If you’ve tried to stay on top of the Austin, Texas, dining scene, you’ve quickly reached one conclusion: Austin is oversaturated with restaurants. Even chefs agree. “Put this in your article: If you’re a cook and you want to find a job, move to Austin,” says Bryce Gilmore, chef and owner of farm-to-table Austin institutions Barley Swine and Odd Duck. “I personally would like the pace to slow down a little bit. Let the people who live here catch up to what’s going on.”
Soon Austinites will have to start playing catch up to Gilmore, who is shuttering his 36-seat Barley Swine location in South Austin in the coming months and reopening it this winter in a massive complex in North Austin. We sat with Gilmore at his current Barley Swine location on South Lamar and talked about the insular nature of the Austin dining scene, the challenges of scaling up his farm-to-table concept and why he takes dishes off his menu when they become cult favorites.
How have peoples’ tastes in Austin changed since you opened Barley Swine in 2010?
People are more open-minded and willing to try new things outside of Tex-Mex and barbecue, the things that we’re known for. I was actually probably more anti-Tex-Mex when we first opened than I am now. I grew up here and my dad’s a chef and he’s known for his southwestern cuisine. For a while I was trying to be creative and try to find my style…I still don’t know what that is. Chefs are always changing and adapting and going through phases. But when we opened, I was really trying to stay away from dried chili peppers and any kind of Mexican-influenced dishes, even though that’s what I love to eat and what I grew up on. But then I kind of reached the point where I said this is who I am. So I started doing more with dried chilis, rifts on refried beans, things like that. It’s important to remember where you came from. Now I get excited about really good versions of things I grew up with. We’ve done chicken-fried chicken eggs and now we make our own chili sauces.
What’s the new Barley Swine going to be like?
It’s going to be up north, which is new territory for us. I’m excited because it’s not only going to separate Odd Duck from Barley Swine—right now they’re very close—but it’ll be a bigger space. We’ll also have a couple of gardens on the property. I’ll do à la carte options, a tasting menu and a private chef’s dining table. Being a small space, it kind of made sense that we only did a tasting menu [at the South Austin location]. But people definitely like to be able to choose what they want. I want people to be able to experience a lot of different things when they come in.
What else is up north?
We’re farther north than anything else I can think of that is at our price point. It’s an untapped market for this level of food. We’ve got so many restaurants down here on South Lamar, and downtown, and things are popping up on the east side. But when people move to Austin, they’re not all moving downtown. They’re moving all around the city. I hear from people who live up there all the time that they never want to go south of the river to eat. OK, I guess we’ll come to you then.
I talked to Tim Love a few months ago when he opened Lonesome Dove in Austin, and he said he thought the Austin dining scene was insular. Do you agree with that?
We’ve always been a town focused on local businesses. I take pride in that. I think it’s cool to see people who have spent a lot of time here or who are from here who have gotten the opportunity to open a business. I don’t say I’m totally against other chefs opening restaurants here. They can do whatever they want. But I like it more when people from here open restaurants. I think it means something to this town.
How long do you have to live in Austin to be from Austin?
I don’t know! You should at least live here. I love Tim Love though. He’s been great to me.
He has a home in Austin now.
OK, Tim Love is an Austinite. That’s fine. But let’s talk about Shake Shack opening and Vetri opening a pizza place…I’m not going to say I hate that. But it’s definitely a lot cooler when guys from Austin are shining in this town rather than someone who has 10 of these things around the country.
Where are your favorite places to eat in Austin right now?
I have a five-month-old son now, so I’ve been doing a lot more cooking at home. I haven’t done much of that in the past five years. But I really like what they’re doing at Dai Due. I like hopping around to new places and checking them out. You don’t really have to go back to the same restaurant over and over. The cool thing about Austin is you can eat out every other week and try a new restaurant with the pace that they’re opening. It’s kind of nuts right now the number of restaurants opening.
Is that pace sustainable?
It would be easy to say we’re getting oversaturated with restaurants if you think about how hard it is to hire people right now. Put this in your article: If you’re a cook and you want to find a job, move to Austin. But at the same time, there’s always room for better restaurants. The idea is that when a better restaurant opens that a lesser, mediocre one will close. The problem is that takes years for that effect to happen. We’re just now starting to see some of the older ones closing down. We’ll see how it goes.
I personally would like it to slow down a little bit. Let the people who live here kind of catch up to what’s going on. Give diners a chance to know what’s out there even. There’s probably restaurants open now that even I don’t even know about because they’re happening all the time. We’ll see how long that will last. I know there’s a lot of people moving here, but they aren’t all restaurant workers and they aren’t all the type who are going to go out to eat every day.
Odd Duck is known for its bar program. Is there a lot of pressure on chefs now to come up with great cocktails too?
For us it’s just another venue, another opportunity to show creativity and the way we source things. I like the thought of really crafting all of the ingredients that go into a drink just like we do with the food. If I can ferment the chilis that we’re using in our sauces, why can’t we make the tinctures we want to put into a cocktail? It’s a way to feature this area even more and show people what we can do with what we grow around here. We don’t have to rely on other parts of the world to do great things here.
But for me, on my radar for the next couple of years, is having our own farm somewhere nearby that we can kind of have fun with. As great as the farmers are around here, and I never want to stop supporting them, it’d be fun to have a couple of acres.
What are going to be the challenges of sourcing locally as you scale up?
I am actually looking forward to it. The challenge right now is that there’s more farmers than we can support. We always had that focus, even in the trailer days. When Odd Duck opened, we were able to bump up our purchasing quite a bit, but there are still farmers out there who I’d like to buy more from on a regular basis. There’s definitely no shortage of supply. The good thing about down here is that there’s never a time of the year when something isn’t available to you. There’s always going to be fresh produce. It might not be the most exciting stuff all year round, but there’s going to be something.
As a diner, you can go to the same restaurant six times a year and get a different menu each time. That’s what I want. I want people to come back and get a different experience. I don’t want them to come back expecting the same dish every time. We want to challenge ourselves to make something just as good and memorable as the dish you loved the first time you were here. It keeps us pushing ourselves to keep trying to be relevant and interesting and at the top of our game.
Does switching up the menu keep you relevant?
It’s part of it. Both of these restaurants are big reflections of the people who work there too. There’s a lot of collaboration. We’re always researching new things and thinking about flavors and textures along with how can we source this or what we can do with this thing that’s available to us in a way that we haven’t done before. After five, six years we’re definitely starting to run out of ideas. But it’s good. You go, that way of doing it was really good, let’s do that again but maybe pair it with something else.
It’s funny because we’ll run something for a while and a magazine will write about it and people will keep coming in for it, but when a dish reaches that point, I take it off the menu. You’ve just got to do it. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to keep producing good stuff.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She’s based in Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep