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Architect Michael Hsu on Designing For Chefs

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<em>P. Terry's, North Lamar. [Photo: <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paul Bardagjy</a>]</em>
P. Terry's, North Lamar. [Photo: Paul Bardagjy]

Uchi, Uchiko, Olivia, La Condesa, Haddington's, Fino: if architect Michael Hsu's name is on a restaurant's blueprint, it's likely the establishment is a favorite among critics and diners alike. So what is it about Hsu that makes Austin chefs eager to work with him? The architect talked with Eater Austin about conveying a chef's vision, new projects he's working on, and

What do all of your designs have in common? Is there anything that is always consistent in your work?
I don't think there is anything like an aesthetic that we always carry over, but the way we always approach a job is to discuss the feel of a place and the atmosphere it wants to convey. It's more of how we want the place to come across, not so much the architectural trends going on. We always want to make sure we have some natural material, and we always try to have those natural materials read across in the building and not use a lot of finishings on top of them. We also like to work with a lot of local craftspeople and artists.

In all that you've designed, is there a specific building that is your favorite?
That's one of those questions that if I answer too directly, I could get into trouble. [Laughs]. But there honestly isn't one I'd say. Uchiko was a lot of fun for us because we got to work so closely with the owners and make something that I thought was really unique. And it's not like the restaurant is a "huge statement" kind of place. I think everything we did was very subtle and very thought out, but not flashy or too trendy or in your face. I was really proud about how we went about designing it and how it turned out.

Restaurants are difficult to design because they have to be built very efficient, but in your work, they are also always artistic. How much of your work would you say is based on art, and how much is based on
We spend a lot more time trying to get it to work than trying to get it to look right, just because we know they have to operate a working business. It's challenging if the kitchen and the flow doesn't work between the different spaces, and if we can get the seating optimized and make sure every seat in the house is the best seat in the house, than I know we've done our job. Those kinds of things worry us much more when we approach a project, rather than the artistic appeal.

What do you think is the current tend, and maybe the future, of designing restaurants in Austin?
What has been going on is a real boom in downtown restaurants. Downtown has grown so much in the last few years. But, what we are dong more lately is smaller projects that are more local, neighborhood places that are moving outside downtown. It's more about a certain area where the atmosphere is more casual, places are more intimate, rooms are smaller, and it's just much more of a comfortable sort of everyday feel, but with a strong cuisine concept attached to it.

Are you working on any new restaurants projects?
Yeah, we are working on a restaurant concept on South First Street with Rene Ortiz and Jesse Herman of La Condesa, and we continue to work with P-Terrys for their projects. They are building a new one out in Lakeway. We are also working on a new concept for James Holmes.

Do you frequent any of the restaurants you've designed?
It's kind of awesome to have the chance to eat at all of these great places that I've worked on, but my wife doesn't allow me to do a whole lot of going out. [Laughs]. But, yeah, I ate at Haddington's last night; they recently got a new chef, and the food was wonderful. We live near Uchiko, so we go there on occasion, and my kids love Amy's Ice Cream and P-Terry's.

What is your dream structure to design?
I'd love to work on a house for myself. Honestly, what I really endeavor to do is just keep participating in and designing the city of Austin. One of the jobs I'm really excited about is a job we are doing on the East Side. We are redeveloping a property into artist studios and art galleries and building creative spaces for people. The kind of thing in Austin that really excites me is a creative community whether it's architecture, food, theater, and all of these creative fields. I honestly love working with them.

—Layne Lynch

· Hsu Office of Architecture [Official Site]
· All Michael Hsu Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]

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