The Austin Chronicle

Margaret Vera Profile

By MM Pack, October 23, 2009, Food

Margaret Vera has one of the best gigs in town. She's creative director at Stubb's Bar-B-Q restaurant and music venue, and when asked what that means, she just laughs. "My job is to define the look, taste, and feel of the place. Whatever that takes."

Stubb's is a restaurant. It's a bar. It's a tourist destination. It's a popular outdoor amphitheatre that showcases international live music from punk to soul to rock & roll. It's an iconic 1850s stone edifice on the banks of Waller Creek that's variously served as a private residence, dressmaker's shop, junk store, and during the 1970s, the site of One Knite, a notorious dive remembered for rising music stars and illicit, all-night parties. Since 1996, this venerable setting has housed the third incarnation of the food-and-music vision of C.B. "Stubbs" Stubblefield, a Lubbock legend known for his barbecue and his generosity to musicians.

The building, the legends, the food, the music – Vera's mission is to meld these contexts and functions into a cohesive whole for music-loving locals and visitors seeking an ultimate Austin experience. "We want to give people lots of reasons to be glad they came here," she says.

How does one become creativity czarina for an entertainment venue with a big reputation? For Vera, it was an organic process, beginning with her early background in food. Growing up in Houston, she worked for her stepmother, a caterer who'd studied with Jacques Pépin. During college, she apprenticed at Monica Pope's first restaurant, the Quilted Toque, as well as Atlanta's Buckhead Diner and Bix in San Francisco. "I had good teachers; at each place, everything was made from scratch."

After graduation, Vera lived for a year in Chile, ostensibly doing a postgraduate project. "What I really did was travel around Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia," she says. "The food there was a revelation – grass-fed beef and line-caught fish, fresh food prepared plainly without many sauces. That's common now, but it was new for me in 1995."

Later in Austin, Vera wrestled with how to direct her entrepreneurial spirit. She was office manager at a furniture store when fate and enterprise intervened. Unexpectedly, her mother bought a truckload of Mexican antiques and asked her to sell them. Her future spouse's family had available property on East Cesar Chavez. So she and Mark Vera revamped the 1928 structure, living upstairs and selling home furnishings, coffee, and gourmet sandwiches downstairs. "The furniture business lasted only a year," she remembers. "But the food just took off." Azul was a popular Eastside destination, with comfortable, quirky decor and outdoor art installations.

"The managing owner of Stubb's was an Azul customer; in 2005, he asked me to look at their recipes and make suggestions. It became clear it was also necessary to update equipment and processes. I'm too lazy to work around stuff; if something is in the way of productivity or customer experience, my reaction is to fix it. ... We've revised dry storage and pit areas, kitchen spaces, dining rooms, and bar. We haven't changed the menu too much; people come here for the classics. But we've improved ingredient quality and cooking processes and reduced the menu size so the kitchen can focus on the best stuff. Everything is made fresh in-house now, except desserts from [Sentelli's] bakery." Local wine consultant Ross Outon (recently on PBS' reality show The Winemakers) created a barbecue-friendly wine list.

Vera's larger vision encompasses enhanced connections between restaurant and amphitheatre, food and music, indoor and outdoor experiences. Long-term plans are in progress for expansion, reorienting the stage, and indoor performance space. She represents Stubb's at city and neighborhood planning group meetings.

"We've made the first leap; I'd like to take three more," says Vera. "This place has so much going for it – great booking, historic building, gorgeous backyard. I want to build on the real Austin, Texas, experience. Not Disneyworld, but rock & roll, you know?"

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