Jack Gilmore has been pushing culinary boundaries in Austin since before many of the city’s top chefs were in diapers, including his own son, Bryce.
The younger Gilmore shot to stardom faster than his dad, winning a spot on Food & Wine’s coveted Best New Chef list in 2011, but Jack has been carving out his own legacy in Austin food since he moved here from Brownsville (by way of Pennsylvania) in the late 1970s.
As he tells it in his much-anticipated first cookbook, “Jack Allen’s Kitchen” (University of Texas Press, $39.95) Gilmore worked at Shadows, “a total rip-off of TGI Friday’s, complete with a fern bar,” where he met Guy Villavaso and Larry Foles, two men who would change his life when they decided a decade later to open a restaurant on West Sixth Street focusing on what was then nouveau Southwestern cuisine.
For 20 years (to the day), Gilmore was the ever-grinning culinary face of Z’Tejas as it expanded far outside that once sleepy part of downtown Austin.
But five years ago, Gilmore and longtime friend Tom Kamm knew it was time to set out on their own, and they made a gamble on a building in Oak Hill that was a revolving door of restaurants.
Their concept: Locally sourced Texas cuisine, priced and presented in a way that everyday diners could get behind.
If there was a curse on the space, Jack Allen’s Kitchen shattered it. The restaurant has become a watering hole for the neighborhood, a brunch magnet for families and a date night favorite for couples young and old.
Within a few years, they opened an equally successful sister restaurant in Round Rock and, in coming months, they’ll open a third on Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) in the former Trento space.
How Gilmore went from those early days, when he had to get a second job as a server to cover the bills for his young family, to today, when he runs one of the most successful restaurant brands in Austin, is a story full of burns, booms and lucky breaks. It’s one he finally gets to tell in his new book, one of the highlights of this weekend’s Texas Book Festival. (See box for more information on the food books at this year’s festival.)
In a world of souvenir cookbooks that sit on shelves like trophies, “Jack Allen’s Kitchen,” co-written with Austinite Jessica Dupuy, is the rare restaurant cookbook that, for most of us, will actually function as a book from which we can cook.
(My only complaint is that I don’t love the nontraditional recipe format it uses. Each recipe is written in a chart, with columns for ingredients, measure, cut and preparation, in a way that makes sense to the authors but not to me.)
The recipes include some of Gilmore’s greatest hits: pimiento cheese, tomato basil pie, and Navajo tacos, one of the few dishes from Z’Tejas that made its way to Jack Allen’s Kitchen. (He also includes his famous Tamale Jalapeno-Cornbread Dressing recipe, which Kitty Crider ran in one of her farewell stories in 2008.)
Gilmore says one of his closest book-writing partners was his wife, LuAnn.
“We would sit in front of the computer, and I would tell her what to type and she would type it,” he says. If he said something that didn’t make sense to her, she’d say so. If she didn’t know how to “sweat” an onion, nor would readers. “She was always right. I could not have done this without her.”
Gilmore hired Dupuy and local photographer Kenny Braun to join his production team. They photographed the dishes over four photo sessions, one per season, in the private dining room at the restaurant in Oak Hill, which remained open during the shoots.
“As soon as I’d bring out the food for one shot, I’d go back to the kitchen and start the other one. We’d shoot 20 or 30 dishes a day.”
Dupuy was in charge of writing many of the essays about farmers, ranchers, purveyors, distillers, winemakers and brewers, partners without whom Gilmore and Kamm know they couldn’t do their job.
Their stories, told with admiration for their respective crafts, add a richness to the book that gives context to how the restaurant fits into the larger Central Texas food landscape.
It’s unusual for a mid-priced, casual restaurant to take such a locavore approach to cooking, because the menu has to change as frequently as the seasons.
Seventy percent of the food they serve at Jack Allen’s Kitchen comes from farmers whose names (and whose kids’ and pets’ names) Gilmore likely knows.
“Loyalty goes a long way,” he says, and it’s a two-way street. “We get the pick of the crop, for sure, and we earned it. We don’t haggle price. I’ve never haggled a price. If the farmer asks me for $3 a pound, that’s what they are going to get.”
And if the farmers have extra produce left over at the market, they know they can drop it off at one of his restaurants and he and his staff will find a way to put it to use.
Having spent more time at farmers markets than any chef who oversees restaurants that feed quite so many people, Gilmore sees them growing and gaining steam that will carry them into the next 10 or 20 years. “There’s so much passion with the farmers, like Two Happy Children, Tecolote, Boggy Creek, Milagro Farm. Everybody is real passionate about what they are doing, and now I’m seeing the next generation coming up.”
