Texas French Bread heightens its ambitions with new executive chef Max Mackinnon

Texas French Bread has elevated its ambitions. The Austin staple owned by Murph Willcott has offered regular dinner service for about seven years, but with the hiring of new executive chef Max Mackinnon, the restaurant that opened its original location in 1981 under the stewardship of Willcott’s parents, Judy and Paul, has signaled that it has grown more intent on becoming a serious player in Austin’s dining scene.

Chilled carrot and avocado salad with spiced carrot puree, cilantro and pecan from Texas French Bread. (Contributed by Ilana Panich-Linsman)

“In so many ways, Texas French Bread feels like a natural fit, and my general feeling as the incoming chef is that the food should not feel like a tremendous departure from the fresh, seasonal menu that Texas French Bread has offered in recent years,” Mackinnon said. “Rather, my focus will be on developing the culinary team and making sure that up and down the line, we have the skills to execute core bistro techniques that can elevate a very simple dish into something truly and consistently special.”

Mackinnon’s seasonal and ingredient-driven menu currently includes dishes like chicken country pâté, chilled carrot and avocado salad with spiced carrot purée, tagliatelle with Gulf shrimp and pompano with charred cabbage, a dish reminiscent of that which Mackinnon cooked for Willcott during a dress rehearsal dinner for the role.

“I like simple, humble, restrained but really well-executed food, and I feel like I speak the same language as those guys,” said Willcott, who points to Montreal bistro L’Express as the template for the consistency of quality he’d like his restaurant to emulate under Mackinnon.

The chef joins Texas French Bread following a quick stint back home in Vermont, where he first came to national attention as the executive chef of Pistou, a restaurant that earned him a James Beard semifinalist nod for Best New Restaurant in America directly out of culinary school at the former French Culinary Institute in New York.

Judy Willcott opened the campus-area location of Texas French Bread in 1987. (Contributed by Ilana Panich-Linsman)

After leaving his home state, Mackinnon worked at esteemed restaurants in Copenhagen and Washington before helping San Francisco restaurant Mason Pacific earn Bib Gourmand honors from the Michelin Guide.

Mackinnon is joined at the restaurant by his wife, a longtime Texas French Bread regular and former wine rep, Carenn Jackson, who will serve as the restaurant’s general manager and beverage director.

Exclusive: Olamaie opening fast-casual concept, Mignette, at St. Elmo Public Market

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One of the city’s best chefs is taking a more casual approach to his second concept. Olamaie chef-owner Michael Fojtasek, a James Beard finalist this year for Best Chef Southwest, will open Mignette at the St. Elmo Public Market in South Austin next spring. The restaurant will be one of several concepts announced today. For more on those, check out Statesman business reporter Gary Dinges’ story.

Chef Michael Fojtasek at Olamaie on May 9, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Fojtasek, whose Olamaie has earned top restaurant honors in the city from the Statesman two of the last three years, will take his same farm-to-table approach to the all-day restaurant, bakery and take-away located in the indoor-outdoor market at 4329 S. Congress Ave.

Simplicity and sustainability will be the hallmarks of the locally sourced ingredients used to build a menu that will include classic Southern meat-and-three dishes, sandwiches, baked goods as Sothern staples like and biscuits and gravy. Yes, Olamaie-level biscuits available all day. Mignette will also sell packaged meals for grab-and-go convenience.

“Mignette, another restaurant with a family name, will be sunny and fun, but also soulful and delicious,” Fojtasek said in a statement. “It’s a chance for the team to let our hair down and play with the same ingredients and ideas of Olamaie, but in a light and casual way. St. Elmo Marketplace is going to be a special place. I can’t wait to work in Austin’s version of the San Francisco Ferry Building.”

For more on St. Elmo Public Market, head to MyStatesman.com.


Chef Philip Speer’s food truck dedicated to recovery closes but mission continues

Bonhomie chef Philip Speer and partner William Ball have closed their brunch-centric food truck My Name is Joe after a little over a year in business.

Ny Name is Joe owners Philip Speer (left) and William Ball. (Credit: Julie Cope Photography)

The truck donated profits to Comfort Cafe in Smithville, which supports the Serenity Star recovery center. My Name is Joe raised over $50,000 in 2017 and sent 100 percent of that to Serenity Star to fund the completion of their Women’s Center and their Family Center, according to Speer.

“We are happy to continue to work with Serenity Star and Comfort Cafe, not only with fundraising but with job placement as well,” Speer said. “With My Name is Joe, we have been able to employ several people in recovery and move them on to restaurants such as Holy Roller, Juniper, Bonhomie, etc.”

While the truck has shuttered for now, Speer, who got sober in 2014 and has since raised awareness also by running marathons and rappelling down buildings with chefs, says the work helping those in recovery continues.

“For us, this is our focus right now, being as impactful as we can be. Joe is absolutely still alive, we are just refocusing our efforts right now!”

