How Austin Became A Foodie Town
By Steve Uhler; Photos by JoJo Marion; Gilmore photo by Mel Ferro Cole; Cole photo by Brett Buchanan; Bull photo by Marshall Wright; Qui photos by Adrienne Breaux; Semifreddo at Uchi Photo by Claire McCormack; 24 Diner photo by Vanessa Escobedo; Bar Congress photo by Judy Horton; Bonneville photo by Lindsey Cavanaugh.
Everybody eats. One man’s meat might be another man’s tofu, but when it comes to satisfying our deepest primal urge (well, maybe our second deepest primal urge), we’re all foodies. And Austin is a foodie’s paradise. Whether savoring an impossibly perfect slice of brisket at Franklin Barbecue, salivating over a plate of artfully prepared sushi at Uchi or downing a cholesterol-spiking bacon-and-maple-syrup doughnut at Gordough’s, the gastronomical options are endless.
In the last decade, Austin has transformed from a footnote in 4-star restaurant guides to one of the trendiest destinations on the culinary map for adventurous fans of gourmet dining. The Austin foodie scene has exploded in a flurry of images, smells, tastes and tweets: on glossy magazine covers, wafting from street-corner food trailers, broadcast on TV travelogues and food shows, going viral on every form of social media, from Twitter to foodie-focused blog sites like Eater and Foodspotting. Suddenly, we’re everywhere. It wasn’t always so.
For decades, Austin’s reputation as an epicurean destination rested on a limited and decidedly laid-back Southwestern-cuisine motif offered in local restaurants and cafés best described as “down-home.” Aesthetic amenities consisted largely of swivel stools and concrete floors strewn with sawdust, and their longevity relied more on their Austin-centric ambiance than the quality of their dining fare.
“For a long time, our food scene was defined by Tex-Mex, chicken-fried steak and burgers,” says Matthew Odam, restaurant and food critic for the Austin American-Statesman
. So when did it all begin to change? When did Austin first begin its evolution from sleepy barbecue-and-burger burg to bustling foodie hub?
“It started exploding about five or six years ago when we started getting national attention,” says Marshall Jones, executive director of the Austin Wine & Food Association. “It was kind of a natural progression with the creative class that we have. This is a very creative community, and that’s what cooking is. Cooking is not a science so much as it’s an art.”
In Austin, food is an art form that goes back a long way.
In The Beginning...
The first restaurant in Austin has been, not surprisingly, lost in the mists of time. One of the earliest documented fine-dining experiences was Kruge’s Restaurant, built in the 1870s on Congress Avenue between what are now Sixth and Seventh streets. The two-story wood building featured a prominent sign boasting “Fresh Fish and Oysters.” (How Kruge managed fresh oysters is a mystery; the nearest fresh oyster source was the Gulf Coast, 300 miles away.)
If you could afford a dinner at Kruge’s in those days, you may have topped off the evening with dessert at Fulton’s Ice Cream Parlor at 608 Lavaca St. Price: 5 cents for a sundae with the works.
Fast forward to 1933, when a struggling actor named Harry Akin decided there was more money to be made selling burgers than hustling after bit parts in Hollywood. Inspired by the open-all-night cafés in California, he headed back to Texas, opening his first restaurant in Austin and dubbing it the Night Hawk. Akin’s experiment (built around his signature Frisco Burger) was an instant hit with the public, especially University of Texas students. By the time he died in 1976, Akin had built seven Night Hawks scattered throughout the city. (The enterprising Akin also served as mayor from 1967 to 1969. The sole remnant of Akin’s Austin empire is The Frisco on Burnet Road.)
For years, the crown jewel of Austin eateries was the comparatively ritzy Driskill Grill at the Driskill Hotel, though its reputation wavered. The cuisine quality at the Driskill fluctuated wildly during the years under an ever-revolving staff of chefs and management. In 1999, a young Culinary Institute of America grad and Dallas transplant took the reins, transforming both the kitchen and Austin’s culinary profile forever.
“I remember my old chef in Dallas questioning my decision to move to Austin,” recalls Chef David Bull, 14 years later. “At that time, there were only a few real restaurant choices.”
