The Secret Ingredients
Meet Austin's 'Almost-Anonymous' chefs -- for now, famous only for taste
Austin's restaurant scene has undergone an amazing metamorphosis in the past 20 years. In the early Eighties, famous-name chefs were not part of our dining experience. But the city's growth -- and the arrival of many new residents of different backgrounds and nationalities -- transformed its culinary culture, infusing greater ethnic diversity and many new trends. Suddenly, celebrity chefs were eager to test their restaurant concepts on what they believed would be a ripe and ready Austin market. But Austinites never really warmed up to those eateries, and Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe and Stephan Pyle's Star Canyon failed after brief trial periods.
We have our own favorite local establishments, and over the years, such chefs as Raymond Tatum, David Garrido, Stewart Scruggs, Miguel Ravago, and Will Packwood have acquired followings and become well known in the community and beyond. However, in the kitchens of some of Austin's longest established restaurants, there are chefs who have been cooking for more than 20 years, and yet the public at large has no idea who they are. For instance, in the "Best Chef" category of the Chronicle's readers' poll, we often find that people vote for "that guy that cooks at Castle Hill." They know they love the food, and it doesn't really matter who's cooking it. There are three restaurants in particular that have survived Austin's growth, economic hardships, and trendy fads with consistency and high-quality cooking, and the reason behind this success is the longevity and experience of their almost-anonymous chefs.
I started at the little yellow house (previously pink) at 10th and Lamar. Basil's restaurant opened its doors in 1981, co-owned by Marshall Slacter and chef Alan Lazarus. Eventually, Lazarus left to pursue his own interests, and the kitchen was taken over by Michael Carpenter. Carpenter, born and raised in Britain, earned degrees in economics and geography from the University of Nottingham. Working his way through college, he learned to cook under the supervision of what he calls "the old school": strict, rigorous European chefs who emphasized perfection and good kitchen ethics. From this training, Carpenter learned the best of old-school cooking techniques, as well as the notion that reliability, responsibility, and consistency are the building blocks to becoming a successful chef. "The cooking techniques and discipline learned from direct experience are different from what people learn from a culinary school, regardless of how prestigious," says Carpenter. "You learn the 'semantics' but not the actual practicality of cooking: speed, finesse, control, and the pressure from cooking on the line. These come from direct experience, whether you study formally or not." In 1979, fate brought him to Austin, where he has lived ever since. After cooking at Gianni's (now Carmelo's) for about a year, Carpenter joined the staff at Basil's in 1982. Twenty years later, he's still at the helm of the kitchen, consistently providing the many faithful customers year after year with the same quality Italian cuisine: a "jazzed up taste for Texas palates," as he puts it.
He created one of Basil's signature dishes, the fish Florentine: sautéed fish filet (his favorite is Gulf red snapper), topped with lump crab meat, wilted spinach, fresh Roma tomato, and Parmesan cheese, in a lemon butter sauce. "Mic is great with fish," Slacter told me on a recent visit. "He just does it great; cooks it perfectly every time." He's also great with meats: Carptenter's lamb tenderloin special with wild mushroom demiglace has been a favorite of mine since the early Nineties, when I was a co-worker of his. And his beef tenderloin Rossini served atop crisp Parmesan crostini and topped with a thick slice of mousse truffle pté, is exquisite. Despite his great natural talent and hard work, Carpenter doesn't like to take all the credit. He doesn't want to be a celebrity chef. "What makes Basil's great is that we have a very egalitarian workplace, and a great staff," says Carpenter. "We use only the freshest, highest quality ingredients, and our dishes are all cooked to order. Our pastas, sauces, dressings, and soups are homemade, from scratch. We create simple, tasteful dishes, and serve them in generous portions in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere; we're not Martha Stewart here. And we have an affable owner, who is directly involved in the business." All of these elements combine to make Basil's one of Austin's favorite restaurants for the past two decades. "We look forward to the future," Carpenter told me. "Competition in Austin is stiff, so we have to strive to be the best."
