Off the Clock
by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Hayden Spears
Illustration by Mackenzie Dunn
For patrons, restaurants are an emblem of leisure. There are top-tens and need-to-trys, the regular spots, and the special occasions. Dining out means taking a break. For chefs, restaurants are an emblem for hard-earned success. They mean long hours of work and a long road to the top. We caught up with five illustrious Austin chefs at their favorite spots to wind down.
By the nature of cooking, a chef has to think ahead. The next dish, the next order, the next shift. Thinking ahead is the only thing keeping a chef from falling behind. Rene Ortiz has spent his chefdom thinking ahead, opening 30+ restaurants over his long career.
Born in Houston and raised in San Antonio, Chef Ortiz studied engineering before leaving Texas with $5,000, a fishing tackle box of knives, and the classic culinary dream. “During the late ’90s in New York City, there was a lot of work to be had. Everyone needed chefs,” says Ortiz, who worked his way up the line to the kitchens of Chefs Alain Ducasse and Jean-Louis Palladan. “I lived in New York for 15 years because it’s just home. It’s beautiful, the hustle is strong, the people are amazing.”
Ortiz has opened and consulted on restaurants in NYC, Europe, and Australia. Brought to Austin by Jesse Herman of New Waterloo (then known as Violet Crown Management), Ortiz’s first venture here took form as upscale Mexican restaurant La Condesa in 2009. In 2012, he opened the Thai brasserie Sway, proving his Midas touch on Austin’s restaurant scene. “To build Sway after 15 years of studying Thai food was a dream come true,” says Ortiz. In 2013, Ortiz left both restaurants to take over Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon and eventually open the James Beard award–nominated Launderette. “To let it go? Very difficult. But I’m always going to do another one, so I’ll be happy again.”
During his off days, you can catch Ortiz at Hotel Saint Cecilia. With 14 rooms, the Saint Cecilia is closer to a luxury guesthouse than a hotel; in the same vein, the bar and lounge are guest and member only. But it’s a nook of the city that Oritz has grown to cherish, his favorite place to press pause in the midst of always moving forward.
For now, sipping a margarita in the hotel’s bar, Ortiz says he’s focused on the expansion of Fresa’s and the ongoing success of Launderette. And looking forward? He replies: “Always.”
at The Liberty
You could say Holy Roller is a prime example of Austin staying weird and you wouldn’t be wrong: an all-day brunch diner with purposefully punk intentions and calorically apathetic items like trash fries and chicken pot pies. But that’s also something at which Callie Speer might roll her eyes. The whole thing is not a front or a carefully curated equation to success. It’s the best of Speer’s own admitted weirdness, and Austin loves it.
The owner and executive chef grew up here, collecting a restaurant résumé as long as left-lane Mopac traffic: Cipollina, Parkside, Swift’s Attic, and Geraldine’s, to name a few. After leaving the last of the bunch, Speer planned to take a step back when her husband, Austin chef and restaurateur Philip Speer, told her that Wahoo’s Fish Tacos on Rio Grande Street was closing. “He asked if I knew anyone who wanted to start a restaurant, and I was like, Are you kidding?” she laughs. “I put together a look-book and a business plan and just went for it. I still can’t believe it worked.”
For Holy Roller, her first solo foray, Speer recruited trusted past co-workers pastry chef Britt Castro and Jen Keyser, general manager and beverage director. “You hire these people because you think they’re going to be great at their job. And it turns out that they’re great at my job and each other’s. Watching them nail it has been the best,” says Speer.
She’s been coming to The Liberty for the past nine years, playing pool and hanging out on the crowd-favorite back patio. She doesn’t drink, but the bar still feels like a second home. “One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed over my sort of coming-up has been watching all our friends come up at the same time,” says Speer, who is family friends with the owners. “Austin is so ever-changing that it’s nice to have staples you can count on. I like the pieces that still feel uniquely our town.”
Dining at Tom Micklethwait’s eponymous East Austin trailer is not a far leap from his backyard barbecue beginnings, which, rumor has it, used to hit capacity. From the handcrafted sausage and house-made sides, the menu is entirely made from scratch. You order from the 1960 Comet trailer, which Micklethwait renovated in his spare time, and sit community-style at picnic tables around the grass and gravel lot. It’s as far from a chain restaurant as one can get. So when Micklethwait Craft Meats posted a simple announcement on its Facebook page in March, “Coming soon to downtown Smithville, TX: Micklethwait Craft Meats BBQ Restaurant,” commenters begged for new locations closer to their locales. The floodgates had opened.
“It kind of was exactly what I didn’t want,” says Micklethwait with a smile at the prospect of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The trailer served its first three-meat plate in December 2012, and have since garnered enormous acclaim for the attention to detail, from the pickles to the potato salad to the pork ribs. It’s an ultra-locavore eatery lacking all the pretension that ruins some upscale farm-to-table options. Micklethwait likes to make good barbecue, period. Everything else is superfluous.
