Lightning Strikes

Austin's Food scene hits the big time

Alex Kahn at home
Alex Kahn at home (Photo By John Anderson)

Alex Kahn's Excellent Adventure

It was a dark and stormy night. Torrential rains and deadly tornadoes battered Austin, disrupting many scheduled events on Thursday, November 15. However, 200 well-heeled Texas food lovers had paid $100 each to attend the Texas Book Festival's Bon Appetit, Y'all party, and they were not about to be dissuaded by a little Texas weather. The local foodies paid to see Austin's food scene hit the big time at a tasting party and booksigning where they could rub elbows with one of the top chefs in the country plus the editors of two national food magazines. The paying customers weren't the only ones eager to meet Chicago chef/restaurateur Charlie Trotter, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and Saveur editor Colman Andrews. Southwestern cuisine pioneers Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, Bruce Auden, Jeff Blank, and David Garrido were all on hand to extend a hearty Lone Star welcome to the famous guests. The chefs were busy serving tasty signature dishes to the crowd, ably assisted by enthusiastic volunteer cooks and wait people from local restaurants and catering companies. Excitement was in the air, and nobody knew what might come of this evening or just where creative culinary lightning might strike.

Though the weather outside was frightful, the chef's creations delighted the crowd. Trotter's contribution to the evening (prepared by Jeffrey's chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas and the Jeffrey's kitchen staff) was a heavenly bacon tart paired with a shot glass of warm and fragrant pumpkin soup. It was the perfect foil for the heavy weather. Dallas chef and television personality Stephan Pyles served marinated sea bass tacos garnished with a tangy cabbage and pineapple slaw while Jeff Blank of Hudson's on the Bend opted for truffle mashers topped with slivers of foie gras and sweet onion marmalade. David Garrido paired his crispy oysters, the most popular dish at Jeffrey's restaurants in Austin and Washington, D.C., with a succulent morsel of duck. Dean Fearing, longtime chef of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, presented a spicy Southwestern rendition of shrimp and grits. Englishman Bruce Auden, chef/owner of San Antonio's Biga on the Banks, served dainty cones of sticky toffee pudding, the trendy British dessert du jour.

The guests noshed and drank Cosmopolitans, bought bags of books, and had them signed. Despite a harrowing travel day, Gourmet editor Reichl proved to be a charming and approachable guest, graciously signing copies of her revealing memoir, Comfort Me With Apples. Saveur fans sought out Editor in Chief Colman Andrews for his signature on the magazine's newest recipe compilation, Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian. The main attraction himself, Charlie Trotter, signed copies of his numerous cookbooks, the most recent being Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home, the companion volume to his hit PBS cooking show. The line for Trotter's signature was the longest all evening, owing to the fact that both party guests and many of the restaurant volunteers were eagerly awaiting a minute of his time.

It was an immensely enjoyable occasion, despite the weather. Contemporary Texas food and legendary Texas hospitality made a positive impression on the famous guests. And while the local partygoers were well-fed and well-satisfied with the celebrity schmooze-fest, I'm not sure how many of the guests actually noticed when the aforementioned lightning struck. I might not have known it, either, but for a conversation with Frank and Nina Seely about their son, 17-year-old chef's apprentice Alex Kahn. Alex, a Westlake High School senior who works weekends as a roundsman (someone who moves from station to station as needed) in the Four Seasons Hotel kitchen, had spent that Thursday volunteering at Jeffrey's, helping to prepare Charlie Trotter's dishes for the party.

During the party, Alex helped serve the tarts and soup and then dutifully got in line to spend some of his hard-earned money on chef Trotter's cookbooks. While Trotter was signing Alex's book, they struck up a conversation and the renowned chef asked the young apprentice what he planned to do after graduation. When Kahn replied he planned to attend the Culinary Institute of America, Trotter suggested perhaps a better option would be for Alex to come to Chicago and spend a year in the kitchen at the chef's eponymous Charlie Trotter's restaurant first. For those who may not know, Charlie Trotter's is regularly included in any list of the top restaurants in this country, and indeed the world. Culinary students and trained chefs alike compete for positions in Trotter's famous Chicago kitchen. Few are hired; even fewer are invited to join the staff. The opportunity to spend a year working and learning in Trotter's kitchen would be an invaluable experience for any young cook, and the stars had just lined up to give Alex Kahn a shot at such an opportunity. Needing to greet other guests, Trotter handed Alex off to one of his employees with instructions to get all the young man's pertinent information and issue an invitation to visit Chicago in the spring.

Luckily, I chanced to strike up a conversation with the Seelys just after this happened and soon got to meet the young man on the receiving end of a possible life-changing experience. The family floated out of the party on a cloud of excitement and anticipation, but not before I made an appointment to interview Alex a few days later. I was curious to find out just how this kid came to be in a position for him to catch the eye of one of the most talented and exacting chefs in America.

Alex Kahn is a well-mannered and enthusiastic teenager who has a very clear picture of where he's going. "When he was 14, he went to a Central Market cooking class with me, and he said he thought it would be fun to volunteer in the kitchen," recalls his mom, Nina Seely. There's been no turning back since then. Central Market chef Roger Mollet took the youngster under his wing, and Alex spent a year in the teaching kitchen, working with local and national chefs alike. He then moved on to Hudson's on the Bend, where he assisted chef/owner Jeff Blank with cooking classes and also spent some time at Cippolina and with Word of Mouth Catering, working in the kitchen and serving at parties. The aspiring chef reads cookbooks and subscribes to food magazines such as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Art Culinaire, and Restaurant News. "In 2000, I wrote to all 10 of Food &Wine's top new chefs of the year and most of them wrote me back," Kahn told me. The most encouraging response was from Andrew Carmelini of Cafe Boulud in New York. Carmelini extended an invitation to visit the restaurant whenever Alex and his family were in New York, which they did. Alex spent some time in the Cafe Boulud kitchen and met chef/owner Daniel Boulud during the visit.

The trip to New York and Cafe Boulud aren't Kahn's only brushes with culinary greatness. While there, he also met his mom's old friend Michael Romano and checked out the kitchen at Union Square Cafe. On a family vacation in New Orleans, he called several restaurants to request the opportunity to visit their kitchens and was invited to Wolf, Bacco, and Emeril's Delmonico's. When asked which restaurants he might like to visit in the future, Alex responded "the French Laundry, because it's one of the best in the country and maybe Nobu, to learn something about Japanese cooking." More recently here at home, Alex spent several months at the new Star Canyon before moving on to his current position at the Four Seasons. Lately, he spends his weekend nights working mostly with hot and cold appetizers but is sometimes pressed into banquet service, such as a recent Saturday night when chef Elmar Prambs' kitchen was responsible for 1,000 banquet dinners. If Alex keeps coming back after weekends like that, he's definitely hooked on the kitchen.

At a time when most kids his age haven't a clue as to what they plan to do with their future, Alex Kahn is very focused and very comfortable with his direction. He prepares meals for the family, even a fancy four-course dinner for his sister and a group of her friends. "He amazes me," says Nina Seely. "Most kids his age spend all their money on CDs, but all he wants to buy are knives and copper pots!" Alex was only too glad to show off his set of Global blades, which he keeps in top condition. He's well-regarded by the local chefs for whom he's worked, and several of them were cheering him on at the Book Festival party when they heard of his conversation with Charlie Trotter. When I asked Alex about his goals for the future, he said it might be fun to be the youngest guy to achieve master chef status. "I think someday I'd like to have a nice restaurant of my own," he mused. Given this kid's drive and determination, I have no doubt it will happen if that's what he wants.

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