Directly across Lamar from Basil's, in a small strip center, David and Cathe Dailey opened a tiny restaurant in 1986. Castle Hill Cafe was quaint, comfortable, and one of the pioneers of "fusion cuisine" in Austin, in the days when chiles habañeros and lemon grass were still not part of our regular culinary lexicon. Castle Hill ushered in the era of casual fine dining in Austin, with attractive prices, affordable quality wine selections by the glass, and excellent service. It quickly became the hottest little restaurant in town, and by 1991 a move to its current location at Fifth and Baylor was necessary. While David worked hard in the kitchen and Cathe took care of the front of the house, they came to rely on the work of other talented chefs and staff. These days, sous chef Michael Taddeo and night kitchen manager Mark Plaza are in charge of the everyday operations, while Executive Chef David Dailey is the idea man, providing research and recipes for new and exciting menu items.
Taddeo was born in Cleveland, to an Italian family with deep roots in the kitchen. "I learned so much from my mother, I got her passion for cooking," says Taddeo. Originally trained as a machinist in industrial Cleveland, he soon decided that wasn't his calling and took off on the road. He traveled extensively throughout the country, stopping in Austin many times until he decided to call our fair city his home 26 years ago. He worked at many Austin restaurants, including Ruth's Chris and the sorely missed Les Amis cafe on campus, before joining Castle Hill in 1988, where he has been ever since. "This is a great place to work," he says. "Everybody works together, we work as a team and pick up the slack when needed, working toward a common goal. Castle Hill is not about individuals, it's about enjoying our work and having fun. We have lots of fun doing what we do." Perhaps this is the reason for the amazing longevity of the staff: Some members of the waitstaff have been there since day one, literally.
And it's no different in the kitchen. Mark Plaza, the energetic orchestrator of the dinner shift, came to Austin from El Paso. He worked for years at the Old Pecan St. Cafe and helped open the first restaurant attempt at Whole Foods Market at 10th and Lamar. In 1988, Steve Smith, a former co-worker at Pecan St., got Plaza and his wife, Kate -- then a waitress at Castle Hill -- jobs in New York City. Plaza worked as executive chef of a 400-seat Cajun-themed restaurant in Manhattan, enjoying the fast pace and learning all aspects of restaurant management. After three years, Mark and Kate decided to return to Austin to start a family, and during a Christmas visit to Austin, Cathe Dailey offered Mark a job in the kitchen of the newly acquired Castle Hill location. He has been there, running around coordinating the line, since 1991. "It's like directing traffic. You have to make sure all the necessary elements are there, and that everyone is ready to go," Plaza explains. "We do not use heat lamps, so we have to work as a fine-tuned machine to provide customers with the highest quality fresh food."
Castle Hill's fare, according to Taddeo, is "fun, exciting food from all over the map. The menu changes completely every two weeks, so we keep things fresh and exciting to us, it is never boring. David comes up with ideas and we all offer suggestions. It's a very democratic menu planning."
Plaza agrees: "It is wonderful working with David and [Taddeo]. We bounce ideas off each other and then get the work done. Changing the menu every two weeks is a lot of work, but it is a great challenge and I love it. It is the challenge that makes work so much fun." The food at Castle Hill is definitely interesting, combining exotic flavors without the overkill of "confusion fusion." When I asked the chefs for their opinion on what makes Castle Hill an Austin favorite, the responses were very similar: "good value for the quality and quantity of food," says Taddeo. "We try to offer affordable fine dining in a casual, comfortable atmosphere. We have a colorful staff, from different cultures and nationalities. It's an interesting collage of people and a constant learning experience."
"We have great respect for Cathe and David. They nurture and encourage all of us," Plaza adds. "It is like a family here. We all look after each other -- everyone is important."
Just across the river, on a hill overlooking the intersection of Riverside and South Lamar is the Paggi House, an Austin restaurant institution housed in one of the oldest existing residences in the city. Opened in 1978 by Thomas Fleischner, it's the type of place where regulars have been dining for 20-odd years and keep coming back, some even on a daily basis. Executive Chef Michael Alvarez and sous chef Jodie Faux are the only two line cooks in the restaurant, and their creativity and great teamwork is the reason for the culinary miracles produced out of the tiniest restaurant kitchen in all of Austin.
