Just a few weeks ago, famed Austin chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of La Condesa and Sway exited their acclaimed restaurants to pursue other unnamed interests. And while the talented duo has yet to confirm any official plans at the moment, the restaurants they left behind have moved forward with two new faces: Rick Lopez as the executive chef of La Condesa and Alexis Chong as the executive chef of Sway.

Lopez chatted with Texas Monthly about life without Ortiz and Sawicki, his love for fall fare and queso, and what the next five years looks like for La Condesa .

Texas Monthly: Tell me about the changes that have taken place since you took over the executive chef position at La Condesa.

Rick Lopez: There have not been any major changes in the kitchen. The biggest change would be that people just want to know who I am.

TM: It goes without saying that Rene and Laura were a major force for La Condesa. How have you and the pastry team gone about filling their shoes since they left? 

RL: Rene and Laura are a huge part of who I am in the kitchen. I still remember doing my tasting for them as a sous chef at La Condesa. They are in my heart and are both very special people professionally and personally, but filling their shoes is not on my agenda. Rather, I want to put my own stamp on the story being told and oversee the evolution of La Condesa as we near our fifth anniversary.  I worked with Rene for years and he taught me to have a soul, a story, and to cook with my heart. People appreciate that honesty in food. 

TM: You’ve mentioned that you want to honor the tradition of La Condesa but also institute a necessary evolution. What does that move entail and how have you honored that thus far? 

RL: Honoring the tradition at La Condesa means staying true to our roots, culture, and the foods that have been executed for generations. The evolution of food is a game all chefs play in the industry. It’s authentic versus authenticating. For example, using local farmers and all their goods. I also like to work with familiar, more traditional dishes and apply different techniques and stronger ingredients to make the dish really stand out. I want it to be something we can call our own. 

TM: La Condesa is coming up on its fifth anniversary. What do the next five years look like for the restaurant? In other words, how do you keep things fresh and interesting amidst all these new concepts opening around Austin? 

RL: I think the next five years for La Condesa can only get better. We are always pushing forward with new ideas and better ways to make the food translate to American palates. We’re busier than we’ve ever been and I think the product is as good as it’s ever been. We’ve done that for five years and we’ll do it for another five – at least.  Some of my buddies are doing really awesome food in their kitchens, and I love tasting and understanding what they are trying to do, too. This city is growing so fast and new concepts keep popping up every month. I love it. The growth of the city alone keeps all of us excited to do new foods and show our new arrivals that we aren’t just live music and queso anymore. But, honestly, we all still love queso.

TM: We’re going into the fall and winter season finally. What are some of the ingredients and dishes you’re looking forward to bringing to life in the kitchen?  

RL: I love the fall. Fall means root vegetables and greens. I am in love with butternut squash and sweet potatoes. We like to braise, cure, confit, pickle, and act like we were all raised in France. I’m most excited about getting a whole goat in the next couple days. I see us making empanadas, barbacoa, albondigas (meatballs), soup and crispy ribs with a spicy glaze.