Hedda Gioia Dowd roams the French countryside looking for antiques with a story to decorate her Texas restaurants. From silver cutlery to antique linens to old kitchen utensils, she has made a business of upcycling French history.
Dowd is more than a mere Francophile. Her annual trips to France are more than just vacations. Every fall, she rents an old house in the Lot-et-Garonne département in the southwest of France and spends a month or more exploring the region. She strikes up conversations with market vendors and locals, and wins dinner invitations to old family châteaux.
Thirty years ago, she started buying unused French linens and flatware from these estates. “I would hear stories about grandparents in wartime,” Dowd remembers. “Or we would have a conversation about the quality of the flax used in linen from preindustrial times and they would say ‘Oh I have so many of my mother’s linens here, would you like some?’”
Raised in Tennessee by a French mother and a Sicilian father, Dowd is an American with a self-proclaimed “food-centric” and European soul. Until she was 22, she spent every summer with her maternal grandparents in France, outside of Grenoble, near the Alps. She picked up their culture, their love of cooking, and their insistence on never throwing anything away. Items she finds that are broken may find themselves with a new purpose. Old kitchen trivets and buckets can be made into light fixtures. All the glassware in Dowd’s Texas restaurants, Rise, is made from recycled wine glasses.
More than beauty, Dowd is interested in the purpose of these items and whether they can still be useful. She loves finding forsaken-but-functional objects from back when “the French had an utensil for everything,” like bread-cutters, fish knives, soup spoons, or lamb chop forks. She buys silver cutlery, antique monogrammed linens, and wine-tasting and cooking tools. Though she sells many of these objects, the business venture is fueled by her love for antiques and she’ll keep certain items for herself. She had a French tourne-broche, a meat-roasting device, installed in the fireplace of her farm in Dallas.
All the silverware, plates, and decorations in Dowd’s restaurants in Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth come from her collecting trips in France. There is no comprehensive list of items for sale. Everything Dowd buys is one-of-a-kind. By decorating her restaurants like a French farmhouse kitchen and providing guests with a “five sensory experience,” Dowd offers them a chance to take a piece of it home. Dinners can buy a French bread-cutter for 150 dollars or an antique kitchen towel for 21 dollars.
“People love the story of where things come from,” Dowd says. “Now that they’ve gotten into building and decorating their own homes, nobody wants cookie cutter anymore!”