Technically speaking, Swift's Attic is celebrating one year in business this month. But plans for Swift's really began years ago, when culinary chameleon Mat Clouser and front-of-house wizard CK Chin finally got serious about a "pipe dream" they'd been tossing around since they originally met at Kenichi, hoping to work for themselves someday. Finally, in September 2010, Clouser pitched the first version of his Swift's Attic menu, but permitting delays meant the restaurant didn't open until May 2012. He says that turned out to be a good thing.
"Anticipation being the best appetizer," Clouser explains. Now, he says he's amazed at where patrons are willing to go with him on his menus, while Chin couldn't be happier with the energetic vibe and family-style, shared-plate dining at their first big venture together.
And to think it never would have happened if, three years ago, Clouser had decided to become a professional dog walker instead. Yes, really, a dog walker.
"I had started a business walking dogs and taking care of dogs and wasn't quite sure if I was going to stay cooking or not," Clouser tells Eater Austin. But Chin approached him about consulting at Swift's, and he "started to get the itch. Finally, he says came back to Chin and said, "Why don't you just hire me to be the chef?"
Now, the guys are busier than ever, but they sat down for a chat with Eater Austin in the sunny front bar at Swift's, ready to talk best-selling dishes (Brussels sprouts, squid fries), big flops (salads) and how the Austin culinary scene is like a big record swap.
When did the idea for Swift's Attic begin to coalesce?
Chin: Oh man. So, Mat and I met seven years ago at Kenichi. That's where he and I started working together and we started talking about opening up a restaurant then. But it was kind of a pipe dream at that time. Young kids working, not wanting to work for anybody any more. But truly, Swift's probably came together when I started over, when I left Imperia, I started to work for Stuart [Thomajan] at Paggi House. We started talking about what the next concept was. And I had this idea of more of a small plates thing bouncing around in my head at that time. The menu didn't coalesce until Mat came on board. I just had an idea of this thing, amorphous kind of idea. 'Hey, there's a great place, and I have an awesome idea for a restaurant downtown. That's all I got, though." [laughs]
So Mat, how did you come on board?
Clouser: CK approached me, I believe, in the summer of 2010 about doing some consulting. Because at that point I had been doing some mercenary kitchen work. I was doing my own supper club. And I had started a business walking dogs and taking care of dogs and wasn't quite sure if I was going to stay cooking or not. But I started to get the itch.
As we were talking about consulting a little bit, I came back to CK and said, "Why don't you just hire me to be the chef? And we'll do it this way." So I wrote the first draft of the menu in like September of 2010. Which is pretty funny—about a third of those items made it. I did a couple of tastings for Stuart and CK and they were really enthusiastic about everything. Ironically when we first opened, I think it was on the Eater boards, somebody was like, "Oh no, shishito peppers, tres 2010," or whatever. And I was like, yeah.
Chin: Because you came up with that in 2010. [Laughs]
Chin: The original menu was not very food-driven. It was like a bar that had really good food. Which was kind of the trend going, just because Mat and I happened to be friends, I'd bring him in to see the space and tell him about, this is where this is going to be and we got more and more excited about it. And he told me about wanting to be the chef, I was like, "Awesome. I'm down!" And I went to Stuart and said, "Mat's going to come on to be executive chef." And he's like "Wha-wha-wha ? who?" And I'm like, "Yeah, you know him, you worked with him at Uchi." And he was like "Yeah, I know of him, but can I taste his food maybe?" Because I went through the proposal and I was like, "Yeah, you know that $10,000 kitchen? It's going to be more like $80,000. Because we're going to have a real kitchen in there. And he needs more than a microwave oven and a flat top."
Clouser: Stuart and I knew each other peripherally from a long time ago when I was at Uchi. Actually, there was just some really intoxicated gentleman who had been accosting Stuart's date at the time. And we actually had to help physically remove the guy from the building. So Stuart vaguely remembered that story. Also, my wife, who at the time was my girlfriend, we met at Uchi, used to skate roller derby. So all of the girls had been sort of conned by some guy into giving them all their money. He was going to start all this stuff up, but he split town and they were left in a lurch. They didn't have any money to keep the league going. Stuart actually stepped in and gave them money to buy a new track, to fix things up, get back on their wheels, and said, "You guys pay when you can pay me back." So he's always been sort of a hero to Miranda in that way, so she was really supportive when she found out the project would be with Stuart and CK, she was like, "I couldn't pick two better guys for you to work with." And it's really turned out that way since then.
