When I first moved to Austin in May of 2009, I knew nothing about the restaurants here, and I had to keep my eyes open for places that served the foods I loved. One of my favorite things to eat is chicken feet, and I searched all over Austin to find them but always came up empty-handed. However, that fall, while I was helping to open 24 Diner, I met Britt Markle, who was a like-minded eater and quickly became a friend. Britt introduced me to Asia Café, and I have been going there at least twice a month ever since.
Westlake is a residential oasis, but a culinary desert. Although one of Austin’s toniest neighborhoods, its dining options are few and far between — and mostly lackluster. So what are Westlakers to do when they don’t want to drive into town, up to the Arboretum or out to Bee Cave for a good meal?Sidle over to Trento.
Laura Sawicki, Pastry Chef at La Condesa, still remembers the thrill of saving up enough money to buy her professional KitchenAid Stand Mixer as a young pastry chef in her 20s. Though she initially pursued art history and studio art in college, the culinary arts have always been a driving force in her life: “I grew up in an Argentine household, so every moment was shared eating and drinking,” she observes. “One day, I just woke up and realized that this is what I should be doing with my life.” Today, her stand mixer is the most-used item in her kitchen at La Condesa, whether she’s whipping up her signature chocolate chip cookies or a fruit cobbler for guests. Recently named Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chef, Sawicki notes the “romanticism” of her storied stand mxier: “It’s really versatile,” Sawicki says. “you can make cookies, breads, meringues — really anything!”
While you’re enjoying the beer garden at Easy Tiger after work, chances are Head Baker David Norman is preparing his artisan breads in the bake shop above. From rye to miche, Norman bakes over a dozen breads, pretzels and pastries every evening — a meticulous process that begins at 8:30pm and continues late into the night. “Many people don’t realize the time that it takes to do the breads well,” he observes, “from the mixing to the dividing to the pre-shaping and shaping… we do a lot of things to one loaf of bread!” he laughs. As a junior in college, Norman spent a year abroad in Munich, Germany, and when he returned stateside, he found himself enamored of artisanal German beer and breads. He has since worked in bakeries across the country, from Seattle to New york City. Today at Easy Tiger, Norman evokes the German bake shops that first inspired him, carefully crafting each loaf, boule and pretzel.
When my parents first pulled up to the Drag in the seventies to start school, Austin was a small town: you had your choice of Tex-Mex, hippie cuisine or more Tex-Mex. Those were the years of cheese enchiladas with chile con queso and sundaes from the neighborhood blacklit, psychedelic ice cream shop.
Throughout the years, meat purveyors and carnivore enthusiasts of the traditional variety have never been in short supply in Austin. Brisket, ribs, sausage — it can be found in all forms here. Take, for example, the family-run Smokey Denmark’s in East Austin, which has been producing smoked sausages and other meats in its onsite factory since 1964 (when the business was started by Mr. Denmark himself). Nowadays, a visitor can stop by their modest beige-bricked factory and smokehouse on East Fifth Street and purchase any of the 25 different kinds of sausage — from kielbasa with jalapeño and cheese to British bangers (with a softer texture due to the additional ingredient of bread). A majority of the meat producer’s customers range from independent food trailers, such as Hill Country Pierogi, to chain restaurants, such as Jason’s Deli. Smokey Denmark’s also offers federally inspected, wild-game processing for hunters.
Forget the archetypal chef who menaces his cooks with a rolling pin: when I meet Chef Paul Qui at Uchiko, he’s sitting at the bar in sweats and a baseball cap, chatting animatedly with one of his sous chefs as they prepare to open for the day. In fact, Chef Qui’s tightly-knit kitchen is immediately evident to the casual patron: nine weeks away from a restaurant is enough to make most chefs sweat, but during the filming for Top Chef: Texas, Chef Qui knew he was leaving his restaurant in capable hands. “The relationship between cooks and chefs is a very intimate one,” he says. “If your cooks aren’t excited about the food you’re cooking, then your food isn’t going to be as good.” And it’s impossible not to be excited about Uchiko — since he first stepped foot into Uchi nine years ago, Chef Paul Qui has continued to cultivate his cuisine with humility and heart.
The home kitchen, warm and fragrant with spices and herbs, has historically been identified as the woman’s domain, yet in professional restaurant kitchens, the opposite is true: whether Thomas Keller of Per Se, Grant Achatz of Alinea or Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, male chefs have become the predominant face of haute cuisine. Change, however, is upon us.
Observe some of the new progressive restaurants in town today, and it becomes clear that something spectacular is taking root: women are not only attaining positions in the kitchen — they’re often running them. In spite of the odds stacked against them, a number of female chefs have shattered the glass ceiling, refusing to fall victim to the expectation that they don't have what it takes to survive and thrive in a restaurant kitchen.
Fancy Fridays at Houndstooth Coffee