SO FAR, RAPPER 50 Cent's much ballyhooed recent move to Houston has been a hit, it seems. After a raft of memes placing the Grammy winner around town — comically Photoshopping him into landmark locations — now comes word that 50, whose given name is Curtis Jackson III, has won a major prize at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wine auction on Saturday night.
"This year's Reserve Grand Champion Best of Show, Le Chemin Du Roi Brut, Champagne AOC, NV, was launched by famed rapper and business mogul, Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson," according to an article on the Rodeo's website. "Demetra and Frank Jones, and Leticia and Stephen Trauber, purchased the wine for $160,000."
The musician-actor seemed genuinely thrilled, making these comments in a video posted on Rodeo Houston's Twitter page after his win: "I'm out here, I'm enjoying myself. I'm in Houston, I'm a new resident, and I'm really excited about being here. This is the coolest thing."
And 50 Cent made three separate tweets about the auction, held at NRG Center, on his own page. "They told me everybody who's somebody in Houston" is at the Rodeo, he said in one. In another, he bemoaned losing one lot he had his eye on. "Man there are some people in Texas that got a lot of money. I bid $175,000 for a bottle of wine and I still lost."
The responses to the various tweet are colorful, too, with several noting his big Texas-style belt buckle and his "Timbs," or Timberland boots, when perhaps he should have been wearing cowboy boots to complete the look.
Beside his work as an entertainer, 50 Cent is a highly successful entrepreneur and investor, per online sources. Wikipedia notes he his "now involved in artist and talent management, record, television, and film production, footwear, apparel, fragrances, liquor, video games, mobile apps, book publishing, headphones and health drinks and dietary supplements" with other plays touching "real estate, financial market investments, mining, boxing promotion, vodka, fragrances, consumer electronics and fashion."
THE PASTRIES THAT populate the pastry cases at Sicilian-born pastry chef Diego Chiarello's La Sicilia bakery (515 Westheimer, Suite C) always put on a show. From saffron croissants with mascarpone orange vellutata filling topped with basil tuiles and crystallized basil to ciambella cakes in flavors like strawberry shortcake or matcha with freeze-dried raspberries and a white chocolate drizzle, Chiarello's delectable confectionary glitterati always sport their Sunday best.
Opened in 2018 and housed in a modest strip center in Montrose, the bakery proffers to its loyal customer base some of the best Italian pastries you can find on this side of the Atlantic. That should come as no surprise, however, because Chiarello, the shop's hunky owner and resident pastry wizard, has been hustling at his pastry game since the age of 12.
The youngest of five brothers who are all pastry chefs in his native Sicily, Chiarello originally planned on becoming a dancer and choreographer, but, although he had success in that career, he always kept getting drawn back to the kitchen. There, instead of choreographing dance moves, he uses his well-trained hands, through much rolling and folding, to perfectly choreograph layer after layer of the doughy laminations essential for creating the most delectable of cornettos, the more doughy and moist Italian cousin of croissants, and a bevy of other pastries, some Sicilian and some more American inspired.
Chiarello's journey to becoming one of Houston's finest pastry chefs is a long and winding one that contains as many starts and stops as the laminations in his famous treats, for which he just recently, after several years of experimenting, perfected his own recipe.
While growing up in Sicily, Chiarello always dreamed of moving to the United States and setting roots in New York City. "I was born with this dream," he says. "This was my dream, and I was going to do anything I needed to do to live there." He first visited New York City in 2008 while on a trip with an Italian folk dancing group, and after coming back several times for visits, he finally packed his bags — well, it was just one small suitcase — and moved to the big city.
"I left with no money. I left with nothing," he remembers with a chuckle, noting that he only had enough cash for one month of rent for an apartment in an unfamiliar part of Brooklyn. "I had a suitcase with a few things in it. I didn't know anyone there, and I didn't even speak English."
Chiarello met his now-husband Antonio only a few weeks after moving to the city, and after a whirlwind romance and several months spent jumping back and forth between NYC and Sicily, during which time gay marriage was legalized in the state of New York, the two decided to get hitched.
