La Condesa Marks 13 Years of Rising Chefs and Authentic Mexican Cuisine
When the bold restaurant opened in 2009, few could predict its indelible impact on Austin’s food scene
By Laurel Miller
Photos by Holly Cowart
Growing up in San Antonio, Rick Lopez never put much thought into the homemade meals his maternal grandmother, Esperanza, put on the table.
“We just called it ‘food,’” he says. “Flour tortillas, pinto beans, calabacitas, caldos, fideos.” Simple, humble, filling dishes that would one day provide inspiration for Lopez’s role as the longtime executive chef at La Condesa, which recently celebrated its 13th anniversary.
When Lopez was hired as sous chef of the James Beard Award-nominated Mexican restaurant shortly after its 2009 opening, he had never cooked Mexican food professionally. His career at La Condesa, and his role in bringing the concept and food to maturity, is part of a much bigger picture that has solidified the restaurant’s role as a training ground for some of Austin — and the nation’s — most acclaimed chefs.
While Austin today boasts several critically important Mexican restaurants, including Suerte, El Naranjo and Nixta Taqueria, that wasn’t the case 13 years ago.
“When we created the concept, we wanted the vibe to point to what young, exciting chefs were doing in Mexico City at the time,” says Delfo Trombetta, CFO and founding partner at New Waterloo, which owns La Condesa. “Taking indigenous ingredients and techniques and creating dishes and an experience that honored Mexico’s culinary heritage, while being bold and worldly.”
The restaurant also had a landmark bar program for the time, with the largest curation of agave spirits in Austin. It remains one of the city’s most comprehensive, under the direction of general manager Jennifer Le.
For opening executive chef Rene Ortiz and opening pastry chef Laura Sawicki, who eventually left La Condesa to open Launderette and Fresa’s, the opportunity to create a new standard for Mexican cuisine “in a way that hadn’t yet been presented” was impossible to turn down, says Sawicki.
“Rene and I were very much culinary partners, conceptualizing dishes together, playing off one another’s strengths and creating a sense of continuity throughout the meal,” she says. “We told a story that flowed from beginning to end, which was pretty novel at that time. It provided me a place to amplify my voice, alongside that of our chef, and holds a very dear place in my heart.”
Lopez became executive chef after Ortiz and Sawicki departed in 2013. His decision to remain at La Condesa long after most chefs would move on boils down to his unflagging passion for the restaurant and the immense satisfaction he derives from mentoring young cooks, some of whom are pursuing a trajectory similar to his own.
The Mexican-American son of a former migrant worker (his mother and her six siblings all harvested watermelon in Big Wells as children) and a first-generation Mexican-American (his paternal grandmother was from Guadalajara), Lopez says he was, “running away from” his heritage when he embarked on his culinary career. After graduating from Austin Community College’s culinary program, he moved to New York and spent the next two years working under famed chefs Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud), Terrance Brennan (Picholine) and Ed Brown (Eighty-One).
In 2009, Lopez’s wife got a job offer in Austin and the couple moved back to Texas. That’s when Lopez heard that Ortiz was helming a new restaurant.
“I really wanted to work for him,” says Lopez. “When I was in New York, he was the chef at La Esquina, and I’d heard from a lot of cooks that it was the best Mexican food in the city. I realized I wanted to tap into my identity.”
Lopez was summarily offered a sous chef position at La Condesa. The initial menu had 32 offerings focused on street food like tacos, grilled meats and seafood and simple side dishes. Lopez had to learn it, along with the associated methodology, right alongside his cooks. For someone as humble and hardworking as Lopez, the experience proved exhilarating, rather than demoralizing.
“I love the drive [of cooking professionally], being sweaty, being a team,” he says.
Just as important was the caliber of La Condesa’s kitchen team, which included Fermín Núñez (Suerte and forthcoming Este) and Fiore Tedesco (Loca d’Oro).
“I look at this restaurant as trailblazing,” adds Lopez. “It came along at the right time and helped certain chefs find their voice.”
