Central Market’s Well-Bladed Cindy Haenel: Cutting Herself Free

The popular chef-instructor will be moving on by year’s end

Play with fire, they say, and you’re gonna get burned.

Cindy Haenel: Texan. Chef. Knifemaster. (Photo by Brenner)

But, playing with fire, that’s what chefs do every day of their working lives – although “play” may not be accurate, since we did say “working lives.”

Still, you get the idea: Fire’s involved, and that can be dangerous.

And you also know that, if you play with knives, you’re gonna get cut. And no one wants to get – unintentionally – cut.

Especially if you’re a chef, or at least cooking up a meal in your own home, you don’t want to get burned or cut. Because, either of those things? Makes further maneuvers problematic. Can be, if you’ve got guests over, somewhat embarrassing. Might require a trip to the goddamn emergency room.

And one of the best ways to avoid all that drama? Especially the instigating incident?

Take a class with Central Market Cooking School’s Cindy Haenel. She’s the school's knife skills expert, has been teaching knife safety there for nigh on 20 years.

Of course, Haenel also teaches a wide array of other classes – but her knife-skills mentoring is what’s most sought after in her varied curriculum.

Sad to relate, though, citizen, that your time is running out. The native Texan (and hobbyist potter) is set to retire from her longtime cooking-school position as of January 1, 2019. So you’ve got fewer than six months to schedule up some classtime with Haenel, whether you’re wanting to sharpen (a-ha-ha) your knife skills, or learn the best way to prepare a fine beefsteak, or glean anything else the blade-wielding sensei can impart.

We had the pleasure of attending Haenel’s All Bacon, All the Time class at the Central Market location on North Lamar a few months ago. And when we learned of the chef's impending retirement, well, you know that Joni Mitchell song about paving paradise? About how you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?

We wanted to know, and wanted to let you know, a little more about this local treasure before she’s gone (to the post-Central Market phase of her robust life, that is). And so, this interview:

Austin Chronicle: How did you get started with Central Market – or H-E-B – way, way back in the day?

Cindy Haenel: So many years ago. [laughs] I just applied – I knew H-E-B, but I didn’t know that much about Central Market. And the meat market manager at the time – I had worked for him, learning how to cut meat, in the late Eighties: Maurice Allen. He had his own private company, called the Grocery, on Far West. It was completely a family business – until I came along. Two walls were fresh meat, and the other was gourmet groceries, a little bit of produce, a deli and rotisserie area – and I ran all of that. It was sort of the same concept as Central Market, but earlier on. And they taught me a lot about meat cutting. And when I started here at Central Market, in ninety … six? There was no catering department, so I started working in the cafe, doing salads and the salad bar, the chef’s case, kind of prep stuff for the kitchen. And then I got to develop the catering department – I came from 12 years of catering, which I did after having worked for Maurice at The Grocery.

AC: You started Central Market’s catering department?

CH: I said, “I don’t think caterers, or people having a party at their own house, I don’t think they really want to walk around the whole store collecting their items.” So I got to help come up with ideas for catering and stuff. And I took pictures and made brochures, and did production in catering – producing those trays of food, for about three years or so. Until the monotony got to me – [laughs] – and I had to do something else. I was about ready to leave the company and go to a regular H-E-B, to find something closer to my house, but the cooking school manager said, “Come work for me in the cooking school!” And I told her, “I’m not formally trained – I’m just self-taught. I know some stuff, but I don’t know the professional words for things in the kitchen, and, ah, all those sauce terms and cooking methods.” And she said, “Well, let me be the judge of what you know.” So I worked one class – and the very next day, she hired me. And that was 18 years ago. And I’ve just worked with many, many chefs over the years, and picked up stuff along the way.

AC: So for 18 years, you’ve been dedicated exclusively to the cooking school? Not working in the rest of the store?

CH: Correct. Except for three months of those 18 years.

AC: When … you took a long vacation?

CH: Maybe five or six years back, we started a program downstairs called C.M. Cooks, where it was supposed to be little cooking demonstrations – where you come out of Produce and Protein Alley, that little station back there in the corner? – but it was just a demo program that they were trying to build up to be more than it was. And I did if for three months, but was really disappointed with what I was doing: not being able to actually teach people, just handing out free food. Luckily, the position up here at the cooking school was still open, so I got to slide right back in. That was good for me.

