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Gathering Austin's creative class around the grill

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

After World War I, the "Lost Generation" gathered regularly and noisily at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas entertained Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and other creative characters over feasts of cold soup, whole capon and wine-stewed figs, among other delicacies recorded in Toklas' famous cookbook.

For the past few years, videographer and entrepreneur John Fitch - recently profiled in this column along with Ticketbud business partner Paul Cross - has brought together artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers and other "creatives" at various Austin homes, grilling ingredients purchased at local farmers markets and generating conversations that last well into the night.

"Our favorite thing about food has always been its ability to bring people together," Fitch says. "We started this tradition in college, but now it includes people in film, high-tech, the arts and, still, some students."

In early July, a dozen of Fitch's formative friends mingled at the crook-shaped Tarrytown home of writer and philanthropist Anne Elizabeth Wynn and filmmaker and cheese innovator Joaquin Avellán.

"John put this dinner together by crisscrossing all these cool people," Wynn says. "Three weeks later, we're sitting around a table. That's how open Austin is."

The outdoor dinner was not unlike hundreds of others, where Austin's inventive classes coalesce around food and drink. Yet there was something exceptional about this evening, as stories unfolded in gentle waves, recalling recipes, experiments, adventures and misadventures.

"Everything on this plate has not left Travis County," proclaimed Fitch as we sat down to dinner. "Except for the chicken - and that only a little bit." (The fowl were harvested at Dewberry Hills Farms in Lexington.)

(We'd respectfully add that some of the spices and contributing ingredients came from much farther away.)

Guests, ranging in age from 22 to 56, sipped judiciously from sprightly palomas, then dug into brined, marinated and grilled chipotle chicken and seared vegetables, complemented by peppers and cheese, the final ingredient carefully generated by Avellán in response to cheeses - remembered from his native Venezuela - that hold up under grilling.

"Joaquin introduced us to a world of food and we jumped in," says Elise Avellán, one of the famed Avellán twins who appeared in Robert Rodriguez's "Grindhouse" and "Machete."

She helps out with Joaquin's company, selling Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese at farmers' markets. "It's a just a different art form," she says. "All art is creative energy made physical."

The final dish, Estrella Fugaz, also employs Dos Lunas, this time for a not-too-sweet and lightly fruity dessert.

"Austin is the ideal place to try new things like this," says graphic designer Wes Wooddell. "It's a free-spirited place that makes meals like this feel more organic."

"It's also one of the top cities for healthy food," says economics student Randy Lim. "That's common ground for everyone here. You don't need fancy ingredients."

This particular dinner for creatives did not end with artists and models crashing down the street after the party, as occurred at times following Stein and Toklas' exotically fueled affairs. In fact, it was marked by a subdued and well-tempered good will.

Fitch sums up the collision of food and friendships over the course of these regular, quintessentially Austin dinners: "There's just an ongoing vibe that connects everybody."

mbarnes@statesman.com

La Paloma

2 oz. of Republic Plata or Reposado Organic Tequila

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

pinch of salt

grapefruit soda

lime wedge

Combine the tequila, lime juice and salt in a tall glass. Add ice, top off with grapefruit soda and stir. Place a lime wedge on the rim of the glass when served.

- John Fitch

Grilled Chipotle Chicken and Seared Vegetables

Chicken brine:

1 gallon warm water

3/4 cup sea salt

2/3 cup sugar

Chicken marinade:

(amounts to your taste)

Lime juice

Chipotle powder

Chili powder

Red wine vinegar

Parsley

Cilantro

garlic

Salt and pepper

Main dish:

4 eggplant

2 onions

Italian dressing

8 zucchini

Olive oil to coat plus 2 Tbsp., divided

Salt

Red Pepper flakes

4 cloves plus 1 bulb of garlic, divided

2 Tbsp. of red wine vinegar

6 chicken breasts

Lime

Brine chicken by pouring water into a container that is twice the volume of the water. Pour in sea salt and sugar and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved, then allow the brine to cool to room temperature. Place chicken in the brine, cover, and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours, then soak in marinade loosely combined to taste for 12 hours. Keep refrigerated.

Cut eggplant/onions into slices and squash into long strips. Marinate onion slices and squash strips in Italian dressing for two hours. Cover eggplant slices with olive oil and salt an hour before grilling. Mix 4 crushed garlic cloves, red wine vinegar, 2 Tbsp. of olive oil and red pepper flakes in a bowl to apply to grilled eggplant later.

Place chicken and veggies on high-heated grill. Cook veggies 5 minutes on each side or until tender and colored. Cook chicken for 5 minutes on each side or until done without drying out. Spoon garlic-vinegar mixture on top of eggplant slices and squeeze fresh lime on chicken breast before serving. Reserve the onions to act as a bed for the peppers and cheese dish. Serves 6.

- John Fitch

Peppers and Cheese

10 oz. Ponzu sauce

10 oz. Spicy ginger sauce

4 Jalapeño peppers from Johnson's Backyard Garden

12 sweet peppers from Simmons Family Farms

Cooking oil

12 oz. Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese

Combine Ponzu sauce and spicy ginger sauce and marinate peppers in a closed container for 12-18 hours, shaking occasionally.

Using a perforated grill pan, cook peppers over high heat and use pan to toss peppers around. Occasionally drop some cooking oil over them to encourage flames to sear the peppers. Grill for 10 minutes or until tender and colored. Cut the cheese into thin 3-inch strips. Heat up a flat grill plate to a high heat. Drop the strips of cheese onto the hot flat surface (curved surface will melt the cheese). Sear each side for 1 to 2 minutes, using a spatula to carefully flip. White cheese will turn to a beautiful brown when seared. Place the cheese next to the seared peppers when serving.

Serves 6.

- John Fitch

Estrella Fugaz (Shooting Star)

Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese - Especial

6 fresh peaches from Itz Garden

Round Rock Honey

10 oz. crushed pecans from Navidad Farms

Cut the cheese in to 2-inch squares and set aside. Heat up flat grill pan to a high heat. Grill peeled peach wedges and set four on each plate next to each other, creating a "star tail." Drop the squares of cheese onto the hot flat surface (curved surface will melt the cheese). Sear each side for 1-2 minutes, using a spatula to flip. Take cheese off of grill and cut an "X" in the middle. Place the cut square on the plate next to the peaches to create the star. Top the cheese with honey and pecans. Serves 6.

- John Fitch