Kids start out by giving change or talking with customers, and then they get old enough to run their own booth at another market. “It hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
And then there are the people who do not have an agricultural background who feel called to “quit their real jobs to do something crazy like start a farm,” he says.
It’s as steep a learning curve as the one he so blindly attempted in his first hardscrabble restaurant projects, which ultimately failed.
Few people have the gumption to pick up the pieces and try again, but that’s what Gilmore did after those first failed attempts.
Riding that roller coaster gave him what he calls a master’s degree in restaurants, an education he is now passing on to others.
“At my age, my job is to leave a legacy of good cooks behind. We try to find the next talent, the next sous chef that can impact the culinary scene in Austin. That’s my job now.”
Caring about the people who provide the ingredients is a big part of that.
Some of the young people he hires take their interest in the farmers to the next level by volunteering at the farms to learn how the chickens are raised, how to plant and harvest the crops.
“They are out there fighting the bugs and mosquitoes and planting seeds and seedlings, and then they go out in the next few weeks and see how the okra is coming up or plants are doing. They give a (expletive).”
Just like their boss.
When I was growing up, we went to an old steakhouse where they served a little crock of cheddar cheese spread and saltine crackers. I wish I could remember the name of that restaurant because it’s what inspired us to greet customers with this at Jack Allen’s Kitchen. It’s customary to get chips and salsa at Tex-Mex restaurants, and Italian and fine dining restaurants present diners with bread and butter or olive oil. We wanted to serve something unique. Something that was Southern and Texan in spirit. The homemade Pimiento Cheese gets people talking the second they are seated.
This recipe makes quite a bit. But if you’re going to put in the effort, you may as well make enough to last a couple of weeks. Plus it makes a great gift to bring over to neighbors and friends.
— Jack Gilmore
1/2 lb. cream cheese, softened
1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, grated
1/2 lb. cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup red bell pepper, roasted, seeded and chopped
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Whisk together all ingredients in mixer, and store in refrigerator until ready to use.
Serve with chips, on sandwich bread, or however you want. Makes 8 to 10 Mason jars.
— From “Jack Allen’s Kitchen” by Jack Gilmore and Jessica Dupuy
Bourbon Pecan Apple Cobbler
This makes a soulful dessert for the season. Pecans, bourbon and apples just naturally go well together. The key is to use something like a Granny Smith apple, which will hold up better in the baking. Other apples can get mealy and mushy. The tartness from the green apple dissipates with the addition of the other ingredients.
— Jack Gilmore
8-10 green apples, peeled, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. Bourbon or Texas whiskey
1 cup Texas pecans, chopped or whole
8 oz. chilled butter, cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat over to 350 degrees, and spray a 10- or 12-inch round cast-iron skillet with cooking spray or rub with oil.
Toss apples with sugar, spices, vanilla and liquor.
Place apples in skillet, top evenly with pecans, and set aside.
For streusel topping, in large bowl using two forks, mix and mash up butter with sugars and flour until crumbly and loose, then pour over apples.
Bake for approximately 45 minutes until evenly browned, and serve warm, with vanilla ice cream. Serves 8 to 10.
— From “Jack Allen’s Kitchen” by Jack Gilmore and Jessica Dupuy
Food highlights from this year’s Texas Book Festival:
- Jack Gilmore demonstrates his book 2 p.m. Sunday in the Central Market Cooking Tent
- PBS host and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the House Chamber
- “Soul Food” author Adrian Miller at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Central Market Cooking Tent
- Michael Ruhlman will host a cooking demo at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Cooking Tent and discuss his new book, “Egg,” in the Kirkus Reviews Tent at 2:15 p.m. Sunday
- Austin blogger and “Camille Styles Entertaining” author Camille Styles at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Texas Tent
- “Homesick Texan” blogger/author Lisa Fain at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Texas Tent
- “Yucatán” author David Sterling at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Cooking Tent
Gilmore will be signing books numerous times over the next few months, including a launch party of sorts on Tuesday from 5 to 10 p.m. at the Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Oak Hill, 7720 U.S. 71, that will also feature live music and a pig roast. (He’ll head to the Round Rock location on 2500 Hoppe Trail on Nov. 5.) At 7 p.m. Nov. 21, you can catch him at BookPeople and on Dec. 6 at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. You can find out more about Gilmore’s upcoming events at jackallenskitchen.com/cookbook.html.