Thanks to the continuing success of La Condesa and, most recently, Sway, chef Rene Ortiz is one of the Austin culinary scene's most recognizable faces, and he tells Eater Austin that he's excited to represent the city among the influx of national chefs at this year's Austin Food and Wine Festival.
With a slew of big names flying in from across the country, Ortiz looks forward to defending his home turf by serving up his own plates of uniquely prepared proteins. In advance of the festival, Ortiz talked to Eater Austin about his efforts welding new cooking instruments for his turn manning the Fire Pit, the spirituality of food, and his special relationship with fire.
This year you're going to be manning the fire pit, along with Bryce and Jack Gilmore. What do you have planned?
I was very scared, because I noticed that Jack Gilmore and his people haven't told anyone what they're doing yet, and I'm like, oh man! We're trying to keep the secret, but if he does pork, I have to do something else. We're not supposed to look at it as competition, but it is a competition. It's two against one and it's not fair! [Laughs].
I may go the direction of lamb and goat. I think goat is a much more difficult protein to approach for a lot of chefs, so I figured I'd rather take the challenge and go hard. I want to create something delicious with an animal that isn't normally celebrated in the same way, say, pigs are. I'm welding some stuff right now that I'm building for the event.
You're actually building new apparatus for the fire?
We're trying to figure out which protein works better with which instrument. I built these tripods that you hold over fire, and it works in a cool way. Each piece of equipment that is designed is for a specific reason, and is for a specific protein. So the goats, for example, will have a sandwich type of equipment that they rest inside of; we just build a large bed of coals, and slow and low, roast it up. Should be good after basting.
Do you get a chance to cook over open fire often?
Yeah, I've been practicing every time I can. I love being outside, and fire is a big part of life. It calls to you, when you're near it. Fire is one of those things that's just so special. It's a good thing that Jack Gilmore is going to be right next to me; we're going to have a nice stack of beers that'll help out with that.
You talk about fire like it's almost a spiritual thing.
With all my food, it needs to say something to you, and it's an important way to do things. As people, we're all very spiritual, in many forms—for me, it's food. It talks to your soul.
What's the set-up like at the fire pit? Will you be demonstrating?
Education, I hope, would be a big focal point. For the chefs that are joining me in the interactive part of it, I would love to have people come around and ask questions about it. I have plenty of answers it seems when it comes to food. It's always a fun part for me, to connect with individuals, and to see what they're doing. I really enjoy what I do, and it's fun, especially if others are involved and want to learn. I'm more than happy to do that for sure.
Which is a big part of Austin Food & Wine Festival, getting the community involved and bringing folks together. Reminds us of your big, open kitchen and communal seating at Sway.
Sway is one of those places where, and I tell the cooks this all the time, that you should be happy that you're here. They're always like yeah, it is a beautiful kitchen. But hey, look at all those smiling faces instead! That's what we're in this business for. We're here to revive the show for individuals, and right after the show, dinner is on. Our actors aren't touching their faces and saying bad words or whatever – they're creating the motion and movement of art. My people are working in their art form, and we showcase that on a nightly basis. Our audience, when that stage closes? They're happy. It is theater; it's our art. People get to see it now, which is really fun.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?
I'm looking forward to spending time with Tim Byres from Dallas. He's pretty rad, and he's doing a book, which I cannot wait to see. There's a special section in there that I'm dying to get my hands on. It's pretty cool – I don't know if I want to give away the surprise, though. I hope that me and him could smoke a pipe. He's an amazing man, and I can't wait to spend time with him.
But I'm excited about seeing everyone: peers and friends that I've met over I've meet over the years, like Andrew Zimmern. It's really nice to see friends in your hometown.
—Emma Kat Richardson
Rene Ortiz. [Photo: AF&WF/Official]