Alvarez worked at the Paggi House when it first opened, as an apprentice to Austin's first celebrity chef, Emil Vogely, and returned years later as a prep cook to chef Rusty Hilton. He relocated briefly to Dallas, and for three years cooked and later managed the kitchen for Newport's restaurant. Upon returning to Austin, he got a phone call from Fleischner in June of 1991, asking him to take over the kitchen on a temporary basis because the restaurant was "between chefs."
"That was a busy weekend for me. On Friday I wrecked my beloved vintage Mustang. On Saturday my daughter was born," Alvarez recalls with a smile. "I started working as the chef at the Paggi House the following Monday." Eleven years later he's still there, overseeing all aspects of the restaurant's operations.
Faux started a year later. She came to Austin in 1984 from State College, Penn., where she grew up and briefly attended Penn State University. Although she comes from a Pennsylvania Dutch background with deeply rooted cooking traditions, she wasn't interested in cooking while growing up. But she proved to be a natural after she moved to Austin and started working in area restaurants: Cafe Brazil on Sixth Street, the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, the Old Pecan St. Cafe. Finally, in 1989 she decided to go to culinary school and attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. She returned to Texas for her internship at the French Room of the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, where she apprenticed under the strictest rules and the watchful eye of a French chef. Faux became pregnant and decided to return to Austin. In 1992, a few months after her son was born, she took the job at the Paggi House.
Faux says that she draws inspiration for her daily specials from seasonal ingredients and personal experiences: A recent trip to the Mexican Caribbean coast yielded great ideas for seafood entrées, and her Pennsylvania Dutch potato pancakes are a favorite side dish that complements many entrées. If the specials are popular, they may add them to the menu, which changes seasonally twice a year.
The Paggi House has an unbelievably loyal clientele, regular customers include prominent lawyers, politicians, and congressmen; some of them show up everyday for lunch. Perhaps one of the reasons they are so loyal is that they get treated like family. "We cook just about anything they want, within reason," Faux says. "They feel right at home."
"Jodie has a seriously dedicated clientele of regulars," Alvarez adds. "Sometimes I wonder why we even have a lunch menu! She is a top-notch chef, who could be respected anywhere in town." Faux also speaks highly of Alvarez: "He understands all aspects of the business, and nothing escapes his eye. He has come up with some of our most popular menu items, like the Lobster Martini. We work very well together. It is a cool feeling of synchronicity: You know exactly what the other hands are doing, even though they're not attached to you, do you know what I mean?" As a former line cook, I do. The respect and admiration that these two chefs have for each other is evident.
Both Alvarez and Faux agree that what makes the Paggi House kitchen work is the loyalty of the staff toward each other. The pastry chef, Miss Ada Edwards, has been at the Paggi House since the day it opened back in 1978. She is responsible for the "classics" on the menu that no one else in town serves -- like her Lobster Newburg salad -- and keep the regular customers coming. Alvarez calls her "the backbone of the place," and Faux refers to her affectionately as "everyone's grandmother." Then there's Hank Guzmán, the "professional kitchen assistant and dishwasher," also on staff since day one. "I call Hank the 'godfather of dishwashers,'" Alvarez says. "He can tell you the names of every single person who has ever worked here, and when. I can count on one hand the days that Hank has missed work. Our staff is incredibly reliable. You can count on everything getting done." Adds Faux: "It's a different kind of support system. It's like we're a family, but we're running a kitchen."
After visiting with these chefs, the reason for the success of the restaurants where they work is apparent: They all believe that quality, consistency, and loyalty are the most important elements to a successful kitchen. For them, fame and big egos aren't necessary, but teamwork is indispensable. These chefs love what they do, and it shows in the excellent dishes they create and in the fact that they have come to these restaurants to stay. They have found their niches, and therefore the restaurants where they cook fill an important niche in Austin. Most of all, they have fun at their jobs, and that's reflected in the high quality of their work, which Austin diners enjoy year after year.
We've seen new trends come and go and places we loved replaced with new ones, which we might learn, in time, to love as well. But it's comforting to know that some things and places remain, thanks in part to some of our favorite and no longer unknown chefs.