- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Look to a lighthouse when things get choppy.
Austin has experienced noticeable growing pains over the past few years. The city’s rapid development led to an overextended restaurant scene rushing to keep pace with the changing city as operators fight to hire staff, lure customers and steer their ships.
The tumult contributed to some ill-conceived openings and regular closures — some of them surprising, many not. Three of the Top 12 restaurants from my 2015 Dining Guide — Congress, Qui and LaV — shuttered in the past year. A move away from fine dining in some cases and inadequate leadership in at least one hastened that trio of closures, but Austin restaurants in general are having trouble attracting and keeping customers. And, with a seemingly endless amount of new restaurants battling for limited dining dollars in a town only recently accustomed to spending good money on food, the future could look intimidating to many operators.
But if you’re searching for hope and a blueprint for what Austin restaurants can be, turn to Bryce Gilmore. The Austin native has created two of the best restaurants in the city, No. 1 Barley Swine and No. 4 Odd Duck in this year’s Dining Guide, by sourcing locally to create inspired dishes delivered via a team of dedicated professionals who have bought into the 34-year-old’s vision and leadership.
Gilmore — whose father, Jack Gilmore, worked as executive chef at Z’Tejas for 20 years and owns three popular Jack Allen’s Kitchen locations — opened the original Barley Swine in a small space on South Lamar Boulevard in December 2010. As his lease on South Lamar neared its end, Gilmore decided he had no desire to continue a relationship with a landlord he considered unreasonable. He moved to his new location on Burnet Road in January in a row of businesses that includes Lick Honest Ice Creams and the second location of Neapolitan pizza restaurant Bufalina, making it one of the most quality-dense retail strips of its kind in Austin.
Though Gilmore identifies himself as “a South Austin guy” (Odd Duck is also on South Lamar), the move in a way brought him full circle. He had originally planned to open his first business, Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, on a plot of land where the Travis County Farmers Market once operated — next to the current Barley Swine.
While the space of the new Barley Swine is equal to that of Odd Duck’s, there are 40 fewer seats, giving Gilmore more room in the kitchen to actualize his vision. He doesn’t just dream up dishes or apply garnishes with tweezers; he sees the big picture operationally. In the massive kitchen he designed, the work all comes together at a table in the middle, allowing for a centralized place to moderate the flow of dishes, and the dining room was laid out to give enough space for potential tableside preparation and service in the future.
The flexibility extends beyond the space. After opening Odd Duck in 2013, Gilmore switched the original Barley Swine from an a la carte menu to a tasting menu. But he wanted the chance to offer diners both experiences at Barley Swine 2.0. While Gilmore and his team have created a dazzling tasting menu of about 10 dishes that provides a narrative for the kitchen’s collective vision, the chef also realizes that some people want the freedom, financially and culinarily, to make their own choices. The end result is a restaurant with the sophistication of the first Barley Swine iteration and the comfort of the more casual and approachable Odd Duck.
Barley Swine turns out snacks like a Hatch chile-cheese pretzel that would be at home on Odd Duck’s menu while also producing more refined, time-intensive dishes. With fewer nightly customers than Odd Duck, the team at Barley Swine has the resources to create a delicate shiitake pasta, with mushroom broth and brown butter wrapped like liquid caramels in pasta pouches that gush with a loamy glow.
You can connect the dots between the dishes Gilmore was preparing when he first opened Barley Swine to the current menu, but the food has naturally shifted, an evolution Gilmore attributes to the people with whom he surrounds himself.
“I like thinking of restaurants as a living, evolving thing. It comes down to the people that are working in it,” Gilmore said.
One thing that hasn’t changed, and won’t, is the proliferation of small and shared plates at both restaurants.
“I want these places to be a fun experience for people. And I think to be able to really fully enjoy yourself, you want to try different things,” Gilmore said. “There are different flavor combinations and different textures you’re going to get out of every dish.”
While he realizes some people prefer the service style more than others, Gilmore makes a valid point about the potential problems of ordering just an appetizer and an entree at a restaurant.
“What if you don’t like one of them?” Gilmore said.
Gilmore recognizes that culinary styles change. Flavor profiles, plating and cooking techniques from around the world find their way into his and other Austin kitchens. But the chef doesn’t tend to chase trends or allow for incongruous influences to guide his kitchen.
“For me it’s important to allow it to be natural and organic. What we stick to is, we source everything locally, and we want to feature that stuff, and we want to support as many local artisan producers and farmers and ranchers as we can, and let the staff and the people that work here mold it and form it into what it is on the table,” Gilmore said. “I really want it to be a reflection of the people that work here, because people come and go, and that helps with the evolution. But we’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great people stay with us for a really long time, and that certainly makes my life easier.”
