Austin sous chefs: Stepping out from the shadows of the kitchen

Austin sous chefs: Stepping out from the shadows of the kitchen

The life of a sous is not for the faint of heart. These second-in-command chefs work 14-hour days, craft new menu specials, oversee the hectic operations of the kitchen and promptly report to the head chef each day. There isn’t much glitz and glamour, and a sous chef's work — though extensive — usually goes unnoticed by those beyond the kitchen. 

Sadly, it's not very often that you'll see a story about sous chefs. In fact, when a restaurant attains most any level of popularity or fame, it is usually the head chef – the figurehead of the whole establishment – who receives credit for the creative genius. Though they may insist they are only a minor piece of the puzzle, head chefs never seem to be able to change the way the media likes to tell the story. 

As Austin’s culinary scene evolves, I suspect we will continue to see more and more attention going towards the head chefs around town, but as most anyone would suspect, no restaurant is a one-man or one-woman show. It takes the work of a great many, including the sous chefs and chef de cuisines, to run a successful operation. 

After stumbling upon an interesting sous chef series by Tasting Table, I was inspired to take a rare glimpse into the lives of the sous chefs and chef de cuisines around Austin in order to tell their stories and find out why it is they ventured into cuisine in the first place.

After speaking with five talented chefs, I must say that I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them branching out and opening their own successful restaurants in the coming years. 

Tanya Herrin, Sous Chef at Trento

When Tanya Herrin decided to become a chef, she first saw the decision as a sensible alternative to the artist profession she originally desired to pursue. “I thought it would be a more viable way of supporting myself, as opposed to something like painting," she says. "But the more I got into cooking, the more I realized it was the most creative art form out there. You could literally experience a sensation from making and tasting your own food."

Herrin started out in the fast-food market, but quickly transitioned to fine-dining restaurants in her early twenties. Culinary school seemed like a viable means of training to the chefs around her, but Herrin felt that the best way to educate herself was to hit the pavement full speed ahead and learn along the way. Over twenty years later, the chef emphasizes that she is still very much a student. “I’m always learning something new,” she says. “I won’t consider myself a real chef until I’ve mastered everything like butchering, bread making, and the rest of it it. I've got a ways to go.”

Herrin worked at restaurants around the nation in food-centric cities like New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco, but it wasn’t until she made her way to Austin that Herrin realized she had found both a home and a culinary playground in the city. “The culinary scene has been growing ever since I moved here,” she says. “I worked at Vespaio when they first opened, and to watch them grow into an institution has been incredible. The chefs in this town are very down-to-earth, easy to work with, and are always sharing their knowledge with you. You don’t find that in many cities.”

The delicious cuisine she works to create alongside Trento chefs Alex Kahn – formerly of Congress and Roaring Fork – and Andreas Exarhos – formerly of Congress – is locally sourced and full of bold Italian flavors. “They are the most ethical hard-working chefs I know,” she says. “I’ve seen Austin chefs who will put bacon grease in a vegetarian dish, and that’s just not how these guys operate. They are serious that everyone in the kitchen understands what kind of food we are making.”

Though she greatly loves her position at Trento, Herrin envisions owning a restaurant of her own one day. “I’d like to own a restaurant that sources local cuisine and farm-to-table food, almost like what Sonya Coté is doing,” she says. “I need a few years as an executive chef under my belt before I do something like that.”

Tim Dornon, Chef de Cuisine at Uchiko

It’s hard to believe that the talented chef de cuisine at Uchiko first got his start at a Temple, Texas, Olive Garden, but it’s true. “A friend hooked me up with the job,” Dornon says. “It was actually when the restaurant made their own food."

A career in corporate cuisine didn’t quite suit Dornon, however, so the chef decided to take a job at the more refined Z’Tejas kitchen alongside Jack Gilmore – currently the chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen. “That was a huge eye-opener to the life I was about to lead,” Dornon says. “It was a very fast-paced kitchen from lunch until dinner, and you didn’t have much time in between the two. You were literally moving a hundred miles per hour from the moment you came in until the moment you left.”

The restaurant kitchen was brutal, but each day Dornon left the job, he felt more invigorated by the creative work and delicious cuisine he was delivering. “Those moments really carry over and get you through the hard days,” he says. Following positions at Mezzaluna and Truluck’s, Dornon packed up his bags and headed to Chicago and later New York to work at world-famous restaurants like Daniel and Corton. “I was sent to those restaurants to become a better chef and get my butt kicked,” Dornon says. “[And,] if you want to get your butt kicked, those are the places to do it. It was a war zone, but I really enjoyed it.”

After eight years away from home, Dornon started to think about returning to Texas, but he was unsure if he would find a restaurant of the caliber he was engineered to work for. Then, he found about a little place called Uchiko. “Phil [Speer] was asking me to see what they were doing down here at Uchiko, so they flew me down to check it out. I was stunned at the quality of ingredients they were working with,” Dornon says. “When I left Texas [years before], we weren't getting the products and ingredients that we're getting now. When I saw what they were doing at Uchiko, I figured it was the right place to come back for."

For the past few months, Dornon has immersed himself in the Uchiko kitchen and driven the vision that chefs Paul Qui, Tyson Cole and Philip Speer have for the Uchi/Uchiko establishment. “We have a strong pride for what we’re doing here,” he says. “It’s a constant creative process that pushes us to a level we couldn’t imagine reaching. It’s been a great feeling to be a part of this.” In the future, Dornon imagines owning his own restaurant, but for now he’s all about living in the moment at Uchiko, and can you really blame him for it?

