Sun April 26, 2015 3:14 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities will descend upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we spoke with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.  

Below, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, his favorite Austin restaurants, the progression of Oxheart and a dreamy Taylor Swift-themed restaurant.

Congratulations on your second James Beard nomination. What was your reaction to find out that you were once again featured amongst some of the top chefs in the nation?

It’s always a huge rush of emotion. These types of awards are things you always dream about even before you’ve had a chance to start your career. I remember wanting to go eat at Quattro all during high school because Chef Tim Keating he was the only chef from Houston nominated for a James Beard and trying to save money so I could go eat there.

To even be considered one of the country’s top chefs is very humbling and it makes me very proud to be a part of a team that hopefully puts out great meals every night. 

I hate to ask this question, but I’m going to anyways: if not you, who should win Best Chef Southwest?

Well, except for this year when I didn’t have a moment to go out for my birthday, I would always go eat at Hugo’s. There is no restaurant that is more consistent and delicious, and there is no more gracious and deserving chef than Chef Hugo Ortega and his team. 

Looking back, how would you say Oxheart has evolved, progressed, or transformed in the years since its opening?

I think the restaurant as a whole is just more functional, as we’ve finally had the money to do things like buy more comfortable chairs and stools for the counter. Our service staff, Diana and Bridget, has been with us for almost two years and they’ve just really hit a groove and are amazing service people. They make it a lot of fun to eat with us.

The food is less plated and more focused on flavor. It’s more rustic, but still fun and I hope both thought provoking and tasty at the same time. This past year we switched to just two, six-course tasting menus to help us really dial in the type of food we really want to put out. In the three years of menus when I look back, I can’t believe the amount of personal growth our kitchen has had.

To be honest, there were times where I put stuff on the plate that I was just really excited about or put too many garnishes or flourishes that didn’t really add to the food. Those were things that I learned when I worked in California and staged in Europe that I thought were cool. But it makes sense there, not here. We don’t really get those really delicious flavorful small leaves and herbs. I hope nowadays our food seems more mature, but still pushes the boundaries of what people know about food. But the days of a cold thing on a plate with eight leaves sticking up in the same direction are probably done for us. 

How do you think you as a chef have changed?

I’d like to think I’m a little more relaxed. I used to be really uptight and controlling about every little thing. I’m probably still a little controlling, but I’ve learned that I have to really trust my staff. With my more senior kitchen members, our sous chefs Mark and Jason, and with Sam, who started with us way back when, I like to get a heavy dose of input from them on the function of the kitchen and how the food tastes.

 I think it shows in how the food tastes better, services run smoother, and everyone has a better time. The food still has one voice, but a lot of people help shape that voice.

Does the pressure to perform above and beyond ever alleviate, or is it a pressure you feel every day in the kitchen?

It’s a huge weight to have to represent the great press we’ve been lucky enough to receive. Some days it feels like a little too much. I’ve had plenty of people tell me “Well, we were really hoping this would be a lot like The French Laundry,” but many of those people also walked out after dinner loving us because we weren’t necessarily like The French Laundry.

I have no illusions that I’ll ever be a good enough chef to own a restaurant like that, but I do know I love making people happy by cooking food, and I’ll just continue doing that with what we have, the best way I know how.  

I love that you opened a bar with Justin Vann. What was the attraction to highlighting whisky in particular?

Funny you say that. Public Services originally at first was supposed to be a wine first, whisky bar second, hence why wine is first in the name. But people just really love whisky, and the space that we walked into really lends itself to having nice, quiet conversation with a nice glass of brown drink.

I’m exceptionally lucky to have Justin, who knows a good amount about whisky in addition to wine, and a great general manager, Sean [Jensen], who brought a lot to the table, too. Just like Oxheart, we just wanted to do something a little different.

There are plenty of cocktail bars on the block [in Houston] and Poison Girl and Reserve and Dipper have such great selections of bourbons already; we wanted to showcase a side of whisky that was less well represented in the city.

I had someone I didn’t know even come tell me we were going to fail if we didn’t expand our bourbon selection, but we’re doing well. Both Justin and I have a little bit of gamble in us because who would have thought a vegetable-focused tasting menu restaurant would do well in Houston either?  

You’re from Houston, so I have to ask where you like to stop and dine when you come to Austin?

