Editor's note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big-name chefs grow to demi-god celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unrecognized. Next in Line celebrates back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Kenzie Allen
Position: Executive Chef
Hometown: Mission, Texas
When did you first start cooking? When I was really little, I would cook with my mom. She bought me this little red stool so I would stand on it because I couldn’t reach, and she’d buy me my own cookbooks and stuff. So I definitely grew up around food. I'm half Hispanic so I had one grandma who would make fresh tortillas and menudo and the other would make awesome biscuits and gravy and stuff like that, so I kind of had the best of both worlds. I was really into making this one coffee cake. That was my thing.
Where was your first service industry job? The Driskill
Wow, straight to the top! Yeah, I just kind of barged my way in, you could say. I didn’t have any experience because I went to school for fashion merchandising at University of North Texas, so it was kind of hard to pick my resume out of a bunch of other ones in an HR department. And my parents always told me to be persistent, so I just somehow got the number of the banquet chef and called him every day, several times a day, and left messages until he called me back. When he did finally call me back, he scheduled an appointment the next day and I just drove the six hours from Mission.
What did you start off doing there? I was in the banquet kitchen, bowling up fruit, making deli meat platters, learning all that stuff. The guys that worked there at the time were really smart. That original crew was really talented and they were hard on me because they didn’t know if I was going to be a fussy little girl and a waste of their time. So they would throw their old culinary school cookbooks at me and say, “Read this; we’re going to ask you about it.” Between working there and reading about it, I just figured it out so I didn’t look stupid. You live or die back there, so you really have to know what you’re doing or figure it out quickly!
Where did you work after the Driskill? From the Driskill, I worked at Asti in the mornings and then at night I worked at this wine bar called Taste on Cesar Chavez. It was just a two person kitchen so you kinda did it all. I got to mess with fois [gras] a lot, which was fun. Then at Asti, it was lunchtime Italian. I thought I knew enough about Italian until I worked there. Emmett and Lisa [Fox] are really big on knowing the fundamentals of real, authentic food, so it was definitely a really good learning experience. Then I stopped working at Taste and I started working at Asti full time, all day.
Johnny Bates was the chef there at the time and he’d hired me as a prep cook because that’s all he had, but I told him I wouldn’t stay as a prep cook because I’d left the Driskill as a sous chef. I told him I would stay there as prep if he could give me the grill position within three months, which he did. And then I worked my way up to executive chef in four and a half years. I’m pretty loyal. I stay at places for a while and I get what I can out of it. That’s just how I am ... and I make really good pasta now!
How did you end up at Searsucker? Brian [Malarkey, Searsucker’s corporate executive chef] actually called me out of nowhere. I was already trying to transition because I’d been at Asti for a long time. I put feelers out and then Brian got my number from another restaurant person around town and he just randomly called me one day. He was really energetic and wanted to meet me and the rest is history. He was pretty persistent and it’s hard to say no to Brian. I started as a sous and, a few months later, they promoted me to executive sous chef, which was really unexpected. And now, as of a couple months ago, executive chef!
What chefs are your biggest inspiration? I don’t really have one person in particular. I do remember reading a book a long time ago about Marco Pierre White and thinking I wish I could work somewhere with them. And it sounds so cliché to say I admire my mom, but I do. She’s the one that taught me a lot of things. And then, at the Driskill, there were a lot of really talented guys there at the time and I thank them because, if they hadn’t been so hard on me, I wouldn’t have developed such a strong work ethic for kitchens, you know? I’m tough and I don’t deal with bullshit. My fiancé [Jason Donoho] also. He’s worked at a lot of really awesome restaurants. He worked at The French Laundry for a while and he’s really smart, so we definitely bounce off each other.
What do you love most about cooking? It’s comforting. There’s something about being in a kitchen — being alone even — and just having your space and cooking whatever you want. It’s really cool to think of things, put them together and see it actually work and people love it. They want to buy it and they want to come here for it! It’s really cool to be able to do that because not everybody can do that. You can’t really teach people how to cook. You can teach them how to, but you can’t, you know? You either have it or you don’t.
What’s your favorite music to listen to in the kitchen? That depends on my mood. I’ll go with my teeny bopper pop sometimes. I still listen to old-school Britney Spears and ‘NSync — the guys back there will deal with it. They actually like it and they admit it! But I listen to rock also. I go through my Sinatra phases. It’s all over the place really. Anything but country.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? Hang out with Jason. We have the cutest little French bulldog puppy. He’s so cute! I read a lot of cookbooks. We also like to go out to restaurants all over town. And whenever we have the chance to away, we plan it around food. He took me to Alinea for my birthday a couple years ago and planned a whole trip around it. So that’s what we like-- eating everything.
What is your favorite food to eat when not working? I love hamburgers. I am so obsessed with hamburgers. I really just love a simple burger with American cheese or Easy Melt. 'Cause it’s just so good! And you know what? I love Whataburger. P. Terry’s is good too but I have to get the doubles, because they’re way too small for somebody like me! If I’m going to cook at home, I love making homemade pasta and gnocchi. I can thank Asti for that. And I traveled to Italy for a little over a month with a friend during the time I worked there.
What are some of your favorite new creations? One of the biggest things that people have liked is that I’ve changed the beet salad and put fresh horseradish on it. The beets are so pretty. The majority of the time we get them from Johnson’s Backyard Farm. I make a horseradish yogurt as a sauce on the plate, then there are golden and Chioggia beets, watermelon radishes, and amaranth leaves tossed in a horseradish vinaigrette, sprinkled with espalette and pepitas.
And we just added an Akaushi strip steak to the menu. The meat is literally from down the road on East Sixth Street — that’s where the cows are. It’s served over warm bone marrow potato salad and topped with bone marrow butter. It's pretty ridiculous.