ATX Best of 2013
2013 Tastemakers

Meet the Tastemakers: Austin's top chefs on menu inspiration and our growing food mecca


Austin is the place for food right now. The city is bursting with culinary talent — some new and some old — and it is a marvelous time to be in the Capital City, partaking in the creativity and entrepreneurial energy.

We recently chatted with the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Award nominees for chef to find out where they get their inspiration, why they think Austin is a food mecca, and who they would invite over for dinner.

The 2013 Tastemaker Awards event takes place Thursday, April 11 at The Driskill. Tickets are available now.

Top from left: Shawn Cirkiel, Tyson Cole, Josh Watkins.
Bottom from left: Todd Duplechan, Bryce Gilmore.

Tyson Cole
Uchi
, Uchiko

Some would go so far as to say that 42-year-old Tyson Cole single-handedly changed the dining scene in Austin. 10 years ago he opened a refurbished cottage on South Lamar, named it Uchi, and began impressing guests with his avant-garde Japanese food.

The Florida native, who grew up eating his fair share of Swanson dinners, has been full-throttle ever since: In 2005 he was named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs; in 2008 he battled his idol Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America (Cole lost), and in 2011 he received a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest.

Cole opened Uchiko, Uchi’s sister restaurant, and Uchi Houston to standing-room-only crowds and has plans in the works for an Uchi outpost in Dallas and a fast-casual Asian spot in the Capital City. His most telling gift to Austin and the culinary industry, though, may well be his innate ability to foster new talent.

What is your favorite aspect of your job? Why?

I would think that the favorite aspect of my job would be the people. When I say that I mean the guests and the staff. I live for hospitality, and I’ve come to learn how important it is on both sides of the coin.

How and why has Austin become a food mecca?

I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’d like to think that when we opened Uchi, 10 years ago, it wasn’t that. Austin has really matured and grown and become this somewhat cosmopolitan city over the past decade. I think a lot of it has to do with the demographic, the people who are moving here from all over the country, and the people who are in tune with food and social media. Austin was on the map before, but now through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, suddenly everybody knows about everything that is going on here.

How has your approach to cooking changed in the past year?

I don’t think my approach has changed that much. We have three restaurants now, and we are insanely driven to be consistent and to test everything. We strive hard to realize all the talent we have. I think you grow as a team and as a core group as a culture within your restaurants. So my cooking has changed from the influences I have from the people who I work with. Our food is based on creativity, but true creativity comes from structure and organization. I’m at the front end as far as giving direction and pushing people to try new things. But I’m also on the back end tasting everything, refining it. I’m doing more of a director-producer type role with the food instead of being on the line and actually cooking it.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

From all over. Back in the day it was from books, and that grew into the Internet, menus, and looking at what other restaurants are doing nationwide if not globally. You start to see what people are putting out there and you try new things. Half of our menu changes every day, but there are dishes that we work on for two weeks at a time. We get the staff that cooks in our kitchens to come up with dishes. That is sort of the inspiration — through the people. I tasted 23 dishes over the past two days. It gets everybody involved.

You invite three chefs over for dinner at your home. Who would be at your table and what would you be serving?

First and foremost, definitely José Andrés. He’s my hero. I think he’s probably the best chef in the world not just for his creativity and his food, but because he’s just so pragmatic. Secondly, Thomas Keller. Just out of pure respect. Thomas Keller pretty much changed the playing field for all chefs. And the last guy would probably be Gordon Ramsay. I don’t know if there has ever been a chef as talented as Gordon Ramsey. He’s not just a guy who does this amazingly refined food but career-wise, what he’s done for food is amazing. I would definitely serve something Japanese because that is what I do. I think to have a sense of a communal-type meal, I would have some sort of hot pot. It would be something like shabu-shabu. I think that would be cool.

Shawn Cirkiel
Parkside
, The Backspace, Olive & June

Five years ago Shawn Cirkiel opened Parkside, the city’s first gastro pub. He’d already garnered a following after taking the reigns at the beloved Jean-Luc’s Bistro, but with his own restaurant, he began to push the culinary boundaries even more.

