“If you can go through with what Gordon Ramsey puts you through
there’s nothing much more you can do.
I mean the berating from that guy is unbelievable,
but the reward is even greater.”
~ Chef Robert Hesse
Chef Robert Hesse isn’t the man he used to be. In fact, he’s literally and figuratively a shadow of his former self. Once tipping the scales at over 600 pounds and espousing the attitude that you should “never trust a skinny chef,” he’s now a svelte and fit 155-pound inspiration to caloric overachievers everywhere. I didn’t recognize him when he escorted The Dude and I to Gigi’s covered patio. Later when he dropped by and visited with The Dude, I thought “wow, Gigi’s host is really kind to dogs.” Even when he ferried over a plateful of mozzarella, ham and pepperoni for my debonair dachshund, I had no clue this man was the world-famous celebrity chef we had seen on Hell’s Kitchen as well as the Food Network’s Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. It was only later when I asked Jay, our genial server and aspiring chef, for the restaurant’s “backstory” that I put two and two together.
If you’re a fan of Gordon Ramsay’s popular Fox reality series Hell’s Kitchen, you undoubtedly remember Chef Robert Hesse who appeared in seasons five and six. Fittingly, Chef Hesse had a bigger than life personality, giving back as good as he got against formidable (and often cut-throat) competition. He also had serious health problems, suffering three heart attacks before age 34. In 2009, he left Hell’s Kitchen to focus on a healthful lifestyle, eventually undergoing life-saving gastric bypass surgery. Along with healthy eating and exercise, he’s now one of those skinny chefs he once railed against.
Chef Hesse’s real backstory isn’t that he once was fat, but now is thin. It’s even more than the cliche rags to riches and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps accounts Americans find so heroic though both maxims apply. Chef Hesse is, in every conceivable way, a survivor. Orphaned by his mother at age three, he surmounted the mean streets of Brooklyn, a dangerous drug habit then bitter incarceration at the infamous Ryker’s Island. As a condition of his release, a judge sent him to California where he landed a job washing dishes at the French Laundry, then (and still) regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world.
Jacques, one of the chefs at the French Laundry saw something in Hesse and took him under his wing. He gave the foundling increased responsibilities and taught him the nuances of such important chef skills as inventory management and selecting fish. Noting his young apprentice’s incentive driven nature, he challenged Hesse to obtain his GED, offering him $2000 if he did so. After Hesse obtained the GED, Jacques asked him to write a 200 word essay explaining why he would like to become a chef. Because of the heartfelt earnestness and obvious passion of the essay, Hesse earned a full scholarship to culinary school where he displayed an extraordinary acumen for cooking.
By the time Chef Hesse was 27, he had worked in kitchens in 34 states and 4 countries. He’s created and helmed restaurant concepts throughout the country and consulted for five star properties, casinos and local mom and pop establishments. Still, what most of us are most curious about is the bombastic nature and fiery temper of Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay for whom he worked for ten years. Chef Hesse couldn’t be more complimentary about his former boss, crediting him for much of his success and drive. Worn around Hesse’s neck are plastic dog tags inscribed with the four essential chef values he learned from Ramsay: sacrifice, standards, balls and discipline. These values define Chef Hesse’s approach and his passion for cooking.
Ever cognizant of his roots, he’s driven to give back. Though he’s had such glamorous stints as executive chef at the Playboy Mansion and has launched restaurant concepts throughout the fruited plain, at his essence he’s a regular guy who caught a few breaks. Giving back, not getting accolades, is what’s most important to him. Over the years he’s helped many mom-and-pop shops start off on a solid footing before moving on to another project. He’s helped countless chefs just starting off to gain confidence and learn what it takes to succeed as a chef. Giving back is also evident in his price structure. He wants people of all income levels to be able to enjoy great food prepared from high-quality ingredients. He wants blue collar workers to be able to say they’ve had white truffles…and it didn’t break their bank accounts.
It was plans to open a new restaurant for an expansive Santa Fe food bazaar that brought Chef Hesse to a restaurant kitchen in the Land of Enchantment. When plans for that restaurant fell through, he decided to launch Gigi Italian Bistro in the space which was once home to Nanami Noodle House and Cafe Jean-Pierre before that. It faces and is within easy walking distance of the Century 24 theater. Gigi’(an Italian name for grandmother) isn’t the swanky over-the-top venue in which you’d expect to find a restaurant impresario. In fact, when I first espied it during a visit to Plum Cafe next door, my first impression was ” misplaced mall food court restaurant.” Boy was I wrong…very wrong!
