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Meet the Tastemaker

Big flavors, lofty goals: A conversation with the nationally lauded team of La Condesa

Just over three years ago, La Condesa opened on Second Street to some murmurs of concern. Could they compete with Fonda San Miguel? Was Second Street really going to take off? Would the food stand out from the hundreds of local Mexican options?
 
The answers are now apparent: Chef Rene Ortiz, his colleague Laura Sawicki as pastry chef, and owner Jesse Herman created something both new and well-timed for Austin: an urban dining experience focused on modern, clean interior Mexican food.
 
It sounds simple, but anyone who has seen Chef Ortiz construct brilliance out of such disparate ingredients as pork belly, apple, fish sauce and local bleu cheese (or tasted Sawicki's olive oil cake with marcona almonds, pistachios and orange-olive oil caramel) knows that it is all done with an expert hand. It's still tough to grab a table on many nights, and the Fearless Critic recently described it as both "knock-out sexy" and opined that "the [menu] results can be brilliant."
 
CultureMap's inaugural Tastemaker Awards have nominated La Condesa for three awards: Best Restaurant, Best Pastry, and Best Decor. We recently spoke to the amiable and obviously close-knit La Condesa hydra of Herman, Ortiz, and Sawicki to discuss their kitchen philosophy, the logistics of festivals and the chances of seeing them on a Top Chef audition.
 
CultureMap: There have been quite a few national and regional awards happening for Austin generally, but for La Condesa in particular over the past few months. What does it mean to you to see things like StarChefs.com arrive, or to see the CultureMap Tastemaker awards coming and maybe giving some formal credibility or recognition to what's been happening in Austin over the past few years?
 
Jesse Herman: I think it's really cool that there is that recognition, that there are a lot of people in Austin that are doing a lot of cool and innovative things with food. It's a smaller city, and it doesn't have the reputation of some of the other cities that are known for the culinary landscape, like Portland or San Francisco.
 
And that's sort of a good thing, it allows people — it allows a lot of freedom to explore. And all of a sudden, I think what you are seeing, is a lot of people that just kind of kept their head down and they're doing really cool and unique things, and people are starting to recognize there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Austin. So it's really nice to be recognized for that stuff, it's really great for Austin I think. All the other restaurants too, like Uchiko, Barley Swine. It's really cool to see that too, because we're all friends, and it's great when you see that.
 
 "I think what you are seeing is a lot of people that just kind of kept their head down, doing really cool and unique things, and people are starting to recognize there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Austin." - Jesse Herman
 
CM: Rene and Laura, you worked together in Brooklyn before you came to town, and you've been collaborating for a long time. Could you give us a little bit of insight into how that process works, how you experiment with dishes at the restaurant? I would imagine that Rene is the origin point of the savory dishes and Laura is the origin point of the pastry dishes, but how do you influence each other on the composition of the menu?
 
Rene Ortiz: I think it's very unique, what we have, it's a large part of what Laura gives to me is a savory element in regards to pastry. She's a pastry chef but she's also a cook. [Smiles] And that's what makes her amazing, is that she doesn't…she follows the guidelines, but she also eschews them to be an actual chef: cooking, seasoning and bringing things to the pan. And I'm the same way. We just work with each other.
 
Laura Sawicki: [We] borrow elements from each other, that might be like that month's 'cool new thing,' I've done the dish and enabled him to just take it away, but reinvent it in a way that's appropriate so you see this kind of connection from start to finish with the meals. And they are always subtle, it's not like an obvious element you're going to see in every dish. It's the little nuance, the little highlights, that kind of connect it which is extraordinary.
 
I find that, also, because we have such a fluid dialogue about food, I don't necessarily tell him "this is what I think you should do" but he brings me ideas and then we have this awesome feedback, we critique the other sous chefs' dishes together, not because I have created a better dish than they have, but because my palate is so in sync with his, and like, heightened and kind of aware of what he would want, and vice versa, he can taste my food and tell me a sauce was off or an ice cream was different texture, and these things, which is really just unique to us — maybe other chefs have that, but I think it's what makes us completely unique.
 
Ortiz: It's the trust, you know?
 
CM: You just got back from the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and then there's the Tastemaker event, and the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival at the end of April. That's a lot of big events with huge crowds — which is a lot different from a service. How do you adapt to serving in that huge carnival tent environment? Does it necessitate the need to simplify? What do you do in those situations where you're trying to cook for 750 people?
 
