The all-star team at Swift's Attic has been doing bustling business in downtown Austin for nearly two years now thanks to a distinct atmosphere with eclectic shared plates and a varied bar program.
If their faces seem familiar, that's no surprise: Co-owner C.K. Chin is a veteran front of house manager who you've likely met at Paggi House and Kenichi, while Executive Chef Mat Clouser is a longtime Austinite who has worked at at Uchi, Kenichi and Vespaio. Along with Sous Chef Zack Northcutt, Pastry Chef Callie Speer and Managing Partner Stuart Thomajan, the group has pulled off a neat trick: they're a top Austin restaurant and one of the best parties in town.
That magic didn't go unnoticed by Bravo, which tapped Swift's Attic to compete on Tom Colicchio's new show, Best New Restaurant. In preparation of the hot spot's television debut, , which airs on January 28, we talked to C.K. Chin to ask about the experience, the risk of a challenge, and to learn more about the upcoming project, Wu Chow.
CultureMap: For those less familiar with Swift's Attic, how did the idea of the restaurant originally come together?
C.K. Chin: It was just a culmination of being in the restaurant business for a good while. After you've worked at several restaurants — I did it for about seven years — thoughts always go towards opening your own place. Any ambitious person would. That was a dream I always had. I wanted to see if I could do it on my own. The concept of Swift's came together as a combination of what I've learned from the other places, the kind of food I would like to eat, and the kind of atmosphere and vibe that I like. You do what you know.
I've always felt the restaurant ideas that worked best were being able to share plates with friends, enjoy your time, and like the music and vibe. But I still like to have good food, and so it kind of morphed into that with Chef Clouser; he and I have been friends for almost a decade. The two of us plus Stuart came up with this idea, and it pieced together as we found a space.
"The pressure test was something I was most comfortable with because it was in our home turf," says Swift's Attic co-owner C.K. Chin.
CM: You are a couple of years in at Swift's and have established a very successful business. Why take the risk of doing a television challenge under pressure?
CKC: You know, we don't look at it as much of a risk. The risk initially was when we didn't know exactly what the project was. I don't think there's such a thing as bad press unless it's as part of a show that is designed to incite drama. These competition shows are great, and I had faith that we would collectively represent ourselves well. I just didn't want to be part of a show that would intentionally come in and incite some kind of scandal. We wouldn't do that. But a show that is friendly competition sounded great. We've seen other friends do it — Paul Qui did Iron Chef ... and obviously he did Top Chef later as well.
On those competition shows, win or lose, you end up having great exposure because as long as you represent yourself well, I think people respond to it. So we thought it would be a good thing no matter what.
CM: On Top Chef a lot of contestants get taken down by front of house issues on the "Restaurant Wars" challenges. When you looked at this show, did you see your extensive front of house experience as a leg up in a competitive restaurant show?
CKC: It's funny you mention that, because my favorite part of Top Chef has always been the "Restaurant Wars." I've always watched it and said, "Man, I would love to get involved at that point in the show and help these chefs!" That is my wheelhouse. So, it was an opportunity. It is a representation of a very important part of the restaurant business that I feel sometimes gets glanced over on TV shows. There's a Cooking Channel, and the Food Network, right? But there's no "Serving Network" or "Baker Network!" That to me is just as much a part of Swift's as the food. It is atmosphere and service and hospitality. We've always prided ourselves on not being snooty, pretentious or trendy. I hope that we're more a great restaurant that is warm and welcoming.
People come in and say, "This is what Austin is all about! It's eccentric and it's fun." That is something that I drill into my staff all day. I say, "We are here, and we're the hospitality industry, we are supposed to be here to make people feel at home." I think we treat the service with as much importance as making sure the food is delicious. It was also very cool to have such a seasoned restaurant guru like Tom Colicchio come in, see what we do and give some pointers.
CM: The format of the show is unusual in that you're not battling an in-town competitor, but instead someone from a completely different market. Had you visited your competitor before this battle? Were you familiar with them?
CKC: No, I had not. I had heard about them, though. I read a lot of food and culture-type blogs about restaurants and the people there, just to keep abreast of everything. So, I'd heard of them knew they were getting raves for their biscuits especially. But I actually haven't been to Miami in probably 15 years! So I haven't had the opportunity to eat there.
CM: The show involves three components: a pressure test, an undercover diner challenge and a head-to-head battle. How did you feel during the process? Did it seem like a fair set of metrics to be judged on?
CKC: Those three components do a pretty good job of representing all facets of a restaurant. The pressure test was something I was most comfortable with because it was in our home turf. It was essentially a promise that they'd inundate you with guests and you just have to serve them all well and make sure you do what you do.
The other two pieces were a mystery to us, so that was more nerve-wracking because you just never know. They assured us that they weren't going to make us serve dinner riding a horse or something, and that it would be a skill-based challenge. They were very respectful in saying that they wouldn't try to trip us up. So I wasn't anticipating too much craziness, but you never know. TV is TV, so there were points when I wondered if they were going to put in strange obstacles.
CM: Like breaking your stove or turning off your power or something?
CKC: Yeah! Exactly. I think throughout the whole process, it really was refreshing and calming to work with them. They were constantly taking steps to make sure that we were provided with what a restaurant needs to operate.
CM: All this Bravo TV press comes in the midst of you guys preparing to open your second downtown spot, Wu Chow, in the new IBC building. What's the latest on that?
CKC: We're getting close. The holidays always cause some delays, and understandably so. People deserve to be with their families, so I can't press that issue. We're chugging along despite a few permitting delays, but we're still aiming for first quarter of 2015. Hopefully we'll be open by South By, but we don't want to jinx it by setting a date. The minute we do, we'll never make it.
CM: You're doing a watch party at Swift's on January 28. Please tell us about what you're going to be up to and why people should drop by.
CKC: We're saying we don't know what to expect. We're curious ourselves. I haven't seen the episode. It is our community coming together to support each other. It was great to see the other restaurants they chose for Austin. We've known all those guys for a while, too, so I want to support them. So we're just saying, "Come by!" Our event starts at 8 pm. We reserved the front lounge area where all the TVs are from the bar over. We're going to show the show, do some passed appetizers and have some drink specials. Everyone will just mingle and watch the show together. It's my first time watching it, so I would love to watch with my friends.
Bravo's Best New Restaurant episode featuring Swift's Attic airs on Wednesday, January 28 at 9 pm.