Andrew Francisco, Chef de Cuisine at Olivia 

During his six-and-half years of living in Malaysia, Andrew Francisco developed an affinity for eccentric, adventurous cuisine. The young Francisco was blown away by the mix of Indian, Thai and Chinese flavors that encompassed his exotic meals. After returning to the U.S. and debating various potential career paths, Francisco acknowledged he wasn’t one-hundred percent sure of what he was meant to be, but his deep love for cuisine made him go with his gut: He was going to become a chef. 

“It was this whole world of cuisine and new flavors that fell in love with it,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to cook and create that for someone else. I remember writing down that I wanted to be a chef, even though at the time I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.” Francisco pursued a culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America and later went to work for Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant The French Laundry. He made the rounds in the fine-dining circuit, eventually making his way to various Austin restaurants like Asti, Vespaio, Perla’s and Lamberts. His impressive work at Vespaio alongside Dai Due’s Jesse Griffiths was the job that helped him gain his position at Oliva as the chef de cuisine. 

“James [Holmes, owner and executive chef of Olivia,] called me up and said that he was looking to hire somebody, and that Jesse [Griffiths] had referred me,” he says. “We just hit it off. James and I both have a respect for local ingredients, and I like that the menu at Olivia is very undefined and has a lot of creative freedom.”

Francisco says that he would like to have his own restaurant ideally in two years, but is putting no pressure on himself to stick to that deadline. “I’m not too worried about the appropriate age or time I should do something like that,” he says. “I’m very patient and I’ve got no complaints about working here. This restaurant has given me a lot of creative freedom, and I’m happy with that.”

Justin Rupp, Chef de Cuisine at olive & june 

When he started out at Indiana University as a history major, Justin Rupp had an intuition that a four-year college just wasn’t the right path for him. Yet when he escaped to the restaurant kitchen – where he worked to pay his college tuition – something just seemed right. “I was working at a restaurant as a dishwasher and they made me a cook,” Rupp says. “I felt like I was most useful in the kitchen.”

Rupp eventually decided to make his part-time job more than just a means of getting him through school. Rupp relocated to Austin to work the culinary circuit and hasn’t stopped since. “I moved down here because my friends were here and it seemed like a fun town, but when I got to Austin I started looking at cooking as more of a serious career,” he says. 

Rupp worked for Magnolia Cafe for a year and then moved on to a few other Austin restaurants, but it wasn’t until he came to work at Parkside five years ago, however, that the chips truly started to fall into place. “I worked at Parkside and when Shawn [Cirkiel] decided to do olive & june, he asked if I would come over to help out here,” Rupp says. “It’s been great so far, and I’m working to improve and better myself, but I think we’re doing a good job here.”

In the midst of all his menu planning, food ordering and schedule writing, it’s hard for Rupp to escape and try all the new restaurants in town, but he admits that he has certainly seen some significant progress and growth in the Austin culinary scene since he first arrived. “There are definitely a lot more restaurants," he says. "When I first came here there was really bad service everywhere, but I think that people are starting to look at improving across the map."

Bill McGrory, Chef de Cuisine at Bar Mirabeau  

I went on a limb by putting Bill McGrory on my list, and here’s why: He hasn’t even begun his position as the chef de cuisine at Bar Mirabeau. However, if you’re going to be working alongside a chef like Parind Vora at his highly anticipated recreation of Restaurant Jezebel, you probably deserve a hearty serving of recognition. 

In the beginning, the fine-dining track wasn’t what McGrory had envisioned for his chef career. In fact, Bar Mirabeau’s chef de cuisine started out in the Coast Guard as a cook. As part of his quick culinary training, McGrory was sent away to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York to study a brief course. Destiny took the reigns from there. During his time at the institute, McGrory met his wife – who is also a chef – and two mutually decided to stay in New York and work the tough-as-nails restaurant scene.

McGrory got his foot in the door at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill while his wife worked as a pastry chef at Tom Colicchio’s famed Gramercy Tavern. “They weren’t television celebrities then,” he says. “They were celebrities to everybody that worked in the food world, [however]. It was great experience to work around them.”

After relocating from Chicago to Austin five years ago, McGrory started working at the short-lived Taste Select Wines and Taverna, which closed in 2009. McGrory says he greatly admired the ultra-upscale direction Taste Select Wines and Taverna was attempting to take, but believes the restaurant was too ahead of its time. “I think it will be a few more years before Austin is ready for something like that,” he admits. 

McGrory owned and operated the food truck Squeelers on the East Side for a while until recently answering a Craiglist posting that was looking for help at Parind Vora’s new restaurant. “I met with Parind and we clicked,” he says. “ I told him how jealous I was of all the free press he got with PETA and that a lot of chefs in Austin were doing what he was doing, but he was just getting all the press and credit for it.”

The chef will be handling the day-to-day operations at Bar Mirabeau while Vora runs Restaurant Jezebel, but the two are working closely together. The Bar Mirabeau chef de cuisine is currently developing the menu and promises delicious house-made American cuisine with a number of exotic culinary influences. “I’m excited to have people come in and try what we’re putting together,” McGrory says.