A hazy, sun-drenched vision of Austin lives in the popular imagination. It's an impossibly hip yet laid-back town where country music spills out of old honky tonks and quirky food trucks dot every corner lot. Technically the capital of Texas, it's not like, Texas, you know? The state's only influences are the breakfast tacos and barbecue available, yes, from the food trucks, which regularly catapult their owners to the comforts of brick and mortar restaurant space, and even national fame.
That Austin is gone, to the extent that it ever existed in the first place. In 2015, the honky tonks are encircled by luxury apartments (literally), and culinary concepts are more often tested on the ground floors of mixed-use developments or renovated warehouses than in battered Airstreams with punny names. Plenty of talented operators still run food trucks, but making the leap to brick and mortar has gotten harder as rents have surged. The empty lots the trucks used to occupy are not empty any more.
Austin, in other words, is a boomtown. But how can the town survive the boom? One place to look is the city's dining scene: many notable restaurants got their start in the trailer era and have maintained their quality as they've grown. Consider, for instance, Odd Duck. The restaurant began its life in late 2009 as a trailer parked in an empty lot on South Lamar. Chef and owner Bryce Gilmore, along with his brother Dylan, served a playful menu of small bites sourced from local farmers. Odd Duck's ambitious approach to sourcing and sophisticated cooking from a tiny trailer earned Gilmore an obsessive local following and national attention.
In late 2013, Odd Duck reopened in the exact same location, but this time in a shiny glass box of a building adjacent to a luxury apartment complex. On the surface, this sounds a lot like selling out. But two years in to its new incarnation, Odd Duck has grown into an indispensable Austin restaurant, one whose growth spirals outward into the community. In addition to the brothers Gilmore, the group now has three other employee-partners. The trailer's handful of farmers has grown to a list of over thirty, and the trailer's two employees have become a staff of 75. Amid the city's boom, Odd Duck models an equitable kind of growth that spreads the wealth to local suppliers and empowers employees.
Tucked into a corner of this neo-farmhouse, a portrait of the trailer hangs across from a wall of the staff's baby pictures. Nearby, the employees' heights are marked and labeled on a metal beam. The message is clear: Odd Duck is a vision of how Austin can not just grow, but grow up.
When Bryce Gilmore was a kid, Austin was a Tex Mex and chicken fried steak town, with barbecue a short drive outside the city limits. He started his culinary career in high school bussing tables at Z'Tejas, where his father, Jack Gilmore, was the corporate chef. When Bryce moved up to the kitchen his senior year, he saw the respect his father commanded. "That made me respect him more, too," Gilmore says. "If I could get people to respect me half as much as they respect him, I would be very happy."
After high school, Gilmore attended culinary school in San Francisco, where he encountered farm to table cooking for the first time. He describes the local, seasonal approach taken by those restaurants as "a big eye-opener." It's a familiar model now, but the ascendance of this type of cuisine in Austin is a relatively recent phenomenon, spearheaded in part by Wink, which opened in 2001. Gilmore worked there briefly. He also spent time in locally-focused restaurants like Marble Fall's Cafe 909, and The Little Nell in Aspen.
"It just became a very realistic dream, to open a food trailer and serve food from local farms"
According to Gilmore, he decided to return to Austin and open Odd Duck because the downtown farmers market was finally big enough. Probably the city's growing trailer culture was a draw, too. "It just became a very realistic dream," he says. "I'm going to go open a food trailer and serve food from local farms." Bryce maxed out his credit cards, and along with Dylan, opened Odd Duck: Farm to Trailer in December of 2009. He bought what produce was available and wrote a menu around the ingredients. He served food until it sold out.
No other trailer was working so closely or with such sophistication using local ingredients, and Odd Duck's success was swift. But his trailer wasn't alone in finding success; this was the height of food truck culture in Austin. A March 2010 article in The Chronicle entitled "What's New on The Trailer Cuisine Scene?" reads as a who's who of businesses that have since launched burgeoning chains (Kebablicious, Chi'Lantro, Hat Creek, Gourdough's, Hey! Cupcake), and concepts that came to define Austin dining: Franklin Barbecue, East Side King, and Odd Duck.
