How Austin changed from culinary ‘ghost town’ to destination

Source: James Beard Foundation/Community Impact Newspaper

Source: James Beard Foundation/Community Impact Newspaper

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From barbecue to Beard Awards
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Winding Roads to Austin
On May 6, Chef Charleen Badman of Scottsdale, Arizona, restaurant FnB beat out four Texas finalists to win the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest region.

Three of those Texas chefs in the category were from Austin: seven-time finalist Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, twice-nominated Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie and first-time finalist Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye.

Badman’s win at the James Beard Award gala in Chicago would appear to be a disappointment for Austin, but the history of the Beard Award nominations show that not too long ago even one finalist nomination would be unheard of in the Texas capital, much less three in the same year.

The Beard Awards have been around since 1991. Austin’s first finalist nomination in the Best Chef: Southwest category did not come until 2007—for chef David Bull, then of the Driskill Grill.

Since 2010, Austin chefs have been nominated as finalists 12 times, earning three victories: Tyson Cole of Uchi in 2011, Paul Qui of Uchiko in 2012 and Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue in 2015.

The explanation for Austin’s sudden ascendance as a food destination appears to be simple. The city has added nearly 200,000 residents since 2010—and that growth coincided with increasing nationwide interest in fine dining fueled by social media and cooking TV shows.

But chefs and food experts say it is not quite that easy. Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, said food scenes cannot just be created out of thin air.

“One of the things that’s really important is a sense of pride of place. So you can’t just impose food somewhere. You actually have to have people who want to engage,” Davis said.

Fojtasek, who started his cooking career at now-closed Fino in the West Campus area, said that local pride in Austin is built on a casual, relaxed vibe that can make elevated dining concepts tricky.

“It’s a tougher market than people on the outside really think it is,” Fojtasek said. “I think it’s one of the toughest markets in the country.”

THE ‘OLD-TIMERS’


Long before he was a seven-time James Beard Award finalist, Bryce Gilmore grew up working in the kitchen of Z’Tejas, where his father, Jack, was executive chef for 20 years before opening his own line of restaurants.

Jack Gilmore said the beginnings of the Austin scene were built slowly in the 1990s and into the early 2000s when chefs, such as Cole, Alan Lazarus at Vespaio, David Garrido at Jeffrey’s and Charles Mayes at Café Josie, introduced diners to new options.

“We all seemed to complement each other. And we did it to promote the city of Austin without even knowing it. A lot of the old timers can tell you that,” he said.

When Bull moved to Austin in 1999 from Dallas, he remembers his former boss at the Mansion at Turtle Creek, Dean Fearing, wondering why Bull would relocate to a city with little going on. Today, Bull is vice president of culinary operations at La Corsha Hospitality Group, which manages restaurants, such as Second Bar + Kitchen and Mattie’s.

“The challenges we face today weren’t part of the programming 20 years ago,” Bull said. “We had to convince people Texas had more than barbecue and Tex-Mex.”

Jack Gilmore describes Austin’s current restaurant scene as “the envy of the country.” He and Bull both said they take pride in seeing chefs come up through their kitchens, then have their own success to build the city’s dining scene.

However, Jack Gilmore said some outsiders find the scene more challenging than they had expected if they don’t take the time to learn the market.

“A lot of chefs [are] wanting to move to Austin because of everything this city has to offer,” he said. “There’s a lot of success stories, but there’s a lot of failures behind that.”

THE NEW GENERATION


The three Austin chefs nominated as finalists this year for Beard awards differ in styles and techniques. However, each share a commitment to building connections with farmers in Central Texas.

In 2009, Bryce Gilmore maxed out his credit cards in order to open the original Odd Duck food trailer on South Lamar Boulevard. Barley Swine opened later that year.

“It just seemed to me like more people cared about where their food was coming from,” Bryce Gilmore said. “There weren’t a lot of restaurants at the time—there were a few, but not a lot—that were really committed to sourcing locally and trying to feature things grown in the area.”

Fojtasek opened Olamaie in 2014, tailoring his Southern cuisine to local, seasonal ingredients.

There are constant challenges in the business, from staffing to rent increases to carving a niche in a scene where locals gravitate to casual cuisine, Fojtasek said, but there are other restaurants succeeding alongside his by working with local farmers and sourcing the right way.

“It’s really challenging to do the work. It’s very expensive [to source locally]; it’s also incredibly rewarding,” Fojtasek said.

Fink is not a native Texan, but he was drawn to Austin from Arizona from by an ethos he shared with chefs such as Bryce Gilmore and Fojtasek.

“When we opened Emmer & Rye, the goal was to create a restaurant that said yes to farmers as opposed to being adversarial, and so we realized that we weren’t going to be able to operate as a normal business,” Fink said.

WHAT’S NEXT?


After a period of growth, Fink, Fojtasek and Bryce Gilmore say they have noticed fewer new restaurants opening and more locations closing as the market reaches a saturation point. In March 2018, Community Impact Newspaper confirmed more than 50 restaurant closures in Central Austin alone over one year.

Some of those closures were staples like Threadgill’s World Headquarters on Riverside Drive and Frisco Shop on Burnet Road, local institutions whose owners said they could not hold off challenges like rising rent and staffing issues.

Stephanie Herrington is the chairperson of the culinary arts department at Austin Community College, where she prepares students to become the next generation of hospitality employees. Herrington is a native Austinite who originally left the city in the 1980s, a time when she described Austin as a culinary “ghost town.”

She said the community staples beloved by locals will have to be replaced by new flaghsip restaurants.

“Austin is going through a change in terms of what’s going to make them famous. What are those landmarks going to be for the future? I hope we find [them],” Herrington said.

Bryce Gilmore, Fojtasek and Fink have all created casual concepts to align with Austin’s vibe. Bryce Gilmore and the Odd Duck team opened Sour Duck Market on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2018; Fink opened healthy casual spot Henbit and Israeli street food restaurant TLV in the Fareground food hall downtown; and Fojtasek plans to offer causal Southern diner food at Mignette in the forthcoming St. Elmo development next year.

“We are finding our way to the market in that way but still trying to offer something that’s exceptional and representative of our background and what we’ve accomplished,” Fojtasek said of Mignette.

Even with the recent burst of closures, the competition is still intense in the Austin restaurant market. Still, Bryce Gilmore said through all the change he expects the city to stay true to what created the food scene.

“If we all have the same mindset of supporting the local guys, then small, local businesses are generally the ones that are going to keep the culture what it is,” he said.

Fojtasek agreed.

“People are moving here because of the culture, and they will embrace the culture. Therefore Austin will stay Austin,” he said.


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