So what was your pitch menu back in 2010?
Clouser: Well, they had the idea that they really wanted it to be more bar-centric. It was going to be much heavier on the bar end. So initially everything was sort of elevated, tweaked versions of bar dishes, done in an unusual way. We've gone from there and sort of codified how we're doing things on a philosophical level out of that. To try and take a common ingredient and prepare it in an unusual way, or to take an unusual ingredient and do it in something that's a little bit more approachable.
Chin: The vast majority of my higher-end dining experience comes from sushi. And one of the things, obviously coming from an Eastern background, is the family-style eating. And it's funny because it's not as much family-style because we're not bringing out big plates of spaghetti, it's more of a sharing, a philosophy of sharing. And I really like that style of dining. It was important for me. It was like the social aspect of it. Food, for me, is what I do. I just got back from Vegas and the enjoying of food with my friends is the highlight of my life. Of everything that I do. When I go to a steakhouse, or a place that's a traditional appetizer, entrée, dessert, if I call you 20 minutes late? I'm going to miss dinner. I'm not going to come meet you halfway through your steak and join in. Whereas with sushi, or a tapas restaurant, or a place like Swift's, you can call me an hour and a half into dinner and I'll be like, "Join us. We still have some food on the table. Order another plate! Get some snacks!" You can have a 10-minute meal and still be part of the group.
We need food that's A. delicious, but B. quick. We want that flow of food coming, drink coming, food coming, drink coming. The initial menu was 50 items long of stuff that's been bouncing in his head.
Clouser: We knew it was going to be good. But it was difficult to find the right elevator pitch to harness all the ideas. I've worked in so many different styles of restaurants and at so many different kinds of things. CK and I felt a lot like we weren't alone in the way we liked to eat and the desire to have a lot of different things, to get as varied an experience when we go out to eat as we can. So we wanted to represent that part of ourselves in the menu. And also, we feel like from top to bottom, we knew we were essentially going to be living here when we opened the restaurant. So we might as well make it a place we wanted to be. Food we wanted to eat, atmosphere we wanted to be in, we play the music we like to listen to. It's enjoyable for us, and we've been fortunate enough to be right in the assumption that there were other people who like to get down the way we like to get down. Really, really fortunate. The support has been overwhelmingly positive.
Were you guys apprehensive going into this project at all? Did you have any worries or concerns?
Clouser: I don't think, any more than any normal nerves. I don't think I had a cocky attitude about it, per se, but as soon as I knew I was going to be working with Stuart and CK and got to get a little better glimpse of what that relationship was like, I started to feel very comfortable. As soon as we were able to acquire Zach [Northcutt] and Callie [Speer], I knew for certain that if the place were to fail, it wasn't going to be because the food wasn't good. It wasn't going to be because we hadn't put together a good idea. I felt strong about those things. And honestly, the permitting process being delayed, we were able to gain a little bit more buzz. The excitement that people had initially, we kind of teased it out a little bit. Anticipation being the best appetizer.
Speaking of Zach and Callie, you guys really have kind of an all-star team. Did you have to woo them?
Clouser: I think I wooed Callie a little bit. We were at the Uchi staff party out in Lost Pines, and she was there. We've always been friends. I've known Philly [Speer] for a long time, we used to work together. So we're having a cocktail and we're like hey, this thing's coming online. I knew she'd stepped away after the birth of their child, but the child's getting I think at that point, maybe two or three, and she'd started her own cake making business. But it wasn't really giving her the energy that you get from a restaurant. So she was really eager. But I definitely gave her the pitch a little bit to come on board.
Zach and I have worked together in the past. Been friends for years. He's been friends with my wife for longer than I have, so we're really tight-knit. I helped him open Haddingtons. He was doing some other things, some consulting, thought he might get involved with another project but it ended up falling apart right at the time when we were able to seriously make an offer, and there was no looking back after that. We knew we wanted to work together at any point in the future, because we'd always had such a good thing. Zach and I, while we share many things in common, we have wildly different palates. And wildly different backgrounds in terms of what we've learned and the types of restaurants we've worked in. So it's a really good complement, to be able to hire to my weaknesses.