He needn’t have worried. Bull’s innovative technique and devotion to culinary consistency earned the Driskill Grill the Austin American Statesman’
s Number One Restaurant Award for three consecutive years, and in 2003 Bull was honored with Food & Wine
’s prestigious Best New Chef award. With the growing popularity of TV’s Food Network and its assorted spin-offs, along with the pop-culture explosion in social media, the stage was set for Austin’s unlikely emergence as a legitimate force in world-class cuisine, but with a distinctively Austin vibe. When Bull competed in 2006 on Iron Chef America
, the Americanized spin-off of the hugely popular Japanese cook-off competition, his visibility skyrocketed.
“It just made David Bull that much more notable when he went on Iron Chef
,” Jones says. “But David Bull was already notable because the food at the Driskill was incredible. It was one of the first real good restaurants we ever had in Austin.”
In 2010, Bull opened Congress, subsequently celebrated as one of the Best New Restaurants 2011 by both Esquire
and Bon Appetit.
Bull’s culinary style and obsessive attention to small details set a new bar in Austin.
“First and foremost, I’m mainly concerned with the quality of ingredients, and then try to anticipate every aspect of the dining experience,” he says. “From the basics of temperature, lighting and chairs, to the mood, emotions and specific expectations, I try to put myself in the guests’ position and exceed their expectations.”
David Bull was by no means the only chef making a name for himself in Austin. Other innovative chefs like Z’ Tejas’ Jack Gilmore, Masashino’s Takehiko Fuse, Parkside’s Shawn Cirkiel, La Condesa’s Rene Ortiz and others were all adding their unique spices to the city’s culinary gumbo. Suddenly, the media—particularly television— had a bottomless appetite for the now-trendy food center.
As Bull was busy garnering kudos in the industry, a new generation of breakthrough chefs began creating massive media buzz on shows like Top Chef
and Iron Chef America
. The new enfant-terribles of Austin’s rapidly evolving food culture were all over social media, writing cookbooks, being spotlighted on trendy food blogs and in YouTube videos, garnering Facebook likes and Twitter feeds.
Tyson Cole, a former UT art student obsessed with Japanese culture and sushi, began making waves with his tasteful and visually distinctive modern take on Asian fare while working at local Japanese restaurant Musashino. In 2003, he became owner and executive chef at Uchi, an instant success, and in 2005, Cole was honored as one of the Top Ten Chefs in America by Food & Wine
. Cole’s appearance on Iron Chef
in 2008 earned him a vast national audience of admirers, many of them female; his cultivated-stubble look alone would have helped land him a role on any primetime soap opera.
“That was the most unreal thing that ever happened to me, other than the birth of my first daughter,” Cole recalls. “I was just a sous chef in a tiny orange house in Austin, Texas. I didn’t think being named one of the Top Ten Chefs in America was even possible. That was quite momentous; that was the turning point for Uchi. From that point forward, our sales increased every month. It just skyrocketed from there.”
Another new talent to emerge on the radar was Manila-born modernist chef Paul Qui, then also a chef at Uchi. Qui won the coveted title on Bravo’s Top Chef
in 2012, becoming the local culinary equivalent of a Bob Schneider or pre-scandal Lance Armstrong.
“The biggest change that happened after Top Chef
was it made me able to travel and explore different foods, different cultures,” Qui says. “It definitely gave me more exposure than I normally would have had working in a restaurant.”
Qui launched his own venture, appropriately christened Qui, in 2013. Both chefs won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, (Cole in 2011, Qui in 2012). Meanwhile, farm-to-table advocate Bryce Gilmore, son of Z Tejas and Jack Allen’s Kitchen Chef and Southwest cooking icon Jack Gilmore, was attracting local buzz with his innovative mobile gourmet eatery, Odd Duck Farm to Trailer. He would go on to open the popular Barley Swine in 2010. The emergence of foodie rock stars like Cole, Qui and Gilmore—the Crosby, Stills & Nash of the new Austin food culture—ushered in a new gastronomical Golden Age of experimentation and innovation.