I had a really friggin’ great meal at Olamaie about six months ago. Everything from the beautiful room to the great drinks and the food was great. It’s modern, but approachable in a fun way. I love Tatsu-ya [of Ramen Tatsu-ya] and want to check out his new space. Of course, Qui and Lenoir are always great.

I’ve been dying to get back to Bufalina though. I had a really rushed meal there because I had to get back to Houston, and I want to sit and enjoy myself because the pizza and wine list is really fantastic.  

What chefs are you most excited to see at the Festival?

It’s always fun to bullshit with Ned [Elliott] from Foreign & Domestic whenever I see him. Especially since the L.A. Lakers had such a great season this year.

I’m also just excited to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. Last year I meet Diego Galicia and Jesse Torres from Mixtli, and I’ve really admired from afar what they’re doing in San Antonio. 

The growing season in Texas is always sporadic, but humor me, what are some of the ingredients you’re looking forward to playing with this season?

I’m just ready for spring produce to actually get here. It’s been a really wet season and we’re in the middle of a huge gap between winter and spring produce because a lot of seeds rotted in the ground.

I’ll be excited when there are more bright leaves rather than just roots to work with. It’s been a tough last month. 

Tell me what you’ll be doing at the Festival.

I’ll be doing a simplified version of our sunchoke dish from Oxheart at the Taste of Texas Kickoff event. They’re sunchokes from Animal Farm in Cat Springs, roasted then fried and served with honey, cream, Meyer lemon, and tea. 

What’s next for you or for Oxheart?

Who knows. I’m happy where I am right now, but the possibility of new things popping up is always possible. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a Taylor Swift-themed, all meat restaurant and dance club with artisan soda sommeliers. Maybe then she’ll come and eat with us when she comes into town in September. She can leave Calvin Harris at the door though. 

Wed April 22, 2015 6:43 pm By Patricia Sharpe

fino closingJust like the housing market, the restaurant industry is all about location, location, location.

That merciless truth reared its ugly head last weekend when a sentimental favorite of mine, Austin’s Fino, closed its doors for the last time.

But restaurants go out of business every day. Why am I getting misty about this one? Because ten years ago I wrote a story headlined “How to Open a Restaurant.” It was a behind-the-scenes at what it takes to usher a new dining establishment into the world. For eight months I embedded with Fino’s owners, Lisa and Emmett Fox, their contractor, architect, and carpenters, watching it grow from an empty shell full of sawhorses and construction debris to a slick restaurant and bar with a great geometric wooden screen down the middle and a tall vase of flowers on the hostess stand.

fino austin closing

There were many anxious moments,  and some funny ones too, but only in retrospect. My most vivid memory was the night of the friends-and-family dinner, when Murphy’s Law kicked in with a vengeance: The air conditioning failed. In JULY. And right around the dessert course, some kitchen shelves holding hundreds of plates gave way and crashed to the floor with a sound like an atom bomb going off. (I found out later that somebody had used the wrong size screws.)

But Fino opened the next night and in the first heady years, Lisa and Emmett had every reason to think it would be a long-term success. After all, their Italian restaurant, Asti, in Austin’s Hyde Park, certainly was. And Fino had a lot going for it. It was a pioneer in the small-plate dining trend. It had one of the first community tables in the city. Its Middle Eastern–oriented menu was fairly novel for the time. It was one of the first to use Michael Hsu, who went on to become one of the most sought-after restaurant designers in the state. And one of its first cocktail specialists was Bill Norris, who had a cult following even then.

fino austin closing

But all those positives couldn’t counteract the bad-location mojo: Fino was upstairs, a block off a busy street, and not easy to find.

And so it closed. I had dinner there on a pretty Friday night two days before the official last day, April 19. When my friends and I walked in, every one of the little wooden tables on the wrap-around terrace was filled. Many people were craning their necks and taking pictures with their phones. We did the same. We didn’t want to forget. And I’m sure all of us were kicking ourselves, thinking, if I had just come here a little more often, maybe this wouldn’t be happening.

A few days earlier, to bring things full circle, I had met with Lisa and Emmett and asked them to reflect on the end of an era and talk about their next new restaurant, Cantine, which is supposed to open around May in Lamar Union, the hot new shopping complex on S. Lamar.

Texas Monthly: Will any of the “greatest hits” from Fino make the transition to Cantine?

