Welcome to One Year In, in which we interview Austin chefs on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we interview Ned Elliott of North Loop's Foreign & Domestic, which turned one on Friday
Husband-and-wife team Ned and Jodi Elliott opened Foreign & Domestic in the North Loop neighborhood on May 20 of 2010. Last week, we talked to Ned about how Foreign & Domestic got to be where it is today; today, he talks about why they chose North Austin over South, food bloggers, and what's next for the Elliotts (a second restaurant!).
What was the original concept for Foreign & Domestic?
Before we even moved down here, we were like: let's do a truck. Before the whole craze. And then it was like you know what? Food carts to me are so passe. If I want a hot dog, I'll go to a baseball game. I don't want amusement park food or stuff that's like hey, I have a doughnut that's glazed with cheddar fondue and fried bacon. Give me a great glazed doughnut, show me that.
We lived behind Zilker Park then — we live up here now, just right across Burnett and 49th — but we were looking at that area for a little while. I don't know, it just felt like a lot of restaurants down there felt sort of soulless and especially the downtown corridor, a lot of the restaurants feel like theme restaurants. And that's what really spurred this on: let's just do a great neighborhood restaurant.
A North Austin neighborhood restaurant.
We were looking around South Lamar and South First and South Congress, it's like Disneyland. So I saw a Craigslist ad, drove up here. I'd been up here a couple of times to the vintage shops and I'd been over toe Flight Path for coffee. Hyde Park has its little enclave of ASTI and Quacks and Mother's and Dolce Vita. So why the hell is it not going on up here? Hyde Park is so expensive.
So we talked to the owners of the building and we just fell in love with it. This is badass. The first time I drove by, I was like oh?. It's like a bombed out neighborhood! What the hell is going on up here! I'm surprised there's not like a chalked outline of a body or something. It was a gray day in late August. Just overcast, a Sunday, and I was just like no way. And then I drove by again and again, and well? we have our life savings and some credit cards, we could actually do something pretty fun.
So what makes F&D a neighborhood restaurant?
People are like oh, this feels like a diner! Well, if you're from the Northeast, this is not a diner. Just because it has a counter. If you live down here, people think it's sushi-style because you're sitting behind a counter watching people make stuff. We don't have another space to put this stuff!
Do you think the size helps with the neighborhood vibe?
One of the reasons we chose something so small is that Jodi and I wanted something we could cook six nights a week, seven nights a week and not be some monstrosity where you have sous chefs and four line cooks and a pastry chef and a chef de cuisine. I wanted to be able to cook. That's what I spent ten years in New York getting my balls crushed to do, not be a big guy in a little pond. No. I want to cook.
But at the same time with us we'll lose money. Meaning if we profit off anything, it's going right back into the business, into our staff. We value them. We'd love to be a lot busier, but at the same time we're probably as busy as we can handle. You know, if we were gigantic, we'd be busier for an extended period of time but we'd also be like uhoh. I've seen it happen at other places, and they're like hey we're going to shut down for four days because we can't handle the business that people have thrown at us. We've been lucky in that regard, too.
Sometimes somebody will sit at a table for too long and I want to go tell them they're not going to pay for my daughter's education. You only spent $20 dude! Please, we're too small, we've got to get somebody else in. But at the same time I love that, I love that people come in feel comfortable.
How is F&D different than it might be in South Austin?
The vibe of this neighborhood ? of course there are some neighborhood quacks that are but this neighborhood is awesome. Especially with the whole city initiative, the walking deal from Mueller over to here. A, yeah, it'll help our business, but B, it's just awesome to be in this area. To where it's not, hey everybody has the Ray Ban sunglasses and the skinny jeans, the bikes, the fixes and all that. Although I have a fixed gear and the Ray Bans.
But we're not in that generalized area of Austin that gets that I'm in college, I could be 20 or I could be 27, I'm still sort of living that lifestyle. We're out on the peripheral of that, but we have a whole cross section of guests. Our diners that come in represent Austin as a whole.
How do you feel about food bloggers?
That's one thing we've seen since we've been in Austin, because we have an open kitchen. Just go out and eat and enjoy yourself! Some people are just going out to dinner and taking pictures of it just to post on Facebook? Come on! Just have fun with it! You wouldn't go into your dentist's office and do that! We get that all the time, people like 'Hey, I would do this if I were you!' You know what? I'm going to show up to your work early, complain that you didn't take me into your office early, and then tell you that I think your office should be rearranged.
