It’s that time of year again.
The Austin Food & Wine Festival is only weeks away, and a lineup made up of extraordinary local and national chefs is about to descend upon our capital. As in years past, the festival has set its sights beyond the city limits, inviting a slew of gifted food and beverage personalities from around nation to showcase their incredible talents. This year’s lineup is perhaps the best yet, with James Beard Award Winners Hugh Acheson and Aarón Sánchez, Austin’s own Tyson Cole and Bryce Gilmore, the ever-jovial Tim Love, Andrew Zimmern, and many more.
To kick off the festivities, Texas Monthly caught up with some of the attending chefs to gauge their views on Texas’s culinary scene, the pros and cons of celebrity chefdom, and the next steps in their careers. Here, Adam Dorris—the breakout, young gun chef from Pax Americana in Houston—discusses why he needed to retreat to San Francisco to change his career, his next project (it’s a bar!), and why the Houston food scene deserves credit.
Layne Lynch: I remember attending a dinner of yours back when you were still at Houston’s Revival Market and thinking that you definitely had moved beyond working there. Did you know back then that it was time to make the move to somewhere else?
Adam Dorris: Yes, I think the dinner series at Revival was a catalyst to making the move to start my own restaurant.
LL: What did you learn from the experience of working alongside Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber [of Coltivare and Revival Market]?
AD: I learned how important it is to have contrast and balance in your business partnerships. Those guys are polar opposites, but together they balance each other out and obviously produce great concepts that should hold up for many, many years.
LL: You left Houston to be in California for a while, which took me by surprise. Tell me about that experience.
AD: It was tough to leave my wife and Houston, but we have an incredible relationship and she was very understanding of my need for an out-of-the-norm experience. After leaving Revival, I set up a month-long stage at a two Michelin star restaurant in San Francisco, but after arriving there, I found that the experience I was seeking wasn’t there but at another amazing restaurant called Bar Tartine. I spent the remainder of my time with them and the experience was life changing to say the least.
I would argue that Bar Tartine is the most important restaurant in America right now. They definitely put out the most important cookbook in the past five years, and the environment of that restaurant is electric. I also learned how important building a serious pantry is for great cooking. And also how important it is to nurture your staff and allow their development at an individual speed or level to occur so you can mentor them well.
LL: How did you end up at Pax Americana?
AD: I was approached in March 2014 by my now-business partners regarding a space on Montrose Boulevard [in Houston] opening up. I cooked a multi-course dinner for them and we hit the ground running. Shepard [Ross] and Dan [Zimmerman] had an idea for a very simple cafe and all-American wine bar. I had an idea for a hyper-seasonal and hyper-local small plates spot with most of the food being under $20. We married the two ideas together to create Pax Americana.
The American wine list, which Shepard has done an outstanding job of curating, features a list of small production and interesting wines that even the hardest French and Italian devotees can get excited about. And everyone agreed to just let me cook and change things as often as I want. And I do!
LL: Did you expect the extraordinary reception the restaurant has received thus far?
AD: I really did not know what to expect when we opened the restaurant. We have been extremely blessed with an amazing clientele and overall positive reception of Pax. We work very hard and are confident in the product and environment we provide to our guests every day.
LL: In your opinion, what’s the most intriguing Texas dish you’ve put together recently?
AD: Most of my dishes originate from Texas ingredients, but right now I would say the cauliflower roasted in whey caramel with pepper jelly, English pea and sunflower hummus, basil and candied hazelnuts is the most intriguing. It’s a good transition from late winter to early spring and it’s sweet, spicy and hearty.
LL: You’re a Houston chef, and it would be absurd not to mention that Houston is definitely cultivating a prominent culinary landscape. Does Houston deserve as much fame and recognition as Austin?
AD: I moved to Houston in 2007 and found a city on the verge of a big cultural and culinary shift. Houston’s dining scene is extremely diverse. I would say potentially more so than Austin. We have incredible Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, Persian and Ethiopian restaurants owned by families who work diligently to keep the traditions and techniques of their elders and ancestors alive in a modern city.
We have chef-driven concepts of all types now, tasting menus, fine dining, fast casual, neighborhood joints. And it is growing more every year. I think both Houston and Austin deserve any and all praise that we are receiving, but there is still much work to be done and growth to occur to be even considered as a direct comparison to New York City, Chicago or San Francisco.
LL: The Austin Food & Wine Festival features a good mix of Texas and national chefs. Who are some of the individuals you’re looking forward to seeing or meeting?
AD: Definitely Jonathan Waxman and Marc Vetri.
LL: Do you mind sharing with us what you’ll be doing at the festival?
AD: I will be making a fermented Persian cucumber dish with scallion kimchi aioli, preserved lemon curd and dill-cured smoked salmon that will be in the Taste of Texas portion of the opening night of the festival. It’s light, but it has big, bold flavors.
LL: It’s too soon to be talking about next restaurants, but if you were to be involved in another project, what do you envision it would look like?
AD: I already am working on our next concept. It’ll be a full beverage bar with simple and delicious food—think full charcuterie, salami, and eventually cheese programs. All made in house.
LL: Who are some of the Houston and/or Austin chefs that you admire at the moment?
AD: I love what Justin Yu is and has been doing at Oxheart. I feel that his approach to food and hospitality definitely set a standard for our city. And he is just a real nice guy. Chris Shepherd is amazing in that he is an ambassador for Houston. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Seth [Siegel-Gardner] and Terrence [Gallivan] also and the scope of what they are able to accomplish at The Pass & Provisions. Dylan [Murray] of Local Foods is a genuine badass for holding down consistency and wonderful service for that many customers every day, and he is another really nice guy doing really great things.
In Austin, I have had string of great meals at Launderette over the past year. It’s such a chill and fun place. Foreign & Domestic is great. I’m so sad to see Gardner go. Barley Swine and Odd Duck are always solid. I’m really excited to dine at Emmer & Rye, Lenoir, and Olamaie during the festival.