Parking at the Backyard out on Highway 71 involves a confusing trudge though fields, streets, and an enormous new – desperately needed (snort!) – shopping mall. The transition between the blast furnace Texas heat and the gracious Backyard backstage area is sudden and astonishing. Stepping into the fenced enclave for performers feels like stepping into the Hill Country of a bygone era: Under spreading live oak trees, dogs and children dart around, and long tables spread with colorful tablecloths invite. It feels cool and pleasant.
The performers' dressing rooms are three rustic cabins that ring the common area, ending at the Cookhouse, where the food for the stars and their entourages is prepared. The Cookhouse is a small, one-room cabin, and inside it Texan chefs Luke Bibby and James Holmes prepare three meals a day for everybody and anybody with a backstage pass.
"When we get here in the morning, the first thing we do is start frying bacon," Holmes says. "That's Luke's trick. ... Everybody starts smiling when they smell the bacon! Some of the first people into the Cookhouse are the bus drivers and the truck drivers; they are real hardworking guys, and usually they have been driving all night. It's a real pleasure to feed those guys."
Breakfast is coffee, bacon, poached eggs, sausage, biscuits, gravy, grits, and more coffee. Lunch is a preview of things to come at dinnertime. "Today we had turkey wraps with avocado and goat-cheese slaw, and sliced ham on baguettes," Bibby explains. "Because it's a hot day, we kept the selections on the cool side, temperaturewise. We had gypsy stew and a big, chilled salad and cold, fresh watermelon."
"Each show takes at least two days of prep and hours of cleanup," Bibby says. "For instance, today was an 18-hour day, yesterday was 10, and the day before was 10."
Because Willie Nelson was playing the Backyard the night I was there, no alcohol was in evidence; it's on Willie's rider that his shows be alcohol-free. A rider is an addendum to a performance contract that specifies a band's particular requirements, including culinary ones (such as needing a bowl of M&M's with the brown ones removed). "Most of the time the riders are reasonable," Bibby says. "You just stay prepared for anything, though. Some riders are three pages long, some are seven pages long, and once we got one that was 37 pages long."
Bibby is relaxed and nonjudgmental about long riders and odd requests, because cooking for artists and stagehands is, all in all, a wonderful job. When you are touring, road food is usually substandard and monotonous, caught on the run and short on nutrition. Most of the bands that play the Backyard are thrilled to be here and extremely grateful to the chefs for the outstanding meals they get.
"What we usually do is ... start with a type of cuisine," Bibby says. "A lot of the acts, by the time they get to Texas, are hankering for Mexican food or barbecue, because that is what Texas is known for. But we had a Jamaican band through here, and for them we made Caribbean food, lots of fresh fish and tropical fruit. They were thrilled, and it was fun for us, too. We do Indian food sometimes and Thai food; once we had a Canadian band come through, and we made them chicken-fried steak."
Bibby smiles. "Everyone is very appreciative. That's why we do it; we get a huge charge out of it, and we just try not to get too big for our britches."
The evening that I sampled the buffet, dinner was a groaning board of grilled meats, seafood, and side dishes. In case you had any doubt: Yes, the stars do eat better than the rest of us ... at least they do at the Backyard. Because it was a really, really big show, Bibby and Holmes (and their crew) grilled 25 pounds of jumbo shrimp (each shrimp wrapped around a cheese-stuffed jalapeño, then wrapped in bacon), 25 pounds of country-style pork ribs, five pounds of pecan-smoked sausage, 10 pounds of lean chicken breasts, 40 pounds of baby-back ribs, 10 racks of lamb, a hundred chicken thighs, four "sides" of salmon, and 15 pounds of tilapia.
For each meat there was a specially prepared sauce: for the fish, an amazing ruby-red grapefruit beurre blanc; for the sausage and chicken, a barbecue sauce made with Sparkling Clementine Izze, ginger, and nectarines; and for the pork and lamb, an apple-flavored demiglace. All of the sauces were fresh and light and complemented the grilled meats without being intrusive or heavy.
Although the meats and seafood were grilled to perfection, it was the side dishes that really showcased the two chefs' talent. The first dish to need replenishing was a big platter of perfectly braised collard greens dressed with a smoked-onion vinaigrette, and the pan of braised cabbage, asparagus, shitake mushrooms, and carrots disappeared almost as quickly. A casserole of lasagna noodles, layered with puréed fava beans, roasted garlic, ricotta cheese, and studded with heirloom grape tomatoes and Italian parsley completely stole the show; it is one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had, and Bibby admits it is one of his favorite creations.
The Caesar salad was cleverly served on bamboo skewers, crisp Romaine alternating with giant croutons, drizzled with garlicky dressing, and easy to balance on a crowded plate. The two soups were a cold avocado-and-papaya gazpacho, seasoned with fresh cilantro and just a touch of jalapeño, and a hot "gypsy stew," which featured sweet potatoes, brown sugar, ginger, and coconut milk. Both soups were heavenly and easily outclassed the uninspired "let's use up these leftovers" soups most restaurants offer. Rounding the buffet out were a green salad of baby spinach, strawberries, fresh radishes, heirloom tomatoes, and sunflower seeds and a fruit salad of cantaloupe, honeydew melon, grapes, and blueberries.
In addition to providing the catering at the Backyard, Bibby and Holmes have a concession stand at the Austin City Limits Music Festival every year: Austin's Best Burger. Using two 6-foot grills, Bibby and Holmes, their wives, and a crew of 25 turn out thousands of burgers and veggie burgers (served on fresh kaiser rolls), cheese fries, and watermelon slices. Bibby has been doing ACL for five years; last year, Holmes partnered with him for the event.
"It's crazy and fun," Bibby says, "a real carnival atmosphere. Four of the five things we serve are vegetarian, which turned out to be a smart move. The main thing is keeping on top of the lines, which are always long. So far, we have never run out of food ... but we've come close."
"It doesn't take a chef to grill a burger," Bibby quips, "but it doesn't hurt, either!"
You can experience these talented chefs' skills by becoming a gigantic star and playing the Backyard or by getting one of Austin's Best Burgers at ACL. Also, Holmes will be opening his own restaurant, Olivia, on South Lamar in early 2008.
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