“The chef is the new rock star,” Jones says. “That never used to be the case. You never cared who the chef was. You didn’t go to your favorite restaurant and ask who the chef was.”
“It’s a new thing here,” Odam observes. “But chefs in other cities have been treated with that kind of respect and admiration for a long time. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with Top Chef
. It adds a certain kind of charismatic character that is endearing to people. They want to know their chefs a little bit and where their food’s coming from. The best food is one that reflects the chef’s personality. It makes sense that we tie the personality of the chefs to restaurants because the food’s coming from them.”
The near adulation of Austin’s new breed of cutting-edge chefs was not without its PR consequences. The diva-esque tantrums on display on shows like Hell’s Kitchen
and Kitchen Nightmares
with mercurial Chef Gordon Ramsay do local chefs no favors.
“I think people assume that all chefs are yelling and screaming maniacs,” Bull says, “and I think they’d be surprised by how quietly and calmly our kitchen operates. We focus a lot of energy on creating a family-oriented environment.”
“Sometimes people talk too much about image and less time talking about food,” Odam says. “At the end of the day, people have to eat the food. If someone’s heralded as a rock-star chef and then you eat the food and it’s not all that great, the food’s going to suffer.”
The food trailer,
or food-truck, phenomenon is an essential ingredient in Austin’s recipe as a foodie mecca. The days of bleach-white “roach coaches”—the coffee, chips and cellophane-wrapped sandwich sellers that invariably serviced construction-site laborers and corporate parking lots—have morphed in to colorful, cutting-edge specialty caravans that compensate in culinary innovation what they lack in décor and elegance.
According to City of Austin Health and Human Services, the number of registered food trailers spiked to more than 1,400 in 2012, up from 955 in 2008. Many of Austin’s premier chefs got their start in the field, or, more accurately, the parking lot: Before refining his technique at Uchi, Qui worked his magic at East Side King, which is still going strong. Bryce Gilmore built and launched his Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, attracting enough success to finance his brick-and-mortar Barley Swine.
Gourdough’s got its start offering decadently over-the-top doughnuts from an old trailer on South Lamar Boulevard; now there’s a bustling business at Gordough’s Public House. Aaron Franklin, the newly crowned king of barbecue, fired up his reputation while working out of a one-man food trailer in 2009. Perhaps the most notable local food-trailer success is Torchy’s Tacos. Beginning in 2006 as a single shiny, silver food trailer emblazoned with a mischievous red devil, the hugely successful local chain now has 11 brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Austin area selling “damn good tacos!”
Austin didn’t invent the food-trailer phenomena, but it has definitely become a gastronomical petri dish for innovative foodie choices, including some of the most outré entrees in the country. Where else can you find such exotic street fare as a fresh Maine lobster sandwich (Garbo’s Lobster Truck), or such decadent comfort foods as smoked pork mac-and-cheese sandwiches (The Grilled Cheese Truck) or hybrid cuisines like Mexican-Japanese (Oyama)?
Another vital ingredient in Austin’s rise as a foodie culture is the farm-to-table movement. The back-to-basics ethos of the Austin hippie culture of the early 1970s led to the founding of Wheatsville Coop in 1976. The food center continues to promote and offer locally grown organic produce, along with more generic grocery staples. The original Whole Foods opened Sept. 20, 1980, going on to become a global force in creating awareness of quality organic food and free trade, and the nonprofit Austin Sustainable Food Center helps foster resources for growing local, healthy food.
“Austin loves sustainable,” Jones says. “We have really rallied around sustainable and organic foods where we can, and our chefs have really taken the farm-to-table to heart, which a lot of people didn’t know about five or six years ago. Look at Jack Gilmore, who started at Z’ Tejas. For, like, 18 years, he’s always been all about local and sustainable. People didn’t know that. They’d go and think it was really great Southwestern with a margarita. They didn’t realize the reason it tasted so good was that Jack was using locally sourced ingredients whenever he could.”
Gilmore’s son, Bryce, continues his father’s farm-to-table practices at his Barley Swine restaurant (and its new sister, Odd Duck).
