Thu April 24, 2014 2:39 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol in Houston. Below, Ortega discusses whom he feels should win the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest award, his personal culinary evolution, and seeing the Houston culinary scene transform before his eyes.  

Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Hugo Ortega: I think it has the same vibrant energy that Houston’s culinary scene does right now. Austin has a nice mix of groundbreaking chefs doing new things, such as Paul Qui, the guys at Foreign & Domestic, and those that are making traditional Texas food like Franklin BBQ.

LL: You were recently nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. I’m going to ask you a big hypothetical, so humor me: If you don’t win for Best Chef Southwest, who should and why?   

HO: I would root for my fellow chefs from Houston: Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd.

LL: You’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time now. How would you say you’ve evolved as a chef from when you started to where you are now?  

HO: I’ve learned from other chefs, traveling, taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America, learning from teachers in Mexico like Diana Kennedy and Susanna Trilling, reading books, and going to symposiums. I graduated from Houston Community College Culinary School, and my teachers there taught me a lot as well. I learn from everyone I meet. It has definitely made me a more well-rounded chef.

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.

HO: I’m making Garnachas de Tingo de Conejo – sweet potato masa cakes with rabbit stew. Tinga is a typical Mexican topping native to the state of Puebla that is made with finely shredded ground pork, beef, or chicken and stewed in a mild tomato-chipotle pepper sauce. I do my own interpretation and use rabbit instead – the way my mother prepared it at home. One of my favorite ways to eat tinga is either as a topping on garnachas, which are these delicious thick crispy potato-masa cakes, or on tostadas. 

LL: The Houston culinary scene is becoming just as big a culinary hot spot as Austin. What are the similarities you notice between the two cities? 

HO: Yes, Houston is very hot right now. There are opportunities opening up for both the first-time restaurateur and seasoned veterans. Houston is in a boom cycle, and I hope it lasts! We have diversified since the boom and bust days of the 1980s and the economy is much more stable. Austin also has a diversified economy, and that provides a stronger foundation for business growth. Real estate prices are rising fast though, and that worries me. Both cities have a lot of cultural diversity that, luckily, has an impact on the restaurants. You can dine globally in both Houston and Austin without leaving the city limits.

LL: If you were going to open another restaurant, why type of establishment would you go with and why?  

HO: I am so busy with our current restaurants right now that I am not considering anything at the moment.  But you never know…

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Thu April 24, 2014 11:52 am By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Allison Jenkins of the newly opened La V in Austin. Below, Jenkins discusses what drew her to Austin, gender stereotypes in the kitchen, and her admiration for Rick Bayless.

Layne Lynch: The Austin food and wine scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention these days. What’s going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Allison Jenkins: For a long time the culinary scene in Austin was all about burgers, barbecue, and Tex-Mex, so there was a wide open landscape. We’re seeing a lot of new people move to Austin from all of the country. That coupled with international interest in this city has created a demand for more than just burgers and tacos. Plus, the restaurant industry is the fastest growing industry in the nation so it just makes sense that Austin would see this great food boom. I love that there’s room for everyone and that people in Austin are excited to try new things.

LL: What drew you to the La V team?

AJ: I had the chance to work with Vilma Mazaite at the Little Nell in Aspen. When I learned of this opportunity brought to her by Ralph Eads, [the owner of La V], it was just too good to pass up. I was ready for a change and saw a real opportunity for growth, so I jumped in and never looked back. I always knew that if I ever came back to Texas it would be to Austin.

LL: What was the vision they communicated to you and how have you translated that to the plate?

AJ: It’s a celebration of the food and wine. It’s a lifestyle. And although the wine program has a strong emphasis on French wines, the French theme didn’t have much bearing on the decision to Provencal-inspired food. To me it was more of a challenge to look at the menu through the scope of that landscape.

LL: I've noticed a lot of publications keep pointing out that La V is led by a female team. I’m curious: why do you think kitchens and restaurants are associated as such a boy’s club, and does that stereotype bother you?

AJ: The stereotype doesn't bother me, but to a certain extent it is true. My advice to women in getting into the culinary field? In any business, you get to where you want to be by networking and there’s no difference here. Get to know your farmers and your purveyors – the people that contribute to the food you make. Also be prepared to work really hard.   

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food and Wine festival.

AJ: I wish I could, but I’m still figuring it out! We’ve been so fortunate since opening in March to be extremely busy. The people of Austin have been so great to us and the amount of interest has kept me so busy that I haven’t planned it all out yet. But I can promise a true taste of what guests get at La V!

LL: Are there any AF&W festival exhibitors you admire?

AJ: Rick Bayless. In fact, I almost went to Chicago to extern for him. He was one of the first people to expose me to Mexican and Southwestern cuisine and flavors, which led me to Santa Fe and ultimately guided my career to get me where I am.   

Read Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe's review of La V, featured in the May 2014 issue.

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Wed April 23, 2014 12:22 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston. Below, Yu discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, eating Austin ramen, and Paul Qui’s enviable fashion sense.

Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Justin Yu: There are a lot of great mentors up in Austin: chefs Tyson Cole and Philip Speer from Uchi, who've been at it for years; Paul Qui, of course; and chefs like Ned Elliot from Foreign & Domestic, Todd Duplechan from Lenoir, and Bryce Gilmore from Barley Swine. Because Austin is such an attractive place to live for young cooks with its music scene and lifestyle, it really gives chefs a chance to make their stamp. The city's rustic, yet very energetic and progressive. I've heard of plenty of cooks—from New York to San Francisco—being interested in moving to Austin to work.  

LL: Houston delivered three James Beard Award finalists this year—you being one of them. Do you see Houston becoming something similar to Austin in terms of culinary creativity and acclaim, or is it unique in its own right?

JY: Every set of restaurants has to react to their guests a little differently in their own cities. I think Houston is on par with Austin in terms of creativity, just in its own way. It is really exciting to see us using similar ingredients in different ways though. I think we, in Houston, are happy with cooking the way we love to cook the best we can't to make our guests happy, and I think Austin does the same thing. 

LL: Are there any Austin chefs or Austin restaurants that inspire you or that you admire?

JY: I wish I could be as stylish as Paul Qui. He was the only one that showed up to the Food & Wine Best New Chefs photo shoot who didn't get styled by the stylist.  

LL: Will you be checking out any restaurants while you’re in town?

JY: If I can, I've got to squeeze in a meal over at Ramen Tatsu-Ya. I love what Tatsu is doing there. It's some of the best ramen in the U.S. and I greatly admire him and his staff. 

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival.

JY: I'll be cooking at the opening event. I’m doing a little garden fritter for all the festival-goers, which is a lot—about 1,200 guests coming out of a 350 square foot kitchen—but hopefully they'll love it. 

LL: Oxheart is going into its second year. In your opinion, what’s changed about the restaurant and what’s remained the same?

JY:  think we've come into our own as far as what direction we want the food and service to go. I've moved further and further away from the way I used to cook at Ubuntu and taken a lot of cues from the things I learned when I was staging abroad to instead really make food that we think is delicious and unique. With the space, we've tried our best to make it more comfortable and welcoming; it's almost night and day from when we opened. I think we've hit a nice groove between being casual and having better than ordinary service that we didn't always have when we first opened. I like to say we're just a bunch of nerds—now we're just more comfortable with being a little nerdy. 

LL: What’s coming up for you and Oxheart in 2014? 

JY: Trying to get better. I want to make better food, deliver better service, and have guests even happier when they leave us. So, in that sense, not much will change except that we're always going to put that pressure on ourselves to make sure expectations are met and exceeded when the guests come spend their time and money with us. 

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Thu April 17, 2014 4:37 pm By Jessica Dupuy

While many Texans were up late watching the Blood Moons, grape growers in the High Plains and the Hill Country spent their nights tending vines and hoping for the best. Both regions experienced below-freezing temperatures Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, and late spring freezes like these are the sort of weather events that panic the Texas wine industry, which is carefully nurturing the delicate and young buds on the vines. Fresh spring buds, which usually appear in late March and early April, are the first step in the life of a grape cluster. Once this "bud break" has occurred, if those buds freeze and die, it means the wine growing season is off to a dismal start. 

"We had already seen a number of warm days this spring that pushed pretty much all of the buds to grow in both Hill Country and High Plains vineyards," said Lydia Wessner, vineyard manager for Grape Creek Vineyards in Fredericksburg. "If a freeze happens that reaches those buds, there's nothing you can really do about it. They're pretty much going to die." 

In the life cycle of a flowering vine, there are generally three opportunities for a bud break. The first, which has already occurred throughout Texas, can eventually develop into quality grape clusters that are optimal for wine making. If these buds freeze or break off from other weather events such as hail, there is a chance for the vine to push forth a second bud break. And while this second break may still produce grape clusters, the energy the vine has used to produce it lessens the quality in fruit you would get from a first bud break. While a third tertiary bud break is possible, it really only creates foliage for the vine to help it survive through the summer, leaving no fruit for a grape grower to harvest. 

Already across the state, there have been reports of these late spring freezes destroying many vineyards. Wessner reported that Grape Creek's Hill Country vineyards missed the freeze by a mere two degrees and are still in good shape, while areas north and west of Fredericksburg managed by William Chris Vineyards and Lewis Wines experienced a total loss. 

"If you take all of the vineyards we have spread out throughout Texas, we're looking at potentially a fifty percent loss," said Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards. "It will be interesting to see what the next few weeks will bring."

While many grape growers can still hope to recoup fruit from a second bud break this season, the spring is still far from over, and many are fearful that another freeze could develop in coming weeks. Last year, in the first week of May, the wine regions were hit with a very late spring freeze following a series of April freezes that sealed the fate of the 2013 growing season. The result left many wineries without an ounce of Texas wine to produce, and many other wineries scrambling outside of the state to source juice to make something to put on the shelves. If another freeze hits vines in coming weeks, grape growers and winemakers alike fear they may have to zero-out production for 2014 as well.

