LaV, one of Eater's most anticipated fall openings, is the brainchild of chef Allison Jenkins and managing partner and sommelier Vilma Mazaite. The two met while working at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado. Jenkins, who grew up in Texas, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and worked in kitchens in Martha's Vineyard and Santa Fe before rising to Executive Chef at Aspen's Ajax Tavern. Mazaite is a veteran of Bartolotta in Vegas and Mario Batalli and Joseph Bastianich's Babbo in New York.
LaV will offer a French and mediterranean-influenced menu and a serious wine list, but the restaurant will be geared toward neighborhood dining as well. Jenkins has been offering a taste of the restaurant's possibilities at her trailer Say LaV, which is parked at the Volstead, right behind LaV's in-progress plywood. Eater spoke with Jenkins and Mazaite about transitioning from high end kitchens to food trailers, culinary school, and the role of women in the industry. Mazaite says that LaV may hit an end of the year opening but "we're thinking winter."
Allison and Vilma, you both have experience primarily in very high-end kitchens. What has it been like moving to a trailer behind the Volstead?
Allison: It's sort of like putting the breaks on a semi trailer. It's very hard to slow down and adjust to a more relaxed environment. It's been nice to take a breather. If you operate at the highest level there's always something that translates to a very causal situation. I think everybody really appreciates the little details that you bring to more rustic situations.
Vilma: There's never cut corners in terms of quality and presentation, you just adapt to whatever position you're in. The same values apply.
Allison, you have Texas roots and have previously said you would never move back to Texas except to Austin. Why?
Allison: I grew up close to Dallas. Dallas has wonderful restaurants and there's' a great Texas culture there. Its' not a place I was ever very comfortable with the feel of the city. Houston too much of a sprawl for me. I went to school in San Antonio and liked it but it's a bit of an older city. But I always had the impression that Austin was the hip place. Before anybody was even using the term hip, I think I had the impression that Austin is a city where I would fit in and enjoy myself and relax.
My family is down here, fairly close, the timing and opportunity is great, and the culinary scene is so very up and coming. The way it is now is just attracting this incredible talent base form all over the country, front and back of house ,and cocktail scene, I think there's so much going on here.
I like balance. I was in Aspen not only to work but to ski. I'm here in Austin to see the music scene.
Vilma: Austin chose me pretty much. Before I moved here, I'd never been to Texas before. The opportunity presented itself. No way out of it. The good thing is I really liked Austin. It's funny, but it has similarities to Aspen. It's outdoorsy, there are no mountains but I love to jog here, and to see the water. That energy has a similar feel.
You each have traveled very different career paths to get to where you are. Allison, you went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and Vilma you worked your way up and learned from mentors. What are the advantages of each of your approaches? Anything you envy in the other's experience?
Allison: I just sort of fell into things. I think people can make lots of plans in life, but by having a direct focus, you sort of omit the other paths. From the time I was 13, I wanted to be a doctor, and when I was 20 that just was not going to happen, and this was something more enjoyable. I didn't have any restaurant experience. The first professional kitchen I worked in was as an extern. I met a chef who gave me an opportunity and I worked with him again and again, and all in these different environments. It is a mentor situation even though I did go to school.
Who was the chef?
Allison: Ryan Hardy – he just opened a place, Charlie Bird, in SoHo. Everyone does the coattails thing for a bit, and the influences of people you work with, or the books you read, have an impact. Culinary school is not for everybody, it's a very expensive commitment, but I had a great time there and learned a lot and it opened a lot of doors.
Vilma: I was lucky that I got a job that didn't require education. In this industry you don't need it, you just need to really submerge in what you're doing. Every single place you go you learn so much, it's education on its own. I wouldn't change anything.
Allison: As a chef , 80% of the time, I'd rather have somebody come to me and say, "I don't have any experience, I can't do anything, I'll start form the ground up, I'll peel potatoes and wash your dishes, rather than someone who has gone to school and paid all this money and had their ego blown up and think they know everything from minute one. I've had more success from people who just came in and were humble.
What's been the biggest surprise of the build-out process so far?
Vilma: Dealing with construction. I am learning a lot of terms I never head before. The biggest challenge was just getting to construction. Getting the permits, getting blueprints up to code. Construction, everyday there's something. The dates keep changing. We still do have a deadline, we're getting close and everything is going according to schedule, but you never know. Things happen. So far it's been going well. It's nice to see the building growing, and every day I go in there's something new. It's really exciting to see this project rise from ground up.
It's rare to see women as the main forces behind a major new restaurant. What has each of your experiences been in the industry in terms of gender?
Vilma: I never looked at myself as female. Obviously there have been challenges. I started as a sommelier in 2001, I was barely 21 and I was running the floor as a sommelier in Vegas. Back then there were not that many female sommeliers all. Obviously it's changing, but when I worked in New York it was a very manly environment. I always use that my advantage, actually. That's why I started Wine in Heels You go through it and rise from it and try to use to your advantage.
Allison: I don't know how it happened. I was the top student in my class. I just wanted it and worked hard and had a good attitude, and I think having the respect of my peers set me on a path to success. That and growing up in U.S., too, not having to believe I couldn't be successful or that I couldn't do something because I was a woman. We may get paid less sometimes, but I never had those limitations in my mind.
There are certain challenges. It's a very physical job, and you need to be strong to work the hours. I had to buy a truck to pull the food trailer, which was manly dirty work, but it's a very satisfying thing at the end of the day.
You develop a tough skin. Maybe learning to be very fair, and being sympathetic to people's situations, somehow earns you respect. Not just barking at people all the time.
Where are your favorite places to eat around town so far?
Vilma: I go to Tamale House East almost every other day, it's a quick lunch spot. I love the owners there, I love that patio. I go to Papi Tino's for brunch the patio. I like Hillside Farmacy for lunch. I like Clark's, because I love oysters and champagne. And caviar, if I'm really very lucky. Love Justine's for the Austiny scene and feel. Josephine House for lunch is very cute.
Allison: Tamale House East for sure. I love Perla's, since I also love oysters. The Whip In has a million beer selections. Bufalina is my new favorite pizza place.
So you guys are still thinking an end of the year opening for LaV?
Vilma: We're thinking winter. The end of the year is hard to predict, and we're going to get very close to holidays. Really, it depends on construction. We might wait until after the holidays.
· LaV and Say LaV: Austin's French New Wave [Fed Man Walking]
· Austin's Most Anticipated Fall Restaurant Openings [EATX]
· All LaV Coverage [EATX]