Friday, January 8, 2010

Permeating Austin

As shown by the 17 total covers that came into the 160-seat restaurant this evening where I play Sous Chef, Austin is dedicated to Texas. I do honestly believe that in the future, Austin will develop and nurture a viable food culture, one that is knowledgeable, worldly and wholeheartedly interested in not just their ingredients, but their chefs as well, their restaurants and their image. For now, though, and perhaps even in that hopeful future, things like UT football games, the Dallas Cowboys and all things Tex-Mex reign supreme, dictating not just the eating habits but their patterns as well, of not just Austinites, but Texans in general.

What, then, is a progressive-minded, thoughtful and passionate restaurant to do when even the most educated of diners or foodies is torn between Saturday night's game or an enjoyable night out for dinner? For some, the answer is simple: serve your food the way you want, while still paying homage to your roots via some bastardized dish with the word "Texas" in it, regardless of whether or not it has any place on your menu. For those focused on something larger, though, involving not just food, but the way in which food affects us as people, in our own cultures and in others, the answer is not so simple. Tex-Mex ingredients aren't as easy to intigrate, or simply aren't necessary, so the battle continues uphill. The struggle, between chef and diner, to convince the latter that highlights of the game will be just as good once you've gorged on that monthly splurge of a meal and come home completely satisfied.

The solution, I believe, lay in education. Not simply chefs, but also food writers, food critics, purveyors, journalists, diners as educators. An opening of those sacred, "keep Austin weird" doors to the outside world, a permeation of exterior restaurant cultures to thereby inform this smaller community of what they're missing. Not simply bringing New York to Austin, but bringing Austin to places like San Francisco, Miami, New Mexico and even Portland, Oregon! Places that have burgeoned as food destinations because they have learned from other cities and climates, other trends and forecasts of where food is going, where it has been. Places that even local chefs know and read about on a daily basis, secrets that the dining community of Austin should be made aware of.

What I'm getting at is the larger picture, which I believe Austin is missing. There's a reason that Chuy's will constantly be busy, regardless of a football game, a recession, a fissure in the Earth's crust--without a better knowledge of food and the culture it creates, diners won't feel the need to expand their own horizons, right here in Austin. If more diners knew of hunks like Sam Mason, that allure of "possibly meeting the chef" might draw them out. If more writers could do a better job of describing who David Chang really is and why his food has hit such a high note, simply because they themselves were more educated and worldly, diners might be craving more exotic and adventurous food. And if chefs here could stop using fucking queso as a crutch and fill that spot on their menu with something more legitimate, the dining scene here might start to progress and challenge people's pallets.

When, during a recent discussion, someone told me that the blogging community here isn't overly competitive and that people generally get along, it split me right in half. On the one hand, I was truly excited to know that people care about their ingredients and wish each other the best in their preparation and presentation. On the other, though, I thought, without competition, where do we get progress? Without a healthy sense of competition, I believe, Austin will remain a city of ever-reaching goals of becoming great, though always left falling short of what is prime to be an amazing city in which to eat.