La Condesa’s Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki on Being James Beard Seminfinalists
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Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki are two of the most respected chefs in the Austin culinary scene right now. After creating an impressive menu program at the upscale, modern Mexican restaurant La Condesa, the duo moved on to open Sway, a Thai-inspired restaurant, late last year.
Recently, the talented executive chef and pastry chef talked with Texas Monthly about their James Beard recognitions, opening Sway, and how they’ve become best friends through the years.
Layne Lynch: This is your first James Beard recognition. How did you celebrate when you heard the news that you were a semifinalist?
Laura Sawicki: It was honestly a pretty typical day for me. I was in the kitchen when I heard the news. I was definitely a little shocked and surprised. I was humbled and thankful for the recognition, but was too busy to spend too much more time thinking about it. At the end of the night, Rene [Ortiz] and I sat at the bar and toasted over a few glasses of delicious red wine. By sheer coincidence, a few days later my parents were in town visiting from back east. I only see my parents twice a year, so hanging out with them and delighting in good food and drink was the perfect way to celebrate such a profound honor.
LL: I remember when we were talking about the desserts you were preparing for Sway you emphasized you didn’t have experience with Thai desserts. Take me through the process of how you conceptualized Sway’s desserts.
LS: My creative process is somewhat involved. I do a lot of reading, sketching, obsessing, over-analyzing, and recipe testing. Then, I toss all that work out the window and start from scratch. For whatever reason, this tortured process somehow works. I basically figure out what would I want to eat, and then the ideas just start to flow in a very organic way. Over the last year, I have eaten a lot of Rene’s Thai food, too. This definitely helped me create a foundation for what I knew I wanted and needed my desserts at Sway to be. The most important thing is that we create a perfect continuity from the start of the meal to the very end, so I end up reading a lot. I’m trying to learn about [Thai] culture, cuisine, and history. On the other hand, a lot of menu development is just free association and trial and error. I have to be my own harshest critic; it’s the only way I know how to push myself harder. Some ideas work, while others never make it past conception. At the end of the day, eating dessert should be fun. And most importantly, the process should be fun. A huge challenge for me has been creating and developing the desserts for both Sway and La Condesa’s menus simultaneously while keeping them completely unique.
LL: What’s your favorite dessert to devour when you’re off the clock?
LS: Honestly, I’m a sucker for candy. Candy bars, gummies, jelly beans, good ol’ fashion candy. I absolutely love good bread and soft butter. I know that’s not a dessert, but I could eat it any hour of the day.
LL: Rene Ortiz is also a semifinalist this year. In the times I’ve spoken with you guys you each mention the unique working relationship you two share. I’m curious, could you tell me a bit about how you and Rene collaborate with each other? What’s the secret?
LS: The secret? Rene and I are amazing friends, so that makes it pretty easy to work together. He’s my best friend. We collaborate on a lot of ideas and dishes and speak to each other with complete honesty, which is great. Sometimes I need someone else to critique my food and give me an honest opinion. It makes my work better. I appreciate Rene’s intensity, his knowledge, and his dynamic nature. We laugh a lot, have fun cooking together, and keep each other grounded. I think that shows in our food.
LL: What do you still want to do in your pastry career? Will we ever a solo project from you?
LS: The opportunities are endless. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me. All I know is that Austin is my home and a great place for chefs to realize their dreams.
Layne Lynch: This isn’t your first James Beard recognition. La Condesa was a James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist in 2010. How does an honor like that change you or your day-to-day work? Does it drive you forward? Inspire more creativity?
Rene Ortiz: The day-to-day work gets a bit more challenging due to the higher expectations and prestige associated with recognition like a James Beard nomination. It does drive me to move forward in my path and allows me to think more freely. The recognition inspires me to push my team forward and achieve more than we ever originally wanted. The recognition allows us to realize that people are paying attention and liking what we’re doing.
LL: This has been a big year for you. Has the response to Sway been what you expected?
RO: It’s funny, no one has asked that question, and to be truly honest, it’s been exactly the way we hoped it would be. Every day I have the pleasure of watching smiling and happy faces in our staff and our customers. We’ve created a wonderful environment for our chefs to work in and for people to view.
LL: Sway and La Condesa are two very different projects. In which restaurant do you feel most at home?
RO: La Condesa for sure. I feel more at home in La Condesa because I feel it’s more closely connected with who I am as a person: Mexican. I’m proud to bring identity to our culture and change to our demographic. La Condesa is a very special restaurant and is part of the new urban foundation in Austin. Sway is a study for many years that turned into a passion, but I love my roots.
LL: Your pastry chef, Laura, is also a semifinalist this year. Could you tell me a bit about how you and Laura collaborate?
RO: She is the greatest friend I have ever had in my life, and she is also the best pastry chef I know. She is a cook at heart and has the spirit of an angel. We are the Harold and Maude of the culinary world. Well, more like the Ropers from Three’s Company. I don’t know what the secret is; it’s just fate.
LL: What do you still want to do in your culinary career? Will we ever a solo project from you?
RO: There is so much I still want to do. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I hope so one day. I am sure it would be fun!