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.