The three people behind these projects share a remarkable amount in common. Paul Qui, Aaron Franklin, and Bryce Gilmore all have the necessary mix of perfectionism and tenacity to thrive in the brutal food truck environment. All three are publicly self-effacing and dedicated to the farmers and traditions of Central Texas. All three have experienced staggering amounts of success since The Chronicle rounded up their trailer offerings in 2010. And all three have dramatically shaped the city's overall culinary culture. Aaron Franklin kicked off a new age in one of the state's oldest culinary traditions. Paul Qui is redefining Austin's approaches to Asian cuisine and fine dining. And Bryce Gilmore set a new standard for not just local sourcing, but what it might mean to cook from Central Texas.
Franklin famously has his single restaurant and its epic line; Qui is expanding both into fast-casual with East Side King and into high-end hotels. Gilmore's growth charts a winding path between these two extremes. Both Qui and Franklin would be the first to admit their careers have been shaped by unique and unreproducible circumstances: a Top Chef win, a line so iconic it has a dedicated Twitter account. Bryce Gilmore's model is both simpler and more complex. In the media, it resists a narrative hook. The group's network of talented and dedicated partners are a mouthful in print. But it is that same winding path and complicated network that makes Odd Duck's growth so notable. And what makes their cuisine so uniquely expressive of what Austin can do.
Some of Odd Duck's local suppliers have been with them since the trailer days
Some of Odd Duck's local suppliers have been with them since the trailer days. In a 2010 interview with The Chronicle, Gilmore said he used "about a half a pig a week from Richardson Farms." Back then, Jim Richardson and his wife were scraping by, taking two coolers of frozen meat to the farmers market in the back of their pickup. Richardson Farms now has two refrigerated trucks to supply both local farmers markets and restaurants, growth Jim Richardson says in a large part due to Odd Duck's early support. "Without them, we probably would not have been able to prosper," he says.
Richardson Farms is far from alone. The restaurant's menu currently lists 28 vegetable suppliers, ten "animal" suppliers, two egg suppliers and another seven for various pantry items like honey, grains, and milk. Odd Duck partners and co-chefs Mark Buley and Sam Hellman-Mass are essential to creating this remarkable and unwieldy supply chain. When the restaurant opened, they ran the kitchen equally, but now Buley takes the lead there while Hellman-Mass devotes most of his time sourcing, including working directly with farms they partner in testing out new crops.
Richardson Farms is at the forefront of this new kind of partnership. They're growing heirloom corn, sorghum, buckwheat and wheat berries for the restaurant, which is always growing their bread program. "Sam from Boston is really into the grains," says Jim Richardson with a bemused Texan drawl. Recently, Hellman-Mass brought what Richardson estimates were six to eight additional cooks to hand harvest Bloody Butcher corn.
About that corn: Odd Duck opened with a focus on bread, and have since added masa. It's not a casual addition. They are making their own from scratch using Texas corn, a remarkable and ongoing experiment. Hellman-Mass is spearheading the growing, and Buley built a mechanical corn grinder himself. The restaurant did not start out even thinking about masa, but now their aim is to grow the best local corn for tortillas in Texas. This improvisational, playful, obsessive iteration is Odd Duck's brand of growth.
A comfort with improvisation is necessary when dealing with the growing seasons of Central Texas instead of, say, fruitful and temperate California. Summer, usually a season of abundance, is instead a brutal scorcher. A sudden freeze can knock out winter produce. The pests are mighty. Rain can be scarce, or torrential. Even with their long, long list of suppliers and farmer partnerships and the mechanical corn grinder, Odd Duck isn't a hundred percent local restaurant. "We're always working hard to become more local," Hellman-Mass says, "Thomas Keller has a great quote: if you're not compromising, you're not cooking."