But at some point, he says, he gave in to the idea of a real-life restaurant. “You’re so limited in what you can do in the trailer, so it’s a little bit like, how could you not extend it? You can’t do any less,” he laughs. “I could probably fit the trailer into the bathroom of the new location.” Southeast of Bastrop, Micklethwait is finishing up renovations on Smithville’s old Vasek Automotive, which will be home to the concept, though he made sure a lot of the old building is being repurposed. The restaurant will include an event space, a large covered patio, and a retail and grocery store that will sell “picnic items” like house-cured deli meats, baked goods, produce, and Micklethwait’s famous crafted sausage.
Micklethwait only worked in one restaurant, as a baker at Enoteca Vespaio on South Congress, prior to the trailer, but he had long practiced his craft. He was Yellow Jacket Social Club’s “original commissary,” parking his first small BBQ pit in its parking lot on weekends and for events. Micklethwait Craft Meats may be expanding, but Tom Micklethwait won’t outgrow his first love: feeding his friends and fans in Austin.
Though Austin has long claimed its fair share of iconic restaurants, our city was not always a culinary destination. Before go-tos like Franklin Barbecue or Uchi, aspiring chefs often moved to the metropolises better known for opportunity in their field. Chef Rebecca Meeker, a native of Austin who has spent her fair share of evenings on the Matt’s El Rancho patio, was one such case. But just as Austin grew into a foodie’s dream, Meeker grew to become a highly accomplished chef whom we’re proud to call one of our own.
Before Meeker began cooking across the globe under Michelin star–monger chef Joël Robuchon, she spent the summer after high school working for a local catering company. From there, she spent a year at the Driskill Grill under chef David Bull before leaving Austin for culinary school. In the following ten years, Meeker help Robuchon launch restaurants in New York and Taiwan before returning home to Austin, where Bull asked her to help open Congress. Five years later, with McGuire Moorman Hospitality in full swing, Meeker joined the group as executive chef of Jeffrey’s and Josephine House. Last year, she left her position to start Lucky Lime, an online food service delivery focusing on delicious, healthy food that “adds to your life.”
“I had the concept of a floating restaurant, cutting out the real estate and front of the house and just focusing on cooking,” says Meeker, who is a certified holistic health coach. “After years of opening restaurants in New York and Taiwan and San Francisco and I needed a healthier balance with food.” Through Lucky Lime, patrons can order à la carte meals focusing on breakfast and lunch. The menu changes weekly and ingredients are provided by local purveyors.
Now a year old, Meeker has expanded into retail with Lucky Lime options available to-go at Juice Society. In the future, she says she’ll consider a small storefront or casual eatery. For now, Austin is just happy to have her home.
at Nickel City
Jesse DeLeon is not one to gild the lily.
“Take a beautiful, ripe tomato,” says the Texas native. “Put some salt on it. You don’t need to do anything else.” The philosophy of simplicity whelms DeLeon’s new restaurant and bar Rosewood, which opened in May in the building that East End Wines occupied until 2015. With a business plan in hand, DeLeon was holding out for the perfect location for his first from-scratch restaurant. He knew from the first time he walked in, he says, that the century-old home on Rosewood Avenue was going to be perfect.
“To distinguish yourself, restaurants have to have this crazy interior or menu,” says DeLeon. “But when we found this house with all the original features, we wanted to let the design come through and have the house speak for itself.” Renovations by architecture and design firm Mark Odom Studio stuck as close to the original aesthetic as possible, restoring the inside and adding an outdoor patio space. For the menu, DeLeon took the same approach.
“We bought that house to be a part of the neighborhood and be a part of the menu,” says DeLeon. Rosewood’s menu changes daily and is all house-made. Most of the dishes are inspired by childhood and South Texas favorites with twists, like chicken meatballs or lamb milanesa tacos. “I like when people come in craving something, and I want to give them the best of whatever they’re craving.”
Originally from Victoria, DeLeon has long been interested in South Texas fare. After culinary school in Vermont, he cooked in New Orleans kitchens before taking over Bee Caves’ Zoot in 2006. After its closure, DeLeon worked at Vespaio for six years and helped open Hotel Van Zandt’s restaurant, Geraldine’s. He ventured out on his own in May 2016 with tasting menu supper club Victoria Provisions, which hosted dinners at Patricia’s Table on Thursdays and Sundays for six months.
After the passion project, he knew we wanted to return to full-menu cooking and committed to the idea of Rosewood. After purchasing the house a block away, DeLeon began to spend time at local favorite Nickel City. “The first time I walked in here, we were still under construction [on Rosewood] and it was like walking into my past,” he says. “It’s a great community that they’ve established and have welcomed us into. And the hot dog here is ridiculous.”