AC: How is it that you came to be, like, the knifemaster of this place?

CH: Well, nobody was doing any kind of safety course here. And the cooking school up in Dallas, Anne Legg was up there running it at the time, she was doing a Knife Skills class: How to care for a knife, how to sharpen a knife, how to use it safely. The basics. And vegetable cutting, not going into meat cutting – which is a whole different set of knife skills. So I said, “I’ll do that here.” So I observed her class one day in Dallas, then came back here and used a couple of her recipes for the class – even though it’s not based on cooking, it’s focused more on using the knife – I used her soup recipe, one for salad. I still use the salad recipe to this day. And then, after about 10 or 12 years of doing that, people wanted a more advanced knife class. Some people had taken the basic class, Knife Skills 101, two or three years in a row, just as a refresher course. And that was just vegetables. And I said, “Well, I could teach meat cutting” – because I do a lot of fishing, myself, and I’ve filleted hundreds and hundreds of fish in my day – “so we could just cut up a chicken, fillet a fish …” And that’s what we do in the Knife Skills 201 class. But I only do that meat-cutting class about four times a year – it’s not very high-demand for that one. But the vegetable-cutting basics, there's a lot of demand for it.

AC: When is your last month here?

CH: January first of 2019 will be my last day.

AC: So, between now and then, are there any Knife Skills 201, the meat-cutting classes, scheduled?

CH: I think there’s maybe one or two. It’s every three months – approximately. At the beginning of the year, people wanna cook healthy more often, all those resolutions – so I get to do three 101 classes. Because people wanna cut the vegetables, so they can eat the vegetables! But then, by March, everyone’s back to bacon cheeseburgers.

[laughter]

CH: But knife skills are important! And people want safety – they want to get in the kitchen, but they want to learn how not to cut off a finger. Another of the staff will take the Knife Skills class over when I leave – and they already do, sometimes, because I get four weeks’ vacation, so someone’s got to teach it for me then – but, you know, they’ll teach it a little differently. It’s hard for me to be in the room when someone else is teaching. Because everyone words things differently, so if I’ve said, “Don’t scrape the knife like that” or whatever, I just say it matter-of-fact; but other teachers might – I don’t know – they might beat around the bush, where you don’t really get the importance of it. But I just say it how it is. And sometimes that gets me in trouble, saying it not as … politically correct or nice or whatever, as I could … sometimes it’s the tone of my voice. But it’s for safety, so I feel like I have to get up on my soapbox, sometimes, with the knife skills. Like, “Y’all have to listen to this part.” And then, “Okay, let’s have fun and do it the safe way,” and then, “Okay, everybody stop and listen again, because I see a couple people doing this thing that I said was maybe not great to do to the knife.”

AC: What about classes besides the Knife Skills classes? You have … several of those coming up?

CH: Oh, dozens. Dozens! [laughs]

AC: Are there any that stand out?

CH: Well, tonight’s all-beef. I do meat-heavy classes, because I’m more comfortable with it than some other people are. I’m not really comfortable doing pastry. I mean, I’ve learned from some kinda-famous chefs, cookbook authors and so on, over the years. But two other teachers here are much more comfortable with pastry and pasta and doughs – all that chemistry. I like doing the main course, the entree, the meat course – and letting someone else do the sides. But now Corporate’s decided that we’re all gonna be teaching the same classes. So it’ll be the same class that all the Central Markets will share, so the menus will circle around to San Antonio, Houston, Dallas – all of ‘em. But we all have different teaching styles, obviously. I go into a lot more details about utensils and pans and stuff, cooking methods, where other people might focus more on the ingredients. Since I’ve been here so long, I came up with a lot of the core classes, a lot of the ideas – and they got expanded on by other people. I wanted to do all steakhouse classes five years ago, so I put in some ideas; and they didn’t necessarily get chosen, but now there’s steakhouse classes that all the schools do. But I’m teaching a lot of different classes. I’m teaching four this week – they’re using me up before I’m gone!

