Since opening in June, Bridget Dunlap's first restaurant project, Mettle, has been on a mission to expand East Austin cuisine. With former Olivia chef Andrew Francisco and Finney Walter at the helm, this industrial bistro has garnered quite a bit of attention — both good and bad — from local diners and critics.
The two chefs spoke with CultureMap about working together again, building menus and that mediocre review from the Austin Chronicle.
CultureMap: You two previously worked together at Vespaio and Olivia. What made you want to work together again?
"Drawing a line between the pastry and savory teams is never an effective way to run a kitchen," says Finney Walter.
Andrew Francisco: We worked at Vespaio a long time ago, [before] Finney moved out to California. When he came back, we started working together at Olivia. That experience really made our relationship great.
He was hired on as a garde manger, but we started collaborating together, and I'd give him free rein to do what he wanted. The resulting work really blew my mind. When the opportunity for Mettle opened up, he was the first and only person I asked to be the pastry chef.
Finney Walter: As Andrew said, Olivia solidified our relationship. Having that creative freedom at Olivia established a trust between the two of us. So when he approached me for this job, there was no hesitation on my behalf.
CM: This was the first time both of you took something from an idea to actual bricks and mortar. How did you guys approach piecing together Mettle?
AF: There weren't any strict rules we had to stick to in creating Mettle. As far as collaborating, we had the theme to start with, and we wanted to stick with that price point but incorporate a broad theme of cuisine.
If I was making up a new recipe, I'd have him taste it to make sure it was thorough. We also didn't want a lot of overlap between our ingredients and flavors. For instance, Finney has a great coconut dessert, so I don't want to use coconut in any of my dishes.
We also do a bread service here, and it works out wonderfully, because Finney chooses the bread, and we use smoked butter, sea salt and dark chocolate. That was one of the dishes we worked on together.
CM: How do you plan the menu?
FW: Some of the more successful restaurants I've worked for have a very strong collaboration element between pastry and savory. Having a strong relationship in that respect is important. For instance, I don't want to have three sweet desserts, so I'll make sure to incorporate a savory element in there, and Andrew helps me with that.
It's a very organic process. I've seen restaurants where that is not the case, and it never works out well. Drawing a line between the pastry and savory teams is never an effective way to run a kitchen.
CM: What are some of the dishes that stand out to you on the Mettle menu?
FW: One of my favorites is the fried cheese dish, on both a plating level and its flavor profiles. This dish is helping us work toward fall, in terms of earthier flavors, but at the same time, it's very light, fresh and green in nature.
AF: The brioche ice cream is really fun. Finney makes an ice cream base with savory brioche. It's not too sweet, and it's got a buttery, vanilla flavor.
CM: There is a lot going on in East Austin. Now that you work in that area, what are some places you like to go when you're off the clock?
FW: To be honest, I'm just getting used to being on the east side again. I live in Central Austin, so on my commute back home, I like to go to Posse East. In the fall, I'm looking forward to exploring more options on the east side.
CM: Let's talk about the review in the Austin Chronicle. Most chefs don't pay too much attention to reviews in the beginning, but the critic suggested there was a lot of room for improvement. How do you handle early reviews?
AF: That one in particular was pretty soul crushing for me. It's necessary to have an opinion, but I approach work trying to improve every day. I didn't particularly like reading that review, but it reminded me how much I love what I do and how I need to improve Mettle to make our customers happy.
We're looking forward to seeing the next round of reviews, and it's just a part of this business. That's all I have to say about that.
FW: I echo that sentiment. It's hard because we work in a kitchen where you use imagination, creativity and technique, and the idea is to improve every single day. The most successful chef can still walk into any kitchen and get a mediocre review one evening. That's a key part of this business.
CM: Fall is coming. What are your plans for the change of season?
AF: We've been going through it all with new ingredients and flavors. We have this really great chocolate dessert with figs, dates and burnt sugar ice cream we're working on. We're right in the middle of planning right now, so it's really exciting.