Chin: As far as on the restaurant ownership side, the philosophy that we have, how we handle "the talent" is pretty good insofar as we kind of remove our ego from the whole thing. It's a fun restaurant to work for because when it comes down, we sit at our meeting, it's not "This is how I want to do things, how CK is going to do things," or "This is how Stuart is going to do things." It's "Okay, how should we do it?"
That's what makes this place, I think, great. Going back to talking about where the philosophy of the whole place came from, that's the vibe that we want. We were just talking about going to a place with a lot of energy and hospitality, and that's what we do. The reason why I get so excited, we get so excited to cook or for me to serve, cooks and service industry people and other people who love food. Because you're sitting there and you put the plate down and you're waiting for them to eat, and you're like, "Isn't that amazing?"
It's so much better than the critic kind of version. I was working at a sushi place one time and someone came up to me and was like, "It's good, but it's not as good as the sushi I had at the Tsukiji market in Japan." And I'm like, "Oh really, the place I buy the fish from, and you got it right out of the water there? That's really weird." I mean, did you enjoy it? What do you want me to say to that? I just really enjoy when people enjoy what we're doing.
You can watch a band at a concert and know that they're just doing it for the money, and after the show they're like, "I'm gonna go play at the bar down the street because I just love playing bars." And that's a big difference. And I think our whole staff has that philosophy, just really enjoying what they're doing. We're lifers.
Clouser: It's trying to take a lot of pretention out of it. I think the level of food is higher than what we want the feeling to be in the dining room. We want to keep people relaxed and enjoying themselves. Really like we're throwing a party every night for people. We want them to try different things without that level of pretention. There are certain things, steps of service, that we want to offer, but we're not afraid to make a mistake or have a little restaurant faux pas here or there. Let people know, you know, relax, it's okay, nobody's judging you for the wine you're drinking or the cocktail you're having or the food you want to have.
That being said, I feel really lucky that people have been willing to come with us. Every time I put out something that I consider to be weird, it ends up being a big hit.
Like what, for example?
Clouser: Like the amount of antelope we've been able to sell since we've been open on day one. Every other place I've worked, game just doesn't move that well. We sell a ton of quail. We sell a ton of antelope. I put this new dish on the menu that's pretty strange, with chicken wings and sweetbreads, and nobody's ever said, nobody's balked at it. People who've never had sweetbreads before are like well, it sounds good. "Sure, glands, bring it on!" I was not expecting that. I've been really happy about that kind of stuff.
I think Austin diners are getting to be increasingly adventurous, and I think a lot of that is because of places like you guys, Barley Swine, Foreign & Domestic, high-level but approachable game and organs and unusual cuts.
Clouser: I would absolutely agree with that. And you know, it's balanced and delicious, any food is going to be tasty if it's cooked in balance. It's good that there's a lot of us that get to do that.
Chin: And it's a little different if your entrée is chicken wings and sweetbreads and it's $45, you have to be like, this is all I'm going to get. It's a lot of pressure. But the omakase, the Japanese thing, we started calling it omakase because we have the Japanese background, but people have really embraced it. You look at people who have the best experiences at Swift's, they said, "I got the chef's tasting menu, half the stuff I would have never ordered, but those were my favorites." And that's what we want you to do. And the second or third time they come in, they don't even want to see the menu. They say, "This is what I'm in the mood for, this is about what I want to spend."
What have been your most successful dishes?
Clouser: Any variation on the quail. Those have always been a huge hit. Anything with antelope has been a big hit. The scallop dish is one that gets written up a lot, people talk a lot about that one.
Chin: [whispering] Pork cheeks!
Clouser: The pork cheeks will never go anywhere. They're simple and so delicious.
Have you had any flops?
Clouser: There have been a handful of salads, which I enjoyed but which didn't really move.
Hard to share a salad.
Clouser: Yeah, I mean, we set them up in ways that we tried to deliberately plate them in a way where it's easy to share off the same plate or just take a portion. I'm trying to think of one that just really didn't work. Oh, the rillette. We had a pork rillette, Lyonnaise salad, fried egg from my cousin's farm, Peeler Farms, and fig preserves. Pretty simple. But it just never took off. I went through a period of sort of adjusting the menu to, I guess it was a little more French influenced? Tighter, more direct, presentations were a little more advanced than what we had been doing. Thinking, we had been getting comparisons to these other restaurants, so it was a growing thing. Do I adjust up to what some people's expectations are, even though that's not really what we're doing? I think that menu overall was our least successful.