“In California, everyone’s been doing that forever,” he says. “It’s accessible. It’s easy for them to work with farmers because there’s so much going on out there. When I moved back here in 2009, I really was amazed with how the farmers markets were growing and how many people were in to it. They really respected the farmers and wanted to know where their food was coming from. People were seeing the importance of it.
“For me, I embrace that, and it will always be my philosophy to work with farmers I’m comfortable with and do everything responsibly. They care about what they’re doing and do it right. Opening a trailer, I knew it was possible to create a new menu every day from the things I could get at the markets. I did it. It can be done. I still do it every day.”
Today, more Austin eateries are embracing the farm-to-table ethos. The homey Eastside Café on Manor Road goes a step further, utilizing fresh herbs and vegetables harvested from its own onsite organic garden. It’s farm-to-table within a perimeter of 50 feet.
What does the future hold for Austin as a foodie mecca? Austin doesn’t really have a restaurant row or gourmet district per se, but that’s changing.
“We’re getting there,” Jones observes. “Downtown specifically has 12 steakhouses within one mile of each other. South Lamar is exploding: Barley Swine, Lick Ice Cream, Odd Duck, Olivia. Burnet Road is kind of becoming the everyman’s place to eat: Gusto Italian Kitchen, the new Pinthouse Brewery, Lucy’s Fried Chicken, Noble Sandwiches, Blue Star [Cafeteria]. And the great thing is, most are locally owned.”
“In a good way, you’re going to see more neighborhood restaurants,” Odam predicts. “I think we’ll see more diverse cuisines—Asian, South American, Northern European—coming here. More chefs from out of town coming here, more breakthrough curb restaurants finding funding to open other restaurants.”
But with the good comes the bad, and with the sweet comes the bitter.
“Unfortunately, for the next five years, what I see is a lot more corporate restaurants coming in,” Jones says. “I see a lot of people taking advantage of the growth of the food scene in Austin.”
“There are two Mexican food chains that just opened here from Dallas. Austin doesn’t really prefer the corporate restaurants, but sadly, we’re starting to accept it. And I find that to be a shame. I think that’s going to be the big battle: local versus non-local.” Odam concurs, “I fear downtown becoming some kind of homogenous representation of downtowns like San Diego or Phoenix or whatever. My biggest fear is that downtown will become a conventioneer tourist trap where people go to these generic places that aren’t special.”
“I was reading some food blogger comparing Austin to New York and Boston. Those places are a lot more advanced than we are. But we’re not trying to be those places. If you’d mentioned Austin in the same breath as any of those towns 10 years ago, people would have thought there was something wrong with you. Austin’s food scene is very special. The people that live here have always had a sense of Austin exceptional-ism when it comes to quality of life and priorities. I think in some ways, we’re probably a little more proud of ourselves than we should be at times. But, then again, we’re Texans.”
AARON FRANKLIN: SMOKIN'
If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs. If you want your fix of Franklin Barbecue, you’ve got to get in line. And wait. And wait. Georgette Kaplan has been waiting since about 11 a.m., when the line was already beginning to snake around the patio. Luckily, she’s here on a Tuesday, usually one of the less chaotic days of the week for the joint that houses what has been hailed as the Best BBQ in the USA by Bon Appetit.
She’s read the hype and, more importantly, heard raves from friends.
“I live out near Marble Falls,” Kaplan says, “and several friends told me I had to come here. I actually took the day off work. My boss thinks I’m at the dentist.”
By noon, the line has stretched out to the street, with seasoned regulars bringing their own portable lounge chairs and iPads to help pass the time. Eventually, Kaplan makes it inside—a decidedly unglamorous square room housing about a half-dozen tables of varying size, peppered by plebeian chairs and various bottled condiments. Neon signs for Lone Star Beer and Fireman’s #4 Ale adorn the plain beige walls, along with a few framed magazine articles (not updated in two years) and a makeshift display table stacked with souvenir T-shirts. A steady stream of barbecue-friendly music plays from the tiny sound system: Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson.
