The Carpenter’s Andrew Knowlton and Bon Appétit’s Julia Kramer talk bagels, leaving New York and why eating for a living is sometimes a contact sport
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages
We had the fun of eavesdropping as two friends and former colleagues reunited during SXSW. One, Andrew Knowlton, who after 18 years at Bon Appétit (formerly as its deputy editor and currently as an editor-at-large), has now made his home in Austin, thanks to his undying need to own a grill (or three) and a project he couldn’t turn down: The Carpenter Hotel. Knowlton, along with his wife, Christina Skogly Knowlton, serves as a partner at The Mighty Union, the hospitality group that owns and runs the space.
The other, Julia Kramer, Bon Appétit’s current deputy editor, was in town to appear on a SXSW panel (alongside Sam Hellman-Mass, owner of buzzy Suerte) and possibly do some scouting for the magazine’s Hot 10, which Knowlton and Kramer used to work on together but this year Kramer is leading solo. Like any good journalist, she played her cards close to the vest as the friends commiserated over and laughed about eating their way across the country.
Andrew Knowlton: How many times have you been to Austin? Before this visit?
Julia Kramer: Once. Fifteen years ago. I came to SXSW when I was in college to see all the documentary films. I was a real film nerd.
AK: People who’ve been here forever worry about what it’s going to become. Is it still going to be weird, or whatever? Have you seen a change since your last visit?
JK: I swear to you, the entirety of the last time I was here I was in a movie theater. So this is my first real exposure to Austin. You were the one who always came here.
AK: Yeah, I always came to Austin when we were doing the Hot 10. It was also always warm down here in spring.
JK: Clearly you knew what you were doing. So when did you first come to Austin?
AK: In probably ’99. I worked for Lingua Franca magazine, so I came to an academic book conference. I remember having Tex-Mex, but I’m not sure where. It hadn’t become a food city yet.
JK: And what were the first places that made it a food city?
AK: One of the first restaurants I wrote about was Fonda San Miguel. It’s like an old-school grande dame Mexican restaurant, not Tex-Mex. It’s an amazing spot. But I think the thing that put Austin on the map was probably Uchi. And that’s weird, because sushi in landlocked Austin was kind of crazy. And then when MMH [McGuire Moorman Hospitality] relaunched Jeffrey’s, it kind of caught fire. Chefs didn’t have to be in New York or L.A. or San Francisco anymore.
JK: You lived in New York for 20 years?
AK: Twenty-three years, yeah.
JK: And you wanted a backyard for your kids, no competition to get them into fifth grade, that type of thing. But how did you choose Austin?
AK: Basically I didn’t want to share a bathroom with three women, and they didn’t want to share one with me. But the real reason was the Carpenter project. Putting all that stuff that I’ve learned at restaurants into this. I remember coming down and running along the lake. I was like, this is the kind of place that I want to live. And then also, the big thing for Christina and I, we knew people would come visit. But it is trippy having you here, my old colleague.
You’re about to hit the road solo for Hot 10. I did it for several years, then we split it up, and then I did it last year on my own again. The funny thing is, the year we did it together, you were pregnant, and now you’re pregnant again and you’re hitting the road. Are you scared?
JK: I’m pretty terrified.
[Interviewer interrupts, asking for an explanation of Bon Appétit’s Hot 10.]
JK: We’re tasked with coming up with this list of America’s best new restaurants — places that have opened between May 1 of the previous year and May 1 of that year when the list is due. Because of Andrew’s and my nature, all the research happens basically in March, April and the first week of May.
AK: Or, as I like to call it, the “fat season.” So where are you in planning everything?
JK: Basically, I have a bunch of little legs planned. If you remember, three years ago, I was like, “All right, Andrew, I’ve got a 17-day trip planned. See you in two and a half weeks.”
AK: And what did I say to you?
JK: You said that was a bad idea, and in fact it was. I ended up in the ER. You’re on a flight basically every other day, and all this —
JK: Yeah, all this eating. I showed up at my folks’ house, and they took me to the ER. I had pneumonia. So that was a bad situation, but my point in telling that story was that I can’t go on a 17-day trip again, because I have a 19-month-old at home.
AK: Yeah, going on the road for three months and eating out five times a day sounds like an amazing proposition. And it is. But it’s also a contact sport. I remember last year waking up one morning in Seattle, and I was severely depressed. I hadn’t found any good restaurants, I felt like shit, and I couldn’t complain because Christina’s home with two kids. And I just sat in the room the entire day and watched Oprah reruns. That was the low point in my career.
JK: Okay, people ask me all the time, what is Andrew’s role at that restaurant? Because it’s very unusual to go from being someone who reviewed restaurants to being part of opening one.
AK: When Christina got involved, I was kind of helping out and consulting. Then I found out that you can’t be involved and do it half-ass. So I’m here more often than not. Working with Grae [Nonas, head chef], changing the menus, the playlist, the lighting. All those things that you and I critique, that all comes back to me. Christina and I eat here once a week, so we’re not just on the floor.
JK: Were you pretty involved in the menu development?
AK: Yeah, Grae would come over to my house and he would cook two things. Almost like Bon Appétit in the test kitchen. We started piecing the menu together. But it’s scary when you open something like this. You’re opening yourself up to the public, to Yelp reviews, the things I never really thought about. Although I think we were always sympathetic to restaurateurs and chefs. We know how hard it is. Especially the kitchen, nobody works harder.
JK: So what’s the thing about living in Austin that you like so much, that you can never live in New York again without?
AK: Well, I knew what it was even when I was in New York, and when I moved down here, it just affirmed that I could never live without a grill for the rest of my life. And I don’t have one grill. I don’t have two grills. I have three grills.
JK: Wait, what? You have three?
AK: So I have a classic Weber grill. And then I have a PK griller, which is like a stainless steel, kind of cast iron, but made into a grill. And then I bought one on the side of the road when I was driving. It’s basically an oil barrel cut in half, and it has a chimney. So it’s my smoker.
JK: That’s the most Austin thing I’ve ever heard.
AK: It is. I mean, with smoking, you just sit back and have a Lone Star, because nobody works in Austin either. So it’s great. You have all the time in the world.
JK: When I think of you in New York, I think of you riding your bike home after dinner across the Brooklyn bridge in the freezing rain and snow. You were basically living an Austin lifestyle there.
AK: I was. Can you ever see yourself moving?
JK: I might be able to, but then I wouldn’t have a husband or children. Zach is a real city person. He’s that person on the sidewalk, walking so fast, they’re basically pushing you.
AK: He needs that juice.
JK: He thrives on that.
AK: But you guys are a little bit younger, so give it five or 10 years. The one thing that I worry about here for you is the bagel selection.
JK: I just ate a bagel. Biederman’s Deli? It was pretty good!
AK: There’s a reason why the tortilla is the tortilla down here. It’s because it’s so hard to cook good bread with the temperature and humidity. So Christina and I, instead of buying bread like we did in New York, we always have a side of tortillas when we cook just to wrap around whatever. I stopped trying to force bagels and just embraced tortillas. Because the tortillas down here are awesome.
JK: Yeah. So when I’m ready to live without bagels, I’ll let you know.
This story is part of our new series “Listening In,” where we pair SXSW speakers and artists with their Austin analogue and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.