Lopez credits Ortiz with instilling in him the latter. “Rene was the facilitator and gave me confidence. He’d tell me, ‘Just be who you are, dude.’ He’d come from a similar culinary background and was a great mentor. Laura was the motivator.”
Says Sawicki, “We spent a lot of time in that kitchen — teaching, mentoring, getting to know our staff. We created a culture that was fun and respectful, while valuing hard work and the results of that dedication. A lot of talent came out of that kitchen, and I feel a tremendous sense of pride…to have played a role in [their] development and knowing that the restaurant provided a platform for their evolution.”
When asked to describe the cuisine he developed under the encouragement of Ortiz and Sawicki, Lopez says it’s “bits and pieces of what I grew up with things like calabacitas, but I had to adopt my own style. It comes from memory, nostalgia and the desire to tell a story through each dish.”
Trombetta also helped Lopez grow and flourish as a chef. “I had a strong believer in Delfo,” says Lopez. “For my part, I wanted to make him feel comfortable that he’d entrusted me with that.”
Crucial to La Condesa’s evolution were the relationships Lopez created with local family farmers. “I like working with them because it’s that connection to my family as former migrant workers,” he says. “But it’s also important to me to support them and take my team out to the farms to educate them.”
La Condesa sources produce from Steelbow Farm, Haus Bar Farm, Urban Roots, Sam Lash of Farm to Table and Fagen Family Farms and procures some of its cheese from maker Joaquin Avellan of Dos Lunas.
“Rick is so passionate about locally sourced and sustainable ingredients,” says Trombetta. “It was always one of our goals, but he’s certainly pushed us, and that’s evident in the relationships he’s cultivated with growers and purveyors. He’s able to garner excitement about a single green bean and the story of the farmer who grew it and uses that as a tool to train and inspire young chefs.”
All in the Family
“It was a very magical time when we were all working at La Condesa,” says Fermín Núñez, who was born and raised in Coahuila, Mexico. “When I started cooking Mexican food, it wasn’t what it is now. The chefs I was chasing as a young cook weren’t doing this kind of food. When I came to La Condesa in 2009, I was excited to see ingredients and dishes familiar to me, but done well and through the eyes of a chef.”
Núñez, a 2021 Food & Wine Best New Chef, now oversees the kitchen at Suerte, but like Lopez, he didn’t grow up taking inordinate pride in his culture or its cuisine, nor had he cooked Mexican food professionally.
“I enjoyed eating well, but I took [the food I grew up with] for granted,” says Núñez. “Rick set the standard for how to be a good leader and shaped much of how I manage my team at Suerte.”
Says Lopez, “Fermín has the culinary microphone right now. He is who he says he is, and he’s been that way from the day I hired him. He’s telling his own story though food and doing it with so much heart and so much love for the community and Suerte’s employees.”
Other chefs of note have also come from La Condesa and gone on to open restaurants or hold prominent positions — some at places that follow the same ethos of honoring Mexican culture and cuisine. Former line cook Chuy Cervantes is now chef de cuisine for renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera at his Los Angeles restaurant Damian, Joaquin Ceballos is the new executive sous chef at Suerte, and Derrick Flynn is Suerte’s head pastry chef.
“What they’ve all done with their lives is amazing, and we have young cooks here now who have that same magic,” says Lopez. “And Austin’s culinary scene is dynamic. This year two local chefs won James Beard Awards (Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria and Iliana De la Vega of El Naranjo). To have people like that here is what drives me.”
Adds Trombetta, “When we opened a ‘fancy’ Mexican restaurant at the peak of the recession, people thought we were crazy. To see the proliferation of similar restaurants in Austin and beyond 13 years later makes us proud of the risk we took. We set the stage and now we get to enjoy their food and successes. It’s a community borne of a vision, as well as mutual support.”
For Lopez, there are still cooks to mentor, dishes to be conceived, and ingredients to discover. At 41, an age when most executive chefs are happy to be in more administrative roles, he still thrives on the chaos and camaraderie of the kitchen.
“La Condesa has given me a platform to tell my story through food— my food— and it’s an honor and a privilege to have that. But this place is also still fun to me. I love coming to work.”