Ortiz: Well, I think that our whole scheme in doing these big events with big name chefs and stuff like that is to go in, have bold flavors and really come with, you know, the guns and fight back. I felt really good this weekend, and not only because I had a drink or two. [Laughter] I felt good because we really came and we did an extremely good job, and that was rewarding, all these other big time people came up and said, "Hey, that was really, really good."
 
Sawicki: After three years, I know that I tire of seeing the same thing, and then I have to remember, the feedback we had just from our interns, and chefs that were in the prep kitchen with us and tasting elements, and they were like, "Holy s--t!" I have to remember that this food has the "wow" factor, the flavors are so intense, in the best way, and really balanced. For wine festivals, things tend to always remain really neutral, so they can fare well with the wine.
 
CM: Well especially in other markets, it's going to be something that they're not necessarily seeing a lot of there. Jesse, you're a partner in the new Austin FOOD & WINE Festival which is sort of in start-up mode right now. I know there's been a lot of..
 
Herman: [Laughs] It's way beyond start-up now.
 
CM: It's almost here. But there's been certainly a lot of chatter about the festival, positive and otherwise. I just wondered what the most insightful comment you've heard has been to date about the change process and what's happening at the festival?
 
Herman: I think that despite what the chatter is by anonymous commenters online, I can only tell you about the contact that I've had personally with people. It's been predominately within the restaurant business or food and beverage people who own bars in Austin and restaurateurs and chefs. I haven't heard a single negative thing. In fact, all of them — whether it's distributors or brewers, distillers, vendors, whoever — just want to be involved and I think everybody sees it for what the intention is.
 
We think Austin is as great a food city as it is a music city or any other kind of way that you want to describe it. So you know, we're saying, "Hey, come to Austin, this is going to be a really cool and fun festival." It's to help put Austin on the map and let us as local Austin people define Austin as being a food city. It's not just amazing chefs of national and international renown — all the great chefs in Austin are involved too. So really, going by the direct contact and feedback that I've been getting, people in our business want to be involved, which has been great.
 
CM: The three of you have been traveling a lot over the last six months or so, because of La Condesa opening in Napa, and now you're getting ready to do it all over again in Los Angeles. How do the three of you manage your time when you have to have multiple things going like that in different cities all at once?
 
Sawicki: Email is a really good way. [Laughter]
 
Herman: We're figuring it out. I don't have an answer to the best way to do it, but we're really figuring it out as we go along. A lot of things don't necessarily translate to customer experience, we know the mistakes that we made in Napa, we're aware of the things that worked out really well and they're very, very subtle things that just may or may not create more work for us and how we internally figure out how to get a place open. But obviously we're careful about travel because it eats up time. And how we coordinate with people, although La Condesa's sous chefs and the chef de cuisine in Napa came from here, so they were part of the [Austin] family and very much understand the culture. That certainly makes it easier.
 
The general manager from Napa came here for about a month, we brought him here. I think that really helped with that transition. So we've got two really strong pillars of a foundation for what is there, but Napa is very different from Austin. And we know New York well and we know L.A., but these places are still, in this business you really have to adapt locally and it can be a major adaptation or it can be subtle. It's not easy. We have a lot of great additions to the team here that have allowed us to free up our time and our roles and responsibilities kind of change as far as overseeing more people and while we're hands on with everything, our individual responsibilities kind of change. So you're just within a growing organization and you just kind of learn that stuff as you go.
 
CM: On a side note, the La Condesa Facebook and Twitter pages are always fun, because I see that you guys are always sporadically traveling and doing food research here, there and everywhere.
 
Ortiz: We're very fortunate for that.
 
CM: Is there anything on La Condesa's menu now, or that's been there recently, that's a result of those food travels leading you to experiment or leading you to do something a little different?
 
Ortiz: No, but I think every food experience is always going to make...
 
Herman: But some things, like if you think about certain things like the venison tacos, those were influenced by a trip to Mexico City.
 
Ortiz: Yes! There was a small cart in Mexico City where you had a taco that was filled with lamb and onion, it was really cool.
 
Herman: There was this great Lebanese guy making the tacos.
 
Ortiz: And [that dish] just transformed into what we've created it to be. Yeah, with travel there's always going to be influences that are going to happen, whatever we taste. We had plenty of ideas after Charleston just recently. And it's even what not to do sometimes, you know!
 
Herman: Even in Napa for example, in the Bay Area you've got a particular style as it pertains to La Condesa — you've got a particular type of Mexican food. It's different from the Mexican food that you find in Texas, and then in Los Angeles, it's different, too. In L.A., there's not so much Tex-Mex, there's a lot of more traditional Mexican, but then there's a lot of really high-quality street food — taco trucks and, even trucks that just do ceviches and stuff, so a very different experience than you have here. There's a lot to learn there.
 
