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One Year In with Larry McGuire and Alexandra Manley of Josephine House

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Alexandra Manley and Larry McGuire
Alexandra Manley and Larry McGuire
Photo: Ashley Cheng/EATX; Larry McGuire/Official

Chef and restaurateur Larry McGuire is no stranger to the restaurant scene, but one of the latest darlings of his ridiculously popular family of establishments just turned one years old this month. Josephine House, the charmingly bright and airy Clarksville little sister to neighboring Jeffrey's, rounds out the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group's portfolio of eateries such as Lamberts, Perla's, Elizabeth Street Cafe, and Clark's.

Eater spoke with McGuire along with chef Alexandra Manley, the restaurant group's secret weapon, who has been behind the kitchens at every establishment since joining Lamberts in 2008. The two shared the challenges and joys of sourcing locally as well overcoming tons of chef shuffling in year one.

How did you come to the decision of creating Josephine House as the sister restaurant to Jeffrey's? What was the inspiration behind the concept?

Larry Mcguire: Traditionally it had been used before as a private event space. It had been a catering company, and Jeffrey's had taken it over a few years back. We just wanted to utilize the area better. It's such a cool corner that we wanted to do something that complemented Jeffrey's hours-wise, knowing that we were only going to be open for dinner. So naturally it led us to do a lunch/afternoon tea and coffee and drinks with a lighter menu.

We knew that we wanted to do something that took advantage of local sourcing and very produce driven, since with Jeffrey's we were going classic American fine dining. I mean obviously we want to use as much local there as we can too, but the style of the restaurant is bigger and harder to cook like that and keep an emphasis on being almost a 100% local.

We wanted one component of the overall property to really emphasize that. We also put in two gardens on the property. There's one on Waterston Street, and there's another one on 12th Street. We wanted to be able to utilize our onsite gardens, so that all kind of developed into the frequently changing menu and produce-driven concept that we have going on at Josephine right now.

How much overlap is there with operations and the teams at the two restaurants? Is Rebecca Meeker still involved in both?

Larry: Rebecca's role has evolved to overseeing both restaurants. Alex was originally the pastry chef at both properties. We've already been through…Alex is now the third chef we've had at Josephine House. She's now overseeing both the savory and still the pastry program and the breads and everything that we do at both properties.

Alex, can you talk more about your role and how it's evolved over the last year but also since the beginning of your time with McGuire Moorman Hospitality?

Alexandra Manley: I actually started working at Lambert's a couple years after Lambert's opened. I think it was November 2008 that I came on. Then I helped to open Perla's and Elizabeth Street, Clark's and then Jeffrey's and Josephine House.

Larry: Yeah, so Alex has sort of been a Jack of many trades. Whatever we need her to do, she seems to be able to do for us. She's concentrated on figuring out the croissants and baguettes and all the boulangerie program at Elizabeth Street. At Clark's she started to figure out the sourdough. At Jeffrey's, she did the fresh baked breads in the wood-burning oven…in addition to the tea and pastries in the afternoon and the fancier desserts at Jeffrey's, and now she's picking up all the savory and farm to table stuff that we're doing at Josephine House.

So, Alex hasn't gotten all the press she deserves because she's been freaking working – just working nonstop – for years. She cooks and bakes. She's been doing it all.

It seems like a team that's pretty close despite all the chef shuffling in the last year. Libbey Goldberg is back now too?

Alex: Yes, Libbey is back and working with us as a forager. She goes to the local farms and the markets. We'll give her a list of things we're looking for, and she'll text or call if she sees really interesting stuff. If there's a product that we're interested in using, she'll source and find that for us as well. She was doing our cheese program, but I think now another guy who is working with us, Keegan Archer is going to take that over.

With all the chef changes in only a year though, how would you say you've dealt with the challenges? Would you say the food and culture of the restaurant has evolved with each shift?

Larry: I think the food has definitely changed with each chef, but I think the spirit of what we're trying to do, each chef has done a really good job melding their personal styles into what we're trying to do. In the first year of any restaurant, there's always going to be changes as we bring in new people. What we really do well as a company is successfully putting people in roles that will be rewarding to both them and us.

Libby was a friend of a friend, and she just moved into town from San Francisco. She has a young daughter, and it was always out there from the beginning that she had time constraints, and that's kind of why that didn't work out. Obviously, we really thought she was talented and wanted her to stay around, which is why we continue to work with her and wanted her back on board.

And then we hired Jen Jackson, who was part of the initial hire too. She was going to be the assistant pastry chef working under Alex, and then we promoted her to chef. She and her husband had just moved to Austin and didn't really love it, so they ended up moving back to San Francisco. We were very happy with her, and she did a great job, but it was just one of those things.

My role in this whole thing is to put people in places where they'll succeed. To be happy with themselves and happy with what they're doing, but also be working within the concept.

I'm very committed to the idea that we had when we originally opened Josephine House, and it's just hopefully getting better and better.

Alex: I feel like that's right on. I feel like through all the changes we've stayed really true to the initial vision. One thing that we're about to start doing that I'm really excited about is composting. One of the farms we get a lot of our produce from, Phoenix Farms, is going to be taking our food waste and composting it. So, it'll be going back into the soil to nourish our future vegetables.

