“I cook food, and I like to eat, and I like to eat a lot of different things,” says Chef Mark Schmidt of his cooking style. It’s an incredibly humble statement from a chef who brings a lifetime of experience to his new Guadalupe Street restaurant Blackbird and Henry, which opened in late February.
“The opening menu is a collection of some of my favorite dishes over the years,” he explains. He has revived, for instance, the fried smelts with matchstick potatoes and malt vinegar aioli, a dish from his nationally acclaimed former restaurant, Cafe 909 in Marble Falls.
“I have a lot of fun reinterpreting classic dishes. It’s not reinventing the wheel," says Chef Mark Schmidt.
This “playful take on fish and chips” is just one example of the British influence on Schmidt’s food. Although he grew up in Farmers Branch, suburb of Dallas, his mother hailed from Liverpool, England. “We went back and forth to England every year,” he recalls. “The day after school let out, we were on a plane.”
As a result, most of Schmidt’s formative food memories, like eating in Indian restaurants before the cuisine became popular in the United States, are linked to the U.K. The curried prawn kedgeree with quail eggs now on the menu at Blackbird and Henry is Schmidt’s take on the classic Anglo-English dish of curried rice, smoked haddock and hard boiled eggs. “That’s a really good of example of my style,” he says. “I have a lot of fun reinterpreting classic dishes. It’s not reinventing the wheel, I’m just trying to throw my two cents in. I’m kind of old school.”
Schmidt first started working part-time in restaurants while still in high school. “Food was always something that appealed to me. I wanted to be a chef since I was 6 or 7 years old,” he remembers. While employed as a dishwasher at a German restaurant, he took great interest in watching the cooks work. “I just learned and watched what everyone else was doing until I could do it just as well,” he explains. Eventually Schmidt convinced the chef that he could do the prep cook's job, but for cheaper, and his culinary career began. “It never occurred to me to go to culinary school, I just assumed apprenticing was how you worked your way up,” he explains.
Schmidt eventually met his wife of over 15 years, Shelly, while working in the Dallas area. After living in Connecticut and New Mexico, the couple started planning a return to Texas to open their own restaurant, where he would serve as chef and she would act as general manager and sommelier. “Originally we had wanted to do a restaurant in Austin, but the opportunity presented itself in Marble Falls because my wife has family in the area.” he says. After a five-year run, the couple decided to close Cafe 909 in 2008, due in part to “a perfect storm” of events including a flood, an increase in gas prices and a change in local liquor laws.
After a stint working at Houston's Rainbow Lodge, Schmidt is now back in Austin opening the restaurant he originally envisioned. His wife actually thought of the name while the couple was visiting Liverpool during a recent summer trip. “We wanted a vaguely English sounding, pub-like name, and it just clicked,” Schmidt recalls. She was inspired while watching some blackbirds perched in the ivy on the back patio of a pub. Henry is in honor of the Schmidt’s labradoodle, one of the pair's three dogs.
“This restaurant is what I wished we could have done when we did Cafe 909. Being out in Marble Falls, we kind of had to make it a destination,” he explains. Although Blackbird and Henry hints at upscale dining with a raw bar, refined meat and seafood dishes, and a substantial wine list (compiled by his wife), Schmidt is already toying with ideas for nightly specials. Eventually he'd like to introduce a curry and pint night, as well as a fried chicken night. “The new restaurant is just a fun neighborhood place with less emphasis on fine dining,” he says.