Editor's Note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve seen certain big-name chefs achieve demigod celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unrecognized. "Next in Line" is a column celebrating the back-of-the-house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Finney Walter
Position: Executive Pastry Chef
Hometown: I was born and raised in Lubbock by New England parents that moved there. So I spent a lot of time in New England and Europe growing up. When they moved from Spanish Harlem to Lubbock, my father was working quite a bit — he’s a doctor — so my mother decided that the kids were going to travel in the summer if we’re going to live in the middle of West Texas.
When did you first start cooking?
If you count making breakfast for the family and stuff like that, 4 or 5 years old. But, professionally, I’d say right about 18 or 19. I didn’t go to culinary school — I went to a four-year liberal arts school.
I went to college in Maine, then spent some time in Mendocino, [Calif.]. I got a degree in history and then didn’t want to be a lawyer or a professor. I’ve always enjoyed working both with my hands and my mind so that, in many ways, it's what drew me to cooking.
What was your first cooking job?
My very first cooking job was at Ray’s Steakhouse, which is no longer here, as the pantry cook. It was off of Guadalupe right by 29th [Street].
What other places have you cooked?
[When] I started cooking, you know, trying to learn how to manage a line and things like that, I spent some time in New Orleans. I met my first real fine dining chef [Matthew Secich], and I moved to upstate New York to work for him. That opened my eyes a lot. He started originally in pastry, and that’s where I first started working pastry. That would’ve been in about 2003.
"[In the kitchen] it’s not about looks, it’s not about who your parents are. It’s about what can you physically do, what can you mentally do, what your strengths are." — Pastry Chef Finney Walter
From there, I went to San Francisco, pursuing pastry, staged at some places and worked at a restaurant called Aqua. Back in the day, it was where Michael Mina made his name originally. Then I bounced back to Austin, which has always kinda been my place to regroup.
I worked at two bistros there and, after living in a city like that, I basically decided I wanted to go back and work at a multi-Michelin-starred restaurant for years just for the day in, day out [experience]. I spent some time in Mendocino, but then I moved to Napa and worked [as a chef de partie and an assistant pastry chef] at The Restaurant at Meadowood, which, when I was working there, went from two Michelin stars to three.
When did your progression from savory to pastry occur?
In San Francisco, I did pastry only. When I moved back and worked briefly at Vespaio, I helped with the pasta program, but I was really going for pastry. Sometimes, when you’re in the pastry kitchen, you often end up in savory roles. Driskill was back when David Bull and Josh Watkins were there, and I could really learn that 360 degrees of pastry — making wedding cakes, building cakes for banquets, fine dining, 1886 bakery desserts, breads, all of that. At Meadowood, I was the assistant pastry chef and the chef de partie as well, so I worked the savory side but primarily focused on pastry.
What chefs were your biggest inspiration?
I would say the chef that really opened my eyes to that different side of fine dining would’ve been Matthew Secich, who was my first chef. Behind that, for showing me what it really takes to get to very high levels, would be Christopher Kostow, the Chef at Meadowood, and, in the pastry department, the standards of my friend Matt Tinder (the pastry chef). Those three all in very different ways.
Have your various travels influenced you?
Absolutely. When I was in upstate New York and working seven days a week, 14- to 18-hour days with no dishwasher, [I was] learning that regimen of "nobody’s too good to do anything." In San Francisco, just being surrounded with such competition and so many liked-minded people who were there to learn or improve or just see what was going on.
Paris influenced me a whole lot as well. There I finally got to see where you can work from 9 in the morning until midnight five or six days a week, but there it’s a flow of life. I feel like often — in the U.S. — it’s more like work, then play. It’s black and white. And there it’s part of your life, not “I have my life and I have my work.”
What do you love about pastry?
For me, I’ve always liked to work with my hands, but to really build things — in particular, very small things. With pastry, that’s really what I’ve always enjoyed — being able to create. If you understand the techniques behind it, you can really make whatever flavor you want or, visually, whatever aesthetic you want. For me, that’s the big thing with pastry. It’s different from perfectly cooking a piece of meat or something like that.
What are your favorite things about working in a kitchen?
When I first started, one of the main things that really, really appealed to me was the idea of meritocracy, where it’s not about looks, it’s not about who your parents are. It’s about what can you physically do, what can you mentally do, what your strengths are. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you are, just what can you do and what you are willing to do.
What are your least favorite things about working in a kitchen?
[When you're] younger, you really kind of like that idea of mastering the chaos. Anything, literally, can happen on a busy night, and it’s this idea of almost being able to contain it, almost controlling it.
I guess as I’ve gotten older, that adrenaline rush doesn’t necessarily drive me now. I want things to be as close to perfect as they can, and that can be a frustrating thing with pastry. If something was messed up three days ago, you find out now — and now is too late. And that can be the great thing about pastry — being set and being ready — but it can also be really bad and really nerve-racking.
What’s your favorite music to listen to in the kitchen?
I’m a West Texas kid, so I listen to a lot of Texas music. I would say the three favorites would be Los Lobos, Terry Allen and Gang Starr.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’ve been recently making an active effort to make dinner at home with friends — getting it together where people’s schedules work, then tasting wine, listening to music. I’m really at a low-key point in my life, just trying to focus on work and not necessarily being out as much as I was in different stages. And always, for at least one to three meals a week, try to go other places and see what other people are doing, whether it’s dessert or savory.
What’s your favorite food to eat when not working?
In recent memory, one of the nicest dishes I’ve had was a dish at Foreign & Domestic. For me, it really captured the season. It was a goat dish — stewed shoulder, little bit of sweetness — but just really comforting.
Arden, my girlfriend, has been making some stuff lately, and her chicken tortilla soup is really good. I spent a lot of time in New Mexico, too, growing up, so in particular chicken tortilla soup reminds me of this time of year and home.
Favorite dish on the menu at Mettle?
Right now, on the savory side, they just added a shrimp dish with a black salsa, and I think all the flavors are really nice together. As for desserts, I really like the pumpkin dish that’s on the menu. It’s seasonal, and I think it is a little different from just pumpkin pie. It’s roasted white chocolate pumpkin ganache, white sabayon with anise seeds, muscovado speculoos [a Dutch cookie akin to a gingersnap], raw ginger ice cream and pumpkin seed oil. Kind of straightforward flavors, but altogether I think it shows what I’m trying to do with some of the desserts — rather than super cloyingly sweet, [creating dishes] that actually have some nuances.