New American bistro Mettle is bar maven Bridget Dunlap's first foray into the restaurant world. Located at the end of East 6th, the restaurant is the first of several East Austin projects for Dunlap, business partner Chris Parker, and executive chef Andrew Francisco.
Francisco previously cooked at South Lamar's playful Olivia, and he brings a thoughtful and experimental approach to the kitchen. Read on for his take on Mettle's first year, and the challenge of balancing creativity and efficiency in the restaurant industry.
One year in, how different is the restaurant from what you originally envisioned?
We started with more heavy entrees; more of a classic bistro menu in an East Austin sense. My background includes Asian techniques and some Italian techniques, too. But that limits the diner to only trying two or three things. I really wanted them to try more but not have to spend more money.
So we moved on to small plates, but you still have the option to do what you want. You can have a classic meal--starter/appetizer, main course, dessert. Or you can have five small plates and spend the same amount of money.
Is there anything you would do differently?
The next time I open up a restaurant, things will be a lot different. There was a quote, I don't know it exactly, but David Chang said something like "When you open up a restaurant, everything bad that could happen is going to happen." And that's true. I mean not in a negative way. You bounce back, you learn. I've been cooking for a decade, and I know how to make food and set up stations. But there are so many little details. It's been good; it's just extremely humbling.
So what was the most humbling or challenging part of opening?
The hardest part is when you see a dish in your mind. You could easily make it for four of your friends and they'd be like 'Oh my god Andrew, that's so great.' But to get that dish and to have two or three other cooks that work different schedules know how to execute it and then serve it to 50 people in a night or 10 people in 30 minutes is a completely different story. Finding a balance between creativity and efficiency is what I've learned the most.
How was your reviews process?
The opening was mixed. I mean truly mixed, not just negative. Doing something new, you are going to be criticized for it. I'm still going to do stuff that's new. Nowadays that the food is just as creative but less risky.
Your pedigree includes a stint at the landmark American restaurant The French Laundry. How did your time their prepare you to open Mettle?
Even though it's been over ten years since I worked there for free for six months (for his culinary school externship), I still learn from it. Just the way they organize their walk in. The way they touch food. Whether I'm cooking a cheeseburger or, whatever dish it is, I'm going to do my best to make it absolutely delicious and perfect. And that's what The French Laundry taught me.
Developing a culinary identity is an idiosyncratic and evolving process. How has your culinary vision and approach to food changed from your time as a line cook to where it is now?
You make a dish to make someone happy. But to truly do that, you have to not care what anybody thinks when you are making the dish. You have to stick to your guns, make the dish, and then see what happens.
Before, I was more insecure; I would add too much stuff, I would make it too busy. It would conceptually be confusing to the diner. Now, I'll focus on three things, instead of trying to put all this stuff on and try to out-do everybody. My food is simple these days. But it takes time to get that. It's simple with more education behind it, and I'm still learning every day.
Where do you want to be a year from now?
I'm working on two other projects with Chris (Parker) and Bridget (Dunlap). We have an Italian place opening (the concept is, in Francisco's words, "simple" Italian food "made the way it's supposed to be") and Lustre Pearl as a restaurant, with fresh and delicious bar food. Honestly, though, a year from now, I want to be at Mettle. I got a lot more to do.
— Tom Rosen
· All Mettle Coverage [EATX]
· All One Year In Coverage [EATX]