Jester King opening restaurant helmed by chef from recently shuttered the Hollow in Georgetown

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One of the best hidden gems in the greater Austin metropolitan area apparently closed over the weekend. The Hollow, the amorphous farm-to-table bistro from chef Jacob Hilbert, ended its three year-run. The end of the restaurant, which I reviewed positively in 2016, was fittingly accompanied by a passionate, lengthy letter from the chef, one full of energy and romance and devoid of many grammatical strictures. I say “apparently closed” because a Facebook post makes it seem like the closure is not definite, and I say “fittingly” because in recent years, I (and l presume others in media) received several similar impassioned letters from the chef who opened the Georgetown restaurant with his wife, mother-in-law and father-in-law in 2013. Also, fittingly, the very long letter buried the lede: Hilbert says he has plans to open a farmhouse restaurant on the Jester King Brewery property with the brewery owners. But more on that in a minute.

Beet-cured redfish crudo flavored with ginger and citrus vinaigrette at the Hollow. (Jay Janner AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The letters from Hilbert over the past few years would sometimes explain a temporary closure or a wholesale menu change. They could be filled with abstruse ramblings or poignant vulnerability, but at their heart they showed the soul of a creative person struggling to come to terms with his gift and his place in the world (and specifically his place in Georgetown).

Chef Jacob Hilbert dressed in an apron featuring the image of famed chef Marco Pierre White. (Jay Janner AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The letter that came last week detailed Hilbert’s formative years as a promising baseball prospect and the heartbreak that came with a career-ending injury, along with the manner and style in which he aborted graduate school, leaving behind the pursuit of a career as a therapist to follow his love for food. Like good food memoirs, the letter waxes rhapsodically, with the eventual chef describing his departure from academia thusly: “I became drunk in vats of menudo and posole, my thoughts were irrational, my studies lost in the steam of simmering pots, and I quit.”

Of his pursuit of culinary bliss, Hilbert writes sweetly about his late mother, ominously about his life-threatening drug problems of the past, achingly about Little League baseball and wistfully about Allen Ginsberg. He saved his most heartfelt words for his wife, Lynda. 

“Lynda believed in me when she should not have, she loved me when I did not deserve it. She did not give up. She did not give up through lies, infidelity, grotesque dedication to my lost craft, absent fatherhood, narcissistic rants. I took her to hell, and she stood among the perils of tectonic consequence. I did not ask her to be stoic, but she was, and I am now just a slight reward for her suffering, the miracle being that I may just be enough for her, as I am, without dazzling plates or articles extrapolating my character, without my be anything to anyone other than her. She is a hand that reaches out in the breathing light of day.”

But, then, this …

“When I first met with Jeffrey & Michael from Jester King there had been much talking prior, however the question or the statement had not been made. I said ‘I know this is crazy, but I want to make one of the best restaurants in the world.’ Without so much as a hesitation and in harmony the response was, ‘we want that too.’

“So this letter begins a story, a story that asks a question. How do you build one of the greatest restaurants in the world? I suppose we’ll find out together.

“This year the farmhouse will open, a more casual accessible restaurant built on the cuisine of nomads and ancient peoples, there will be fire and spit roasting and vegetables cooked in mud. We will muddle sauces in ancient ways and walk the land looking for tomorrow, we will bake bread and we will preserve things. The goal is to have the restaurant completely self-sustained, growing all of the produce, milking the cows and goats, making the cheese, hanging the charcuterie. Over the next two to three years we will be building accum. The restaurant that will change everything about the cooks working there, about the service and will make every effort to be great, even if it fails.”

Dramatic, intense, romantic and vague … sounds like Hilbert won’t be changing too much in his new setting. 

Reached for comment, Jester King founder Jeff Stuffings confirmed that the group is collaborating with Hilbert on a restaurant on the property in Southwest Austin.

“We’ve had a great relationship with chef Hilbert over the last five years though beer dinners and events, and we’re really excited to have the chance to work with him directly,” Stuffings said. “For now, we’re focused on a more casual, family-friendly restaurant, which we seek to open this year. In the future, we’d like to open a smaller, more focused restaurant that’s an extension of our nascent farm. The latter would have a multi-year timeline.”

Easy Tiger has split from the ELM Restaurant Group

One of the more active restaurant groups of the past decade in Austin has decided to amicably split.

Artisan sausages at Easy Tiger. Matthew Odam/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

ELM Restaurant Group co-founder Bob Gillett has left the group to focus all of his attention on bakery, bar and restaurant Easy Tiger, the second concept from ELM, which opened on East Sixth Street in 2012.

Gillett is joined in leading Easy Tiger into the future, which includes a forthcoming location at the Linc, with partner and “head dough puncher” David Norman, one of Austin’s most accomplished and revered bakers, who will oversee bakery operations and kitchen offerings. Easy Tiger “has received additional capital from a group of local investors that will help immediately ramp up work on the eagerly anticipated Linc shop, which features a vastly expanded baking facility,” according to a rep.