"I was about to have a heart attack and I started crying," remembers Chiarello of when Antonio stopped on the street and got down on one knee to propose. "I said yes, and we got married three months later, and it's been eight happy years now."
One day while prowling the city for work, something he had struggled to find since his big move, Chiarello got lost in Queens and stumbled upon a Sicilian bakery. He hit it off right away with the owners, who spoke fluent Italian, and was hired on the spot after passing a baking test where he wowed the owner's wife by cooking a perfect cassatelle, a Sicilian fried pastry stuffed with ricotta, chocolate chips and cinnamon.
After two years at the bakery, Chiarello was approached by one of the bakery's patrons about becoming the head pastry chef at Chelsea's famously hip Cafeteria, a frequent setting for scenes in Sex and the City, and he decided to accept the offer. He spent the next couple of years hopping around the kitchens of several top restaurants in the city before he and his husband decided to move to Houston to be closer to his husband's family and to start their own bakery — which would give Chiarello the full creative freedom he had been itching for years for.
Business has been good, says Chiarello, since opening up La Sicilia in Houston back in 2018. It's been so good, in fact, that Chiarello and his husband, who handles the front of house of the bakery, are planning on opening up a second location of their hit bakery in Houston soon, with an eventual plan of expanding it to other states, like Florida, and in particular to Miami, where the couple frequently vacations.
For now though, Chiarello spends much of his time relishing in the fact that he's his own master in the kitchen. The shop's steady stream of regular customers — drawn to his flaky confections, which include not only traditional Sicilian pastries but also American-style ones, often featuring creative fusions of flavors from other cultures — have helped cement his place in the local food scene.
"My goal was to bring the taste of home to here in Houston, and it's been a journey," he says. "It's been really great getting to do whatever I want. There is no one who can tell me what I need to make. I wake up in the morning with new ideas, and I get to go to my kitchen and make them."
"HGO has once again demonstrated its resiliency and its commitment to this treasured artform over the past year. To say I am proud of every member of the HGO team would be an understatement — they all continue to blow me away with their creativity and tenacity," said HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers in a statement.
"Seeking out creative alternative means of artistic expression since the pandemic's onset has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding," added Summers. "We are excited to carry our new expertise forward into the future. But we are thrilled beyond measure to join our beloved audience for a new season of opera. Nothing stirs the soul like being in the theater for a live opera performance — nothing."
HGO's 67th season kicks off on Oct. 22 with audience favorite Carmen, with Canadian mezzo-soprano and HGO Studio alumna Carolyn Sproule in the title role of the Bizet classic, which will be conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, with tenor Richard Trey Smagur joining her onstage as Don José, alongside soprano Heidi Stober as Micaela and baritone Christian Pursell as Escamillo.
HGO's new season will also feature a continuation of the company's holiday opera series when the company's 71st world premiere, composer Joel Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney's The Snowy Day, hits the Wortham stage in December. The family-friendly opera will be conducted by Summers and will star HGO Studio artist and soprano Raven McMillon in the lead role. The opera was previously the subject of a documentary, The Making of The Snowy Day: An Opera for All, that was part of HGO Digital's 2020-21 season.
Also featured in HGO's new season is gripping drama Dialogues of the Carmelites, which features HGO Studio alumnae Natalya Romaniw and Lauren Snouffer as Blanche and Constance, with famed dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Madame Lidonine. A production of director Barrie Kosky's highly creative and visual reimagining of The Magic Flute, which was originally slated for HGO's 2019-20 season, will also finally be hitting the Wortham's mainstage in the winter.
Closing out the season will be productions of opera classics Turandot and Romeo and Juliet. HGO Studio alumna Tamara Wilson, who last hit the HGO mainstage for her riveting performance in the title role of Aida in 2020, will be performing the title role in the company's mesmerizing new production of Turandot. Critically acclaimed tenor Michael Spyres, who performed the role of Fernand in HGO's La favorite in 2020, will be playing Romeo opposite soprano Adriana Gonzalez in the company's new production of the Gounod classic, which will mark the HGO debut of Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci.
Subscriptions for HGO's 2021-22 season are available at HGO.org, and single tickets to productions will be available later this summer.
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