Crystal Esquivel always wanted to go to culinary school.
She’d become enamored with restaurant life while watching “Great Chefs, Great Cities” on PBS as a teen, but her dad had a different plan.
“He wanted me to get a degree,” so she went to what was then Southwest Texas State in San Marcos to become a dietitian.
It didn’t take long for her to figure out that she hated it.
With so much emphasis on food science, the kind of dietitian work she was doing stripped away the psychology and emotions tied to what we eat.
She quit her job as a dietitian and started working as an executive assistant at the University of Texas, and in 2005 she decided to start a blog to keep her mom updated on what she was doing in Austin and share her new discoveries around the city with friends and family.
When she first moved here, she was cooking more at home, so she blogged about that, but as she and husband Justin started to explore Austin restaurants, she naturally shifted away from blogging recipes and toward eating out.
“I have this love of restaurants, and the blog was a place to put all of that,” she says. “I’m not a critic and I don’t want to be one. I can find the good in just about anything.”
Esquivel, who turns 35 in a few weeks, says that though she considers Poco-Cocoa (poco-cocoa.com) more of a personal blog than a food blog, it did help her get her first book contract with Globe Pequot for the 2011 book “Food Lovers’ Guide to Austin: Best Local Specialties, Markets, Recipes, Restaurants & Events” (Globe Pequot, April 2011).
Not long after the first book came out, Globe Pequot contracted her to do the Austin edition of their Chef’s Table series, which started in Boston in 2007 and now includes 14 books, including Esquivel’s newly released edition. In the coming year, the Connecticut-based publisher will release 10 similar books from cities including Savannah, San Diego and San Francisco.
The format of the book is similar in each of the cities, but it was up to Esquivel to figure out which restaurants to include to make it representative of the city’s quickly evolving culinary scene while paying homage to the pioneers who are still going strong.
She created a list of about 100 locally owned restaurants of note, which she then had to whittle down to 52. “I tried to get a range of places,” she says, including high-end and low-end eateries, as well as restaurants that don’t get much time in the spotlight. They range from relatively new, buzzworthy spots such as Kome, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Congress and La Condesa to venerable landmarks Fonda San Miguel, Chez Nous, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, Casa De Luz and the Salt Lick.
Though the book features some haute cuisine, including recipes from Uchi’s Philip Speer and Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore, the majority of the recipes, including sweet potato pudding from Chez Zee owner Sharon Watkins and pecan-crusted catfish from Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, don’t require a culinary degree to complete.
Though she’s proud of the diversity of recipes in the book, Esquivel says her favorite part of the process was getting to know the chefs she interviewed. She spent about an hour with most of them, sometimes returning with photographer Aimee Wenske to follow up conversations. (Wenske also shot the photographs in TipsyTexan.com founder David Alan’s first book, which is slated to come out in June.)
Esquivel and Wenske are working on another book project, and when she’s not writing, she’s helping with her husband’s freelance design business, as well as consulting and assisting other food entrepreneurs, including Alan, Jodi Elliott at Foreign & Domestic and photographer Jody Horton.
Esquivel will sign copies of “Austin Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from the Texas Capital” (Globe Pequot, $24.95) and talking about some of her favorite stories from the book at 7 p.m. Monday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
SXSW: Beyond the coupon
Are grocery stores at risk of becoming irrelevant?
That was the question at a panel during South by Southwest Interactive last week featuring four “technologists” — Kent Novak and Marshall Capps of Texas Instruments, Paul Salvini of Christie Digital Systems and Austin’s William Hurley, founder of Chaotic Moon. They want to see more technological innovation in your everyday grocery store: Interactive endcaps that can detect the gender and age of the person slowing down to see what’s on sale. Digital, personalized coupons based on your shopping preferences. Packaging that will offer ideas for other ingredients or items that go well with that product.
Armed with a statistic that says that only 41 percent of millennials go to traditional grocery stores, the panelists framed the entire panel around the idea that grocery stores, if they don’t start putting some money and ideas into digitizing the process of shopping for food, will lose out to online grocers such as Greenling or prepared foods companies like My Fit Foods.
The problem is that, despite a lack of talking grocery carts and robotic check-out stands, grocery stores aren’t just doing fine right now, they are thriving, especially in an economy in which eating out or buying already prepared meals remains a once-a-week luxury for many shoppers.
Yes, grocery stores are facing increased competition with alternative retailers getting in on the grocery game, including big box stores like Target and farmers markets, but instead of closing stores, many grocers, including H-E-B and Whole Foods, are in expansion mode, adding stores as fast as they can in quickly growing suburbs to keep up with increased demand.
The problem with adding technology to the grocery shopping experience has several layers. (And it would have been nice for the all-white, all-male, all-tech panel to have included a grocery store representative and at least one woman. SXSW might be dominated by men, but one trip to the store will remind you of just how many women are still the primary grocery shoppers.)
