Qui chef de cuisine Jorge Hernandez wrote the following op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday. Before coming to Qui in April 2013, Hernandez was the executive sous chef at chef José Andrés’ Minibar in Washington D.C. for many years. The Culinary Institute of America graduate and San Antonio native also worked as lead cook at Andrés’ Zaytinya. (Read more about Qui, which ranked #6 on my Top 25 last year, here.)
It’s 2016, and my biggest food-related regret of 2015 is not having eaten from the tasting menu at the restaurant Congress. When I read about its closing in early December, I felt sad and could not pinpoint why. I never worked at Congress. I do not have any friends who worked there. I had no immediate reason to care about what changes they made. But, still, I was sad about the closing of this restaurant — and I had never even eaten there.
As other restaurants have close their doors recently, I have found myself defending fine dining and tasting menus to colleagues and guests: “Chef, did you hear about so and so closing?” “Chef, do you think the tasting menu fad is over?” “People in Austin want straight-forward food, chef.” “People want choice and control, chef.”
I was even asked the ultimate question: “Chef, if you opened your own restaurant, what kind of place would it be — tasting or a la carte?”
At first, I vehemently defended tasting menus and high prices. After all, I’m a chef at tasting-menu restaurant that has a reputation for being inaccessibly expensive; it so happens we offer both a la carte and tasting menus, and our price points range from $4 to $120. And I believe our food is worth $120. In fact, I think it’s a steal. But, ultimately, I think I defended Congress, and by extension Qui, because I wanted all of the effort we put forth to have value and meaning.
I made comparisons to what we do in our tasting room to restaurants like Saison in San Francisco, which charges almost triple what we do. I thought about how much dinner at Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen and elBulli in Spain cost. And I thought about how each of those meals meant so much to me. And I thought, “Can food in Austin ever be taken that seriously?” (Except for barbecue — we all take that seriously, of course.) How do we reach a point where a meal at Barley Swine, Olamaie or Qui can be put up on that level? In my book, it pretty much is. How do we convince ourselves to invest that much into something as mundane as dinner?
And then, after a couple of weeks of deliberation, I decided to stop defending tasting menus. I realized that I didn’t want to defend tasting menus or fine-dining restaurants. What I really wanted to defend is the development of a community that is willing to invest in its food and its dining experiences.
I started to think about how well this town rallies around its live-music and studio-artist communities — and I got jealous. And I realized that I wasn’t really sad about Congress closing; I was sad about the fact that I have to charge so much money in order to do what I do.
And, yet, there has to be creative solutions to this problem. We are a town of advanced technology, of lauded higher education, of progressive art form. We can do this. Restaurants can be more.