Lisa Fox: The fried goat cheese with honey and red onion jam, for sure—it has been a classic since day one. The pork pinchitos on a skewer, and the flatbread we make in house.

Emmett Fox: The fried olives. And some of the dips, like the muhummara [red peppers and walnuts].  

EF: And we’ll have some popular dishes from Asti, like the white pizza, with three cheeses and truffle oil.

LF: But there will be original dishes too. One big thing is that we’ll have all fresh pasta, because we have a fantastic pasta machine. Our executive chef at Fino, Luke Hursey, will move to Cantine.

TM: Is Michael Hsu doing the design?

LF: Yes. The whole room will be very open, with lots of natural light. We’ll have a marble-topped bar.

EF: He wanted to keep it simple and organic. The walls will be covered in loblolly pine “tiles”—as he calls them—that come from trees that were scorched in the big forest fires in Bastrop a few years back. The trees belonged to a friend, who had to cut them down.

TM: What’s the size, compared to Fino?

EF: Similar, but not as big outside. Around a hundred seats, with maybe thirty outside.

TM: If you don’t mind me asking, how expensive was it to do Cantine and how are you financing it?

EF: With private investors, like we did with Fino. It’s at least three times more expensive to open a restaurant now. Shares in Fino were $25,000 each. For Cantine, they were $100,000. Even so, we raised the money in less than a month.

TM: What kind of crowd do you expect?

LF: Probably younger and hipper. We’ll have to keep up!

TM: Was it a hard decision to close Fino? Was it sudden or gradual?

LF: I’d say gradual. Fino was a good business at first. We employed thirty people consistently, but it never really grew like we wanted.

EF: We tried to keep our name in the public eye—we called it the dog and pony show. We were out in public, we did social media. We did some radio.  We had a marketing and PR person for years. We even considered renting space on that billboard right out there at Lamar and Twenty-ninth, but it was something like $10,000 a month! We decided against it [laughs].

LF: After the first few years, Fino just maintained. And this last year or two, with so many new restaurants opening in Austin, things started slowing noticeably.

EF: Closing Fino was a very, very hard decision. We loved the place and put a lot into it. And we loved our staff—they did amazing jobs.

LF: The crew took a lot of ownership in the place

EF: So it was really emotional to have to tell them that we were closing. They were crying; they came up and hugged us. But there’s a happy ending, too, because a lot of them are coming over to Cantine. We kept as many as we could.

LF: They’re family.

fino austin closing(Emmett and Lisa Fox, center. Photographs by Kenny Braun.)

Tue March 31, 2015 9:30 am By Patricia Sharpe

olamaie austin

Once again, Food & Wine is giving Texas some love. The two chef-owners of Austin restaurant Olamaie—Michael Fojtasek, 35, and Grae Nonas, 28—have been named to Food & Wine’s list of the Best New Chefs in America for 2015. The announcement was made this morning (March 31, 2015).

When contacted by email yesterday and asked how they were reacting to the news, Nonas (pictured below, right, next to Fojtasek) replied, “It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m very humbled.” He added that they were in New York at the moment and that he intended to celebrate later by having a slice of Crack Pie, the famous chess pie with an oatmeal cookie crust from Momofuku Milk Bar.

Fojtasek said, “It was an out-of-body experience when they gave us the news. We were blown away!”

michael fojtasek grae nonas olamie

Olamaie is a modern Southern restaurant in the vein of Husk (Charleston and Nashville), McCrady’s (Charleston), and Catbird Seat (Nashville), which are known for lightening up the region’s traditional, often-heavy cuisine.

It serves dishes like a variation on purloo, a time-honored rice stew, with squab over Carolina gold rice with fresh okra and fermented cayenne peppers. Other dishes are highly creative, like a smoked wahoo dip laced with Alabama’s luscious mayo-based white barbecue sauce.

Olamaie (pronounced Ola-may) opened in August 2014 and made our annual list of the best new restaurants in the state (it was number two of ten). Olamaie also recently received recognition from the James Beard Foundation, a national culinary organization.(The restaurant was a semifinalist in the JBF competition for Best New Restaurant 2015; Grae Nonas made the semifinals for Rising Star Chef of the Year,  for chefs thirty or younger.)

