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Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki Talk Event Season, Outdoor Cooking, and So Many Sweet Potatoes

Photo: Paula Forbes/EATX

Chefs-about-town Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki have been cooking up a storm, even if they no longer have a restaurant kitchen at their disposal. Tomorrow, they will serving as guest chefs at Rain Lily Farm for "roving culinary adventure" Outstanding in the Field, and next week they're headed to San Antonio for Meatopia Texas. Back in August, the two chefs departed from their longtime posts at La Condesa and Sway, where Ortiz had been executive chef and Sawicki executive pastry chef. Eater spoke with Ortiz and Sawicki about the pleasures, and challenges, of cooking for hundreds with nothing more than a tiny oven or an open flame.

Rene Ortiz, a noted open flame enthusiast, says, "I just need fire is to make things happen." For the Rain Lily event, he'll be cooking a whole pig and several chickens using roasters he built himself. While cooking outside for a large number of people can be "challenging," he says all he needs is "endurance" and beautiful Texas weather.

Sawicki reports that she has become "the best home cook ever." Instead of a professional kitchen, she's now working with an oven that fits "two half sheet pans," which means "baking 500 cookies takes a day and a half." She says comparing work she's able to do in a professional kitchen and to what she can do at home is "apples and oranges," but "what I've been able to do out of the house has been amazing." Friends have been lending her professional kitchen space as well.

In terms of menu development, Ortiz says, "It's all about the farm." When he cooks farm dinners, his main goal is "celebrating what people have grown and not fucking it up." Ortiz adds that the special pleasure of event cooking is "you're competing with nothing. We're not trying to prove we're better than another restaurant. The gloves are off."

Sawicki says sourcing is another challenge. "I have 34 pounds of sweet potatoes on my counter right now." Finding ingredients can involve going to "17 different places." That said, opening her fridge now "is exciting, even if I don't have room for eight heads of kale."

Ortiz is a huge supporter of urban farms like Rain Lily because they bring chefs and consumers "closer to the field." He enjoys the symbiosis and community urban farms create. "As we grow our business, they grow their business, so they can continue to grow the freshest possible food you could ever get."

Sawicki says her home cooking experience hasn't made her want to write a book about "the secret to being a chef in a home kitchen," but she's had cookbook dreams since college. "I just love the idea of being able to share tricks of the trade and recipes. I collect cookbooks, they're falling off my shelves and kitchen table, and to be in the company of those amazing writers and chefs would be fantastic."

The chefs are tight-lipped about future plans, but they will be cooking for private dinners and events through the rest of what Sawicki calls "festival season." Ortiz says the meals he's looking forward to most are Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family.
· Outstanding in the Field: Austin
· All Rene Ortiz Coverage [EATX]
· All Laura Sawicki Coverage [EATX]