His initial success led to Backspace, a popular Neapolitan-style pizzeria, and Olive & June, a twist on family-style Southern Italian dining. The Austin native has always felt a sense of stewardship, and he’s made his mark on the community as the founding chef of the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers' Market and other service projects.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

I think it is being a part of so many people’s lives in so many different ways, from the farmers and ranchers to the guests and employees. I think it is a fun and unique way to have an opportunity to impact people’s lives.

How and why has Austin become a food mecca?

I think part of the reason is because of all of the people who paved the way before it. I think that the timing in Austin to really explode as an international city happened because of things like SXSW and the Sustainable Food Center. Quite bluntly, the city became more educated, and the people moving here expected a lot more. All these things created this incredibly dynamic food scene thanks to the farms and thanks to the guests.

How has your approach to cooking changed in the past year?

In my own experiences and where I’ve come from and how I think of food, it is being honest to what it is and treating things right — and so it is somewhat timeless. I’m like a little black dress.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

Inspiration comes in all different ways, and I think that is why it makes it so much fun. Whether it is getting a new shipment of strawberries that are just going nuts right now or eating at a restaurant and seeing somebody do something that makes me excited or looking at an old cookbook, or sometimes just literally sitting there and it magically pops in your head for no reason.

You invite three chefs over for dinner at your home. Who would be at your table and what would you be serving?

I would invite Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse. I think they single handedly had more to do with food in America than most people ever give them credit for. And then my mentor Robert Curry. I would serve whatever I found that day.

Like right now, I would make homemade pasta filled with goat’s milk ricotta with green garlic and roasted strawberries and pecorino-and-onion cheese and a poached egg dish, because eggs are so good right now, wedged on spring morels and a little bit of butter lettuce, a cheese herb, and butter croutons. I would do a spring soup because I love soups like carrot and cardomom with a little bit of yogurt and crusty mustard seed. I would be inspired by the market.

Bryce Gilmore
Barley Swine

Austin native Bryce Gilmore’s claim to fame could be winning a Food & Wine 2011 Best Chef Award, opening a wildly successful brick and mortar spot after closing shop on his popular Odd Duck trailer, or being nominated as a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest. Or possibly the time he served chicken testicles to renegade restaurateur Tony Bourdain.

It is Gilmore’s no fear, no-holding-back attitude paired with his passion for utilizing local ingredients that has garnered him such a coveted reputation around town and nationally. The 30-year-old has plans to reincarnate his Odd Duck venture (although the new version will occupy a spot at Gibson Flats, a mixed-use residential development on South Lamar), while holding steady at Barley Swine, where additional seating has been added to help with crowd control. A graduate of the California Culinary School, Gilmore continues to impress with his creativity and vision. 

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

Cooking is a huge creative outlet for me, and Barley Swine was created to always evolve so I get to stretch the level of creativity every day. And when your co-workers are your friends, it makes things easy and fun. 

How and why has Austin become a food mecca?

I think Austin is a breeding ground for the entrepreneur, which is why so many people start businesses here, not just restaurants. The city and the people are open-minded, so it fuels new businesses, especially businesses doing something different. The food scene has really excelled in the past five years, and I hope it continues to bring young, eager chefs doing something different and exciting to this city. 

How has your approach to cooking changed in the past year?

I think a lot of people don’t realize how collaborative all the chefs are on dish development. There will be aspects of all of us in one dish. We just try to focus on evolving and not just changing. It’s important for us to propel forward with all aspects of the restaurant, food, beverage and service. 

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

So much of the inspiration comes from the farmers. They do all the work, we just try to not mess up what they’ve grown. The seasons and the farmers continuously drive our menu. It’s also good for creativity. We may be really into a new dish with green garlic, and it may not be available the following week so it’s back to the drawing board. 

You invite three chefs over for dinner at your home. Who would be at your table and what would you be serving?

Chris Kostow from Meadowood in Napa. He has no professional culinary training, and he’s received three Michelin Stars. Culinary school is great, but it won’t make or break you and he’s proof. April Bloomfield. I love her restaurants, and I respect everything she’s done in her career — plus her business partner is Jay-Z. My dad, because there’s no one I respect more than him.

Todd Duplechan
Lenoir

Todd Duplechan moved to Austin from New York with a plan — to open a restaurant with his wife. It didn’t quite work out as expected (the economy went sour), but the couple stayed true to their dream — and thank goodness they did. Lenoir opened its doors in 2012 and has seen a mad rush ever since.

