Erica Waksmunski isn't the first chef to leave high-end restaurants (and their well-appointed kitchens) to hustle in a food trailer. Paul Qui famously launched his East Side King mini-empire while working at Uchiko; the team behind sushi trailer Kyoten have resumes that include Uchi, Bar Masa, and Nobu.
But Waksmunski made an especially dramatic about-face: the chef moved from running Congress's pastry department to slinging fried chicken outside The Grackle. Her trailer's name, Red Star Southern, references her time cooking at Michelin-starred Chez TJ. Her tongue-in-cheek Instagram features fussily plated pimento cheese, and the trailer offers an 8-course chef's tasting menu, complimented by "the finest bug sprays."
What is it like to switch from working in a large (and air conditioned) restaurant to slinging food from an Airstream in July? Eater spoke with Waksmunski about the tribulations, and triumphs of her new project. Read on for the hot, the awful, and the "fucking fun."
What was opening night like?
It was hilarious. The dudes who came to help out have better resumes than I do, Michelin stars all over the board, and we went down in fucking flames. There was a chicken situation. I thought I was really smart pre-staging [the fried chicken], but my friend on fry station, who's the CDC (chef de cuisine) of Parkside, is like, This isn't working, this isn't working. I realized, oh shit, battered chicken in the fridge will condensate and get gummy. So we were handing the chicken off to my friend Mario, and he was scrubbing the batter off and starting it again.
At the end of the night, one of the guys whipped off his apron and his clothes were dripping with sweat. He said, This is for you.
How has it been since that first day?
It's really cool being parked out here outside of the Grackle. I know everyone who works here â€“ I have friendly neighbors.
I do still get those moments where I'm like, okay, this is my life now. The space is limited and it's fucking hot. A few weeks ago, I was about to collapse, so I pulled in one of the chef's table chairs. So I'm sitting in this plastic chair and picking greens into a trash can and I've got all these box fans around me, and like I'm a crazy 80 year old woman, squatting and picking greens and laughing and crying.
The trailer's tiny fridge
What would have been typical day at Congress?
Walking into air conditioning. Check Open Table to see how many reservations we have, start baking bread. Spin ice creams, taste things, make sure everyone at Second is set up appropriately. Going into my prep day.
Not that I'm not organized here, it's just different. I think people don't realize it was only me, even all the funny Instagrams. I'm so so so fortunate to have so many friends who helped. But I'm Instagramming with one hand, frying with another.
There's plenty of good parts. I answer to no man. I do what I do every single day just for me. I didn't intend to open with me as the only employee, but when I think about it, right now, it makes me have even more pride.
You've pulled in a staggering amount of support from the Austin restaurant industry.
I've been shocked at the fucking army that has shown up for me. I asked people if they could show up for the tip jar proceeds, and they all said, No problem, what time, Chef? Once we get in there and get jamming, it's really great. I forgot how fucking fun it is get in there and throw down pans on the line. Just focusing on slinging food.
Pastry tends to be the primary place women end up in professional kitchens. Did you consciously decide to leave pastry behind and go back to line cooking when you started Red Star?
More and more, women aren't being pigeonholed as much in the pastry department, though it's still pretty prevalent. In Austin alone, Erica Beneke, Rebecca Meeker, Janelle Reynolds, and so many other women are doing savory and are kicking fucking ass. They're just as highly regarded and respected as everyone else. I'm hoping for a day that the gender bias disappears.
But doing savory here is just me doing what I want to do. This is me making family meal for my friends. Pastry has done me so well, and I feel really accomplished. But I did that thing, fast and hard. I ran a huge operation at Congress and Second. It just made sense to me to break out and do my own thing. A truck was the quickest, most fun, inexpensive, D.I.Y. guerilla style way to go.
Waksmunski calls this setup 'Lady Kitchen'
Humor is a huge part of Red Star's identity. Where did it start?
I think it's really funny when people take themselves too seriously in the cooking world. You're not saving cancer babies, you're just making people dinner. Can we get back to giving someone a plate of food?
Don't get me wrong, I think fine dining does do beautiful things and puts out beautiful plates. I know everyone works so hard. But I mean, not everyone can afford it. At this point in my life, I'd rather have someone give me eight dollars and hand them two pounds of food than have someone spend a thousand dollars on a meal. I grew up in Virginia. As a cook, I want to get back to, Here, put this in your face hole, now you're satisfied.