From the doorway, Kaplan glimpses Aaron Franklin himself at the counter, slicing deftly into a sumptuous- looking but rapidly disappearing brisket. This is Kaplan’s lucky day; she makes it to the counter at 12:49, just before the cardboard sign with the words “Sorry – Sold Out,” written in black Sharpie, is taped to the wall. Franklin serves his final customer of the day with the same garrulous energy with which he greeted his first. As he doffs his apron and heads for the back room, the room suddenly erupts in to spontaneous applause, punctuated with several enthusiastic shouts of “Bravo!”
Flustered, Franklin comes back out to acknowledge the applause, not quite knowing how to pull off this spontaneous curtain call. An awkward bow, an embarrassed wave and he’s gone.
“That has never happened before,” he says a few minutes later, genuinely nonplussed. “It kind of freaked me out a little bit. That was weird.”
No weirder than his improbable evolution from transient part-time rock musician and freelance handyman to worldwide celebrity and acknowledged Yoda of barbecue. Aaron Franklin’s ascendency to gastronomic grace is a Horatio Alger story of boy meets grill come to life. Imagine Rick Moranis in his prime, pumped up on adrenaline and caffeine, and you’ve got some idea of Franklin’s unassuming, ingratiatingly nerdy charm. Still boyish and lean as a stripped rib at 36, Franklin was raised in College Station, Texas, where, for a brief time, his parents owned and operated a local barbecue joint. The experience left an indelible appetite in his mouth and his heart; he made a silent vow to open his own place one day.
“I got here to Austin in 1996,” he says. “Got out of high school and pretty much moved here immediately. Not to go to school or anything. My best friend from high school, who’s now the general manager here, we both moved here. We were playing music. Hard rock. I played the drums. Got a job. Had a lot of jobs.”
He pauses, mentally ticking off random vocations hastily begun, quickly abandoned. “A lot of jobs,” he says.
In his spare time, Franklin found himself getting back in to barbecue as a backyard hobby. With his then-girlfriend Stacy (now his wife and partner), he started acquiring a regional reputation as an amateur grill master with a golden touch, boundless energy and a proclivity for experimentation
“I started driving around all over the place on Saturdays just doing barbecue. We’re going to Taylor! We’re going to Lockhart!” Franklin’s voice takes on the giddy cadence of a kid in the backseat on his way to Six Flags. “I really just got kind of nerdy with barbecue.”
One of the jobs he landed was working as a cashier and assistant cook for John Mueller, son of iconic barbecue master Bobby Mueller, and local barbecue legend in his own right. The relationship was mutually rewarding, but often contentious and strained, and the two eventually fell apart. Franklin left the business, floundering for the next few months, doing occasional handy work. But barbecue was in his blood. In 2009, at a loss as to his next move, Franklin took a chance, laying out $300 for a broken-down trailer, and deciding to go in to business for himself.
In one of the more deja-vu aspects of his uncanny success, he inherited one of the cookers previously owned by his old boss John Mueller. As soon as Franklin parked his one-man barbecue trailer off the I-35 frontage road and opened his door for business on a chilly December eve, rapturous barbecue bloggers and food critics began heaping hosannas on Aaron Franklin bordering on epicurean erotica in the social media.
“It really started to get weird right after we opened,” Franklin recalls. “The first blog review came out in January, and that was the first time we started to get lines.”
A serendipitous write up in Food & Wine Magazine
cinched his destiny. Barbecue-o-philes worldwide resolved to make the pilgrimage to Austin, to endure the communal wait in line, to savor the first burst of brisket on the tongue, to revel in the ribs. The success of his Franklin’s business led to bigger and better opportunities. In 2011, Franklin got a deal on an old abandoned barbecue joint on East 11th Street, refurbishing it to his magical and exacting specs. Arriving for work early on the morning of his first official day of business at the new location, Franklin was astonished to find a group of fans camping out overnight, a harbinger of crowds to come.
“Up until about a year ago, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to slow down.’ But the lines weren’t going away. I thought they would, but they haven’t. I’m shocked; the lines are longer than ever,” he says.
Even with the addition of a small staff, Franklin continues to maintain a pace that would defeat a lesser being; he’s probably the only man in Texas who loses weight through his barbecue; 20-hour workdays are not rare. He still juggles myriad duties. Ask him about a typical day, and be ready for a barrage of detailed but passionate minutia.