Duplechan’s much publicized “hot-climate” food — a theory based on cooking only with foods that were meant to grow in a hot climate — has developed a following of devoted fans. For Duplechan and his wife, pastry chef Jessica Maher, Austin is about the land, the growers, the people and the community. And about family. Duplechan, a native of Dallas, got his first taste of the restaurant industry working at a family friend’s barbecue joint. Now, he’s the owner of a family restaurant — and life is good.  

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

For me, just making people happy. I get to be in the dining room for dinnertime, so giving people food that they enjoy and being a part of their little celebrations is very fun.

How and why has Austin become a food mecca?

For whatever reason, all these different forces have come together and people just want to be in Austin. I’ve worked in a lot of markets, and I’ve never seen growth anywhere close to what I’ve seen here in the past five years. Whenever we moved here, six years ago, the talked-about restaurants, besides Uchi, were completely different than what’s talked about now.

The restaurants that were talked about then, you don’t hear about. The chefs, for the most part, you don’t hear about any more. It’s this whole new crew of young people. You look at most of those guys, and I would say probably half of them, if not more, worked at Uchi. So, there’s a spark that was started here by Tyson [Cole], and maybe Philip [Speer], that has really rippled out. It is almost a revolution. And the cool thing is that not everybody is doing the same thing.

How has your approach to cooking changed in the past year?

I think that my approach to cooking has been kind of solidified over the past five years — and to what my specific style is. I call the food that I cook hot-weather food. It’s climate-based food. I started gearing my ideas and concepts around not only what’s growing here in Texas but also similar kinds of foods that have the same kind of climate, like north Africa and southern India.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

What it is like outside really affects what I would like to eat. The weather is something that I draw inspiration from. I look at what’s growing, what my farmers are doing. I look through a lot of books and basically get my juices flowing. I eat something or I do something or I read a book or see a butterfly — I mean, who knows where things come from.

You invite three chefs over for dinner at your home. Who would be at your table and what would you be serving?

I would probably have Juan Mari Arzak, a Spanish chef. He’s really an amazing chef and has done wonders for Spanish food. I would probably have Dan Kluger because he’s a buddy of mine and he’s also a generally good person. I would have Jesse Griffiths, who is here in Austin. I like hanging out with people who are fun. I would probably do something with fish. Probably some shrimp and ceviche. Easy stuff that we can drink some Champagne with and enjoy ourselves.

Josh Watkins
Carillon

Whether he’s cooking at Kitchen Stadium against Bobby Flay, at the James Beard House with David Bull or at home at the Carillon, Josh Watkins delivers. And with a bang. The recent winner of the third annual Tops in Texas Cookoff, Watkins once again has wielded his culinary prowess. It has been a long journey since the days of playing with flour and water as a child, but his diligence has paid off.

Watkins attended the California Culinary Academy, where he developed an interest in fresh ingredients, farm-to-table products and sustainable goods. While living in the San Francisco area, he trained with über-chef Reed Hearon before landing a job at the highly-regarded French Room at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. Watkins brought that passion to Austin, where he worked at the Driskill Grill before landing his gig at the Carillon.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

The ability to create, from building flavors to constructing a finished dish. The entire process from start to finish is extremely rewarding.

How and why has Austin become a food mecca?

Austin has the ability to be unique and continuously re-create itself with the diverse culture here. Great diversity in every regard is what drives truly great food sites. Austin simply cultures innovation very well.

How has your approach to cooking changed in the past year?

If it’s not always evolving, then you need to look at your current practices. Mine has become a lot less “over” calculated — we just source the best possible ingredients and straight-up cook.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

Everywhere — colors, shapes, my family, books, chefs, traveling. It’s never one thing, and that’s what makes the journey so much fun. Every plate has a part of my own experiences in them.

You invite three chefs over for dinner at your home. Who would be at your table and what would you be serving?

Wow, this is tough. You really get to know people through the messy and awesome process of cracking whole shellfish like blue crabs or dungeons around a table with a few beers. My three would be Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller and Paul Bocuse.

The 2013 Tastemaker Awards event takes place Thursday, April 11 at The Driskill. Tickets are available now.

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