Texas has been a frequent presence in Food & Wine’s Best New Chef line-up since it began in 1988. Texas chefs made the list the last three consecutive years, and overall, twenty Texas chefs (representing eighteen restaurants) have been selected. Here’s the list:

  • 2015      Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas (Olamaie, Austin)
  • 2014      Matt McCallister (FT33, Dallas), Paul Qui (Qui, Austin), Justin Yu (Oxheart, Houston)
  • 2013      Chris Shepherd (Underbelly, Houston)
  • 2011      Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine, Austin)
  • 2009      Bryan Caswell (Reef, Houston)
  • 2005      Tyson Cole (Uchi, Austin)
  • 2003      David Bull (Driskill Grill, Austin) and Scott Tycer (Aries, Houston)
  • 2001      Will Packwood (Emilia’s, Austin)
  • 1998      Danielle Custer (Laurels, Dallas)
  • 1997      George W. Brown Jr. (Seventeen Seventeen, Dallas)
  • 1996      Monica Pope (Boulevard Bistrot, Houston)
  • 1994      Michael Cordúa (Churrascos, Houston)
  • 1990      David Holben and Lori Finkelman Short (both at the Riviera, Dallas)
  • 1988      Bruce Auden (Polo’s, San Antonio) and Robert McGrath (Four Seasons, Houston)

(Photos by Robert J. Lerma)

Tue March 24, 2015 10:39 am By Patricia Sharpe

Chefs from Austin and Houston are among six finalists for a regional chef award from the James Beard Foundation, a competition often described as the Oscars of the restaurant industry. The Texas competitors for Best Chef: Southwest are Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue) of Austin (pictured); Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine, Odd Duck) of Austin; Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s, Caracol) of Houston; and Justin Yu (Oxheart) of Houston.

The other two competitors for the Southwest award are Kevin Binkley (Binkley’s Cave Creek, Arizona) and Martín Rios (Restaurant Martín, Santa Fe, New Mexico).

The finals were announced today, February 24. Winners will be revealed at a black-tie gala in Chicago the evening of Monday, May 4, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Celebrity chef and television personality Alton Brown will host the ceremonies. Chef co-chairs of the awards gala are Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, and Paul Kahan, of Chicago. Tickets will go on sale Wednesday, April 1, through the Beard website.

Texas chefs had been nominated in six other categories, but they did not make it to the finals.

(Photo by Wyatt McSpadden)

Wed February 18, 2015 1:25 pm By Layne Lynch

It’s that time of year again: The James Beard Foundation, the nation’s culinary institution, has announced the semifinalists in its 2015 Restaurant and Chef awards. A handful of Texas names are included among them.

Read below to see if your favorite Texas chefs, bars, and restaurants made the cut:

Best New Restaurant:

San Salvaje, Dallas (included in Texas Monthly’s Where to Eat Now 2015)

Olamaie, Austin (included in Texas Monthly’s Where to Eat Now 2015)

Outstanding Bar Program

Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

Outstanding Chef

Stephan Pyles, Dallas

Outstanding Wine Program

Hugo’s, Houston

Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional

James Tidwell, Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas, Irving

Rising Star of the Year

Mark Buley and Sam Hellman-Mass, Odd Duck, Austin

Grae Nonas, Olamaie, Austin

Best Chef: Southwest

David Bull, Congress, Austin

Omar Flores, Casa Rubia, Dallas

Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, Austin

Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner, The Pass, Houston

Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine, Austin

Matt McCallister, FT33, Dallas

Hugo Ortega, Hugo’s, Houston

John Tesar, Knife, Dallas

David Uygur, Lucia, Dallas

Justin Yu, Oxheart, Houston

Hugo Ortega’s Houston restaurant, Hugo’s, received two recognitions this year: one for Best Chef Southwest and another for Outstanding Wine Program. “It feels great to be recognized in this way,” Ortega tells Texas Monthly. “I am very proud of the work we are doing at each of the restaurants and especially happy that Sean [Beck, Hugo’s sommelier,] was recognized for his solid effort over the years.”

Bobby Heugel, owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge, says it’s always an honor to receive recognition from the James Beard Foundation. “We’re excited that our effort to open a small cocktail bar that Houstonians would love has somehow resonated with a broader national community,” he says.

The James Beard Foundation awards ceremony will take place at Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, May 4, 2015.