Indeed, the loyalty Gilmore’s staff has exhibited over the years has helped ground and grow his two restaurants. Executive pastry chef Susana Querejazu has been with Gilmore since Odd Duck opened, and Barley Swine executive sous chef Bradley Nicholson has worked for Gilmore since 2011.
In a time where restaurant operators are regularly poaching talent, it is telling that Nicholson has remained under Gilmore’s tutelage for so long. Undoubtedly there have been other restaurant owners who have waved an executive chef position in front of the 30-year-old Jackson, Miss., native, who previously worked at Vespaio, but Nicholson believes he still has more to learn before he’s in charge of a kitchen.
“I’m a little more old school than a lot of the people who are line cooks now. They want to work for a couple of years and then be a chef after that,” Nicholson said. “The way that I was taught is you spend enough time working for some people that are way better than you, see as much as you can see. Everybody wants to be the boss, but I think it’s better to find a place where you fit and respect and learn as much as you can. Bryce has given me a lot of opportunities … I’m growing here. I haven’t stopped growing here. Every six months there’s a new incarnation of the restaurant. That’s kept me excited and engaged.”
When he does finally have his own kitchen, if that’s the route he chooses, Nicholson will enter the endeavor with a toolbox of lessons learned from Gilmore. His most important consideration might not even be the menu. That’s the easy part.
“The hard part is dealing with people and making and keeping people happy. And I see Bryce making so many people happy that work for him. I don’t understand how he gets it all done,” Nicholson said. “Bryce is running two of the most successful restaurants in town, and he still finds time to cook, and at the end of the day he’s dealing with people a lot. That’s what I’ve learned from Bryce — what it takes to really run a restaurant like this.”
Nicholson’s statement illuminates what is the most important part of the job for Gilmore. Chat with the four-time James Beard award finalist (a bridesmaid streak certain to end soon) and you don’t hear him talk about awards, gossip about other restaurants, ogle culinary gadgets or wax poetic about traveling to Michelin-starred restaurants abroad. His discussion always turns toward the farmers and ranchers with whom he partners, and the cultivation of young talent. Not just the talent in his restaurants but in the industry at large.
Gilmore wants to find a way to make cooking in restaurants a sustainable career. He believes restaurant work should be a viable option for people in the front and the back of house, a job that can support a lifestyle that doesn’t include sharing a one-bedroom apartment with five other people. The financial strains of restaurant work, especially in a town where the price of everything is ascending, drive people from a profession to which Gilmore has dedicated his life.
You can hear the concern and empathy in his voice as he talks about wanting to do more to help his employees and the farmers and ranchers, who should probably be charging more for their product than they already are. He offers health insurance and added benefits to his employees and says Odd Duck alone purchased more than $1 million in product from local purveyors last year. Still, he knows he could be doing more. But part of his ability to do that depends on customers continuing to appreciate, support and pay for Gilmore’s brand of locally sourced, well-executed, from-scratch cooking.
“When it comes to sourcing food locally, it’s not even necessarily the cost of the ingredients; it’s the cost of the labor to take those ingredients from scratch and make them into something that people are going to find not only tasty but prepared well and properly and maybe even a little different than what they’re used to seeing,” Gilmore said. “And that takes these guys being creative and the countless hours of research and developing things and being unique to how we think about food. From-scratch cooking takes a lot of labor, and not cheap labor.”
The move to North Austin hasn’t been without its challenges. Barley Swine has had to cultivate a new following in a part of town with demographics and consumer behavior that differ from their base of regulars on South Lamar. And even the owner of two of the city’s best restaurants isn’t immune to the problems of his changing hometown.
Gilmore, who has a third, more casual concept in the works, believes a lot of people from outside Austin saw the success of the market here a few years ago and moved to town in hopes of capitalizing on the city’s buzz and seemingly endless growth. That influx has diluted the scene, and the explosion of retail and new business has outpaced the number of potential customers.
New developments mean new restaurants, which mean other restaurants lose talent, and the vicious cycle continues apace, as many landlords continue to squeeze for top dollar. Gilmore says he likely wouldn’t have had the same success had he opened as a newcomer today, but he doesn’t think we’ve reached a crisis point.
One of Austin’s most soft-spoken chefs musters a rallying cry:
“I think this is a good opportunity to ask the people of Austin to continue to support local businesses, not just restaurants. Part of what’s happening with the growth is we’re seeing a lot of outside businesses come here, and if we want to retain the weirdness and uniqueness that Austin has, we have to support the people that are opening businesses here. Because it’s not getting easier for us,” Gilmore said. “There are a lot of creative entrepreneurial spirits here that are doing some great things that aren’t found in other cities, and if we want to continue that, we have to keep supporting them.”