Even after only one visit, it was apparent to me that Gigi Italian Bistro belongs above the upper echelon of the Duke City’s Italian restaurants. Today, that statement actually means something because the Albuquerque metropolitan area actually has a number of Italian restaurants which would be competitive anywhere across the fruited plain. A decade ago when only Joe’s Pasta House and Paisano’s served transformative Italian food, you couldn’t have said that. The addition of such stalwarts as Torinos @ Home, Piatanzi and the M’Tucci’sfamily of restaurants has given diners six more superb options for Italian food across the city. Gigi is the diadem.
Although all of Gigi’s menu items sport Italian names, it’s hardly a pretentious menu nor will you need a translator. In fact, you’ll probably recognize every item and every ingredient from which that item is made. It isn’t a particularly lengthy menu, but it offers terrific variety. It lists six appetizers (For The Table), six soups and salads (Zuppe & Insalata), eight entrees (Gigi’s Family Classics) and a create your own option called Gigi’s Favorites. Talk about versatility! Served with your choice of spaghetti aglio (an olive oil and garlic sauce) or spaghetti marinara, you pick your style (marsala, parmigiana, picatta, saltimbocca) and protein (chicken, shrimp, veal). There’s something for everyone on this menu.
11 August 2018: With a retort of “that’s so 1970s,” my Kim typically rebuffs my once-in-a-blue-moon suggestion that we order fried zucchini. The truth is, even during the “Me Decade,” fried zucchini was already well on its way out, an anachronism relegated to restaurants with little imagination. That’s why it surprised me to find Zucchini Crostoso (Parmesan-crusted zucchini with a house marinara) on Gigi’s menu. “Perhaps,” I wondered “fried zucchini is making a comeback.” I should have surmised that in the hands of a great chef, fried zucchini would never have gone out of style. Chef Hesse is that great chef! Instead of the more typical heavily breaded disc-shaped zucchini, Gigi’s version more closely resemble mozzarella sticks. Zucchini Crostoso is so much better than mozzarella sticks. The thinly applied Parmesan crust gives way to fresh, juicy zucchini prepared perfectly. There’s no oily residue as was typical of yesteryear’s fried zucchini. The marinara sauce is the perfect pairing, lending a bit of acid as well as sweet-savory notes typical of good tomatoes.
11 August 2018: Some Bible scholars have posited the controversial theory that spaghetti carbonara, not the proverbial apple, was the irresistible “fruit of the forbidden tree” which tempted Eve. Who could blame her, especially if that carbonara was as good as Chef Hesse’s version? That version is a chicken tortellini carbonara (roasted pulled chicken, five cheese tortellini, prosciutto di Parma, English peas, crispy pork belly, wild mushrooms, garlic Alfredo sauce and sun-dried tomatoes) so rich and delicious it will make grown men swoon (it did me). It’s the stuff of which dreams are made, one of those dishes in which individual ingredients coalesce to form an even better whole. For one thing, tortellini is a much better pasta option than spaghetti, especially if the tortellini is stuffed with a quintumvirate of creamy cheeses and luxuriates in a rich Alfredo sauce. Your taste buds will delight in every element of this dish, a carbonara no one can resist. During my second visit to Gigi, my Kim called it “the best carbonara I’ve ever had.” Ditto!
15 August 2018: When my Kim, The Dude and I walked in for our second visit, Chef Hesse had caught my review and figured out who I was, but was more excited to see The Dude again. He couldn’t wait to see what The Dude thought about Gigi’s meatballs (The Dude gave them a five bones rating). He was also anxious to introduce me to his white truffle ravioli, a chef’s special he’s served at Michelin-starred restaurants for a princely sum. First, however, came two dinner salads resplendent with a bevy of fresh ingredients and drizzled with a housemade dressing. Though savory notes permeate all of the components of the salad and dressing, a light touch with palm sugar provided a delightful contrast.
15 August 2018: Chef Hesse surprised us with one of the most delightful (and certainly the grandest) amuse bouche we’ve ever had. Typically, an amuse bouche (a French term which translates to “mouth amuser,” but is more commonly known as a chef’s gift) is small, sometimes bite-sized. What the chef brought us was the size of a generous appetizer. Not surprisingly it’s so good it should be on the menu. Picture two slices of lightly toasted crostini, a glistening gold lagoon of housemade fig jam, a timbale-shaped mound of ricotta cheese dusted in Parmigiano Reggiano, candied garlic and pickled onions. More than amuse our palates, it absolutely delighted them.
15 August 2018: To many of us, truffles are an ethereal concept, something only the one-percenters can afford. Indeed, some white truffles command as much as six to ten thousand dollars per pound. These subterranean fungi are extremely rare and are found almost exclusively in Italy. That’s where Chef Hesse procures them for his life-altering white truffle ravioli, one of the most delicious dishes it’s been my joy to experience. The aroma of white truffles has been described as everything from “newly plowed soil” to “locker room” to “the pungent memory of lost youth and love affairs,” but if it would be possible to have a love affair with a dish, this would be the one. With their complex, delicate and very nuanced flavor profile, the white truffles transform an already magical, magnificent ravioli dish into a sublime experience. Six ravioli, each the size of an iPod, are stuffed with a five cheese blend, one of which is mascarpone which imparts a slightly sweet flavor that contrasts beautifully against the rich, earthy truffles and their fungi brethren, wild mushrooms. A creamy Alfredo sauce blankets this theophanic dish.
24 August 2018: Until rather recently, only al dente pasta would do in Italy. A chef committing the heretical transgression of frying pasta might be ostracized or excommunicated. Frying pasta just wasn’t done! In wide circles, it’s still looked upon as one of those “American knockoffs like Alfredo sauce or toasted ravioli.” Toasted ravioli originated in St. Louis, Missouri, but Chef Hesse’s rendition honors his madrepatria with the name Ravioli Napoli. Strictly speaking, the ravioli isn’t toasted, but deep-fried. That’s a technicality. It’s delicious…as good as most toasted ravioli I’ve had in the Gateway City. Gigi’s Ravioli Napoli features a garlic bread crust blanketing ravioli stuffed generously with the five cheese blend that’s works so well on several of the restaurant’s recipes. A little shaved Parmesan, garlic herbs and the house marinara and you won’t care that you might be frowned upon by Italian traditionalists.
24 August 2018: Rarely has Duke City bureaucracy rankled my ire as much as much as the red tape which prevented Gigi from serving its Brooklyn-style pizza until some nitpicky, white-gloved inspector deemed the pizza oven safe to use. Yeah, we all know inspections and other officious rigamarole are necessary evils, but we’re talking Brooklyn-style pizza here. Some of the best pizza in the universe comes from Brooklyn where stalwarts such as Totonno’s, Di Fara and Lucali have been preparing people-pleasing pies for generations. Nothing should stand in the way of pizza with such tradition!
Brooklyn-style pizza isn’t something you can typecast. It can be thin, thick, crispy, chewy, cheesy, meaty or vegany. Chef Hesse’s version is in the Neapolitan tradition, meaning thin-crusted with a puffy cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is soft and chewy. Thin-crust doesn’t mean cracker-like, however. There’s no way Chef would allow something cracker-like to leave his kitchen. The pizza Chef Hesse recommended for us is the Fig N’ Pig Pizzette, a beauteous fourteen-inch beauty topped with a garlic Alfredo sauce, baby arugula, fig jam, fennel sausage, prosciutto di Parma and blue cheese. You’re probably thinking that sounds more like something out of California rather than Brooklyn. Indeed, Chef Hesse served a version of this pizza at a Napa Valley restaurant, using duck instead of sausage and prosciutto. Call it a bi-coastal pizza if you want, but you will call it absolutely delicious. The fig jam is a differentiator in the way it contrasts with the blue cheese. Then there’s the saltiness of the prosciutto and the fennel-kissed sausage, two meats carnivores everywhere will love.
24 August 2018: The etymology of the term “calzone” has been widely debated. Claimants have argued that the genesis of the name is a derivative of everything from shoes to stockings to trousers. The most credible (to me) is that calzone is a “trouser leg” (in Spanish, too) and its plural form calzoni is another word for pantaloni (pants in English, pantalones in Spanish). Wherever the truth lies, what really matters is how good this “folded over pizza” is. Gigi’s calzone is not only a steroidal, plate-covering, big as a half-moon treat that will feed a family of four, it’s as good as any calzone I’ve ever had. Credit some of that to the cheese, which is even in the bread “knots” that make up the crimped edges. Cut into the calzone and you’ll be treated to a molten feast of luscious ricotta. The meat-lover’s calzone is the way to go! This is another winner!
15 August 2018: Chef Hesse got no further than cannoli in naming Gigi’s dessert options. He’s understandably very proud of his conically-shaped masterpieces, every component of which is handmade on the premises. That includes the delicate fried shells, incredibly rich ricotta, exceptional goat milk Chantilly cream, dark chocolate bark topped with popcorn and hazel nuts and the Ghirardelli chocolate dip. It would be unfair to compare any other cannoli we’ve had with this one. It would be no contest, like comparing The Dude’s charm and good looks to mine.
Chef Robert Hesse is the most unlikely “celebrity chef” you’ll ever meet. Though he’s über-talented, he’s got an endearing down-to-earth personality, high-likeability quotient and humility that are rare in the world of the glitterati. Visiting Gigi is like having your paisan cook for you…only this paisan can really, really, really cook!
GIGI ITALIAN BISTRO
4959 Pan American, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2018
1st VISIT: 11 August 2018
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Chicken Tortellini Carbonara, Zucchini Crostoso, Macaroon, White Truffle Ravioli, Dinner Salad, Cannoli, Amuse Bouche, Meat Lovers Calzone, Pig N’ Fig Pizzette, Ravioli Napoli