Indie Chefs Community: The Road to COMMUNE with Grover Smith

Here’s a chef-championing, community-forward catalyst in human form

The national Indie Chefs Community is coming to Austin, y’all, and the food they’ll be presenting will be, um, what’s a good cliché?

How about “off the charts,” will that work?

Grover Smith, smiling like a man about to eat really, really well

Because, with something this amazing, you can pretty much 86 your reporter’s putative command of language.

Yes, the national Indie Chefs Community is coming here for a one-time-only collaborative Road to COMMUNE dinner series from March 23-27, featuring five days of collaborative culinary events, which will offer dishes (and wine pairings) from more than 25 nationally acclaimed chefs (with Austin's own Ariana Quant and Brandon Silva and Christina Currier and Jo Chan and Fiore Tedesco and Philip Speer and Mia Li and more among this company of glory), and they’re well-aligned with the Good Work Austin people, and most of the mouthwatering action will be hosted by Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley at their Foreign & Domestic on North Loop, and – yeah, this is one of the biggest culinary things to roll through town, ever, we reckon, which is why we told you about it a couple weeks ago, but mayyyybe there’s a ticket or two still available right now?

But, for all that it’s about the food, it’s … not even really about the food, is it?

To answer that question, we spoke with Indie Chefs head honcho Grover Smith about this nation-spanning pilgrimage toward a sort of culinary apotheosis in Houston next year.

Note: Smith started out right here in Austin, having left his job track in real estate development to instead pursue a career in the hospitality industry – beginning as a waiter at Foreign & Domestic and working his way up to general manager of that acclaimed gastronomic powerhouse before absconding (our verb, not his) to Houston years later. The man's totally FOH, see, but embraces the industry as a whole – and has fierce respect for the kitchen side especially. And now here he is, bringing it all back home with these Indie Chefs, and he’s 1) excited af, and we daresay 2) has good reason to be excited.

Yes, we spoke with Smith about this week’s series of dinners and beyond, and now (inspired by Rod Machen’s recent style of covering Andrew Zimmern’s gig at SXSW) we pass along his responses like this …

About where the Indie Chefs series came from:

“The event started many years ago at Foreign & Domestic as an opportunity to do something during a slow week of the year. It was around the first week of January — which is always kind of a downtime after New Year’s. And I witnessed the camaraderie that was born from it, and saw all the potential for using a get-together like that as a platform for other things. To build these relationships, and get people to meet folks from other markets. And I also felt there was a lot of opportunity for people who were community stakeholders, in food communities across the country, to share ideas.”

About how such a thing usually doesn’t just happen:

“Restaurants tend to operate in these silos, they’re very competitive ventures, and so the chefs may run into each other on a Sunday, say, when their restaurants are closed, or after service at some point. At a bar somewhere or whatever. But I noticed there was a trend, no matter what the situation was, the chefs tended to keep information close to their vests and not really share so much. It was more, ‘Yeah, tonight was really busy, so busy, and we totally killed it,’ and I realized a lot of that was just a front, there wasn’t a lot of true conversation about what they had to deal with, about the similarities of their experience. So, by setting up an event that’s very chef-focused — we focus on their experience completely — we make sure they can afford to come, by taking care of all the costs associated with that, and making sure that there’s a lot of downtime, that the cooking portion is a small percentage of the overall time spent together.”

About the structure created to promote conversation and idea exchange:

“I wanted to provide the opportunity at some place that wasn’t, like, a bar. Because you’ll go to these food events, and a lot of times there’s an afterparty where the chefs get to fraternize and talk – and I wanted to sort of formalize that, and give them a four or five day stretch where they can get out of their kitchens, get out of their day-to-day to-do lists and prep lists, and just have real, organic conversations. I also wanted to highlight people who were doing new and interesting things, trying different operation models that may not be as difficult on their employees, or pioneering ways to support their communities – I wanted them to be able to showcase that to the other chefs and their communities.”

About how the initiative has succeeded:

“We’ve done dozens of these dinners in over a dozen different markets now – I think we’ve had something like 700 chefs participate, and, in the past, we always operated on a referral basis. We maintain a strict code of conduct for the event, that, distilled down, says basically, ‘Don’t be an asshole.’ Like, have as much fun as you wanna have, but make sure that none of your actions negatively impair another person’s experience as long as they’re there. It was important that the seriousness of that was translated to all the future participants who hadn’t been part of it yet, because what I think makes this series so special is that it's a positive environment, it’s very collaborative and there’s not a lot of competition involved.”

About where all this is currently leading:

“COMMUNE was my idea after Covid – because there were two years where we basically, couldn’t operate. And I wanted – I was a little bit naive at the time, I think – but around the time you started seeing that vaccines be available to pretty much everybody who works in hospitality, and based on the information we were given at the time – I wanted to do a community-focused, experiential dining compound. Meaning that the actual participants would work together to make it happen, and it would be this cathartic moment where everybody could get together after being siloed for so long. Obviously, Delta put a little bit of a wrench in those plans – we had to delay it until spring of this year. And then Omicron reared its ugly head, right when we were starting to do the invites, and I didn’t think it appropriate to invite people to a large festival when restaurants themselves were dealing with mass closures again? So we postponed it again, until March of next year, to give us a longer runway to see what’s going to happen with Covid moving into, they’re saying, an endemic phase. And we’d planned to do a multiple city tour, which is how we’ve always made out bread and butter, and decided that what made the most sense was to throw it all under one umbrella, go around the country and do these little anti-food-festivals and markets throughout the year, as a lead-up, to grow our community of chefs and other participants. To bring more attention to what we’re trying to do – as a lead-in to this thing in spring of 2023 that’s been delayed twice now.”

About the greater public benefit in general and in Austin:

“We’re working with Good Work Austin, with Adam Orman over there, and Kevin Lawler. Because, every city we go to, we’re choosing a nonprofit partner that works in hospitality or is hospitality-adjacent, so we can highlight what they’re doing – to both the participant chefs that are coming from across the country as well as the guests who attend the dinners. So Good Work will have a representative there every night for the dinners, and they’ll benefit from the proceeds of the first night’s event, and from Saturday morning, and – we’re inviting a lot of other people in, too. And Good Work is inviting their members – not just for the dinners, but for the afterparties and our various programs.”

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