I think part of it is not so much being influenced by a way that a guy does a taco on the street but maybe ingredient-wise in the Bay Area, I think it's a 12-month growing season there, so you have this abundance of produce and meats and incredible dairies and cheese. You know, I certainly don't have the depth of food knowledge that they do. They know a lot about food and I'm constantly seeing things that I've…never seen in my life. 
 
Ortiz: Yeah, it is really nice there.
 
Herman: There's a hyper-locality to Napa. It's one of the only places in the world where you're eating food in restaurants that's literally grown 100 feet away, in some cases, and that's one of the really really unique things I think about Napa for customers and restaurateur who are interested in that and then certainly I think, you know, for chefs. 
 
CM: Laura, I was going to ask you, you're nominated for Tastemaker Award for Best New Pastry, along with Stephen Cak and Philip Speer and a lot of other great folks. I just wondered, do you guys actually know each other or are you too busy in your own kitchens to ever be social?
 
Sawicki: Sure, I know them. Unfortunately, I'm not particularly close with them, but certainly I respect them and we're all friends at events and things like that but, like, they're not my pastry chef buddies! [Laughs] It's a small community and I'm a woman, you know, at the end of the day, most of my friends are male but I think there's a [good] pastry chef sub-culture and lots of different personalities. We're all tremendous, like peers and contemporaries but not, you know, a gang. I don't even have enough time to hang out with my intimate friends that I know from the last 12 years of my life! [Laughter]
 
 "I certainly feel like people like chefs and pastry chefs are certainly hanging out a little bit more than they were a few years ago. I think the community's become closer and a little bit more connected." - Herman
CM: Fair enough, fair enough!
 
Sawicki: I think sometimes the work event is just enough.
 
Herman: I certainly feel like people like chefs and pastry chefs are certainly hanging out a little bit more than they were a few years ago. I think the community's become closer and a little bit more connected. It used to be kind of, you know, fragmented, and certainly for restaurateurs also.
 
CM: When I talked with Rene about a year ago, he mentioned that that was some of the reason why you guys started doing the SFC Spring Harvest and Autumn Harvest dinners here at La Condesa.
 
Ortiz: Was to make friends, yeah. Well, otherwise it's like rumors and rumors, it's like: "No, no, no!" Because that's better, you know. Don't hate, let's be friends.
 
Sawicki: Well, and pastry chefs just tend to have really obscure hours, so we're the first ones there and we don't stay to the end of the night which is when the chefs would then go out and bump into each other at a bar and hang out. I'm up at 5:30 in the morning and here sometimes, last time I left at 9. I don't want to go hang out; I want to go home! So a lot of that is personal responsibility, just we have really, just different timelines than the chefs do.
 
Herman: You're getting younger and younger chefs, you know, in Austin, but at the same time there are some that are a little bit older and a lot of them have families and kids and there's so many priorities. But with so many events and things you see people more, you know, socially.
 
Ortiz: Yeah, you're able to have a drink or a cocktail with them now, and it's nice.
 
Herman: Even just this year things that weren't happening before like the StarChefs event, or this Tastemaker event. 
 
CM: Yeah, that was really different for Austin.
 
Sawicki: That was the first time I ever met Plinio, and he's such a nice guy. We'd just never crossed paths for whatever reason. He's super, super sweet.
 
CM: Laura, you were recently chosen by FOOD & WINE as a Top 5 Best New Pastry Chef in America. As part of that, you'll have a recipe in their May issue. What did you choose to submit?
 
Laura: I submitted a lemon poppy chevre cheesecake with raspberry-rhubarb compote and a graham cracker streusel. My intention was not to create something that was really "chef-y" or spoke of me as a professional pastry chef, but rather was thinking in terms of expressing myself creatively in something that I identified with, something I love to eat, something very hyper-seasonal, and something where at the end of the day it's about the readers and what they want to eat and what they want to read about.
 
I wanted to make something that was really tangible and accessible for them, it's very unique. And for somebody at home…to make three components for one dessert might be a lot of work, but I presented something that's totally doable and really beautiful and bright. And I got amazing feedback from the editors, they all loved it. They didn't have to edit or tweak or anything just because I knew who my audience was. And so I was excited, yeah! It's going to be fun to see.
 
CM: It's a silly question, but I have to ask it. We've just all watched Paul Qui gain a lot of national notoriety from going through the Top Chef process. Would either of you ever bite if offered the opportunity to do something like that?
 