The ever-shifting availability of produce could demand a great deal of compromise, but the team approaches it with a sense of play. Instead of looking for ingredients to fit the menu, Gilmore and his team let the menu fit the ingredients. "If you have it, they will find a way to use it," Jim Richardson says. "They're not cookie cutter types who need the same thing every week."
Odd Duck's embrace of improvisation has resulted in sunchoke eclairs, chicken fried fish heads, chorizo verde corn dogs and goat-topped pancakes. That same playfulness keeps food costs down, too. A half hog will become rendered fat for tortillas, chicharron, pig ear tacos and a showstopper trotter with part of the leg still attached, paraded through the dining room like a fine roast.
Austin diners are adventurous because no one wants to fail the weird
In a more buttoned-up city, such an approach might not fly, but Austin celebrates weirdness as a core part of its identity. Originally coined to support local businesses, the slogan ‘Keep Austin Weird' has come to define everything the city holds dear about itself. Austin diners are adventurous, in part, because no one wants to fail the weird. It's an oddly conservative phrasing ("Keep" rather than "Make"), but perhaps it's correct to see the weird as a fragile sort of magic, perpetually in danger of being lost.
As Austin's profile rises, the weirdness already has failed to translate. GQ's Alan Richman used Odd Duck to illustrate his argument that cooking had become "egotarian," focused on the chef, not the diner. He called their deconstructed shrimp and grits as the "worst dish I had all year."
It's off-base to characterize such a communally run restaurant as "egotarian," but weirdness can seem unwelcoming from the outside. Gilmore remains proud of the shrimp and grits, which he characterizes as a play with texture and temperature, though he acknowledges its reception in the dining room was "fifty-fifty." He also loved the savory shiitake donut that left many diners confused. When asked why he embraces weird combinations, Gilmore says it's not a strategy. "If you're not being weird you're probably not being yourself," he says.
Yet as the restaurant group has grown, so has the danger of playfulness being misread as arrogance. If someone stops by a food trailer and doesn't love their $10 dish in a paper boat, that's a small problem. If they wait an hour for a table at a major restaurant and think their first plate of food is terrible, that's much more dramatic. The meal costs more, the chef is perceived as more powerful, and the scrappy humility of the trailer is gone.
Again, it all comes back to compromise. The weirdness of Odd Duck's cuisine isn't going anywhere; they continued to run the shrimp and grits after Richman's pan. But they're also growing more sensitive to guest reactions and expectations. Gilmore says, "When someone comes and is willing to spend money with us, you want them to have a good time." Focusing on small plates allows for a greater amount of risk-per-dish, both for the customer and the kitchen. If you aren't compromising, you aren't cooking.
Odd Duck cannot cook without compromise for another reason: it's a restaurant run by five partners. Gilmore moves between Odd Duck and his fine dining restaurant, Barley Swine. Hellman-Mass and Buley each own a stake in Odd Duck. So does general manager Jason James and Gilmore's brother, Dylan, who handles everything from building tables to their accounting. This number of employee-owners is unusual for an Austin restaurant, and it's another way Odd Duck is funneling growth back into the city.
Odd Duck's $900,000 budget received bank help, but a great deal came from friends and family
When we talk about growth, of course, what we're really talking about is money, and building this partnership involves serious financial risk. Growing with the help of friends and family, rather than business partners, has always been a part of Odd Duck's model. Gilmore says he launched the trailer with $15,000 from his parents, and $15,000 on credit cards. Barley was funded with $200,000 from family, friends, and the restaurant's architect, with further build-out fueled by cash flow once they were open. Odd Duck's $900,000 budget received bank help, but a great deal came from friends and family. When Buley asked his brother to invest, he promised, in a kidding/not kidding kind of way, to put his niece and nephew through college no matter what. "Now, every time something goes wrong, I'm like, uh oh, they're going to community college," he jokes. But that level of risk also means he and the other partners are deeply committed to, and can see real rewards from, Odd Duck's success.
