Ned Elliot Explains What Makes Indie Chef Week Great
Ned Elliot, chef/owner of Austin’s Foreign & Domestic, has been cooking professionally for over 20 years. A Cincinnati native, he worked under prestigious chefs in New York before garnering several “Best New Chefs” nominations for his casual yet refined menu in Texas.
In 2012, Elliot founded “Indie Chefs Week," a food and wine weekend welcoming 30 chefs from across the United States and Canada into his kitchen. Guests buy seats at dinners at which several chefs cook together, or for the grand finale; a 15-course meal prepared by all 30 chefs and their cooks. Instead of spreading it out in venues like a standard food and wine event, Elliot prefers this one-roof method as a way to inspire camaraderie and conversation between the nation’s young, progressive talent. And with upcoming events in San Francisco and Toronto, that conversation is only going to get louder.
What was your personal intention with the first event?
It came with a three-pronged thought process:
First, when you start working in this field, your eye is on the prize, and that prize is a Michelin star or an accolade from James Beard, Food & Wine or Bon Appétit. But there are hard-working, courageous chefs all over the country, and they don’t get what they’re due. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on PR, you’re screwed. When you open up the magazines, the “discovery trips” taken often read like “these are who were able to send out the most press releases.” So we needed a way to give back to all the other chefs.
A few years ago I had planned guest chef dinners here, and I thought they were going to be awesome; we’d bring in a different guy or girl I’d worked with every two weeks or so. It was tough to coordinate, and a pain in the ass. But a couple of years later, I still loved the idea and realized that it was a great opportunity to do something inspirational for me and my staff, to have so many chefs from so many different walks of life come into the restaurant.
The third thing was I really wanted a conversation about food created between us younger chefs and artists. We meet each other through Instagram and Twitter, and we needed a way to converse in real life.
What were those conversations about?
I’m not the greatest diplomat in the world. I sat down with Food & Wine recently and was like, “This came about because we didn’t feel what your magazine is doing is representative of what chefs are doing as a whole.”
We talked about the “avocado toast tour” thing. We were like, “Man, you have guacamole on toast and you’re talking about it?” We talked about the matcha thing, and the ramen thing. It’s not that we’re sick of ramen, but it’s like, “Can we stop asking if this is authentic or not?” Flynn McGarry, the 16-year-old kid in California, gets a lot of attention, so there’s a betting pool right now of what he’ll be doing when he’s 23. We talked about hiring. I’ll get a resume from someone who has staged at Noma and a few months here and there, and he wants to be chef de cuisine. We’re like, “You’re going to be on prep or fry for nine months.” I’m sure guys like Bouley said that about my generation, but it’s hard to find a real resumé now.
But we also talked about how right now is the best time to eat in the United States, and not from just a very high or low-end standpoint, but from an all-over standpoint. We’re all teaching each other, “How do you make a foie gras terrine?” Anything goes, as long as it tastes good.
How do you make it work financially?
We haven’t made it financially successful. My accountant would say I lost $12,000 the first year. That year, we paid a stipend for flights and food, then rented a huge house and put 15 chefs in it. We told the chefs to bring down something from their region that we couldn’t get in Texas. Ben Sukle from Birch in Providence brought whole hogs down; it was $225 in shipping, and overall he had spent something like $700, so we were down $14 a ticket because of it.
Since then, we were able to get sponsorship from Whole Foods. We now give $300 for travel, put them up for three to five days, reimburse $250 in food costs, and give them each a $250 gift card for Whole Foods. They do things that take a long time at home, and then finish with local products. Our next step is to find housing, travel and food sponsors, so that we can lower the price so the average Joe or Carrie can buy a ticket.
Who came out this year that particularly excited you?
I was really pumped to work with Eric Gabrynowicz (of Restaurant North). Back in the day we both worked at Tabla, and he made just fantastic food: Peconic Bay scallops with squash puree and bacon and some bitter greens. It was awesome, and New York through and through. I was stoked.
There was a woman I’d never met before, Melissa Moss. She’s the chef de cuisine for a friend of mine here at Lenoir, and I’m not sure if she’s Jewish, but the food that she’s doing and loves talking about is this old-school, refined, Jewish food. It was phenomenal. You miss that, living in Austin. We had Richie Nakano’s badass take on Japanese-style food [from Hapa Ramen in San Francisco]. Kristin Essig, the chef of Meauxbar in New Orleans, did this really flavorful New Orleans-style food and people were like, “Dude, this is some tasty, tasty, tasty food.”
I think that’s one of the cool things for the guests; there’s a difference in cooking styles, but no right or wrong. And for chefs it’s sort of reassuring; it doesn’t have to be impressive, it just has to taste good.
What do you hope chefs took away from the weekend?
“Network” is the wrong word, and so are “fraternity” and “brotherhood”. But none of the chefs who come have 250-seat restaurants; we all have reasonably small ones. Yeah, you’re a chef and owner and have to keep your eye on what’s going on, but once you’ve gone through the ringer and have been beaten down, you don’t want to feel bad about just cooking. So we just want to get a conversation going between people like us. We don’t need to validate ourselves by winning the major awards. This are who we want to cook with, and this is what we want to do: talk about food and make it better for everyone, not just the upper echelon. For us it’s about personal style. Let’s keep moving it forward.