In the Wink of an Eye
An Austin slow-food pioneer celebrates a dozen years in operation
In June 2001, a 15-table restaurant opened in an unprepossessing commercial strip tucked behind Whole Earth Provision Co. on North Lamar. Although the site had housed restaurants before – Castle Hill Cafe and Ay Chihuahua – chef/owners Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul acquired the spot with a compelling new vision. After years of laboring in the fine-dining vineyards of New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Austin, they were poised to create "a cook's restaurant," doing it their way, welcoming guests with wine and varied small dishes, using the best ingredients they could get their hands on.
That little place was called Wink. In the ensuing 12 years, the Austin restaurant scene exploded – myriad new venues, talented young chefs from all over, and an ever-increasing national reputation. Yet Wink continues to thrive. Now encompassing the equally diminutive Wink Wine Bar, the place is packed every night.
How does a tiny, loud, chef-driven restaurant playing by its own rules manage to stay fresh and relevant for so long in a town where hot, new places are opening virtually every week? Especially when they don't advertise, and, according to Paul, their PR happens "within these walls, person to person."
If you ask Paul and Scruggs, the answer is both simple and complicated. The simple part is that they believed in their vision and they've stuck to it. The complicated part has to do with managing and meshing the fundamental and timeless elements of hospitality, staff development, an innovative wine program, and creative, market-inspired cooking presented in daily menus.
The co-owners met in 1996 at the now-closed Brio Vista restaurant, where Scruggs was executive chef and Paul was pastry chef. They've collaborated closely ever since; they tend to complete each other's sentences.
Despite their nine-year age difference, they'd followed surprisingly parallel paths. Both are Austin natives, both worked young in Austin restaurants, both went to New York to burnish their culinary educations: Scruggs at CIA and Paul at Peter Kump's (now the Institute of Culinary Education). Both honed their chops in signature fine-dining destinations: Paul at the James Beard Foundation and Le Cirque in NYC and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago; Scruggs at Four Seasons New York and Stephan Pyles in Dallas. Both returned to their hometown in the Nineties to practice their craft.
The Nineties saw a seismic shift in the food world, in Austin and across the country. The influences of Julia Child and James Beard created a heightened culinary awareness, and diners were traveling more, becoming more sophisticated. And significantly, Paul says, "The food media – Food Arts, Wine Spectator, Gourmet – focused more on chefs and professionalism. The Food Network had started in 1993, exposing new audiences to chefs' work. Fine-dining customers began to be the boomers, not their parents."
In the context of this evolving food scene, Scruggs and Paul took the plunge with Wink in 2001. Scruggs recalls, "Our investors were mostly family and friends, and they trusted our vision." Paul explains, "Although we knew exactly what we wanted to do, we had a hard time articulating a defining sound bite. Then I saw a TV show about the slow-food movement and suddenly I had the right words; it was about what 'slow food' meant to us.
"Wink is a big dinner party every night; we invite you as part of our extended family," he says. "We want everyone to have good conversation over exceptional food and wine."
Scruggs continues the thread. "We think it's about the velocity of dining experience. ... What do you gain and lose when you change the speed? With fast food, you gain time, but you lose almost everything else. We are the opposite – smaller portions, quality ingredients, tasting menus, wines by the glass. We want people to taste and experience as much as they want."
Paul and Scruggs emphasize that their staff is a fundamental part of Wink. "We've had a core group here since the beginning; many followed us from Brio Vista," says Paul. "Everyone does everything as needed. And everyone has input in the menu; our philosophy is to hire good people and empower them to create their own success. Although we exercise control by what's in the larder – they have to be creative with what we've got."
Scruggs explains, "This little place is made up of lots of smaller moving parts that mesh and interact. For example, all the kitchen people work different stations each day, and they're responsible for that station's part of the menu. But when you read the complete menu, it doesn't seem like it was developed by several people; it's a cohesive whole. Yeah, it's like a hive mind, or the ghost in the machine that makes all the moving parts work together."
There's an impressive list of Wink alumni who've since made their mark in Austin dining: Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, John Bates of Noble Sandwiches, Brandon Fuller of Cafe Josie, Deegan McClung, formerly of Jeffrey's. Of the 24 current employees, six have been on board since Wink opened. Three more have worked there for at least 11 years. "We also have floaters, former employees who'll come in to work when we need them," says Paul. "This is our legacy ... we hire creative people, do what we can to help them succeed, and the reward is this talented, dedicated crew."
Scruggs explains that the original idea was to use the best ingredients available, although not necessarily local. "We got into huge discussions about ordering produce. We were always waiting on orders to arrive and sending a lot back because it wasn't the quality we wanted. We decided it was more efficient to pay more and go pick things out ourselves." Wink was one of the first restaurants in Austin to embrace local sourcing.
"By 2002, we'd moved from a quarterly to a monthly menu," Scruggs continues. "But we were reprinting the menu practically every day, based on ingredients that Eric brought in. So we just decided to have a daily menu; that's what we've done ever since."
Eric is chef de cuisine/forager Eric Polzer. He's been on the job since Wink's inception and has developed longstanding relationships with Boggy Creek Farm and other local producers. Making his rounds twice a week, he says they use "as much local as we can." He deals with about 20 suppliers, most of them in the area, although ingredients also come from farther afield. The biggest change he sees is increasing availability of local proteins – meats, fowl, cheeses, and seafood.
"My grandparents had a farm near Schulenburg; I grew up with fresh vegetables, eggs from their chickens, milk from their cow, bacon from their pigs, and homemade bread," Polzer says. "And I saw what hard work it was to farm in Texas." As part of the Boggy Creek relationship, he's worked stints there, increasing his respect for what local farmers must do to succeed in this challenging climate.
"Wink's wine program is exceptionally important; we never viewed wine as a profit center," Scruggs says. "We see wines as foods that go with our other foods, and we encourage as much tasting and pairing as we can. Every night, we have 40 to 50 wines by the glass. And not necessarily the same ones; we work with 20-plus wine purveyors, and 30% of our wines are rotated in and out each month."
In 2004, Wink acquired the adjacent wine bar space that's become an integrated aspect of the operation. Guests hang out there while waiting for their tables and, unlike the restaurant proper, there are no reservations; you can walk in to order wine and anything from the day's menu.
Paul remembers when they first opened the wine bar, they experimented with flights. "But people were always asking about changing and substituting. So we ditched flights and simply encourage guests to taste whatever they want. You have to make it easy for people to try things."
Scruggs recalls that when Wink first opened, the first customers followed them from other restaurants where they'd worked. "Now almost half our guests come from out of town. The dining scene is national now and there are more professional travelers; people have heard of us and make reservations. Locally, we're still something of a special-occasion destination, although we do have lots of regulars. Over the years, we've targeted who we want our customers to be. We want to make people happy; if we think we can't, we'll recommend other locally owned places."
Paul and Scruggs conclude that they've done what they set out to do. Paul says, "It's been a path with a lot of obstacles, but ultimately, it's so rewarding. To do a restaurant like this, you have to be a distance runner, not a sprinter." Scruggs agrees. "We were trendy at one point, but that's passed, and it isn't what we're about or what keeps us successful. We've kept evolving, and I'm glad we're still relevant after 12 years."