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Lenoir's Jessica Maher Talks Plans For the New Restaurant, Culinary Power Couples, and Food Hangovers

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Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan.
Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan.
Photo: Jenna Noel, courtesy of Edible Austin

Almost five years ago, Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher made their way from New York to Austin with a goal in mind: to start a restaurant. Recently, the two decided to take the next step and signed a lease: it was finally the time to open a restaurant of their own called Lenoir. Below, Maher talks details (a December opening!), the advantages of being in a culinary power couple, and the meaning of hot weather cuisine.

What inspired you and Todd to take the initiative right now and open a restaurant?
We've been trying for sometime, but last year we had a child. Even in the midst of that, we were looking to open a restaurant. We had written a business plan, but we were fine-tuning it and looking for funding. Life just got very complicated. We didn't want to dilute the experience of being new parents. We wanted to embrace that.

Ideally, we could have opened something a few years ago before we had a child, but I wouldn't change what I have for anything. We knew we wanted to open a family business, and that's why we moved to Austin. We both worked in the restaurant industry in New York, and within six months of dating each other, we talked about how maybe we would move here because I had lived here, gone to college here, and moved to New York to expand my experiences.

He did the same thing and is also from Texas, so it just seemed like a happy medium. When we moved here four-and-a-half years ago, that's what we wanted to do, but we wanted to get to know the city again as adults and figure out what we would want to do in a restaurant. And honestly, if we had opened a restaurant then, it probably wouldn't have worked because we had been coming off our experiences in New York, and that just wouldn't have worked because Austin is a different market in every way.

What made you settle on Lenoir for the name? It's a type of grape, right?
It’s a black Spanish grape, but it’s actually a French grape brought to Mexico or Central America via the Spanish, and it has nativized in Texas. In a way, Todd and I felt like this grape, in that we’ve become settled in Austin and in Texas and nativized here, even though we didn’t start out here. It’s a beautiful, elegant name. It’s very simple and doesn’t completely denote French food.

What kind of statement do you want to make with the cuisine? And what kind of dishes can we expect to see on the menu?
We’ve written a menu, but we have no intention of keeping any item on the menu. Our goal is to change the menu often as things become available because we want to buy most of the produce and meat locally. The produce is tough in the summertime, but we want to utilize what is grown here because that’s indicative of what people should be eating here. We’re going to change it as we find interesting, new things, and we’ve been calling our menu concept “hot weather food” for quite some time.

So what exactly constitutes "hot weather food"?
Basically, to us, that means drawing from other places around the world that have similar hot climates. Those places are making food to keep people going, rather than weigh them down when they’ve having to live is such hot weather. So, it’s going to be a lot of spicy, acidic food, but we don’t have a specific cuisine in mind.

Todd cooked in a place in New York called Tabla. It’s an Indian restaurant that just recently closed. It was wonderful, and everything was spicy, flavorful, light, and really satisfying. We want to evoke that feeling.

My family is Spanish, and Todd and I have traveled to Spain together. It can get just as hot in Southern Spain as it does here, and the food there also works well with the climate. You are eating things there like seafood with a really cold beer or a nice glass of wine. It always works well because you don’t feel like you have a food hangover at the end of the meal. I’ve had meals like that, that are delicious, but I felt so sick the next day purely from eating so much fat and butter. We want our diners to feel satisfied, but not carry that food hangover.

What are you thinking for drinks? Beer, wine, cocktails?
To go along with our menu, we have a friend that is helping us with our wine menu that will be a small select wine menu that will range from 12 to 15 bottles that pair well with the food. We’ll rotate those fairly often and have beers as well.

Will those be local beers and local wines, or will those be more worldly?
Those won’t all be local. We will probably be serving things that work well with the food. In terms of beer, we absolutely want to serve some local beer. We love all of the local beers, and they are all worthy of serving on the menu. To begin with, we’ll probably just have bottled beers, though. That means we won’t immediately be able to have 512, and I love 512, especially the 512 Wit. There are some other great options in the meantime.

You come from Dai Due and Todd comes from Trio. Those two establishments are quite different. How are you guys going to mesh your different styles and experiences?
We come from similar backgrounds originally, but even in New York we diverged. I was working in four-star, fine dining restaurants owned by the same chef, so even though the cuisine was different, the style was very much the same. At the time, we employed a lot of molecular gastronomy techniques. It was truly experimental cooking. Even in pastry, we did that. We made a lot of classic desserts, but we also made a lot of desserts that you would have to be a risk taker to eat. I feel like it was good to have that experience.

Ultimately, I was the pastry chef at Savoy right before we left, and that is very much a locally driven, simple kind of food and totally derived from traditional dishes. I think that we will certainly meet in the middle. Both of us imagine this being a neighborhood restaurant and want it to be a place you can eat at often. I don’t know if you can eat food that challenges people on a regular basis and get them to come all the time. Our menu is going to be very reasonably priced, so that means we’ll be making things a little more traditionally. What we both want is for it to be a little more flavorful and delicious.

Do you know how many you want to seat in the restaurant yet?
The way we have it mapped out right now, we have 34 seats. We might be able to do 36. That’s what we’re pulling for. It’s going to be small. We want to open in December.

What do you envision for the interior and exterior design? A lot of restaurants in Austin are very design-driven.
We’re working with someone and working out the details of that. This is a delicate subject because we haven’t quite decided what we want. Ultimately, the food needs to be the showcase, and it needs to be comfortable place where people feel a little bit of escapism because South First [Street] is right there, and that’s a very busy road.

Behind the building, we have these very beautiful live oak trees that go down to the creek. I want it to be a place where four people can come and enjoy themselves and it can be fairly casual, but two people can come and have a romantic dinner also. So, just like the food, I feel like the design doesn’t need to be too challenging either. We’re a total mom-and-pop organization, and we have to budget like that.

In Austin, there are a few of culinary power couples. Do you ever feel like working with your spouse gives you an edge in succeeding with cuisine?
Absolutely. I’m not saying that people who aren’t a couple can’t succeed, but you can communicate with your spouse and be more honest with your spouse in a way you can’t quite be with a business partner. I had a business and I’m still close with my former business partner, but it was much more delicate and we were much more sensitive and protective of our own needs.

In a marriage, you are committed to compromising over everything. You have to communicate about those things. You don’t have to give up what you want or think, but maybe something better comes about when two people are working together and putting their efforts into it to jointly succeed. This is our bread and butter. This isn’t, “We’re in it to see if it works,” or “I just want a paycheck.” This is a family unit, and we want this to succeed and have longevity.

It’s scary because we are basically throwing all of our eggs in one basket, but the great thing about it is that we’re experienced. If anybody is going to make it work, we have a pretty good shot at it. I know we’re going to make mistakes, simply because we don’t know everything. But, it’s an advantage to be in a couple that has restaurant experience and has worked together before.

Are there any Austin restaurants you would like to be compared with or run in the same rank with?
We only ate there once, and it’s not in Austin. In the New York Times, there was this article about La Reve in San Antonio. We ate there once before it closed, and it is a restaurant that we would love to be like. The service was outstanding and the food was awesome.

It was very sad that they decided to close it, but I appreciate what they were doing. They were committed to quality and you could tell at every level. Every person and every piece of food that came to our table was just perfect. I would love Lenoir to be like that. We’re also friends with Emmett and Lisa Fox of ASTI and FINO, and we think they do an excellent job. We’re constantly picking their brains, and they are so generous with their time and expertise and they’re also a couple.

That’s important to Todd and I to figure out how they make that work. If we could accomplish a fraction of what they have, we’d be doing pretty well.

—Layne Lynch
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1807 South First St Austin, TX 78704