We’ve all heard the name José Gutierrez coupled with acclaim for his restaurants past and present, but his name has also been coupled for the past 20 years with the beautiful and equally brilliant Colleen DePete, his wife, who is a Staten Island, New York, native and lover of Italian food. Colleen is well versed in the culinary arts herself. She met her chef in the kitchen, and she honors the memory of her son through the baking of MoJo Cookies. She oversees the River Oaks restaurant with a soft, tender grace all her own.
We caught up with Colleen on the heels of a rosé wine dinner. Surrounded by family and in her element, it was evident that there is a whole lot of love in her place: love of fine food and ingredients, great wines, travel, community and most importantly, family. Welcome, Colleen!
Did your upbringing steer you toward the culinary arts?
My mother was a great cook of Irish food. My neighbor was from Italy, and she was my babysitter and second mom. She taught me all about pasta and Italian food. Her daughter still lives in NYC, and we are still best friends.
Can you tell us how you met José?
I worked at FedEx when I first moved to Memphis, but my love of the culinary arts led me to apply for a job at the best restaurant with the best chef (aka, José) I could find! I worked at Chez Philippe as a chef for a year or so, working days at FedEx and nights at Chez Philippe. I then went to work for Viking Range Corp. as the first Viking Culinary Arts Center director.
How do you manage to strike a balance between work time and family time, when often they are one and the same?
People are often surprised we have been together more than 20 years. We work extremely well together and we have a rule: Do not talk about work when we leave. Our relationship has withstood the heat of the kitchen because we have mutual respect and appreciate each other’s sense of humor.
What is your favorite part of the restaurant life?
It’s almost like welcoming friends into our living room. We cook because we love to feed people, and also because we love the process of cooking. We are so grateful for our regular customers and all the new people we meet every day. José and I are so particular about all the ingredients that go into the menu. He always has been, long before organic and farm-to-table was a trend. It’s important to keep our clients healthy and happy. A lot of love, work and dedication go into the restaurant experience. It’s not an easy life; you have to have a passion for it.
How do you prepare for the wine dinners you host at the restaurant?
We introduce new wines to the list by creating a special wine dinner. We taste the wines together, and José is incredible at harmonizing wine with food. It gives our customers a chance to try food that is not on the menu, as well as take in knowledge about the wines. We love when a winemaker comes and customers get to share the winemaker’s passion and José’s together.
What are some of your hobbies?
Reading and keeping up with trends, designing a new home (we are building a house around a kitchen), yoga and baking.
Are you partial to any local charities?
What events or activities do you enjoy most in Memphis during the summertime?
What is your number one choice on the River Oaks menu, or that José cooks at home?
I eat mostly vegetables and love our homemade pasta! My favorite thing on the menu is our MoJo Cookies, baked each day in the kitchen by my daughter, Jolene. My favorite thing José makes at home is crepes. We will eat them late at night or for breakfast with orange marmalade and a splash of Grand Marnier with champagne!
What is his favorite thing that you cook?
I owe José a great deal. For me it takes five percent talent and all the rest is hard work. José calls his dedication “the sacred flame,” so when I cook for him and my family, I always try to remember that. I use my favorite ingredients, especially simple things like the right olive oil. He loves when I make Italian food, and he especially loves Christmas when my daughter and I make several kinds of cookies!
Besides River Oaks, name some local restaurants in Memphis that you love.
Describe your ideal vacation.
Our favorite vacation was to Italy! We loved Cortona and a little town called Arezzo. We learned so much about the quality of ingredients. We love St. Bart’s for a beach destination, and my favorite thing I have done on a trip was in Alaska: My daughter is a pilot, and we flew a float plane over the glaciers. We landed in water, ate salmon in a little cabin and watched bears outside. We also rode horses through the mountains in British Columbia. I’m a “city slicker,” but it was an adventure, to say the least!
Do you have a go-to beauty product or indispensable regime?
Boucheron perfume. I’ve never used any other. Chanel makeup and my hairdresser, Allison J. (who is now living in France).
What three lighthearted things you could not live without?
Dark chocolate, my Pulltex wine tool and shoes!
Thank you, Colleen, for sharing your story with us. And thank you to Micki Martin Photography for these beautiful images of such a special gem of a woman. mickimartin.com