AC: And, after you retire from the cooking school, you’ll probably be focusing on your pottery … but do you think you’ll ever be drawn back into the culinary world?

CH: Maybe. It’s hard to walk away from it – because everyone’s got to eat. But there’s a lot of volunteer stuff I want to do around town, too. I started helping with Austin Empty Bowl Project about 16 years ago. And I go every year. Sometimes I make bowls and donate, which is how I started out. And then I started serving soup. I started as a dishwasher, and then I moved up to serving soup, and in the last four years I’ve moved up to organizing the serving of the soup – it’s a little more telling-people-what-to-do and not so much hands-on. I mean, I like doing it myself, but I could see there was some need for more organization. And now I’m at the cooking school so much, working, so I don’t make the bowls so much.

AC: You’re from Texas, right?

CH: I’m from Manvel.

AC: Manville?

CH: Which is between Sugarland and Alvin on Highway Six, southeast of Houston. I put Alvin on my nametag, because we put our hometowns on our nametags to start conversations, and Nolan Ryan’s from Alvin. So every time someone sees Alvin on my nametag, they go “Nolan Ryan! Yes!” But, really, I’m from a smaller town. But we didn’t have a high school in Manvel, so we got bussed to Alvin.

AC: Huh. I live in Pflugerville, and I always see that Manville water tower, so, uh, what the heck is that?

CH: No, that’s spelled differently. That’s M-A-N-V-I-L-L-E. My town is M-A-N-V-E-L. It’s a really small town. It was surprising the first time I went down Highway Six and there was a traffic light there and not just a four-way stop. [laughs] But I’m showing my age, saying that – because it’s been there for a while. And now there’s a high school there, too.

AC: What brought you to Austin in the first place?

CH: There’s a restaurant right on Highway Six near I-35 in Alvin, called Joe’s BBQ. And I started working there right out of high school. And I would help do catering there as well – because it just gets so monotonous serving the same exact food every day. I don’t know how people stay in restaurants, you know? I could never stay in a restaurant for 20 years – like I’ve done here. Because our food is different, the clients are different, everything is different – and that’s what happens in the catering world, too: You’re using more of your imagination; it’s not set in stone; you’re not following a recipe exactly – unless you’re baking. That’s why I don’t do baking. But, yeah, Joe’s wanted to expand the barbecue business and open a place in Austin, and so they built a building – ex-governor John Connally’s daughter Sharon, and her husband, wanted to manage it. So he put up the 1.5 million dollars and built this giant building at Oak Knolll and 183 – that’s now a bicycle shop. It was a big, two-story building with a fireplace in the middle, they were trying to make it look the same as Joe’s BBQ in Alvin. And about a year after opening, they went bankrupt. It was right about the time that computers were – instead of manual registers, everyone was switching to computerized cash registers? And the man who came to set that up embezzled all the money. But, while it was still going, I waited on a table of people one night, that was Maurice Allen and his family. And he offered me a job on the spot, He said, “You wanna come work for me?” And I was like, “Don’t let my boss hear that? Because I have a job right here, and we’re doing fine?” But then, a month later, it went under, so I went over to The Grocery on Far West. And I walked in and said, “You probably don’t remember me …” and everybody was just so welcoming, and they said, “You can start working tomorrow.” And I was the first non-family member they hired. It was Maurice and his wife – she did all the books and the register – and three nephews. They’d all been raised in the meat-processing business in Utah, where their dad owned a slaughterhouse. So I said, “What can I do? I don’t know how to cut meat. I could learn the register?” And they said, “We’re hiring you more for your people skills, because you were so friendly and asked the right questions when you were waiting on us.” And so I worked with a lot of caterers there. I’d cook for them, and they’d come and pick up things already cooked and sliced. And one day, after about five years of me working there, one of the caterers said, “Do you wanna come work a catering job with us?” She had her own little catering company called From The Top Catering. And I said “Okay,” because it sounded like fun – something different, something new. And so I ended up working with her, Julie Eskoff, off and on for almost 12 years. And I learned a lot, I learned a heck of a lot.


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