This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with Drew Curren, chef and partner at Easy Tiger.
Drew Curren at Easy Tiger, plus sausage. [Photo: Raymond Thompson/EATX]
For Drew Curren, executive chef and partner of Easy Tiger, the challenge has always been found in the pairings. As a follow up to his initial entrepreneurial outing, 24 Diner, the concept behind Easy Tiger revolves around the rather odd coupling of a beer garden and bakery. The carb crowd might be all a-flutter over 6th Street's latest culinary hot spot, but is this Tiger ready to roar? If Curren has his way, we should expect more of a contented purr.
"The feeling that we try to put out there, the whole 'easy, tiger, slow down, stay a while' mentality has really translated well throughout the whole beer garden," says Curren. "Nothing makes me happier than when people say, you know, it's such a comfortable place to hang out and eat and have a beer."
With one year in business under his belt, Curren's Easy Tiger certainly has grasped the notion of comfort with like-minded ease. This week, Curren sat down with Eater Austin to explain Italian hospitality, the fine art of fitting sausages into bread, and how tigers relate back to beer gardens.
I'm curious about the name. Can you explain to me what tigers have to do with beer gardens and bakeries?
[Laughs]. Easy Tiger is just that feeling of slowing down. The whole idea was, you know, "easy, tiger!" Like, calm down, slow down, stay awhile, and kind of relax. That part of 6th Street was a very seedy, kind of get-in-there-and-create-a-safety-spot for anyone to come out of the seedy underbelly of 6th Street, and relax at the Easy Tiger bake shop.
Tell me about your relationship with David Norman, the baker counterpart to your chef role. Did you know each other beforehand? Did you feel like your skill sets would be a natural compliment for each other?
It's funny – the way I met David was through talking to his wife, who writes for Southern Living, and we were talking about people who lived in New York, and it seemed that we had some mutual relationships, and I said oh, I'd love to meet him some time. Then, about a week later, there was a bag of bread in my office. It didn't say anything on it: it was just two beautiful baguettes and some croissants. I didn't really think twice about it, until I looked at the bread, and was just like wow, this is some beautiful bread. This is unlike anything I've seen in town. I wonder where this came from. On the back, he had written his name and phone number, so I called him, and that was the beginning of just an amazing friendship, relationship, partnership.
It was probably 18 months before we'd even opened Easy Tiger, and at the time, we were thinking about doing a beer garden, but we didn't have the space. Then this space became available; I met David and introduced him to one of my partners, we talked about bread, and decided that we had to put a bakery in here, too. We wanted to make bread and sausages, and just do the whole process, from bread to beer to sausages to sauerkraut – the whole nine yards.
On that note, can you describe the early stages of putting the menu together? Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted the Easy Tiger menu to look like from the beginning?
Yeah, you know, the whole idea was that everything was going to be boards. Like, the German board, the New York board, the Hill Country board. That was my initial idea: boards with sausages and cured meats with condiments that go well with it. So the first stage was creating and doing all the research on the sausages. I definitely try to be very honest in my cooking, no matter where I am – if I call it bratwurst, it's going to be a true bratwurst, with veal and cream and eggs that is traditional to bratwurst. As I started learning about these sausages and figuring out what I wanted to do, we just started having people taste them. I also started developing the pretzel bun that the sausage goes into; David and I started working on that, because your typical pretzel bun is too dense, and it's not easy to eat, especially with a sausage in it. So we created the pretzel bun by using a softer, enriched dough, and then dipping it in the pretzel salt. That was a long process: developing how we could get the sausages into buns, and yet have it be easy to eat.
As we opened the restaurant, we saw more people than we ever imagined coming in and wanting sandwiches and wanting salads and this and that. We weren't going to go that route, but what we were willing to do was to have some creative vegetable options. We started with grilled okra, and now we have grilled broccoli, so we'll always have a grilled vegetable paired with our other items in a thoughtful way. We have beautiful spinach in Austin for about four months out of the year, so we incorporate that with mushrooms and beautiful black-eyed pees, which we cook with pastrami and jalapenos. Our menu has really developed by just listening to the guests and what they wanted, which has also helped with ways to better execute the sausages. Initially, we just cooked the sausages on a griddle: we brought it up in beer, and then cooked it on a griddle, but we realized that some of the sausages really came out better when they were grilled. The grilling gives it a little bit of char, and really makes the casing even snappier.
