This book is for them! It’s not really a cookbook; it’s more of a memoir of Carrabba’s. It’s the story of passion and hard work put into the business for 30 years. My dad even gave up his famous sausage recipe for this. The recipes in the book are either customer favorites or my favorites. It’s been a very sentimental experience for me, and it’s also something my kids can always have. JD: Do you pay attention to social media or press coverage of your restaurants? JC: No, I try not to get caught up in the limelight. I like to just keep it real! JD: What food trends do you see?
JD: Do you think they’ll follow you into the business? JC: My kids have a natural talent for cooking. I would be honored if they followed me in the business, but really I don’t care what they do as long as they do what they love! JD: What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the business? JC: Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but years later I can laugh at it. A customer came in with his wife, and they had just bought a new Jaguar. They were enjoying dinner when they happened to look out to see their brand new Jaguar driving away. The next thing I knew, the police were being called and I was getting my head chewed off. The police came, and as they were making their report, we got a call from another customer who had just returned home and realized when they couldn’t open the garage door that they had driven off in the wrong car. The cars were identical! After it was all over, we ended up being good friends.
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From his Midwest roots to an acclaimed chef inspired by ethnic diversity, Chris Shepherd tells Houston through locally sourced food and his passion for butchering and charcuterie. The proof is in the pudding: Chef Shepherd won the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, was named among the Top 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine, and his Underbelly restaurant was named to the National Eater 38 in 2015 and among best new restaurants in 2014 by Bon Appétit and Esquire.
JD: Do you have any family recipes that you won’t share? CS: My Mom’s lasagna. But she won’t even share it with me. She makes me batches of it, and I freeze it. I keep trying to figure out what she has in there.
JD: What is one thing people don’t know about you? CS: I am easy, about as easy as it comes. People are always surprised about that. I don’t yell at people in my kitchen. I like to think of myself as a good teacher and mentor. I am 44 and can’t do this forever. I work 18 to 20 hours a day, so it’s important to me that I am teaching the next generation, that they progress.
JD: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? CS: Hopefully alive! But I am more focused on now vs. focused on 10 years ahead. I think when you do that, you miss doors and opportunities. JD: What would you choose as your last meal on earth? CS: General Tso’s Chicken, from practically anywhere — or maybe from the Rice Box.
JD: Do you consider your kitchen to be the hub of your home? Why? CS: My kitchen is where family and friends gather around the table. I want my kitchen to be the hub of my home — it should be. Which is why I’m currently house-hunting to find a place where I can design my perfect kitchen. But for now its where we get together — usually over breakfast or holidays.
one place. Spencer Elliott, who does all of our metal work at the restaurant, built me a hog-wire pot rack.
JD: Who is your favorite person to cook for? CS: I would have to say Lindsey Brown. Because she generally likes everything I cook!
JD: Later in life, what would you like to do? CS: Have a house by the coast — on a creek, not the beach. Like some still water where I could go crabbing. I don’t fish, but I would like to.
FAVORITES: Early Cooking Inspiration: Chris Shepherd, the 2014 James Beard Award winner, treasures his first cookbook, a gift from his mother when he was just five years old.
JD: Funniest thing in the kitchen? CS: Everyday service — we have a lot of fun. I believe in letting my team have free will, and we share in the highs and lows. To me, it’s fun every day. It’s a happy environment. I have many people that have been with me 5+ years. My butcher for 18. They must hang around for some reason.
JD: What is your go-to dish at home? CS: Omelets. Every morning! It’s also the only time I am home – so making JD: What is your favorite memory of your kitchen? a big breakfast is how I start the day. CS: My parents and grandparents cooking JD: What would we be surprised to find in your fridge? together when I was a boy. CS: Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. I honestly think that’s the only thing JD: What piece of equipment can you just not live surprising in my refrigerator. It’s made in Nebraska where I was raised as a without? boy. It’s got a really unusual taste that I crave. I order it by the case. CS: My nonstick egg pan for breakfast. Since I’m not home for dinner, I fix breakfast every morning. JD: What is your late-night snack or indulgence? CS: Hay Merchant chicken wings. JD: What advice do you have for someone JD: What five people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party? What designing their own kitchen? would you serve? (Guests may be from any time period.) CS: Well, I’m going to be designing a kitchen as CS: All the members of the HOUBBQ Collective (Seth Siegel-Gardner, soon as I find a house to buy! The things I need: Terrence Gallivan, Justin Yu, Ryan Pera). I’d get dinner catered by Rice Box counter space, storage area, fire power and Food Truck. refrigeration. JD: How would you arrange a kitchen, to make it the most functional? CS: I like to hang all of my pots and utensils in
JD: What is the one thing you want people to take away from your kitchen? CS: Happiness, of course. And that I provided a sense of place — not just a dining experience.
JD: What is your favorite gadget? CS: My knives. You don’t need a lot of gadgets, just good sharp knives.
JD: What do you and your family most enjoy about your kitchen? CS: I cook a lot outdoors. On Sundays, I’ll put a chicken on the smoker and grill some meat. To me, when I’m in my kitchen (indoor or out), it means I have a day off.
JD: When did you know you wanted to be a chef? CS: As a kid. My Mom bought me my first cookbook at five. Okay, it was the Mickey Mouse cookbook — but it was a cookbook.
Chef With A Heart: A firm believer in giving back to the community, Chris organizes Southern Smoke, an annual event that raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, an organization near and dear to his heart. For The Home Chef: This Underbelly apron is stylish yet functional, and very durable.
JD: Where is your favorite place to buy ingredients? CS: H Mart is one that comes to mind — and Urban Farmers Market. I’ll pick up stuff I haven’t seen or used before. H Mart is like leaving the country. JD: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be? CS: My grandparents. They never got to see me really cook. I would make them Thanksgiving dinner. I’d make all the usual sides and smoked oyster dressing. JD: What is your favorite memory of the kitchen? CS: Holidays, especially Thanksgiving — my parents cooking and talking. My bedroom was over the kitchen, so all the good smells came my way. I was an only child, so this was always a time that meant a lot to me. JD: Describe how you would design your dream kitchen? CS: It would be very industrial. Industrial/commercial appliances. My must-haves would be a really deep refrigerator and a gas stove, either Viking or Thermadore. JD: What makes a good kitchen function best? CS: Functionality over beauty.
A Very Different and Exciting Concept What do you do when you are offered the opportunity to open a restaurant that will exist for exactly five years? If you’re Chris Shepherd, Steve Flippo, Kevin Floyd and Whitney Mercilus, you jump on it. The concept for One Fifth came out of exactly this scenario when the owners of 1658 Westheimer offered Chris and his partners a five-year lease to the building. The set period of time will allow Chris the freedom to explore some of the ideas he’s been mulling over as to what is next. In its lifetime, One Fifth will feature five different sequential concepts and each — with the exception of One Fifth Steak — will be open from September 1 to July 31, then close during the month of August in order to completely revamp the menu and the space for the next concept. One Fifth Steak opened in January and will be followed by One Fifth Romance Languages – showcasing Spanish, French and Italian cuisine. In September of 2018, One Fifth will once again change into an entire new concept with One Fifth Fish. The remaining two concepts are still in the planning phase, but if they are as enticing as the first three, diners have much to look forward to.
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Guided by the mantra, “First in season, first in Tony’s,” Tony Vallone has defined fine dining in Houston since 1965. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of cuisine, Tony is invigorated by working the restaurant floor, is magnetic at drawing out talent from his team, and has created a celebrated go-to restaurant brand for the highest-quality food products such as white truffles from Italy, Beluga caviar and Grade A5 Kobe beef. A native Houstonian with Italian roots, Tony is truly an architect of the Italian food and wine renaissance in the United States. All three of his restaurants—Tony’s, Vallone’s and Ciao Bello—are renowned.
JD: Do you read social media comments about your food? TV: No. But I study food online, cookbooks, travel everywhere. I am a student of food.
JD: Who is your favorite person to cook for? TV: Anyone that loves good food. And exceeding what they want.
JD: Where do you source ingredients? TV: I have local farmers and vendors that I’ve bought from for 30 to 40 years. People seek me out because they know I only use the very best.
JD: When did you know that you wanted to own a restaurant/cook? TV: I’ve never done anything else. My grandmother raised me. She used to cook things and sell them to restaurants and markets. I cooked with her and went around as she delivered. It’s all I know, to cook and bring pleasure. I dedicated my first cookbook to her. JD: Do you have family recipes you won’t share? TV: Yes, many. But it’s not only about the recipes; it’s about technique and tradition. Many of our family dishes are Neapolitan — which to me is the best food in the world.
JD: What is your favorite memory of the kitchen? TV: As a boy with my grandmother. I can still smell her kitchen and think of her often. She inspires me. JD: What is the best compliment you have ever received? TV: There have been many, but having Julia Child say, “Your food is outstanding” is high on my list. I’ve been blessed to have so many kind letters over the years and to have been able to serve
MUST-HAVES: The perfect asparagus soufflé. Cold-pressed, unfiltered extravirgin olive oil from the Vallone family estate in Sicily.
JD: What is your favorite gadget? TV: Gadgets are not for me. All I need is a good knife and a food processor. There is not much you can’t do with those two things.
JD: What one word best describes your home kitchen? TV: It’s the soul of the house, my sanctuary. JD: And what about family? TV: Having everyone gather around the island and pitch in. JD: Do you consider your kitchen to be the hub of your home? Why? TV: Without a doubt. It’s the center of attention. designing their own kitchen? It’s where everyone gathers. My house isn’t big, TV: Have gas if you can. It is so much more accurate. You have so much and the kitchen is where it all comes together. more control of your heat. You don’t need all the fancy stuff. You just need a good gas stovetop. You can use electric, but gas is better. JD: What do you and your family most enjoy about your kitchen? JD: What is your go-to dish at home? TV: The big island. We put food on it, and we TV: Linguine with clams or pasta and peas. That’s what we eat the most of. all eat. Like any tight family, like any Italian family, And peppers, sweet peppers (peperonata). we gather around the kitchen. We also enjoy the JD: When your children are home, what do they insist you cook for them? smells of the kitchen. Why? JD: What is your favorite memory of your kitchen? TV: The two dishes above. And when time permits, sugo [Neapolitan TV: When we are all there and all the kids are tomato and meat sauce], the Sunday sauce. Those are our three main there, and we are all pitching in, doing big Italian staples. meals together and cooking together. JD: What is your late-night snack or indulgence? JD: What kitchen gadget or piece of equipment TV: Air-popped popcorn and ricotta. can you just not live without? TV: Food processor. I use it so much for so many JD: What five people would you invite to your fantasy dinner party? What would you serve? (Guests may be from any time period.) different things. Tomatoes, onion, garlic — even TV: I would serve a classic Italian Sunday meal. I would invite Pavarotti, just whipping something up. Pesto, bread — I Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Françoise Gilot (Picasso’s mistress), Ronald Reagan make a lot of homemade bread. Zeppole. I can’t (The only president who hasn’t dined with me). think of anything I don’t use it for. JD: What advice do you have for someone
hope your guests take away? TV: Great food and camaraderie. The kitchen is a sanctuary. And the island is my altar.
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politicians, world leaders and eight presidents. I was pleasantly surprised that Richard Nixon was such a food person. He followed me into the kitchen and had me write down the recipe for cannoli.
JD: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? TV: Hopefully here! I hope to die with pasta in one hand and a fish in the other!
JD: What has been your biggest challenge? TV: Seating has been one. Sometimes you have people who may have differences that you don’t know about.
JD: Your last meal on earth? TV: There are so many things, and it would change depending on my mood, but most likely spaghetti and clams or pasta with a good Pomodoro.
JD: What is always in your pantry? TV: Canned clams — for late night “emergencies.”
JD: What is the funniest thing that has happened in your kitchen? TV: My son John was making a tomato sauce once and didn’t close the top of the food processor tightly. The next thing we knew, there was sauce from the floor to the ceiling. We still laugh about it – not the cleaning up but the comedy of the situation. With family, it’s about enjoying being together no matter what. JD: What tip can you give someone who’s planning a home kitchen? TV: Everything should be within reach. And make it a gathering place, not just a show piece.
JD: What is the strangest request you have ever received? TV: A man planning a very elaborate dinner wanted the first course to be fried alligator tail. I think it must have been a private joke. JD: What’s your most fun memory? TV: There are so many, from Pavarotti bursting out into song after being inspired by the meal to Sinatra to Bocelli all loving my food. I cherish everyone. JD: What has been your biggest disappointment? TV: Not meeting Sophia Loren! Can you imagine? Every Italian boy’s idea of beauty and glamour... We were asked to prepare food for her and deliver it to her hotel suite. I took it over myself. Imagine me there at the door – heart pounding and hearing her voice from within. Her assistant took the food, said thank you and closed the door. I was crushed! Maybe someday…
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