Folks keeping on the Linc, have undoubtedly notices that the store originally slated to open in 2015, has been very slow in progressing. The impediments have come from the variety of ELM projects, but that pace of development should now increase.

“The Linc slowed down because ELM had so many great opportunities (Cookbook, Fareground, etc.) come up at the same time that we didn’t want to turn down,” a representative for ELM said. “We had to prioritize projects based on quite a few factors (timelines, partners, resources, etc). The pace will definitely pick up again with the new focus and money.”

The other three founding ELM partners – chef Andrew Curren, co-founder Scott Hentschel and finance director Vince Ashwill – will continue to manage 24 Diner, Italic, Irene’s and Fareground (where Easy Tiger will remain  in operation), as well as work toward opening Cookbook at the Austin Central Library this spring and 24 Diner at Domain Northside.

In addition to those changes, ELM also recently said goodbye to Mark Sayre, who led the group after two-plus years to be the new service director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality.

*This post has been updated to include information on the Linc and Fareground. 

Exclusive: ‘Top Chef’ winner Kristen Kish will lead centerpiece restaurant at new Line ATX hotel

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Austin will welcome a new face to its culinary landscape when the Line ATX hotel opens in the coming months. “Top Chef” season 10 winner Kristen Kish, who also will be recognizable to viewers of the Travel Channel’s “36 Hours,” will serve as the executive chef for Arlo Grey, the centerpiece restaurant for the hotel that will take the place of the former Radisson at 111 E. Cesar Chavez.

Chef Kristen Kish. (Contributed)

The restaurant will take advantage of its urban-meets-natural location, perched just above Lady Bird Lake. While there are few details on the specific type of cuisine that will be served at Arlo Grey, a look at the Korean-born Kish’s career is instructive.

The Michigan-raised chef and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago worked at the Michelin-starred Sensing in Boston before becoming an integral part in the demi empire of Barbara Lynch, the 2014 James Beard award winner for best restaurateur in the nation, eventually serving as chef de cuisine at Lynch’s Menton, a nationally lauded French restaurant celebrated for its technique, seasonality and sophistication.

Kish left Menton in 2014 and has spent the intervening years traveling the world, writing her first cookbook (“Kristen Kish Cooking”) and appearing on “36 Hours.”

The Line is owned and operated by the Sydell Group, which has a portfolio that includes the Nomad hotels in Los Angeles and New York and iterations of the Line in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and in Washington. In partnering with chefs at some of its other properties across the country, Sydell Group has often identified local talent to lead their kitchens (Roy Choi in Los Angeles, Spike Gjerde in Washington) but decided to take a different route in hiring Kish.

Sydell Group founder and CEO Andrew Zobler said that while he didn’t want to bring in a “celebrity chef” with properties in major cities across America, he was also leery of hiring a local Austin chef and possibly running the risk of having a redundant concept in the market. He wanted to respect Austin’s identity while also aiming for uniqueness and originality.

“When Kristen came along, a bunch of bells went off,” Zobler said. “She doesn’t have her own restaurant; she’s a great cook; she’s very hospitable; has a great story. Her personality to me vibes with Austin culture. We thought it would be more fun to bring in someone who is a little bit different and offer up something to Austin that it didn’t already have.”

While Kish will be new to Austin, she will be joined at the hotel by a chef familiar to discerning Austin diners. Chef Damien Brockway, formerly the executive chef of downtown tasting menu Counter 357, will helm P6, the rooftop lounge atop the hotel’s adjacent parking garage, which Zobler said will have a romantic vibe and sweeping views of the lake. Rounding out the culinary team will be Justin Ermini, previously executive chef at Las Alcobas in Mexico City, who will spearhead a ground-floor burger bar.

A rendering of rooftop lounge P6 at the Line ATX hotel.

The Line ATX is slated to open in late spring, and while no exact dates have been set for the opening of the various food and beverage concepts, Zobler says they will have a strong impact in helping define the hotel’s personality and appeal.

“Our general theory is that people want an experience of travel. They want to go some place that gives them a feeling of being in that place, and food is one way of doing it; design is another way of doing it; art is a third way of doing it. Who you engage with locally, the people you hire … there’s lots of different facets to it. Food and beverage is clearly an important part in creating a sense of destination.”

Barbecue truck LeRoy & Lewis is closed until next Wednesday

Life happens, as the Tweet from LeRoy & Lewis said this afternoon. What that means in this case is that the barbecue truck from chef Evan LeRoy and Sawyer Lewis is closed until next Wednesday.

Mac-and-cheese-stuffed smoked quail at LeRoy & Lewis.

The closure comes as a result of some personal matters that have taken the duo away from town. Rumor-mongerers and bored guessers need not look for mysterious or portentous reasons, as the closure is simply a matter of life happening and timing. The truck will be up and running at full steam next Wednesday.

If you end up over at Cosmic Coffee & Beer Garden, you can still check out the newly relocated Pueblo Viejo taco truck.