A Star-Spangled Spread
Six top Austin chefs set off culinary fireworks with a potluck picnic for the Fourth of July.
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A Fourth of July potluck picnic where the guests are chefs and every dish is an edible work of art—now that is an invitation to kill for. Fortunately for Austin’s crime statistics, murder is not necessary. But to get invited over for grilled lobster, spicy sweet-potato salad, homemade peach swirl ice cream, and more, you do need connections. Specifically, you need to be an FOF—friend of the Foxes.
The owners of the Italian restaurant Asti and chefs themselves, Emmett and Lisa Fox began throwing an annual potluck party for a rotating group of chef friends back in 1998. “We started having these dinners in the fall not long after we finished building our house,” Emmett told me while he brushed lobsters with paprika oil and arranged the beasts on the grill. The July 4 date seemed a natural addition to their culinary calendar. Not only that, it was a way to bring together chefs they had gotten to know at several of the excellent new restaurants that have recently opened in the city.
Five weeks before the real event, Casa Volpe (Italian for “Fox House”), as Lisa and Emmett call their stylish Tuscan-Texan villa outside Austin, was the scene of a pre-picnic photo shoot and sampling fest. As late-afternoon sunlight flooded the covered deck, the chefs began to arrive, bearing great baskets and platters of food. Marion Gillcrist, the chef and a co-owner of La Traviata, brought fresh, creamy Texas mozzarella and a bounty of heirloom tomatoes in shades from crimson to orange to green with yellow stripes. Aquarelle’s Jacques Richard, a native of France, showed up with a still life of raw and blanched vegetables and a bowl of the world’s most garlicky aïoli. Sam Dickey, the chef and a co-owner of the Granite Cafe, whipped up luscious mashed sweet potatoes infused with maple syrup and cascabel chiles. Will Packwood of Emilia’s, who was recently named one of the country’s top ten up-and-coming chefs by Food & Wine magazine, reinterpreted five-bean salad with a terrific parsley-thyme-scallion vinaigrette. For their part, the genial hosts prepared grilled lobsters (filled with vegetable slaw in a rainbow of colors) and homemade vanilla ice cream with swirls of puréed fresh peach.
In due course, the last photograph was taken and, long after the sun had set, the table was laid for the real dinner to begin. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and tore into the picture-perfect arrangements with shocking abandon. I myself, wanting to be absolutely sure that each dish matched its recipe, felt obliged to sample everything—twice.