On March 18, the finalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards will be announced. Up until that date, Texas Monthly will speak with a number of the Texas semifinalists about their James Beard experience.
Today, we’re featuring two of the three Texas semifinalists for Rising Star Chef of the Year: Janina O’Leary, executive pastry chef of TRACE, and Bryce Gilmore, executive chef of Barley Swine. Gilmore is also one of the ten Texas semifinalists for Best Chef: Southwest.
JANINA O’LEARY, TRACE
Layne Lynch: How did you celebrate when you heard the news?
Janina O’Leary: I had an ice cream cone with my son and a glass of champagne with my husband. The TRACE team also had a champagne toast for me.
LL: Being recognized by the James Beard Foundation is a huge honor. What do you think it is you did this year that made you stand out?
JO: This year, I focused on creating desserts that have familiar, comforting, exciting flavors and ingredients. I enjoy making desserts that remind people of what they loved as a child but with a twist. I’m also very fortunate to have a hardworking pastry team that shares my unique passion.
LL: TRACE pushes the envelope with its pastry program. Take me through the process of creating a restaurant dessert.
JO: There are many factors that go into creating a dessert. I enjoy changing the menu as often as possible, which not only allows me to be creative but also makes the best use of our services that the TRACE forager provides. I start with an ingredient I want to feature or highlight that’s in season. From there, the process progresses to pairing the ingredient with flavors, textures, temperatures, and techniques that complement, but don’t take away from, that surprise element. As soon as I’m comfortable with the taste and flavors, I start to think of how the dessert will look on the actual plate. Other times it starts from having a nearly perfect apple with peanut butter the night before and really wanting to turn that into a composed dish for people to enjoy. The Cheerios berry swirl ice cream that was on our summer menu was actually inspired from a breakfast my son had.
LL: Pastry is often identified as a science, but many pastry chefs I talk to say they view it as a complicated art. Which side do you agree with and why?
JO: A little bit of both. My main focus is achieving a balanced dessert on all levels: flavor and texture, comfort and refinement, childhood and adulthood. Understanding the history of the craft and putting energy into the art is all a part of the process for me.
LL: What are some of your favorite desserts to make?
JO: That’s tough to choose, but I really enjoy making ice creams. There is a lot of freedom and fun that comes from creating and playing around with ice cream flavors. Flavors can vary from champagne sorbet, tarragon ice cream, to cinnamon roll ice cream.Two of my favorite TRACE desserts are complete opposites from each other. The drunken doughnuts are warm doughnuts served with vodka whip cream, chili tequila fudge sauce, and bourbon dulce de leche. You can often judge my mood based on how well the doughnuts proof that day. Lemon budino is completely different and a bit more complex in flavor. Lemon budino is served with champagne sorbet, strawberry meringue kisses, Maldon salt shortbread, and toasted marshmallow. It’s a playful, lighter option.
Layne Lynch: This isn’t your first James Beard recognition, so I have to ask, how does the James Beard experience change you as a chef?
Bryce Gilmore: It’s pretty damn exciting just to be included as a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist, especially in two categories. Right now, I’m trying not to think about it. The real excitement will come once the finalists are announced.
LL: How do you keep things fresh and creative at Barley Swine instead of relying on what’s safe and seems to work?
BG: The whole mantra at Barley Swine is to continue to evolve. We never run the same dish twice for that very reason. All the chefs and staff at Barley Swine strive to be better. We’re never satisfied, and that’s what continues to drive everyone that works here. Also, as the farmers in the area evolve and get better, so do we. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship.
LL: You announced plans for the much-anticipated Odd Duck Restaurant late last year. Can you give readers an idea of what to expect from the restaurant?
BG: Odd Duck is going to feature lunch, dinner, and late-night. We’ll have an extensive in-house bread program and a full bar – which is very different from Barley Swine. With Odd Duck we’ll be able to incorporate our philosophy on food into cocktails and feature seasonality at the bar.
LL: Both you and your father, Jack Gilmore, have become notable Austin chefs, but you guys are quite different in your culinary styles. What has he taught you about being a chef?
BG: Being that my dad has been in the business so long, I can definitely credit him for introducing the industry to me. His work ethic is the most respectable in the business.
LL: You’re a young chef and you’ve already accomplished quite a bit. Where do you go from here?
BG: Winning a James Beard would be incredible. I just want to continue to evolve, create more concepts, and have fun.