For five years, Jesse Herman, owner of La Condesa, has been working on the concept behind his yet-to-be-opened Thai restaurant in Austin. His modern Mexican establishment, La Condesa, has garnered culinary praise from all over Lone Star State and the nation. So what’s a guy that owns one of the most respected Mexican restaurants in Austin doing opening a Thai restaurant? Is it insanity, or pure genius? Herman talked with TEXAS MONTHLY about his Thai restaurant, Australian cuisine, and how Rene Ortiz is so fluent in Thai…food.
Your other restaurant, La Condesa, embodies modern Mexican cuisine. Why open a Thai restaurant?
That’s a cool question because a lot of people have said it’s odd what we’re doing, but they don’t understand the reasoning behind it. Both my business partner and I lived in Thailand at different times during college. I [also] lived in Australia, and there is this style of modern Thai food in Australia and it’s as significant as Mexican food in Texas. You’ve got a culture of Australian chefs preparing Thai food that are influenced by modern Australian cuisine. It doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world, except Australia, and it reminded me of La Condesa’s concept as far as it being a modern take on food where you can relate to it and understand it, but you experience it in an elevated way, in terms of the atmosphere, the food, the presentation, the service, everything. Five years ago, I put together a business plan for this idea, but I didn’t know how to do the food because it’s not something you really see around here. It all came together when Rene [Ortiz] cooked dinner at a birthday celebration and he made a whole fried fish, which is very traditional Thai, and he also made crispy pork hock, which is a dish from a very well-known Thai chef, David Thompson, an Australian that owns restaurants in Sydney, London, and Bangkok. I asked him how he knew how to make this dish, and he said, “Well, I learned to cook Thai food in Sydney.” He had lived there for a few years and worked with a chef in Sydney. A lightbulb kind of went off, and we’ve been working on the project ever since. All the pieces just fell into place.
Will Rene be the chef at the restaurant?
Yeah, Rene will be the executive chef and partner and Laura [Sawicki] is going to be the executive pastry chef. A lot of the kitchen crew will be coming over from La Condesa.
When are you planning on opening?
Within the next couple of months. We’re getting closer and closer to opening.
Is Thai food well represented in Texas?
It has nothing to do with Texas. Nationally, we’re used to a certain type of experience with Thai restaurants, and we [hope] to turn that upside down.
What are some dishes or things we can expect from the restaurant?
Because of how we work with seasonality, I don’t even know what the opening menu is going to be like, but what I can tell you is that there is going to be a lot of familiar things that are still going to be prepared traditionally with a little bit of our twist on it. There are going to be a lot of things that people have never heard of, seen, or tasted before. We’ve been working on this menu for a long time, and one of the unique aspects from our culinary standpoint is that Rene and Laura work very closely together, and you don’t often see chefs and pastry chefs working so closely together. Delfo, Rene, and I spent a couple of weeks in Australia visiting all of the restaurants that had inspired me and that inspired and taught Rene. We visited a lot of his old friends in Sydney, and that was really refreshing to see exactly what’s going on and how we want to adapt that here. I wouldn’t have opened the restaurant if I felt this was something we were trying to just figure out how to do. Ethnic food inspires Laura and Rene and our partners, but at the end of the day, if you want to execute at a certain level, it takes a tremendous knowledge base and skill to do something like this. We can’t wait to showcase what we have in store.