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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Fri April 11, 2014 4:11 pm By Layne Lynch

The much-anticipated Live Fire announced its chef lineup this week, and if fast-selling tickets are any indication, this will be yet another stellar year for the annual culinary benefit. This marks the fourth year since the event was first launched by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance to raise funds for culinary grants, and since 2012, the Alliance has distributed over $45,000 to local artisans and purveyors.

This year’s Live Fire will place at the Salt Lick Barbecue Pavilion in Driftwood where an assortment of Texas chefs will prepare enticing platters of beef-centric bites over flames, coals, smoke, and other forms of live fire, including sugar cane-skewered beef tongue, beef torchon with escargot, beef taquitos with ribeye, and more. Check out the roster of attending chefs below:

  • Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue
  • Matt McCallister of FT33
  • Jason Dady of Jason Dady Restaurants
  • Timothy Rattray of The Granary ‘Cue and Brew
  • Rene Ortiz & Laura Sawicki of Angry Bear
  • Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Barbecue - Killen’s Beef Ribs & Brisket.
  • Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen
  • Josh Watkins of The Carillon
  • Rick Lopez of La Condesa
  • Kendall Melton of Contigo
  • Lawrence Kocurek of Trace
  • Brandon Fuller of Café Josie
  • Kristine Kittrell of WeatherUp  
  • Ben Runkle, Bryan Butler and Josh Jones of Salt & Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria
  •  Mari Soto and Mark Morales of Whole Foods Market
  • Scott Roberts of Salt Lick Bar-B-Que
  • Jeff Martinez of El Chile Café y Cantina
  • Monica Glenn of Qui
  • Callie Speer of Swift’s Attic

In addition to sampling chef-designed hors d'oeuvres, guests can expect a spread of wines from Sommelier Paula Rester, brews from the likes of St. Arnold’s Brewery, cocktails from local establishments like Dripping Springs Vodka, and live music from country music artist Leo Rondeau.

Live Fire takes place Thursday, April 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Guests can purchase tickets through this link.

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Tue April 1, 2014 1:35 pm By Layne Lynch

Food & Wine magazine revealed its 2014 list of the Best New Chefs in America on Tuesday morning via social media, and Texas chefs clearly came out swinging. Out of the twelve chefs (from ten restaurants) honored, three hailed from the Lone Star State. This is a record for Texas, which has previously had two chefs on the annual list but not three.

Justin Yu of Oxheart (Houston), Paul Qui of qui (Austin), and Matt McCallister of FT33 (Dallas) were singled out by Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin, who dropped a hint before the list came out:

Other chefs honored include Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan (Brunswick, ME), Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Dentonof Ox (Portland, OR), Matthew Accarrino of SPQR (San Francisco), Eli Kulp of Fork (Philadelphia), Ari Taymor of Alma (Los Angeles), Dave Beran of Next (Chicago), and Walker Stern and Joe Ogrodnek of Dover (Brooklyn).

All the chefs will be featured in the magazine’s July issue. 


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