Odd Duck's partners first joined forces at Barley Swine, which they all helped open. In its original incarnation, Barley Swine is a tiny restaurant with an even smaller kitchen (a new Barley Swine will open in a larger space soon). The Odd Duck partners all worked hard to make Barley a success, and then were able to buy into the next project. Hellman-Mass believes those years of bumping elbows forged the bonds necessary to make that leap. Buley explains, "It's like pickup basketball. You're never going to beat the group that always plays together."
Even though they now have to schedule time to meet, that sense of cohesion keeps the group working. James cites a culture of "mutual respect" that keeps a restaurant run by committee from falling apart. That mutual respect also benefits the restaurant in other ways. James plays a key role in advocating for guests and the service staff, a perspective the chef-partners value and need. He can kill a dish whose reception isn't even fifty-fifty.
Instead of deciding that five major stakeholders is enough, the owners resist hierarchy. Head pastry chef Susana Querejazu never interviewed or even cooked for the team before she was hired, and she was instantly given a great deal of leeway. Her work gets its own showcase on a pastry tray, and her name is on brunch menu, along with another brunch chef, Zechariah Perez. Buley regularly says during pre-shift, "When you're all running your own restaurants, we'll have done our jobs right."
Encouraging ownership is a forward-thinking strategy: one of the marks of an iconic restaurant is seeing its influence spread across a city's kitchens. Austin's current incubator is Uchi, whose alums have launched everything from fast-casual taco joints to high-profile Northern Italian restaurants — not to mention the impact of Uchi-trained superstar Paul Qui. It remains to be seen, however, whether this kind of locally-driven growth will still be possible. Bryce Gilmore and his partners raised an impressive amount of money to fund their restaurants, but the startup costs for a chef or restauranteur just starting out are skyrocketing.
Next up is a move and expansion for Barley Swine. The group's improvisational decision making led to two restaurants on South Lamar with not dissimilar menus, a dynamic Barley Swine's move seems designed to address. Gilmore explains, "If I want to run pig face naan at both locations, it won't be crazy." Their new North Austin location will be larger, with a full bar, and already the team has gotten even bigger, incorporating two alums of the high-end temple of local, Blackberry Farm. The group is tight lipped about any additional expansion, but they certainly have not ruled it out, especially as a means of promoting talented staff. And they're certainly not finished embracing the positive side of Austin's growth. "Companies coming from outside of Austin annoy me a little bit," Gilmore says. "If we continue to open restaurants, they'll be restaurants that support local businesses and farmers and artisan producers. I can only control so much."
The food trucks in empty lots were the bright shadow of economic disaster
Odd Duck's current success is rooted in Barley Swine's cramped kitchen, early morning farmers markets runs, and a tiny trailer in an empty lot. The fact that such small-scale opportunities are harder to come by is not entirely bad news. The food trucks in empty lots were the bright shadow of global economic disaster; the lots were empty in part because after the 2008 crash, no one could get a loan. It's possible these new restaurant spaces made possible by development will grow more stable and ambitions restaurants and chefs. But it's equally possible an over-saturated market, a labor shortage, and rents no server or line cook can afford will kill the distinctive food and nightlife culture that drew so many to Austin in the first place.
When asked if he's concerned about the way Austin is changing, Hellman-Mass says it struck him there were two ways forward: opt out of the city's boom, or join it on his terms. Jim Richardson feels optimistic about the future of local farming, too. "I know my sons and grandsons have an environment where they can prosper and carry on this legacy," he says.
Bryce Gilmore, as a second generation Austinite, is the most sanguine about the growth. He dislikes the encroachment of chain restaurants and outside money, but thinks the city is hardly doomed. He should know: Austin has been struggling with, and benefiting from, growth for decades throughout his lifetime. "The soul of Austin is there, it's just getting a little extra padding," Gilmore says. "It's just getting fat." Which, after all, is just another consequence of growing up.