It's always a big learning curve, from developing a concept that's never been done before, like a bake shop and a beer garden coming together. You think it's going to be one way, but you really don't know until the audience tells you what they want, and how they're enjoying and responding to what you're putting out there. We've been lucky that people have been super gracious and very accepting of us; I really feel like it's become a once-a-week stop for a lot of people.
Have you ever taken any direct suggestions from a customer and had it blossom into a menu staple?
I would say the biggest thing was that desire for vegetables. I started grilling okra, which is something that I do at the house. Since we have some absolutely gorgeous okra that grows here about three or four months out of the year, I said okay, let's start doing grilled okra, and the next thing you know, we're selling 40, 50 orders of it a night, you know? When it's out of season, you can't get it anymore, locally, we changed it to this beautiful broccoli, but people were like oh, we wanted the okra! But now they're like oh my gosh, don't let the broccoli go away. This is my way of introducing people to different cooking techniques – taking vegetables and making them agree with our concept. To have a Caesar salad on my menu wouldn't make sense. But a cool local vegetable or wilted local mushrooms with spinach: that makes sense.
It almost seems like it's a combination of not only taking suggestions from customers, but providing an educational basis for teaching people about how food can be prepared.
You said something that's very important to me: I do feel that chefs need to educate. Not only do they have to teach their line cooks, or the young kids coming in to the kitchen who want to grow and learn and go to school to be a chef one day, but also [they have to educate] their customers. It's important for us to teach people new cooking techniques, and to show people that things can taste differently when they're approached in a different manner. This includes showing people the healthier side of things, and introducing them to different whole grains. Teaching, to me, is very important, and I think it's something that chefs can sometimes take for granted. We really do have to educate both our staff but also our customers.
Speaking of education, I was reading on your Top Chef bio that you had spent some time in Italy during college, which changed not only your outlook on food, but your career trajectory as well. Would you say that your Italian influence is present in Easy Tiger?
Well, when I was in Italy, it took me from animal science and veterinary medicine to cooking. There was very much this understanding that, you know, it's okay to not go back to corporate America, and do all the things my three older brothers had done. So the Italian influence that's present at Easy Tiger is more about the seasonality and the thoughtfulness of picking the ingredients; that sort of thing. My goal one day is to open an amazing, rustic Italian restaurant kitchen, in Austin, with a real pizza oven. There's just nothing like that in Austin. It's pizza for lunch, pasta for dinner, chicken, steaks, jumbo salads, and that's it. I would love to do that in Austin, but as far as my Italian experience translating to Easy Tiger, it's really more of the attitude and the understanding and the hospitality part of it, as well as the sourcing of ingredients and seasonality of things.
As a carb enthusiast, it kind of surprises me that a beer garden and bakery haven't been paired together before. Do you have a specific bread and beer pairing that you would recommend?
I agree with you there, too. It all makes sense, because it definitely seems to work. As things filter through the beer garden, we're constantly tasting beers, and typically we're tasting them with sausages, but the idea of the bread with the beer itself is something I think? you know, I've utilized it myself with some of my beer dinners. What we'll do is we'll craft a specific bread to go with the beer itself. The one that comes to mind is a day-old beer dinner that we did: we did a smoked bread, so David and I played around with smoking flour, and what ratio of smoked flour to regular flour goes in. We came up with a very simple dinner roll with smoked flour in it, served with some figs and a little bit of blue cheese, and that, to me, is something you can drink absolutely any beer with.
We also have some cheese bread that we serve at happy hour and all day long, and we go through tons of cheese. Cheese and beer and bread is just the perfect pairing.
How stoked were you to be listed as one of the best new bakeries in America by Details? Did that press do a lot to bolster the business?
Yeah, it's awesome. I mean, the fact that we get nationally accredited for the things we're doing is mind-boggling. Every time an article comes out, whether it's Food & Wine or Details magazine, it's like wow, we just have to keep doing it. We're moving in the right direction, we're doing the right thing. Honestly, it pushes us to work harder and to be better. It really puts us under the microscope, and people like to come in and be like, well, it's not going to be as good as they say it is. So we really have to exceed people's expectations. A lot of times, we forget to celebrate the small victories – we definitely acknowledge it and print it out to show the staff what a great job they're doing – but honestly it just pushes us to be better. We want to be the best bar in Austin next year, also. It's not enough just to rest on our laurels and go, oh yeah, they're here for great bread and great sausage this year, but next year nobody knows about us. It pushes us to be better.