When would that have been?
Clouser: That would have been, we just changed everything in the last month or so. So that would have been wintertime. I had not changed the menu enough, I broke my leg in July, so physically I wasn't up to the task and some mental stuff afterward which was kind of blocking my creative expression, and I came back and was like okay, I have to change everything right now. And we changed a bunch of stuff. That's where my brain went at that time, with these cleaner things, and CK and Stuart actually had to sit me down and say, "It's just not edgy enough. It's not like your food." And in the beginning everybody was saying, "This is too weird!" So I never thought in a million years, they'd come back to me and say, "Go back. Go back to the weirdness. And I'm glad they did. Because now we've got a bunch of new vibrant dishes on that are really successful.
Chin: When we first opened, we wanted to kind of cast a wider net. And now we've realized we can kind of aim our cast. We wanted to make sure we didn't alienate people to come try us, but now that we're getting a reputation, we'll stick with what works. And what works is that people say this is unique.
Clouser: That this is an adventure.
Chin: We really embrace that.
Clouser: But I know I need to make a menu change when I'm no longer interested in eating that particular dish. It's gotta go. Recently the Brussels sprouts salad, it was our number one seller. Consistently. From day one.
People be loving some Brussels sprouts.
Clouser: People be loving some Brussels sprouts! Right. So I braced myself for blowback. I didn't hear anything this time. The last time people were like oh I have to have that, I have to! But they got the new stuff. I honestly think the servers got so run over from selling Brussels sprouts that they were kind of happy, too. "No, we don't have any more!"
I think the most we sold in a night was closed to 80 orders? We were doing something like 300 covers.
How many pounds of Brussels sprouts is that?
Clouser: I think at the peak, we were probably going through 100, maybe 150 pounds a week.
Chin: That's a lot of Brussels sprouts. The sauté guy is like, exhausted.
Clouser: When you've got to have 25 of blanched, quartered Brussels sprouts on your station for a Friday night, it was a little demoralizing. It's the same thing, we took the squid fries off the menu in the beginning. They sold like that too, and they were great, but to do them right, the way that made me happy, it was something that was really taxing on the kitchen over all, and for a dish that wasn't bringing in enough money, quite frankly, the amount of trouble we were going through to do it. And you could just see the poor fry guys, eight at a time, you're done for the next half hour. You can't do anything else. They're covered in flour and tearing up.
Chin: It's great to hear people clamoring for dishes they still remember. It's cool to do a little throwback. It's humbling. Is it humbling? Is that the right word? It's heartwarming. It's heartwarming that people remember that experience.
Clouser: It's encouraging. I don't feel smaller because of it, I feel warmer.
Chin: It's like man, they're as excited about it as we were.
Where do you guys think Swift's fits into the Austin culinary scene right now? And is it its place what you had envisioned it being when you opened a year ago?
Chin: Good question.
Clouser: That is a good question. I feel like we have peers who I respect a lot. We're definitely in the vein of the guys at Contigo, Foreign & Domestic, Barley Swine and these places that are providing really excellent food. Everybody's making everything from scratch, everybody's working with the farms. Doing everything responsibly and sustainably, and we can riff with one another. Ned [Elliott, of Foreign & Domestic] invited us all to cook at his place for the Indie Chefs Week, and I was able to make some connections with Andrew [Wiseheart] at Contigo, where I love to go eat in my spare time, and I really like to connect with these places and hear what they're doing. If you want something out of the norm, that you know is going to be delicious in a place that's going to be fun, those are the places I think of. And I'm sure I'm leaving somebody out.
