Larry McGuire

Larry McGuire

Born to cook and raised in Austin, this culinary star can take the heat in and out of the kitchen as one of the fastest rising restaurateurs in the city at only 29.

The year I was born, my mom was working at Martin Brothers Café inside the old Whole Foods on Ninth and Lamar, and my dad was a baker at Texas French Bread on Red River; it was Austin 1982. In fact, my earliest childhood memory is standing on a stack of dairy crates at a wooden table at Texas French Bread (I was probably two years old) watching the bakers knead dough. My dad would give me a dough ball to push around to keep me busy.

In my early childhood, my mom was into macrobiotic cooking. She and my dad were cooking all our meals from scratch, even baking bread and making yogurt. I always loved hanging out with her in the kitchen. After my parents divorced, my mom went back to school, finishing one degree and then another. Somewhere along the line, and this is according to her, she became a horrible cook. I took over the cooking to avoid the alternative. Even as a 10-year-old, I remember how disappointed I would be when dinner wasn’t up to my standards. I wanted my food to look like the photos from The Best of Gourmet 1987 (the first cookbook I can remember). I had definite ideas of what food should look and taste like, and even when I was little, I was only interested in taking on the most challenging kitchen projects. I started making bagels and yeast breads in elementary school and was cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners by high school.

When I was 16, I walked into the kitchen that Lou Lambert was building on South Congress and asked for a summer job. Lou and his sister Liz were just getting Jo’s Coffee going, and she had just finished renovating the Hotel San Jose. They were amazing visionaries with style and talent. I got hired for prep and pizza at his Liberty Pie and Catering Company. It was my first glimpse of a real kitchen — lots of talented, crazy people and lots of amazing food. Within a couple years, Lou had opened his beloved, eponymous restaurant on South Congress, Lamberts. It was the kind of restaurant every chef would love to open — small, hip, open five nights a week and only for dinner. In the kitchen, Lou was a perfectionist and a talented line cook, but he could also work the dining room, exuding West Texas charm. I worked all the stations in the kitchen while studying economics and business at UT. I still consider working the line to be the most difficult and important job in any restaurant, but recognized then that it is the seamless balance of food, service and atmosphere that makes a restaurant truly great. Lamberts opened my eyes to the many things a restaurant could be — a family, the start of a neighborhood, an example of how life could be well designed and delicious.

After Lou sold Lamberts, I moved to Sugarland to help open a hotel restaurant. Eighteen months later, after living in Sugarland and subsequently in San Antonio and working for big hotels in big kitchens, I realized how much I loved and missed Austin. When I moved back from San Antonio, I dove into the Austin life — a house on 37th Street with high school friends, swimming at Barton Springs, going out most nights — all while I wrote the business plan for my first restaurant, Lamberts Downtown Barbeque, with the help of Lou and my partners Will Bridges and Tom Moorman. I was working at Starlite on 34th Street for Michael Terrazas, the owner, and John Wolfe and Josh Hines (both great cooks). That restaurant was a special place — a pretty old house with a small family of employees and great customers. I was glad to be home.

In the process of opening and operating Lamberts and Perla’s, we have tapped into the seemingly endless optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of Austin. I have seen firsthand this town’s willingness to encourage and invest in a vision and a new generation of business people. In retrospect, it’s really hard to believe that a few 23-year-olds were able to wrangle the money to start a business as ambitious as Lamberts. I wonder what I would say to a green 23-year old chef who asked me to invest in his or her restaurant. I hope I would give the same support and encouragement that so many gave me. I’m excited to be part of a new generation of Austinites and hope that my optimism is contagious too.