“You want the edited version? Pick a day of the week,” Franklin suggests. OK. Saturday. He takes a deep breath.
“If I’m cooking, the alarm goes off at 1 a.m., I have an espresso, get here [at] 1:15, have another couple of espressos, make the rubs, start the fire, get the beef ribs on, start another fire in the next cooker, start trimming and rubbing down the pork ribs, get those on at 3 o’clock on the dot, start putting out briskets,” he says.
Franklin pauses to inhale. A listener remarks it sounds like a near military operation of shock, awe and basting.
“It is,” he says. “But there are so many variables. You can never calculate exactly what’s going to happen. Every day is different. The wind, the weather, the moisture content of the wood, the moisture content in the meat. The meat changes: How much fat is in the brisket? Is it thin? Is it thick? Is it big or little? “I get all five cookers fired up by 3:30. Around 3:45, the last batch of ribs go on, watch the fires, come in, trim the turkeys, rub the turkeys, get the turkeys on at 5:30. Turkeys come off, sausage goes on, pork cuts go on after that, ribs are starting to come off. Wrap them, go put the briskets up front.”
It’s a dizzying display. And he hasn’t even opened for business yet. Despite the unremitting demands and glaring media attention, Franklin seems nonchalant about his celebrity.
“I don’t pay any attention to it,” he says with such guileless candor that you believe him. “I’m just some dude who makes fires and sometimes gets recognized in public places. I cook stuff. It’s not a big deal. I don’t read anything about us and I don’t watch any shows that we’re on. I just don’t care. I just keep working. My No. 1 goal is to make this place consistently good every day.”
This is the West though, and Franklin understands the mythology: Someday there’s going to be a new kid in town, a faster draw on the gun, a new poster boy for Texas barbecue.
“I think about it all the time,” he confesses. “It’s gonna happen; there’s no way around it. It’s the same as playing music: No band’s going to be awesome forever. You’re going to get older and become less awesome than you previously were. I’m going to get old. I’m going to get tired someday. I won’t be upset when it happens.”
He shrugs nonchalantly. Sic transit fame. Franklin’s impossibly hectic schedule will be going through some changes: He and wife Stacy are expecting his first child, a girl, in November.
“I’m hoping to get out of here for a few days,” he says, “but my wife doesn’t think that’s going to happen.”
At this juncture, they haven’t finally decided on a name yet. “But this much I can tell you,” he says. “Her last name is going to be Franklin.”
Aaron Franklin’s not about to reveal the secrets to his otherworldly barbecue, but he does disclose his recipe for a good life.
“The gratification of knowing that you worked as hard as you possibly could and you did everything as good as you possibly could have done it,” he says.
He reflects on his own words for a moment. It’s a long way from his days as a rock drummer.
“When you go to your house and look around and think, ‘Man, I bought this house!’ It didn’t just randomly happen. It happened with a lot of hard work,” he says. “You had to pay for that house somehow. You get in your car and it actually starts. Whatever it is you have, you earned it. That makes me feel good.”
Four questions for David Bull, Executive chef, Congress Restaurant, winner, Best New Chef 2003
What major changes, good and bad, have you observed in the Austin food scene in the last few years?
The good changes I’ve seen are the obvious increase in food choices and quality of both restaurants and chefs in the city. I remember my old chef in Dallas questioning my decision to move to Austin in 1999, and at that time, there were only a few real restaurant choices. Now you can eat anything you want and get a great experience in several genres seven days a week. It brings a healthy competition to all restaurants and also brings a higher quality skill set of cooks to the city. These are all great things for the city and are the main reasons for all the national attention Austin’s received. Secondly, I love the small, individual, chef-driven concepts. Austin is so incredibly supportive of its local chefs, farmers and beverage programs. I think that has changed significantly in the last few years. If a chef has an idea, there is a sense that Austin will support it, and that allows very detail-focused food concepts to become successful.
