As host of the food-centric podcast Flavors Unknown, Emmanuel Laroche knows his way around a tasty dish or two. He's interviewed brilliant pastry chefs, mixologists, bakers, and every other curator of ingredients and menus. At the recent StarChefs event in Austin, Texas, he sat down with local culinary artisans to discuss how the culinary scene is undergoing a remarkable transformation there. Sitting together to discuss ingredients, culture, and community, Chef Fiore Tedesco of L'Oca D'Oro, Chef Fermiin Nunez of Suerte and Este, Chef Philip Speer of Comedor, Chef Amanda Turner of Olamaie, and Bartender Erin Ashford of Holiday shared moments of laughter and sincerity as they recalled the past and present of Austin's dynamic culinary scene.
The Role of Local Ingredients in Culinary Innovation
The chefs highlighted the significant role that local ingredients play in shaping Austin's culinary scene. Chef Amanda discussed the importance of local beef and seafood. "Texas is a beef country, obviously. We have great Wagyu here. ... We also have great seafood that comes from the Gulf. Particularly, snapper is something that I think we should be very proud of because it's quite delicious." She also mentioned the unique and interesting options for produce in Austin, such as okra, gourds, prickly pears, and mesquite pods.
Chef Fiore also noted the creativity and inspiration she finds in what ingredients are naturally grown in Austin: "I made a dish that had a lot of meaning to me when I was just weeding in my garden with my daughter. I grow sage. We have a beauty berry bush next to it, and we have a pecan tree that grows right above it. I was just stuck with the visual and the smell of the pecan, the sage ... I made a rigatoni. I made a pecan butter. Then I pickled the beauty berries in a really winter spice clove and cinnamon aromatic that brings this really savory, pickled note to the beautyberry, and then dried the sage that became part of the sauce for that pasta." Chef Fiore added, "That is one of the most delicious dishes I've ever made, and one of the most inspired."
Embracing local ingredients and creating a culinary flavor profile unique to Austin has brought the chefs inspiration that melds the surrounding food culture with the tastes and personalities of the city's population. "We're trying to make something that's unique to the region where we are," Chef Fiore said. "Making a salsa with persimmon, making a salsa with fennel is something you might not necessarily find in Mexico. ... We experimented with making a ceviche with the heart of a sunflower. That was one of the most exciting dishes we've done at Suerte."
With this kind of individuality driving inspiration, the StarChefs Austin, Texas, panel made it clear that the city is rediscovery itself in terms of food.
Community Evolution in Austin's Culinary Scene
Not just flavor profiles are evolving in Austin's restaurant scene. The community within the industry is changing from a tight-knit group to one that's embracing hospitality workers who are new to Austin. As Chef Phillip noted, "Nobody was moving to Austin. Those bonds were formed... and they were tight. I can imagine that it was really hard to break into ... because we hadn't really experienced people coming into our community and wanting to be a part of it."
Chef Phillip's comments were in response to a story Chef Fiore shared about when she moved to Austin in 2012 with her family and had difficulty finding a way into the community. However, as more people flock to Austin, the community for those in the hospitality industry has opened up. "Fast-forward — today, yes, open arms, we love it," Chef Phillip said, "and it's really encouraged sparks and empowered the growth of the community on the culinary scene here."
Chef Fiore echoed these sentiments, and she discussed the outreach programs she's been able to help build. "My business partner and I started a nonprofit for employee welfare and to support labor. There are so many more formalized communities for cooks, for chefs, for people that work within hospitality, and for the operators thereof, to commune."
The development of a more open community has shaped life for those in Austin's culinary community today. Chef Fermiin recalled her time coming up in the Austin scene, where life is different from the lives of chefs in New York, Chicago, or California kitchens. "I saw a passion of people that were wanting to pursue still, find cooking and love for the craft, but also have a little bit of a backyard, a life, have a little bit of more balance that it's hard to find in those cities."
Chef Phillip summed up the discussion of Austin's evolution from a relatively unknown and tight-knit community to one that's more expansive and better-known. "In the past 20-plus years, it's gone from literally four or five, a handful of restaurants that were recognized ... to dozens of restaurants, to all of these amazing chefs being on the cover of magazines or TV shows. ... This national recognition from the nominations and the awards and the nods and all of that, it's amazing to see that."
Leadership and Culture Shift in Kitchens
Though the back-of-house culture in restaurants has long been known for an intense, military-like hierarchy, the panel of Austin chefs finds that is changing. Chef Amanda recalled that in the past, "it was very much like, 'This is the way we do it. Don't ask questions. This is just the way.'" Now, she focuses on allowing her cooks to have autonomy and learn from their mistakes rather than following an exact set of rules. "It's really easy for me to tell you how to do something, but people take it a lot more seriously when they have failed because of the decisions that they made."
Chef Phillip doubled down on the notion that the ways of the past need to be abandoned to create a better working atmosphere. "We're in the hospitality business. It's humans, it's people. You can't offer a good experience without having a good experience." Chef Phillip took it to a personal level when he discussed encouraging his staff to express rather than stifle their feelings. "There used to be absolutely forbidden in a kitchen or in a restaurant, but specifically in a kitchen, to have any kind of vulnerability. ... Now, it's encouraged in my kitchens and in my restaurant."
Chef Fermiin summed it up this way: "The industry changing, especially from those of us that are leaders in our respective businesses — the system of hospitality has really an ugly history by way of abject brutality and disenfranchisement of minorities and of women. ... It doesn't work anymore. ... It doesn't correlate with the values that any of us have."
With the chefs directing this kind of care toward their employees, their community, and the local ingredients that inspire them, great culinary experiences must have a bright future in Austin.
The StarChefs panel discussion in Austin, Texas, illuminated a culinary scene that isn't just led by the flavors of its food, cocktails and other drinks, or desserts. The Austin culinary scene is asserting itself through its culture. From creating a community of hospitality workers that supports one another to embracing an atmosphere of kindness, understanding, and autonomy in the kitchen, Austin is growing in wonderful and, yes, delicious ways.
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