It's a shame that more restaurants haven't figured out how to do composting programs like that because it just makes so much sense.

Larry: It makes a lot of sense, but it's so difficult to do in most restaurant environments. And that's how we see Josephine House too. It can be the most progressive of our concepts because it's small and can be the testing ground for a bunch of different ideas. It's just so much smaller and less complicated than some of our larger busier restaurants.

So the goal is to eventually bring composting to all the other restaurants in the group?
Larry: Totally. Composting is coming. All these things are going to be legislated into the restaurant business, and I'm all for that if they're done in a smart way. We just want to stay ahead of it.

You've talked a lot about the vision of Josephine House and how it compares to your other properties. As a group, you all have put together a lot of successful concepts. Can you talk more about that process? How much emphasis is put on the food versus the design and atmosphere?

Larry: There's definitely not a right formula between all those things, but we try not to put too much emphasis on any one of those things. We try to be as detailed as we can on the environment, the music and the uniforms and all that stuff. As a team, we're always trying to continue to hire the best people and work with the best designers and artists. For us, it's more a question of what can the market bear and what the market is looking for.

When we opened Lambert's in 2006, the scene was just getting going. Uchi had been opened for a while, but there wasn't the explosion like there is now. There's just so much more talent out there now. Like Odd Duck and Barley Swine. Bryce has done a great job. And Qui. It's just gotten way more competitive.

All we're trying to do is find holes in the market where we think there is customer desire and continue to do what we do well.

With Lamberts you had the concept for a while and then scouted out a location. Is that typically how you operate, or do you get called about a great location and work backwards on the concept to fit the neighborhood?

Larry: I think it's happened both ways for us. We definitely usually have an idea. We were thinking in the last year it would be good to have an updated Chinese restaurant, but then three or four of them sprung up before we could do it, so now that idea has kind of moved on.

There are other times people have called us with a great location that we've always had our eye on. So again, I don't think there's a certain way that we've gone about it.

When we were doing Josephine House, we were all personally eating healthier, and that's probably where I eat the most right now. I just think that what we're doing there is very current – how a lot of people want to eat right now – very fresh vegetables in pristine condition and minimally processed and touched. A lot of it is also just driven as a customer. Our partners and Alex…what we feel like eating and what we think is relevant now.

What were some new things you learned from this year? Any big mistakes or challenges that were unique to Josephine House?

Alex: I would say that doing a farm to table menu is much more challenging than a conventional menu because you never really know what you're going to get, so you have to be very flexible and creative and able to change your plan on the fly. But that is also kind of exciting, and I think it bring a new dynamic and a good energy to the kitchen because you always have to think on your feet. It's constantly changing.

That was a learning curve that I personally had to figure out.

Larry: It takes a lot of commitment, but we're certainly not the only people or the first people in town that are doing local. Sonya Cote does a really great job. I think it just takes commitment because there's certainly those moments where we're like, crap, are we really 100% committed to this? Because there might not be much on the menu if there's a cold front next week.

So that kind of thing.

And doing lunch only and the size of the restaurant has been a big challenge. It's cozy. There's only so much business we can do.

Alex: And if the weather is bad. More than half of our seating is outdoors.

Since your menu does change pretty regularly, do you have favorite types of dishes or things you want more people to know about?

Alex: There are some things that are our staples, like our hand-cut noodles, that just have the sauce change and rotate out. The same with our quinoa bowls that we have. We're just really trying to showcase what is available and really looking nice and tasting delicious in each dish.

The quinoa bowl is super popular for people who have gluten allergies, and we do a lot of savory tarts that I think are delicious and beautiful. Also, our grain salads are great. Today we had a farro salad from Anson Mills with romanesco and cauliflower that go really beautifully, some olives and herbs from our garden, preserved Meyer lemons. We're doing a lot of lettuces and herbs in the garden right now.

We also have some broccolini from Phoenix Farms that I'm steaming and serving with shaved parmesan reggiano and bagna cauda that I'm making from these Italian salt cured anchovies that we're getting in that are super delicious.

We just try to keep the food simple and not try to disguise it or make it too complicated.

Where do you see Josephine House in the next year? Are there upcoming new events, menu expansions or anything else you plan to grow?

Alex: Every Monday night we have steak night. A pre-fixe menu. The price of your meal depends on the cut of steak you choose. A salad and dessert as well as white or red wine are included in the price.

We're talking about extending the evening menu to be a little more substantial. Less of what we've been calling "afternoon snacks" and more of a bar menu, since that's what people have been wanting when they come in, especially on Friday and Saturday night. We've been selling the burger a lot, and I had a roasted chicken salad on the menu last weekend that also did really well.

We haven't talked about that too much yet, but I think it's brewing in the back of all of our minds.

Larry: And brunch is still growing. The weekend brunch has gotten really popular.

There aren't huge plans, but a lot of people still don't know about Josephine House I feel like. So we're just still working on growing it slowly. We've got a lot of work to do, but I think it'll just continue to grow organically.

Josephine House

1601 Waterston, Austin 78703