Chin: What's really great, and I think I mentioned this with Eater during Gatekeepers, but the amount of support that's starting to come out is something that I'm exceedingly proud to be a part of. I remember the people I used to work for, especially on the bar side, were really at each other's throats. There was no support. You can't go to ac competitor's place, it's that 90's philosophy and there's this pie and we have to get as big a slice as we can. And now it's not like that. We know how busy we are. We seldom get to go out to eat. But the other day, Bryce [Gilmore of Barley Swine] came in for dinner, and Jason [James] his GM, his pastry chef, Kyle [McKinney] came in for dinner, and I was like oh man, they're three to know! I've got to go to Barley Swine, I've got red on my ledger, I can't do that. Then Laura Sawicki came in for dinner, and I was like, we gotta go to Sway! It's not out of obligation, it's out of like, man, we are really supportive of each other. When another place opens up. When Todd [Duplechan] from Lenoir wins something, it's great to see that somebody wins and rather than people hating, it's everyone re-Tweeting. All over the place.
Clouser: Case in point, two places I left off the list, not deliberately, but I think it's a good example of what CK's talking about. Second Bar and Parkside. We have great relationships with both of those places. Shared friends in the kitchen, some of us used to work both for Shawn [Cirkiel of Parkside] and David [Bull of Second Bar], and it would be really easy, since we're all similar price points, similar style of dining, downtown, those are our direct competitors. But I've seen zero animosity. No inkling of any kind of jealousy. Nobody's really re-Tweeting each other's dinner specials [laughs] but that's kind of a no-brainer.
CK, what you're saying makes me think of like a record swap, or making mix tapes for each other. You want to go and hang out at someone else's place and listen to their records. And you want them to come over to your place and listen to your records.
Chin: That's right, that's exactly right. It's precisely like that. That feeling of another person, especially us all coming up together, of another person's success, is just extraordinary. You know, Tatsu [Aikawa] and Tako [Matsumoto] at Ramen Tatsu-Ya are really good friends of mine. When I walk into Tatsu-Ya, and if I don't see a line, I'm like is everything okay? And they're like "No man, watch." And of course I'm there at like 4:45 p.m., so. But I love waiting in line there! It's silly, but it would be the greatest thing in my life, if ten years from now, to come to Swift's and be put on a wait. They'd be like, "This is the guy that opened the place!" and I'll be like, "No, I'll gladly wait."
But to see that success with other places, it's great. And there's a couple of places on our radar, you know, chef Malarkey. Searsucker.
It sounds like they might be doing a similar thing to what you're doing.
Clouser: It does sound like a similar concept. He's come in, and we have a friendly relationship with him, they've been really supportive of the restaurant.
He's a trip, right?
Chin: He's a character and a half. He's definitely got some TV on him. But he's coming in, and he's got confidence but it's not arrogance. He comes in and Brendan, his GM-slash-partner, we're supposed to meet next week for lunch. And I'm like look, downtown Austin in particular is a strange market. I do 300 covers on a Saturday night. And exponentially less on a Monday. And it's hard to staff for that. It's easy to create a vibe when there's 250 people in here, there's a lot of energy. But how do you fabricate that on a Monday? But [Searsucker] is a restaurant that's right down the street, and we have to have the understanding that nobody's going to come to Swift's four nights in a row. They're just not going to. The most common question, they come in here to eat, is "Where to next?" And I'm not going to go, "I don't care, I don't want your money, get out of here." I'm going to go, "Go ask for Dan at Parkside. Go ask for Brendan at Searsucker." To be able to have that, to know they're doing the same, it becomes such a better synergy. It's so much fun. I love it.
So what's next for Swift's in the coming year?
Clouser: You know, I want to step back and really give my chefs, Zach Northcutt and Abby Yates, really start to shine and sing. Because we have some ideas on doing some other stuff, so it's important for us to invest in the future here and make sure we continue to codify what we're doing with the food. To make sure this place isn't dependent just on my creativity.
What about for you, CK?
Chin: It's a very similar thing. You know, the strange thing about being a front-of-house person is that we are the face of the place. I don't want to open seventeen Swift's Attics. But I do want to do other things, and have other ideas, and say, how do we conceptualize, deepen our bench a little bit? Get people moved up? Start to say, it's not that Swift's is this way because of Mat or Stuart, but Swift's is Swift's because it's Swift's.
The goal is, if you do a ten-year interview between the two of us, we'll go, "It's really great to hear Abby opening up her restaurant and Zach's opening up his restaurant." I would love to be saying those things.
To thank patrons for an "incredible" year at Swift's, Chin, Clouser and the team are hosting a first birthaversary party on May 15th with Heart and Soul Soundsystem; they're also offering 25 percent off all lunch checks throughout the month.