Fri November 1, 2013 5:43 pm By Patricia Sharpe

Arro, a French restaurant in downtown Austin, opened in July with executive chef/partner Drew Curren and pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren, his wife, at the helm. Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe recently spoke with Drew Curren about why he chose to try this cuisine in Austin, his influences, and his love of frog legs.

Patricia Sharpe: Why a French restaurant?

Drew Curren: It’s a long story. I met Mary Catherine and we started dating when we were both attending the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. We were trained in classic French techniques, and that’s when we first thought of one day opening a restaurant together. Fast forward to the present. We did a take on comfort food with 24 Diner, which is open round the clock, and then baked goods and charcuterie and things like that at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. After that we felt we were finally ready to show Austin that you could do French food without it all being heavy brown sauces or butter or heavy cream. We wanted to focus on the light, clean side of French food.

PS: Austin doesn’t have an extremely strong tradition of French restaurants. Did you think there would be a learning curve?

DC: Absolutely, but our goal was to be very approachable. We don’t ever want to intimidate people or make them feel confused about the food. People like what they like, and if they want a steak and fries, it’s an easy jump to steak frites. You go from there. It’s up to us to show them that French food can be fantastic.

PS: Going back to the beginning, when did you know you wanted to be a chef?

DC: At the end of my fifth year of college, I took a study abroad program in Italy and that’s when I fell in love with food and wine. I had actually cooked my way through college, but I never realized it was a career option. When I came back from Italy, I called all my brothers and my parents and said, “Hey, I think I want to cook.” And they were all super supportive.

PS: And so you ended up enrolling at CIA?

DC: Yes. I was a little older than some students and I had already graduated from college and gotten some of the partying out of me, so I was able to really focus. I graduated valedictorian of my class and along the way I met some great people and cooked at some great restaurants. The day I graduated, I flew to Vietnam and cooked at some of the festivities they have every year celebrating the reunification in 1976 of northern and southern Vietnam. I met chefs from all over the world there. That was a key time for me because so much of this industry is about networking and meeting people.

PS: Do you have any particularly influential chefs or mentors?

DC: Floyd Cardoz was the first big-name chef that I cooked under when I was in Manhattan. He was with the huge Danny Meyer restaurant group, and what I really admired about him was he stressed the importance of taking care of your family first. After I left Floyd I worked for Jonathan Waxman. He had been one of the pioneers of California cuisine, fusing French cooking techniques with the freshest local ingredients. He brought that approach to New York in the eighties. I credit him with teaching me to write a menu every morning in the farmer’s market, and to not be afraid of changing my plans if the quality of the produce wasn’t there.

PS: When you decided to take the plunge, did you go to France or visit other French restaurants in Texas or the U.S.?

DC: I read a lot of cookbooks (laughs). I wanted to make sure that our restaurant was based on correct techniques and the classics. I didn’t want to make it whimsical or different just for the sake of being different. I spent a lot of time writing the menu—I must have written five before the one that we opened with.

PS: Do you have a favorite dish?

DC: I’m very excited about the frog’s legs. Growing up, my dad loved to order frog’s legs, so that’s a special dish for me. We do them in brown butter, garlic, and cherry tomatoes, and surprisingly enough, it’s one of our best sellers. My parents came in for their 47th wedding anniversary and I got to feed my dad frog’s legs off of my menu.

PS: Were you ever tempted to put jalapeños in anything to give it a familiar touch for Texas diners?

DC: Absolutely not! I want it to be approachable and comfortable, but I don’t want to bastardize French cuisine. I do like a little bit of heat in some of the dishes, but I would never attempt it to go Southwest or fusion or make it Texas French—that’s just not my style.

PS: How did you prepare psychologically for the opening of Arro?

DC: About two months before we opened, we went to New York—my three partners and our wives—and basically spent the entire time eating. And not just French restaurants, but restaurants that are known for their service. We had about a six-hour-long lunch at Bouley, one of those super old-school French dining rooms with cheese carts and bread carts and sommeliers and the whole thing. We started and ended with champagne, just to get really excited about what we were about to do.

PS: Did that play into your final concept for Arro?

DC: We took away so many things from that experience. To mention just one, we saw how even more important than training your crew is creating a culture where everyone on your staff wants to give the customers the best experience they could possibly have. That’s the hardest thing to teach but the most rewarding.

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Fri November 1, 2013 3:39 pm By Layne Lynch

Just a few weeks ago, famed Austin chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of La Condesa and Sway exited their acclaimed restaurants to pursue other unnamed interests. And while the talented duo has yet to confirm any official plans at the moment, the restaurants they left behind have moved forward with two new faces: Rick Lopez as the executive chef of La Condesa and Alexis Chong as the executive chef of Sway.

Lopez chatted with Texas Monthly about life without Ortiz and Sawicki, his love for fall fare and queso, and what the next five years looks like for La Condesa .

Texas Monthly: Tell me about the changes that have taken place since you took over the executive chef position at La Condesa.

Rick Lopez: There have not been any major changes in the kitchen. The biggest change would be that people just want to know who I am.