The Hill Country seemed to fair better than the High Plains this week, with temperatures staying just above freezing. But in the High Plains, reports were coming in as early as 8 a.m. Monday morning from grape grower Bobby Cox of Pheasant Ridge Winery that snow was beginning to blanket the vineyards. On Tuesday morning, Cox was notifying his community of grape growers and wineries that temperatures were hovering in the twenties. 

Dave Reilly of Duchman Family Vineyards received reports on his grapes at Bingham Family Vineyards that his Viognier was pretty much wiped out, but that things appeared to be holding steady with his Italian varieties Montepulciano, Aglianico, and Vermentino. 

"Thankfully our flagship wines are faring well," said Reilly. "They tend to break bud a little later than other grapes, which has allowed them to survive. But it's still too soon to tell what we'll be dealing with for the season." 

Following a dismal 2013 growing season, many Texas grape growers have tricks to help mitigate potential losses due to freezes. In the Mason County area in the western Hill Country, grower Drew Tallant has long implemented a frost-protection plan of using sprinklers to keep buds wet throughout a freeze. Counterintuitively, if ice forms on the buds prior to a hard freeze and continues to form from consistent sprinkling until the temperatures rise again, the buds themselves will avoid freezing. But sprinkling through a freeze requires a lot of water, a resource that the High Plains doesn't really have. 

"I wish I could use sprinkler's like Drew does," said High Plains grower Andy Timmons of Lost Draw Vineyards. "He's got a great vineyard with consistent crops, but we just can't compete with that up here.” 

In previous years, the relative newcomer to Texas grape growing has seen his neighboring colleagues use everything from helicopters flown close to the vineyards to blow cold air off of the vines to torching hay bales near the vines to keep them warm. But Timmons caught on to a different idea. 

This year he invested in four large wind machines to stand 45 feet above forty acres of his vineyards, a practice used in many of the world's wine regions. The large eighteen-foot fan panels are designed to propel enough wind over the vines to keep temperatures a few degrees above the actual temperature. 

For Timmons, this week's freeze proved he'd made a good investment. Of the forty acres covered by his machines, only about fifteen acres on the edges of the fan perimeter were effected by the harsh freeze, allowing him to salvage more than sixty percent of his vineyard. Last year, he would have had to count those as a total loss. 

Timmons, who is fast becoming one of the largest High Plains grape growers—he estimates he'll have 1,000 acres planted in coming years—is determined to be as prepared as possible with each new growing season. 

"If I'm going down, then I'm going down swinging," says Timmons. "I'm not just going to be an observer when Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball." 

Grape selection also seems to make a difference in the case of some wineries. Those grapes that tend to break bud later in the season do have a better chance against spring freezes. While Duchman Family Winery looks to a few hearty Italian varieties, others look to French Rhone red varieties like Cinsault and Mourvedre to sustain even the hardest of seasons. 

"I personally love Mourvedre," says Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines who sources his Mourvedre from Timmons. "I think it's going to be a great grape for Texas simply because it's so tough. Last year Andy didn't have his wind machines yet and after the May freeze, he was still able to bring in four tons to the acres of Mourvedre. Everything else was lost." 

While reports from this week to provoke a level of trepidation about the 2014 vintage among Texas wine industry insiders, the next few weeks will really bare out the reality of the season. For Grape Creek's Lydia Wessner, it's simply a waiting game. "It's still hard to tell what we can expect and there's really not a lot you can do, except hope."

"In times like these," said William Chris Vineyards' Chris Brundrett. "All I can do is crack open a Texas beer on the back porch to remind myself of where I've decided to farm."

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Thu April 17, 2014 9:59 am By Patricia Sharpe

If your Saturday evening is open and you live in Austin, you can still get tickets for a four-course dinner that will be prepared by four Austin chefs to help raise funds for a film chronicling the life and work of Diana Kennedy, the 91-year-old James Beard award-winning cookbook author and expert on Mexican cuisine. 

Kennedy is the author of a score of cookbooks, starting with The Cuisines of Mexico, in 1972, that captured the imagination of a generation of Americans—especially Texans—and introduced them to interior Mexican food, as opposed to the more Americanized styles, i.e., Tex-Mex, that was universal at the time. Her influence was nationwide and she has often been referred to as the Julia Child of Mexican food.

The chefs are Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki (formerly of La Condesa and Sway), Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina, and Jorge Hernandez of Qui. Each guest will go home with a copy of one of Diana's award-winning cookbooks, Oaxaca al Gusto or My Mexico, which will be personally signed by Kennedy at the end of the evening. 

The event will raise funds for the production of a feature documentary on Kennedy and her culinary legacy. It will be held at a private home in West Austin on Saturday, April 19. Tickets are $175— including dinner, wine, cocktails, and a donation—and are available here.

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