Seduced by Austin
Jesse Herman – hospitality pro, mover and shaker with the Austin Food & Wine Festival – is making his mark on his adopted town
When the history of Austin's early 21st century culinary explosion is written, I'm betting one of the names prominently featured will be that of Jesse Herman. While it's true that Herman isn't a native Austinite or even a Texan, he recognized like so many before him the seductive "City of the Violet Crown" as an ideal place to settle down and create businesses. Herman is likely to join such visionary hospitality professionals as Harry Akin, Ralph Moreland, Eddie Wilson, and Tom Gilliland in making his mark on the River City. After establishing a track record with successful bars on the East Coast and in Europe, Herman came to Austin to visit relocated family members and was so impressed by what he heard and saw that he struck a business deal the first day. "I signed a lease on our La Condesa space in the AMLI building the first day I arrived in 2007," Herman recalls. "That may seem very naive considering the Second Street District was really not happening at that point; the W Hotel and ACL weren't open down there yet. But it turned out we were in the right place at just the right time when La Condesa opened in 2009."
One of the things Herman recognized about Austin from the beginning is that it's a city with a unique culinary history of barbecue and Mexican food, one he respects and admires. "We noticed an extraordinary demand for different kinds of restaurants here, so we felt comfortable not going with Tex-Mex or Mexican regional cuisines at La Condesa, but focusing on modern street foods from Mexico City, and that's been well-accepted," he says. Indeed, La Condesa has won multiple awards for design, food, and service, including many in the now-retired Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll and its successor, the First Plates Awards. In fact, Violet Crown Management, the umbrella company owned by Herman and his childhood friend and business partner, Delfo Trombetta, has quite a string of hits at the moment: the wildly popular Sway Thai (1417 S. First); a partnership in the group that just opened the new Fair Market event venue (1100 E. Fifth); and another partnership with the group building the South Congress Hotel (1600 S. Congress). Herman is also a significant part of the team presenting this weekend's third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, April 25-27.
His appreciation for Austin's culinary legacy is one of the main reasons Herman wanted to be involved in bringing a major food and wine event here. "Not all cities have the culinary legacy Austin has. As a food festival destination in the Southwest, it's the natural choice," he says. Herman is part of a group that includes Austin's international festival promotion company C3 Presents, chef/restaurateurs Tyson Cole and Tim Love, and the publishers of Food & Wine magazine. Their group took over the perennially underfunded Texas Hill Country Food & Wine Festival three years ago and provided it with the event-planning infrastructure and financial clout necessary to create a major showcase event. The first year was pretty rocky, but last year's greatly improved fest revealed the team learns quickly and is willing to implement course corrections when necessary. Herman assures this year will be even better. Yes, they are bringing in big-name celebrity chefs from around the country, but they've also increased the number of local and regional chefs, food artisans, craft brewers, sommeliers, and distillers in the lineup. And since most of the tickets are sold to people from Austin and Texas, the festival will provide plenty of exposure for our local talent.
Festival guests will notice that organizers have expanded Tim Love's popular hands-on grilling area and they've increased the number of fire pits so that more chefs will be roasting food over open flames and offering samples to the crowd. Look for Texas chefs Tim Byres of Dallas, Jason Dady and John Russ of San Antonio, and Ned Elliott, Aaron Franklin, Bryce and Jack Gilmore, Paul Qui, and Andrew Wiseheart of Austin to be taming the flames. The Chef Showcase tent will feature nearly 20 Austin chefs dispensing signature dishes all day Saturday and Sunday.
Where celebrity chef/restaurateurs are concerned, Herman is especially pleased to be welcoming Rick Bayless from Chicago and Ming Tsai from Boston. "Having grown up in the Boston area, I've always been a big fan of Ming Tsai and his restaurants. He was doing the pan-Asian thing long before it became a trend. And, in a city that's passionate about Mexican cuisine, we're really lucky to have Rick Bayless with us this year; not just because of his encyclopedic knowledge of Mexican foods, but also because of the Alice Waters-like impact he's had on other chefs when it comes to promoting local sourcing and sustainability." Both Bayless and Tsai will present seminars, and they'll throw down against all the other high-powered culinary talent in Saturday night's Rock Your Taco challenge.
The AF&WF has also added more of what Herman refers to as "à la carte" events as enhancements for the overall experience. The new Thursday night "Feast Under the Stars" event in Butler Park sold out in just a few short hours its 100 seats for a locally sourced dinner prepared by a Texas chef lineup. Guests who didn't bite soon enough on that event can drop by the W Hotel on Friday afternoon for Food Republic interviews with visiting chefs and some comedians in town for this weekend's Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, drop by for custom cocktails and desserts at the Sips and Sweets party after the Taste of Texas event in Republic Square Park on Friday night, or repair back to the W for the Cirque du Trace afterparty after rocking tacos on Saturday night. All in all, it sounds like Herman and his cohorts have taken another big move up the learning curve.
The third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival runs April 25-27. The Taste Pass ($250) and Savor Pass ($850) are still available; visit www.austinfoodandwinefestival.com for more info and complete schedule.