TM: It goes without saying that Rene and Laura were a major force for La Condesa. How have you and the pastry team gone about filling their shoes since they left? 

RL: Rene and Laura are a huge part of who I am in the kitchen. I still remember doing my tasting for them as a sous chef at La Condesa. They are in my heart and are both very special people professionally and personally, but filling their shoes is not on my agenda. Rather, I want to put my own stamp on the story being told and oversee the evolution of La Condesa as we near our fifth anniversary.  I worked with Rene for years and he taught me to have a soul, a story, and to cook with my heart. People appreciate that honesty in food. 

TM: You’ve mentioned that you want to honor the tradition of La Condesa but also institute a necessary evolution. What does that move entail and how have you honored that thus far? 

RL: Honoring the tradition at La Condesa means staying true to our roots, culture, and the foods that have been executed for generations. The evolution of food is a game all chefs play in the industry. It’s authentic versus authenticating. For example, using local farmers and all their goods. I also like to work with familiar, more traditional dishes and apply different techniques and stronger ingredients to make the dish really stand out. I want it to be something we can call our own. 

TM: La Condesa is coming up on its fifth anniversary. What do the next five years look like for the restaurant? In other words, how do you keep things fresh and interesting amidst all these new concepts opening around Austin? 

RL: I think the next five years for La Condesa can only get better. We are always pushing forward with new ideas and better ways to make the food translate to American palates. We’re busier than we’ve ever been and I think the product is as good as it’s ever been. We’ve done that for five years and we’ll do it for another five – at least.  Some of my buddies are doing really awesome food in their kitchens, and I love tasting and understanding what they are trying to do, too. This city is growing so fast and new concepts keep popping up every month. I love it. The growth of the city alone keeps all of us excited to do new foods and show our new arrivals that we aren’t just live music and queso anymore. But, honestly, we all still love queso.

TM: We’re going into the fall and winter season finally. What are some of the ingredients and dishes you’re looking forward to bringing to life in the kitchen?  

RL: I love the fall. Fall means root vegetables and greens. I am in love with butternut squash and sweet potatoes. We like to braise, cure, confit, pickle, and act like we were all raised in France. I’m most excited about getting a whole goat in the next couple days. I see us making empanadas, barbacoa, albondigas (meatballs), soup and crispy ribs with a spicy glaze.

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Sun October 20, 2013 1:47 pm By Patricia Sharpe

Get your holiday shopping done early at the third annual online auction known as Food Fight. Sponsored by the Austin chapter of Les Dames d' Escoffier, an international service organization of female culinary professionals  (full disclosure, I’m a member), Food Fight is up and running now through October 26.

It offers a wide range of delicious culinary gifts and experiences. Among the items up for bid are a one-night stay (with two meals) at the Inn Above Onion Creek in Kyle, two three-day passes for Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, two tickets to the Meatopia food festival in San Antonio, a ticket to the Barbecue Summer Camp in College Station sponsored by Foodways Texas, a Middle Eastern feast for twelve,  a handmade pasta cooking class, a guided tasting at Fall Creek Vineyards led by winemaker Sergio Cruadra (including reserve and limited-release wines, a barrel tasting, and assorted cheeses), and a photograph (shown) by well-known food photographer Jody Horton, co-author of the cookbook Afield. 

All proceeds benefit the Austin Les Dames group, which supports local school garden projects, culinary scholarships, and hunger relief programs.

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Wed October 9, 2013 1:12 pm By Patricia Sharpe

“This isn’t a fad. This isn’t a cronut.” So says one of the people interviewed for this New York Times story on the kolache, the traditional Czech pastry filled with fruit, sausage, or cheese. Headlined “The Kolache: Czech-Tex Road Food,” the Dining section feature looks at the growing statewide popularity and evolution of this bready snack, which came to Texas with Czech immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. For a funny and touching personal account, check out our own story of kolache obsession by Texas writer Stephan Harrigan, from March 2012. 

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Tue October 8, 2013 11:05 am By Patricia Sharpe

Two Dallas restaurants have made Esquire’s list of the twenty best new restaurants of the year, chosen by its longtime critic John Mariani. The pair are Spoon Bar & Kitchen, by chef John Tesar, and Stampede 66, by chef Stephan Pyles. No other Texas restaurants made the cut, although Mariani checked out a score or more in Austin, Houston, and Dallas.

Of Spoon, Mariani wrote, “Tesar built his reputation at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Following a zigzag career, he has returned to open Spoon, certainly the most exciting new seafood restaurant in America since New York's Marea opened four years ago.”

Summing up Stampede 66, Mariani said, “Thirty years ago, Stephan Pyles's restaurant Routh Street Café, a pioneer of New Texas cuisine, appeared on this list. His namesake, Stephan Pyles, won him Chef of the Year honors in 2006. Now, with Stampede 66 (Pyles's family once owned a Phillips 66 gas station), he has culled all he truly loves about the old and new traditions of his home state and brought them to vivid life in a hugely entertaining restaurant.”

The full story will appear in Esquire’s November issue and is online now. 

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