Austin Chefs at SXSW

Austin's top chefs dish on the do-it-yourself culinary movement

Austin's top chefs dish on the do-it-yourself culinary movement

Indie Chefs Week Foreign and Domestic Ned Elliott
Foreign and Domestic's chef/owner Ned Elliot spoke on the SXSW panel.  Photo by Jeff Scott

A large crowd of food enthusiasts braved the rain and cold wind Saturday to huddle under the tent at The Blackheart and hear Austin chefs Ned Elliott of Foreign and Domestic, Paul Qui of Qui and East Side King, and Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki (of soon-to-open Launderette and Angry Bear) banter about the do-it-yourself culinary movement. The SXSW Interactive panel, moderated by Eater Austin Editor Megan McCarron, guided the chefs through a discussion of the advantages and pitfalls of being an independent chef/owner rather than part of a large restaurant group.

"DIY means freedoms and learning your boundaries," said Qui. "Even the freedom to fail. I don't get to just cook anymore. I had to learn about plumbing and permitting." 

Sawicki agreed that when she and Ortiz decided to strike out on their own that they had to stretch beyond their culinary talents. "We know everything about the culinary aspect, so the DIY for us was learning the other parts of the business at our pace, on our terms. That's the exciting part for us." Ortiz chimed in with a grin, "Except for the fundraising. And, I will be accepting checks today."

Elliott echoed the surprise of learning all that was involved in being a chef/owner. "When you step out from behind the kitchen, you are like, 'Wait, a chair is $175? Forget it, we're not doing 80 seats.' It became clear for me that my restaurant feel would be minimal and bare-bones so that it could be all about the food."
These chefs take preparing their cooks for that future very seriously, giving them opportunities to get out of the kitchen, and in front of customers. "I make all the cooks learn more than the food," said Qui. "They learn wine service and front-of-house experiences. You have to know the rest of the business, not just as a sous or chef de cuisine."
Sawicki agreed. "We're here to teach our teams first and foremost — teach them how to cook and how to be strong individuals as chefs. Once you become the restaurateur you have to be part of the experience. I don't get to hide in the back anymore."
McCarron asked the panel to describe the pitfalls of the new trend to make everything in house. "If we are going to make it in house, it has to be better than what we can buy," said Ortiz. "Restaurants can make bacalao (salted cod) in house, but I'd rather buy it from someone who has the quality and tradition behind it." 

"Or commit to it, which is an investment financially and in time," Qui countered. "We have four or five vinegars we are making in the restaurant, but they aren't good enough yet, so we use them for family meal and learn from them. We'll get them where we want them to be, but for now we eat them."

While there are challenges, all the panelists agreed that the benefits of being a chef/owner outweigh the hardships. "In the end, I want a place where I can go cook my food, my way, six days a week," said Elliott. "It's hard, but it's worth it."