Next in Line
Next in Line: Erica Waksmunski on swapping fine dining for Southern comfort
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 unspoken. Next in Line is a column celebrating back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Erica Waksmunski
Kitchen: Waksmunski was the pastry chef at Congress for more than two years. She recently opening her own food trailer, Red Star Southern.
Hometown: I was born in New Orleans but I grew up just outside of Virginia Beach, really close to the North Carolina border.
Position: Owner, operator, cook, everything. The people in the photo [on the website] are actual sommeliers and CDCs of other restaurants. I was trying to be funny and make it seem like a really nice group photo. Like in the Alinea book, there’s a page where Grant [Achatz] is just standing, arms folded, with the rest of his staff going crazy behind him.
First kitchen job: McDonald’s. I was 15 and I had to get a waiver signed so I could work there. I got kicked out of high school and my mom was like, “If you’re not going to school 40 hours a week, you have to get a full time job.” So I worked the fry station at McDonald’s for like two years! And then it was all diners and stuff after that.
Are you completely self taught? I was eventually let back into high school and got all caught up. I even graduated on time. Then I was living in Nashville, Tennessee and I was a bartender at one of the honky-tonks … I had this big party at my house and I catered the whole thing and I was like, “I should just take this cooking thing more seriously.” It’s what I always planned on doing. So I enrolled myself in Johnson & Wales pastry program [in Charlotte, North Carolina] and moved three months later.
So it sounds like you’ve worn many hats in the restaurant world. Oh yeah, I’ve pretty much done everything. Host, server, bartender, lots of back of house obviously. I started kind of savory, but it was just at diners, as a short order cook. But it was always at places where we actually did make everything in house.
What made you enroll in the pastry program? I don’t know — I just liked it! Who doesn’t like candy? I get to make it for a living. That’s not even a job I don’t think. I work with chocolate — that’s not work! It’s chocolate!
What happened between culinary school and becoming the pastry chef at Congress? Oh, it was quite a while before I got to Congress. I went immediately to Everest in Chicago, and that was the first Michelin-starred restaurant I worked at, first as an intern but I worked my way up to pastry sous. Then I moved back to Nashville and that’s where I got my first actual pastry chef position at Flyte. From there, about a year-and-a-half in, I started making trips out to California to stage at Michelin places. It was really intriguing and I wanted to learn more.
Then one time, I got back out to Nashville and I got a call from one of my stages. Their pastry chef was leaving, so he hired me and they moved me out there. So then I was in San Francisco for a while, earned my first Michelin star at Chez TJ. I think it was my second year of being out there when I visited a friend here in town and I was hanging out with some of the guys from Parkside. They told me Congress needed a pastry chef and I decided to send in a resume just for fun … and David Bull and I were on the phone interviewing within days. They flew me out here — I felt like a rock star! — and then I did a tasting and staged for them and, by the end of the weekend, I was hired.
What inspired you to leave fine dining to open a trailer? I just didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. I mean, this seemed cool and Austin has this food trailer thing. I mean, it’s not cheap by any means but it’s certainly less expensive than getting some brick-and-mortar going. And, I don’t know, I just felt really accomplished in what I had done and I was like, “This this was something new. I don’t know anything about it! I’m going to see if I can do it!” And I did it.
How has the transition been, from restaurant to trailer life? I’ve been trying to tell my cook friends that it’s different in there, man. There’s no running water. You only get so much water a day. And then I haul it by hand in my rolling grey tank. Dude, that thing takes three of us sometimes to get it into my car! I literally haul 30 gallons of water and fryer oil by myself, day in and day out … I feel like a bigger fucking badass than I ever have in my life, working in this shit!
What chefs are your biggest inspiration? I’ve definitely taken things from anyone I’ve ever worked with — not just chefs. Cooks, dishwashers — it’s everyone! I’ve definitely been inspired by bigger names like Daniel Patterson and David Kinch, but I’m more inspired by the motherucker next to me who’s in the fucking foxhole, digging trenches, trying to get service out, going down in flames! I think I’m more inspired by that guy.
What do you love about cooking? It’s fucking fun! It’s like being in a little mini battle zone. You never know what the fuck is going to happen around you. There might be a fire, someone could get stabbed, ya know? (laughs) It’s just fun … and I love what I do, so that makes it easy.
Favorite music to listen to while working: A lot of Southern rock, a lot of Hall and Oates!
Favorite thing to do when you’re not working: I don’t know much about that right now. But I like to go toobin’ down the river. I like to obviously relax and I love getting food handed to me. Last night, I went and got ramen after I ate at Bufalina … I like to go out and eat a lot.
Favorite thing on your menu right now: The pulled pork. Everyone comes for the chicken, but man that pork is somethin’ special!
Would you say your menu is inspired by growing up in the South? It’s more so places I lived all during my 20s. It’s basically a collection of my favorite things that were indigenous to places that I’ve lived. I’ve lived in North Carolina for a while and that style of barbecue is my absolute favorite. I lived in Nashville a few times and loved the hot chicken. I grew up with pimiento cheese and white bread and greens and macaroni.
You’re the first trailer in town to offer a chef’s table tasting. Tell us about that. Well, it did start off as a joke but people have been so interested in it … so if you want to pay me $85 to sit at the picnic table ... literally be my guest! I will absolutely serve you all eight courses off the menu.