Austin is practically trembling with excitement about the nearing Austin Food & Wine Festival this weekend. So what is La Condesa’s René Ortiz going to be doing during the festivities? Lots and lots of eating and drinking, he assures us. He also plans to hang out with some of the local notables like Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine as well as out-of-towners like James Beard Award–winner Michelle Bernstein.
When Eater talked to Ortiz about the festival, he even sounded a little starstruck by the possibility of meeting personalities like Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Ortiz’s official weekend work — lucky him! — includes helping to promote La Condesa’s pastry chef Laura Sawicki as well as crafting carnitas at the tasting tent. Ortiz chatted with us about the festival and the future of the Austin food scene, but try as we might, we couldn’t coax him to open up about his forthcoming Thai restaurant on South First.
What are you going to be doing at Food & Wine?
Oh my god, I’m going to be eating and drinking! That’s what I’m going to be doing. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Having fun, meeting amazing people. My work part in it is definitely supporting Laura [Sawicki, La Condesa's pastry chef and one of Food & Wine's Best New Pastry Chefs of 2012] and stuff like that. And I have a fish event to do as well. We’ll be doing carnitas. It should be really fun. At the tasting tent.
Anyone in particular you’re looking forward to meeting, whose food you’re excited to try?
Well, we’re going to help out Michelle Bernstein, which is awesome. I’ve met her in passing, so it’ll be nice to see her again. So we’re doing a Macy’s event, so that should be fun. As like an exciting, personality chef would probably be Morimoto, because he’s like the best fish chef. So I think that’ll be cool, for sure.
Are you going to be giving people any sneak peeks of your new Thai cuisine?
No! No way! It’s a secret to the end. To the opening day. That’ll be fun.
What do you think it says about the Austin food scene that Food & Wine is hosting a festival here?
I think that Food & Wine knows what they’re doing in regards to how they forsee trends. You’ve got kids like Paul Qui, Bryce Gilmore, all these guys that are, like, hot superstars. Even Laura Sawicki out here. They see all that, they’re going to do it. They see a future, you know, that I see growing with a lot of amazing chefs here in town. When I first got here, even though there were a few restaurants here that I was familiar with, everybody else was working hard. Opening this restaurant, that was like, wow, these guys actually want to work. Coming from New York, I thought that my perception of everybody else would be like oh, slow and this and that, but they know what they’re doing. These kids, they travel. They move forward. And that says a lot about Austin and a lot about the community here and everybody. And Food & Wine sees that, which is fantastic. Even to the little trailers! It’s like even the little guys, it’s like, you know what, I’m going to do a trailer. Boom! They do a trailer and it’s amazing. It’s crazy. And it’s amazing.
Looking forward five or ten years, what direction do you see the Austin food scene going in?
Positive, you know, that’s for sure. I think people read about Paul Qui doing his own space. All these other kids that I know are wanting to do their own space. It’s like, I feel that this town is going to be exactly what it’s supposed to be. That’s with everything that it does, whether it’s music, art, little hipsters riding around on their fixed-gear bikes, to chefs now. It’s like, now it’s about all these people and doing great things. I think this town’s very receptive.
Certainly at $250 per ticket, and $850 for the VIP pass, Food & Wine is a pretty serious investment. Do you think people will get excited to participate, or will it be intimidating?
I think people are going to step up and get excited about it. I think they’ve proven that to me personally, with my doing this restaurant. Coming to Austin, doing a Mexican restaurant that was my interpretation of what I wanted to see, and then people actually liked it! [Laughs] It’s funny, that’s what it is. It’s this new phase coming into a town. And you know what? This town is accepting and wants that. It’s amazing. That’s what makes this city so great. It allows the right people to come in. If it was maybe some other franchise I think it would be, you know, not so good. But these are specific things that the people of Austin are allowing to come in and I think it’s for a good reason, because it’s all about the growth. You know, the growth and not only in business but in knowledge. With my chefs here, I tell them, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you guys get into that place.” I want them to meet the chefs. I want them to be inspired the same way that I’m inspired by traveling. And living in New York for fifteen years. I worked for free for so many years. I didn’t go to culinary school. And these guys do come out of the culinary schools and they need to go see that what they’re going to give me after that is the inspiration to move forward and to be forward. So it’ll be great.
Obviously you do have a wonderful group of chefs working for you, like Laura Sawicki. How do you find all this talent? What’s you’re secret?
Oh well, that’s not my fault! She’s just good. She’s just good. She thinks like me. We just want to progress. We don’t look back. We very seriously look forward. We’re always reading and we travel and we cook and we talk. And I think that’s what a lot of the people, a lot of the chefs, are starting to do that as well. We’ve turned out some really good kids here who’ve done very well for other chefs and those chefs have complimented us like, “Hey, man, thanks for training those guys.” And it’s like, “Well, thanks for poaching them!” [Laughs] No, it’s not like that. We want people to move forward in their lives and do better. It seems like some people really like us and want to stay, and they work for us and it’s great.
· Austin Food & Wine Festival [Official]
· La Condesa [Official]
· All La Condesa Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All René Ortiz Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Laura Sawicki Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
[Photo: La Condesa]