First, there is very little incentive for grocers to add technology to the shopping experience because they operate on such small profit margins, and if they take too many risks to be on the cutting edge, they risk losing more shoppers than they would gain.
Another hurdle is that grocery stores vary so much from place to place, and the infrastructure to operate them is massive. One small change in the store could require untold changes behind the scenes to make it happen.
Even though many of us carry smartphones while we shop, the use of grocery apps, such as those to help you build and share grocery lists or find out the nutritional value of food, hasn’t taken off as much as their creators might have hoped they would.
One reason grocers might take a risk on investing in technology is to gain more data about what shoppers are looking for and how they shop, and interactive displays are definitely one way to provide that kind of data. However, if the displays feel too much like a commercial — for instance, if an advertiser puts ads on the freezer door and customers had to watch a 30-second ad to get to the Eggo waffles — grocery stores risk losing customers’ trust, and their shopping dollars.
Shoppers might be willing to change their habits if there were an incentive to do so, such as additional and/or personalized coupons, and the good news is that most grocers have already started thinking outside the box for coupons. Many offer coupons printed at checkout that are based on what consumers have just purchased, but some retailers, such as Randalls, are investing in apps that give customers coupons tailored to their wants and needs.
Talking grocery carts that ring up groceries as you shop, email recipes according to what you buy and send a Facebook message to your friends about a coupon you just used might seem like an innovation of the future, but if technology companies are asking for the stores to pay for that (and their maintenance), it’s not likely to happen any time soon.
They are more likely to put that investment into keeping prices as low as possible and the environment as enjoyable as possible to keep budget-minded customers coming through the door.
What the panelists underestimate is how many of us actually enjoy the grocery shopping experience as it is. I’ll occasionally tweet or send out an Instagram photo from the store, but I like the lack of screens and digital interaction for those 20 or 30 minutes. No holographs asking me to try a new product. No coupons being texted to my phone when I walk by an item that I purchased during my last visit. No smartcarts tracking how long I linger in the ice cream aisle.
I love interacting with fellow customers in the aisles and grocery store employees at the check stand. Just the thought of losing that weekly communal experience makes me itch for a pen and paper to start a grocery list.
Ensalada de Jícama con Melon (Jícama-Melon Salad)
The jícama-melon salad at Fonda San Miguel is a brunch favorite. The crunch of the jícama complements the creaminess of the ripe cantaloupe, and it is all brought to life by the lime, chile and cilantro.
1 large jícama, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
3 navel oranges, peeled and sectioned, with pulp and membrane removed
1 large cantaloupe or honeydew melon, peeled, seeded, and cut into bite-size chunks
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup fresh lime juice
2 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder (optional)
In a nonreactive bowl, combine jícama and fruit. Toss with lime juice, cilantro, and salt. Refrigerate about 1 hour to allow flavors to meld. Toss with chili powder, if desired, before serving. Serves 6.
— Chef Miguel Ravago, Fonda San Miguel
Vivaneau aux Raisins (Snapper with Grapes)
This elegant dish would be a great option for a small dinner party. The celery root puree serves as a creamy base for the crispy fish and grapes. Citrus zest brightens up the flavors.
For the celery root puree:
1 medium head celery root, peeled and diced
1/4 cup cream
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Pinch of ground white pepper
For the snapper:
2 (6-oz.) snapper fillets, trimmed and pin bones removed
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup halved white seedless grapes
1 Tbsp. pine nuts
Juice of 1 orange
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 tsp. orange zest
1/4 tsp. lemon zest
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
To prepare the celery root puree, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the celery root and boil until tender, about 4–6 minutes. Drain the celery root and reserve the cooking liquid.
Add the celery root, cream, butter, and white pepper to a food processor and puree; add a small amount of cooking liquid to achieve a very smooth, light consistency. Check the seasoning and add salt if needed. Push the mixture through a sieve; discard solids. Keep puree warm.
To prepare the snapper, score the skin of the fish in a crisscross pattern; pat dry with a paper towel. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat a heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the snapper, skin side down. Lower the heat to medium; cook for 6–7 minutes, using a spoon to bathe the fish continuously with the hot oil, until the fish flakes easily. Remove the fish from the pan and place it on a plate lined with a paper towel, skin side up so that it remains crispy. Carefully pour off the oil from the pan.
In the same pan, add the butter and a pinch of salt. Add grapes and pine nuts; cook until the butter has browned slightly and grapes are lightly caramelized. Stir in citrus juices and zests and cook about 30 more seconds. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley.
To finish each serving, spoon about 1/2 cup of the warm celery root puree onto a warm plate. Arrange the fish on top, and spoon about half the sauce over the top. Serves 2.
— Chef Christopher Concannon, Chez Nous