How does being in Austin compare to working in a bigger city?
I'd probably still be flipping burgers and selling weed out of an apartment in Montana rather than being like there's more to life, I don't want to just sit here and hang out with 20 year olds. I can be more. So getting a kick in the ass from my moms when I was in my early 20s and people saying, look, I found something in you, dude. You're good at this!
You lose your job in New York, it takes a little while to get a new job. You're screwed. Especially in restaurants. Okay, you lose a job in the middle of the month, you're not going to get a job till the next month. It's going to take a week or two, you're not going to be getting that paycheck, you're going to get evicted. So you know that paycheck is so important and I was always the first one in the kitchen.
We busted our asses for so long for so many other people, and thank you, Thomas Keller, here's the middle finger. I didn't get shit out of it. I got some knowledge. At the end of the day he's an awesome dude, but you just see people get used and abused and ripped off in large, big name restaurant. Everybody's expendable. The door goes both ways, you come in and you can walk right out.
It is a bit difficult because we haven't befriended anybody here, we haven't worked at any Austin restaurants. So trying to build off this name or brand recognition or name recognition of the restaurant, it's been hard with that.
How would you say that being in Austin, being in Texas has influenced your cooking?
I think that with Austin it's more reinforced what we set out to do. When people come in, oh, it's not enough food. You know what? You should want to come out to dinner and have a first course, a second course, and split a dessert. It's not like two pounds on your plate of food. So forcing that thing.
I don't want to be an ass about it, but I don't think it's changed too much. I mean, I like to smoke things. But I was doing that in New York too. We closed down the first two weeks after the New Year, and my wife and I went to Paris for ten days. That was a good thing for us. People were like, oh what did you put on the menu? Did you eat this, did you eat that? And we were like, no. That's not how we work. It's more like we want out, we went to a lot of places like the Chateaubriand and La Régalade Saint-Honoré and it reinforced what we're doing.
How would you categorize your food? You get a lot of attention for working with offal.
What we're doing is sort of a mix: we try to get as local as possible, but at the same time we want to be a neighborhood restaurant. We didn't want to be a local sustainable restaurants. One of the taglines everyone talks about is that they're nose to tail. That's bullshit. If they were nose to tail, then it would be like hey, we have lamb. And so all the meat on the menu is lamb. And that would be nose to tail, rather than what we do.
We're more European-Appalachian. There's a lot of things on the menu, from ham hocks to heart to tongue and things like that.
Where do you see the Austin food scene going?
With Contigo just opening, just come as you are, have a good fucking time. Contigo looks awesome. But at the same time it's not this place that clientele would go and be like, this is so cool looking and I feel so cool being here. It's just a badass place. And they have great drinks and a great vibe and it's a great space. I know [Contigo owner] Ben [Edgerton] a little bit and it's awesome. It's going to be a huge success and the more things that come up this way, that are in North-Central Austin, I mean it's this whole dining ground that the city has just turned it's back on. I mean, you have FINO and ASTI, and they do great jobs as well, but other than that?
What's next for you guys?
We're trying to expand the menu, make the food cleaner. I think that's one of the big things that's changed since Day One is that we're getting back to the way we really, really want to cook. A whole slew of things.
We're really thinking about doing another restaurant in the next year and a half, two years. We really want to do that. There's a whole other niche that Austin doesn't have — you go to a place like Mother's and it's vegetables, but it's all covered in cheese. Can we have a vegetarian restaurant in Austin that just lets the vegetable shine? Has anybody ever made cassoulet with vegetables? Has anybody ever done whole roasted turnips? Just make it somewhere around here if we can find the space, and do something like Foreign & Domestic Bio. Maybe there's one or two fish dishes, but that'd be the only animal product. Keeping it small and concise.
For us, it's like if we ever do anything else, it's staying true to this. We don't want anybody to ever walk in — people walk in all the time and say "This is an awesome space!" I agree it's an awesome space, but you should be focusing on the food. For us that's the major point of the restaurant. Not that it's food, it's more like come in and have a good time. You can come in on a Tuesday night and get the crab lasagna and a glass of wine and be out of here for $26. Or you can come in on a Friday on a date with another couple and eat through 80% of the menu and have a whole bunch of different tastes and textures and thoughts and stuff. But it's still just have fun.
[Photo: Aimee Wenske / Foreign & Domestic]