Sawicki: Absolutely not!
 
CM: It's sort of an absurd platform, but high-profile and meaningful all at the same time.
 
Ortiz: A lot of the judges on there are friends of mine, so I would kind of feel weird. I'm a lot older than the kids that go on the show, so my time is...
 
Herman: It's such a huge commitment too, you know? 
 
CM: A couple months.
 
Herman: [Rene's] got kids and...
 
Ortiz: Yeah, I have a whole different life besides the restaurant business.
 
Sawicki: I also don't ever want to be scrutinized that way, or use my food to be something competitive because that's not what it's about for me. I think I got a lot of people this weekend saying "Why are you so humble?" Well, [Rene] was singing my praises and I was like "I don't really want to tell the world."
 
Ortiz: He even made a T-shirt.
 
Sawicki: Yeah, exactly.
 
Herman: It's so awesome though to see. I've never watched Top Chef in my life, but I watched the last episode and that was awesome. It's so good to see that happen to somebody like Paul, you know? And I feel like from when I was told he was going to be on it, which was a long time ago, maybe over a year ago, I thought "He's going to win." And I couldn't really imagine anyone else.
 
Sawicki: There was no doubt in my mind. I only saw three episodes, and they were the first three, because we were flying to Napa on Jet Blue and we can watch TV when we fly. But no, I would never, I don't... It's really fun to watch, especially the pastry. I think I saw half an episode the first year it came out and I had such bad anxiety about it.
 
Ortiz: Is there a pastry one?
 
Sawicki: Yes, Top Chef: Just Desserts. And I cannot, I have severe panic attacks, I cannot subject myself to that.
 
Ortiz: I mean, if they broke Paul Qui down a bit — you know?
 
CM: It was funny, we went last month to see Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain talk, and Ripert asked Bourdain, "Do you feel qualified to judge on that show knowing that everyone there is better than you?" And he said, "Yeah, when you think about the fact that you guys make up challenges like make a three-course meal out of vending machine items in the back of a moving mini van, I think I'm totally qualified to judge at that rodeo."
 
Sawicki: [Bourdain] has a hyper-aware palate that, you know, we're not giving him credit for. He's definitely not a fancy chef, but who knows? He knows how to talk about food, so really at the end of the day...
 
Ortiz: Lots of people can do that.
 
Sawicki: It comes down to what people like, right? You know?
 
Ortiz: He's entertaining. That's what they like.
 
CM: The La Condesa team has also broken ground on a space on South 1st street that's long been rumored as a Thai restaurant. How's that going?
 
Herman: I don't know much about what's going on over there. [Grins]
 
CM: Okay, fair enough.
 
Herman: I'd say we're looking at late spring or early summer. Yeah, it's really cool. You can start to see it take shape now, so you get an idea of what it is, but we expanded that building. It's smaller than La Condesa, obviously, but there's going to be a parking lot there that will be finished as the building's finished because parking is a bit of an issue over there right now.
 
It's going to be really fun, I live in Bouldin Creek and we all know each other and have known that a bunch of things were going to open there for a year. They're all popping off one after the other. And it's really great to see this really cool drag of cool places, and you've got John Mueller, and that dude is really cool. We just, being over on the site, meeting him and talking to him, becoming friends with him is pretty bad-ass. And Elizabeth Street, you know Laura's boyfriend is a chef de cuisine there. And Lenoir now, and then the old school places that have been there forever, like Polvo's.
 
Ortiz: And Freddie's.
 
Herman: Yeah, and you have quintessential Austin, the neon signs, and Roadhouse Relics. You know right there, it's just a great Austin boulevard that, at this point is not quite as frenetic as South Congress. I think the parking situation will kind of keep it a little bit more local. Just the general scale and layout of it. It's really cool to watch that, and it's going to be really fun to open down there. We'll probably have a lot of information starting to come out in the next couple months, but we're not that far away from there. Just a few months away.
 
CM: Some of our best friends own the bake shop over there, Sugar Mama's, and they are in love with all of you for not having them feel so lonely any more. When they opened on South 1st, everyone kind of teased them and said "Why the hell are you opening there?"
 
Sawicki: I think that it's only continuing to bring [everyone] more business because it is a different financial demographic, a different dining space, but it's putting people's attention on that strip. I can go to South First to eat seventeen different things now. 
 
Ortiz: And you get good food trailers there, too.
 
CM: There's something to be said for a spot like that where you can just go to an area, park and figure it out.
 
Sawicki: Yeah, it's awesome. Or take a bike ride with your friend and just go everywhere.

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