The Easy Tiger project has probably been a bit of a departure for you, from your experience coming up in 24 Diner. How do you feel the two contrasting experiences have helped you grow, both as a chef and an entrepreneur?
Well I'll tell you, 24 Diner has been just an absolutely eye-opener to the world of 24-hour restaurants. That gave me the ability to open my eyes and allow myself to put managers in places where they could have a positive effect on the business itself. So, moving in to Easy Tiger, it was instantly easier. I mean, I run that kitchen with six people, and they've been there from the beginning, and half of them are kids who worked with me at 24, and they believe in the culture and believe in what we're doing. That's a huge thing that helped me execute Easy Tiger to the level [that we have]. From day one, I had people who already believed in me. With 24, I started from scratch; nobody knew who I was or where I was coming from.
It took firing about 150 people to get the staff that we have now, but we were definitely of the mindset that we have to have good people to accomplish our goals. You can't do it on your own, and I think that the family we have between the two restaurants is just phenomenal, and that's truly what allows us to grow and put food out there for people to enjoy and eat and see different ideas from the same chef. People always go, well, what do you do best? I love to cook Italian food, and I love to cook fish, but I don't do either of those things at my first two restaurants. A lot of times, it's concept dictated by location, and location dictates concept. As a chef, you have to be versatile enough and know plenty of different genres of food, but always it comes down to appropriate technique – proper sourcing of vegetables, and things like that, but number one is having good people behind you.
Seeing as how you're one year in with Easy Tiger, would you say the inaugural year in business has met or exceeding all of your expectations? What, if anything, would you have done differently?
If I could have done anything differently, I would have made the bakery and the kitchen larger. We're pretty much at maximum capacity coming out of the bakery right now. When we started being busy from the first weekend, we looked at each other and said, we have to get a place where we can be grinding and stuffing our sausage all day long. I do a hundred gallons of sauerkraut every 10 days, and that takes up a lot of space. We put almost 600 pounds of brisket on brine every 10 days. All these things take up way more space than anyone could have ever imagined. So the big thing is space, but we went out there and found a beautiful kitchen, and it's allowed us to do the quality project and [work with] the long fermentation process, without cutting any corners. I think that's the biggest thing for any of our concepts – we start from scratch and we take it the whole way. If it takes 20 days to make the best pastrami, then that's what we're going to do.
Other than the size issue, it's been an absolute pleasure. Like I said, it's been well-received by Austin. The feeling that we try to put out there, the whole "easy, tiger, slow down, stay a while" mentality has really translated well throughout the whole beer garden. Nothing makes me happier than when people say, you know, it's such a comfortable place to hang out and eat and have a beer. That's what it's all about for me, to get back to the hospitality thing. I just want to make people happy. I love when people ask for seconds, and I love when the people tell me that they're comfortable. That's essentially what we tried to do with Easy Tiger: take a part of 6th Street that wasn't comfortable and make it comfortable and welcoming and hopefully that's how people perceive it.
So what does the future hold for Easy Tiger? How do you expect to keep contributing to Austin in a unique way?
We've been working with Whole Foods, and it looks like we're going to be in Whole Foods in the next couple of weeks, selling our bread and doing demos. People ask us all the time to make us sausages or to make certain things for our menus. I think that's something that we could definitely explore: namely, selling our sausages for restaurants and creating sausages for others who perhaps don't have the means to do it.
One thing we haven't touched on too much is how fantastic our beer selection is; it's constantly changing, and we do a lot for the beer world as well. If we can get Austin more national press – like hey, these people are doing something creative and unique and really executing it – then that's what I really want.
Austin is definitely a beer city. I didn't even like beer until I moved here, honestly. It seems like a lot of local establishments are trying to run with that and put their own stamp on it.
Yeah, definitely. I came from a wine drinking family, and obviously from my time in Italy, you can tell that I love wine. I also love my Bourbon. But I find myself being really interested in all these beers. It's just a whole other world. As a cook, I absolutely love pairing food with beer. To me, there are so many more complexities and flavors and different styles, that there truly is a beer to go with any food. You can really create a lot of cool pairings, which we've done with a lot of beer dinners. It's great for a chef to continue to learn, too. While we have to educate [others], we also have to educate ourselves, and to constantly be challenged and reading and expanding our own minds. That's been something that's been interesting for me: just learning more about beer.
— by Emma Kat Richardson