Garden To Table
How Max and Jenny Snyder have turned a backyard garden into the farm that propels East Austin restaurant Pitchfork Pretty
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Danielle Chloe
Not too long ago I found myself on one of those rare just-so Austin evenings in the backyard of Seth Baas, owner of Pitchfork Pretty. It was warm but not blazing, the air was mostly mosquito-free, and the light was casting a magic-hour glow over his lush garden. I say “his,” which is technically accurate, since the garden is housed in Baas’ East Side backyard, but the restaurant owner was quick to heap any and all credit on head chef Max Snyder and Max’s wife, Jenny.
Max, an Austin native with an impressive résumé that stretches from New York’s Eleven Madison Park to San Francisco’s Old Bus Tavern, moved back to Austin in 2017, along with his wife and young daughter, Olympia, to open Pitchfork Pretty. Jenny, who arrived in Austin with an equally notable background (she served as Gramery Tavern’s front of house captain for years), now runs the Pitchfork Pretty garden, which supplies the restaurant with most of its vegetables and herbs. The couple met while they were both working in San Francisco, and their easy partnership in both work and life is immediately apparent.
I sat down with Max and Jenny to find out more about their impressive garden-to-table operation and how the produce they grow influences the self-described “regional and seasonal” restaurant.
MARGARET WILLIAMS: How has this last year been since you opened the restaurant?
MAX SNYDER: It’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun.
MW: Has it been crazy?
MS: I don’t know. I think running a restaurant is always kind of crazy. Sort of like one ongoing manic episode.
MW: Ha! Got it. What brought you all back to Austin? Was it only the restaurant? Or a bunch of different factors?
MS: It was a combination. We knew that San Francisco wasn’t really the best fit for us, long term, after starting a family. Austin was kind of an obvious choice because I grew up here.
JENNY SNYDER: Max has lots of family here.
MS: Plus Austin is getting to the point where it can, I don’t know, support the kind of restaurant that I want to be involved with. I feel like the food scene here has even changed dramatically from just a few years ago [Snyder briefly spent time in Austin in 2013 to help open the now shuttered Qui]. There’s a lot more big and ambitious restaurants.
MW: Jen, what’s your background?
JS: My background’s in fine dining. We actually met working at Coi [in San Francisco], and I worked in a lot of different restaurants in New York. Mostly at Gramercy Tavern and then a few years at Quince in San Francisco.
MW: How did the garden get started? Has it been a crash course, or do you two have lots of experience in that world?
MS: I suppose a crash course. It’s something we’ve always tried to incorporate into whatever restaurant we were involved with. We’ve always had a backyard garden or a community plot. But yeah, it’s definitely been a huge learning curve.
MW: How many hours a day do y’all spend there?
JS: About two hours each day, on a regular day. Tuesday and Thursday I’m there for six hours.
MS: Tuesday is kind of the day when we throw everything at it.
MW: What’s the schedule for planting?
JS: Well, we are transitioning into summer, so the planting is kind of winding down at this point. Just a little bit of squash and cucumber is left. The tomatoes are already happening. We have tons of tomatoes. Peppers. We have eggplant going. Okra started. Tomatoes are actually a lot of work because you have to make sure they don’t fall on the ground. You have to tie them up, really take care of them. You have to prune them. It invigorates them so they’ll produce more.
MW: How directly does what you’re growing influence the menu?
MS: Yeah, the menu is structured based on what we’re doing at the farm. What we’re able to get. Unfortunately it’s really hard to completely fuel the restaurant with farmed produce. We don’t have the skills or luck yet to be at that level. It’s nice because [the garden is] big enough to mostly supply a restaurant but small enough to be nimble.
JS: Yeah, we are able to adjust. Max wasn’t using as many microgreens, so I stopped producing them.
MW: What’s coming in from the garden that you’re most excited about right now?
MS: It’s exciting to have tomatoes appearing across the menu. We have a green-tomato sorbet on the menu. We also have a kind of macerated tomato we’re serving with the sweetbreads right now. It’s exciting to be pushing into tomato season. Tomatoes and basil are really satisfying ingredients to work with.
MW: How do you get your daughter involved?
JS: [Jenny laughs] She has to be involved. She doesn’t really have a choice. She goes to school Tuesday and Thursday, which is why I can devote so much time on those days. But then the rest of the week we have to get her up early and get her there. We have to be creative about keeping her entertained at the farm so that we can get things done. Someday she’ll be really helpful.
MW: Sounds like a definite long game.
JS: Yes, she just turned three, so she likes to get a big thing of water and play with that.
MW: What’s next for the land? Any big plans?
MS: We do have a farmer coming on from Johnson’s Backyard Garden who’ll be contributing some real expertise in structure and planning. Sort of bigger-picture stuff.
JS: Right now we’re trying to stay ahead of the season and keep things coming.
MS: Whereas bringing someone on that actually has experience on a large-scale farm will help us be more organized.
MW: What would you tell people who want to get started? I have two young kids. We have a little area that we try to grow stuff in. But it’s hard to maintain that consistency. What tips do you have for people who are trying to do something similar?
MS: I think just start small and kind of keep it simple.
JS: The Natural Gardener on Old Bee Caves Road has been really helpful. They have a really great website. Every month they have designated seeds that you can start growing. They have a planting schedule that’s specific for the region and native plants and all that stuff. They’re a really great resource. I think it’s a great place to look if you’re growing within Austin.
MW: Max, did you work in restaurants when you were growing up in Austin?
MS: Yeah, I did. I worked in fast food. ThunderCloud Subs and a pizza place in San Antonio when I was a teenager. I was just curious. I was initially more interested in sort of the multitasking. I had a couple cashier jobs too, where it was just sort of juggling a lot of things. That’s where my initial interest was. And I always enjoyed cooking at home. But it wasn’t until I’d been doing that for a few years when I realized that there was another level to it.
Max trails off as a heaping egg sandwich arrives at the table, likely fuel for the day ahead. Today is a Tuesday. Time to get to work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cherry Tomato Salad
with Tofu, Basil, and Sesame
Dice ¾ cups soft tofu into half-inch cubes and submerge them in 2 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of salt dissolved in it.
Marinate at room temperature for 3 hours.
Tomato Balsamic Dressing
Split 1¼ cups of cherry tomatoes and toss them with a little honey and salt and allow them to marinate for 3 hours or overnight.
Roast them in a scant quantity of olive oil until deeply caramelized and concentrated.
Cover them with white balsamic vinegar and reduce to a dark syrup.
Strain the syrup and reserve the solids for another use.
Whisk the tomato-vinegar reduction with a little soy sauce, minced garlic, and sesame oil.
Split some ripe tomatoes and toss them with a little salt.
Drain the tofu cubes.
Mince a serrano pepper.
Pick some basil.
Toss the fresh tomato, tofu, and serrano with the vinegar-soy dressing and garnish with basil leaves and sesame seeds.
Yields 4 servings