What makes the Austin food culture unique? DB: Austin is supportive and cares deeply for its community. It also feels like a small town, no matter how big it gets. The food culture is a result of the diversity of our population, from the ramen to the burgers to the food trucks to the farms; they all have a sense of responsibility to the city’s culture and it creates a passionate food community.
A Barbara Walters-type question: If you were a flavor, what flavor would you be? And could you describe the taste?
I’ll go with the flavor of onions, a necessary part to the whole that can be sweet under the right circumstances, but also very pungent if needed.
Plans for the future? Will you ever retire?
We’re currently working on new projects in Austin and hope to be able to announce the details soon. Retire? Hmm. Not real sure about that term! I am blessed to love my job. I don’t see myself working the hours I currently work forever, but it’s hard to imagine not being in the kitchen.
Four questions for Paul Qui, Proprietor and chef, Qui, winner, James Beard Foundation Award, Best Chef Southwest
What attracted you to Austin?
I was living in Houston, and Austin seemed like a practical choice for me to go to culinary school. I came here and kind of fell in love with the town and decided to come live here. I found the adult portion of my life living in Austin, and I found it through cooking and working in a restaurant.
What do you like most and least about Austin?
The people. The people in Austin are very brave and courageous. They support new ideas and they like to try new things. What do I like least? Not a whole lot. Maybe some more late-night options, places to eat at. A lot of my dining time is done after midnight.
Some of the initial reviews of your new restaurant, Qui, were kind of snarky. Did you take that personally?
Whatever. I opened Qui to expectations that it was going to be different. There’s definitely a niche for every kind of food that you could look for in Austin. But for me, it’s an opportunity to be a little bit different. It may not be different for the sake of being different, but to be different for the sake of exploration.
Any advice for aspiring chefs?
Follow what you feel you’re good at. Don’t doubt yourself, and continue on that path. Know what you’re passionate about and just go for it.
The Ultimate Austin Foodie Grub Crawl
Selected by Marshall Jones, executive director, Wine & Food Foundation of Texas
Breakfast: 24 Diner.
Best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had. It’s a three fried-egg sandwich on buttered brioche with mayonnaise and pieces of bacon. I told them, “If my heart doesn’t explode within 12 minutes, I’m declaring this the greatest sandwich I’ve ever had in my whole life!” And the frittatas stand about 2 feet high. I still have no idea how they do that.
This place is seriously overlooked. The pastries are made in-house and are to die for. They have created a solid menu with purposefully limited dishes from each of the great brunch categories: eggs benedict, hash and salmon, all with their own local twist, and you have the perfect brunch menu. Add mimosa bottle service and let the weekend melt away.
Lunch: Tamale House East.
If my ever-growing belly would let me eat here every day of the week, I could and would. My wicked little pleasure is two bean-and-cheese chalupas with jalapenos and a Diet Coke to go. To step it up a notch, add the tinga chicken. Of course, the tamales are damn fine and if you’re a pro, order them as an enchilada plate.
Supper: Jack Allen’s Kitchen.
Jack should be best known for his ability to twist brunch and dinner in to one meal that Texas farmers used to call supper, that meal you eat after a long day on the farm at 5:30 p.m. before settling in with a cigar and whiskey on the porch to watch the sunset. It’s no wonder that Jack is a champion of farm-to-table, and no one does it better. My choice: Start with the house-made pimento cheese and then ease in a special, such as the open-face enchilada with a fried egg on top, paired with the classic margarita or a glass of McPherson viogner.
Dinner: Bar Congress.
We eat late and we almost always end up at Bar Congress. We start with a perfectly crafted cocktail (gin for me, please) and then start in on the small plates. I am an unabashed supporter of Chef Bull and the whole staff at Bar Congress, and you will be too after your first evening with the best staff in Austin. Fried pickles, Congress burger and anything with tartare, hamachi or sea beans in the title!
Dessert: The Carillon.
I call Plinio, the pastry chef at The Carillon, Plinio the crack dealer. I’ve never done crack, or any illicit drug for that matter, but I can only imagine the addiction they feel mirrors my addiction to Plinio’s pastry. If you ever, ever get a chance to try the sweet-potato-and- coffee beignets with salt-butter ice cream, try it! At your own risk.