When chef David Garrido and writer Robb Walsh started testing recipes for their cookbook-in-progress three years ago, the one question they did not have was where to cook. The answer was obvious: They would use the professional kitchen at Jeffrey’s, the highly regarded Austin restaurant where Garrido was chef. So one morning, after working the night before, Garrido went to the restaurant and whipped up three or four original recipes. That afternoon Walsh came in, and the two friends tasted and critiqued the dishes. The food was delicious, but they quickly agreed that something was seriously wrong. The very next day, they abandoned Jeffrey’s and fled to Walsh’s vintage kitchen in a fifties subdivision. The restaurant kitchen, with its serious equipment and mounds of already prepped foods, was too seductive. Says Garrido, only half-joking: “I couldn’t keep my hands off the caviar and lobster stock.” At Walsh’s kitchen they were liberated. In that setting they could write the book they wanted to. The result, Nuevo Tex-Mex: Festive New Recipes From Just North of the Border, released this month by Chronicle Books, is a tale of two authors and how they blended disparate ideas. It is also a tale of two cuisines—Southwestern and Tex-Mex—and as such, it marks a melding of two cooking styles that, to a large extent, define latter-day Texas food.
That Garrido and Walsh should have both ended up in Austin, much less written a book together, is quite a coincidence given the diversity of their backgrounds. Garrido, who is 37, is the son of a Mexican diplomat. He has lived all over the world—Canada (where he was born), Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Washington State, France, and Switzerland. In his twenties, intending to pursue a career in the international hotel business, he enrolled at the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Houston. He was getting some hands-on kitchen training, chopping and sautéing, when a kind of epiphany occurred: “It was like a light came on,” he says. “I dropped everything I was doing and said, ‘There’s nothing else but cooking.’”
After leaving the school, he worked under two of the founders of Southwestern cuisine—Bruce Auden (who went on to establish Restaurant Biga in San Antonio) and Stephan Pyles (who started Star Canyon and AquaKnox in Dallas). In 1991, when Jeffrey’s began looking for a new chef, Garrido got the job, taking what was already regarded as the best restaurant in the Capital City and making it even better.
Walsh, 45, whose father was an executive with General Foods, grew up all over the United States but joined the throngs who, after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, returned to the city to live. His interest in food led in the early nineties to a regular column in the Austin Chronicle, the city’s alternative weekly, and that in turn paved the way for writing assignments with both American Way and Natural History. It was in 1995, after he had interviewed several “nuevo Latino” cooks, that his own personal light bulb went on. “Chefs all over the country were adapting Hispanic cuisines—Nicaraguan, Cuban, Argentinean—for fine dining,” Walsh says. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t somebody do that with Tex-Mex?’” So one morning that summer, he called Garrido, pitched him the idea, and the rest is history.
Nuevo Tex-Mex reflects a meeting point between the sophistication of Southwestern cuisine and the hearty basics of Tex-Mex. Given Garrido’s training, the scale tips a bit in the worldly direction of Southwestern: One recipe for enchiladas calls for portobello, chanterelle, and shiitake mushrooms. But, thanks to Walsh’s influence, there are also Texas-proud recipes, like the one for poblanos stuffed with beer-doused chili. Garrido calls it party food, the kind of celebratory fare you would prepare for a dinner party or backyard cookout. Readers who use the book will call it, if not exactly simple, then certainly user-friendly—most dishes require fewer than ten ingredients. Food historians ten or twenty years hence might well call it a benchmark, a book that shows, through 98 engaging recipes and a lively, enlightening text, where a major element of Texas cooking has been and where it might well be headed.