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Meet the chef: Devan Gernert of the League Kitchen and Tavern

Lakeway chef adds upscale flair to down-home menu items

Claire Canavan
The fillets in the fish and chips plate are made with a tempura batter that contains Fat Tire Amber Ale. It's served with a malted tartar sauce.

At the League Kitchen and Tavern in Lakeway, Christmas Eve promises to be a festive night. Chef Devan Gernert will prepare a menu laden with fish and prime rib specials, and one lucky patron will win a replica of the famous leg lamp from the movie "A Christmas Story."

To win the prize, diners must have donated to the League's toy drive benefiting the Austin Children's Shelter. In a serendipitous twist, the shelter is actually central to the story of how 25-year-old Gernert landed the League's executive chef position.

With the League, which opened in October, co-owners Tony Ciola (of Tony C's Coal-Fired Pizza) and Creed Ford IV wanted to create a classic American tavern with a convivial atmosphere.

The societies and clubs of early 20th century America inspired the restaurant's name, and the owners chose to line the main wall of the League's dining room with a photograph of one such group. Ironically, it's an 80-foot mural of the 1920s Anti-Saloon League of Atlantic City.

Ultimately, Ciola and Ford want to expand the League into multiple locations, each one with individual touches that fit the neighborhood. For the executive chef job, Ciola said, "We were looking for someone with the same passion as us that wanted to do a from-scratch kitchen."

Ciola regularly donates food to the Austin Children's Shelter, and this past summer he mentioned to the shelter's community relations director, Janis Gernert, that he was opening a new restaurant venture. Janis Gernert passed him the résumé of her son Devan, a young chef who had recently moved back to Austin to be closer to family. After impressing the owners at a tasting (particularly with his short ribs), Gernert joined the team.

Gernert had planned to be a visual effects programmer, but realized that he didn't like sitting down and staring at a computer all day. After graduating from the Texas Culinary Academy (now Le Cordon Bleu) in 2007, he moved to Dallas.

Gernert got a job at famed Japanese restaurant Nobu, starting as a grill cook and working his way up to sous chef. While at Nobu, Gernert devoted himself to learning as much as he could about Japanese food and culture, often going in on his days off to practice properly cutting fish and preparing sushi. "Learning is power for a chef," he says.

At the same time, he had a second job at the Hotel Crescent Court (now the Rosewood Crescent Hotel) with pastry chef Gianni Santin. After three years at Nobu, Gernert's curiosity about other cuisines led him to work for a stint with David Bull as chef de cuisine at the Stoneleigh Hotel's Bolla.

Though Gernert's kitchen experience in Dallas was focused on fine dining, he jumped at the chance to collaborate with Ciola, Ford, and director of operations Cliff Abrahams to develop a more casual and accessible menu for the League. The menu would be focused on what Gernert calls "American classics with a twist," and everything would be made from scratch.

Gernert transforms meatloaf, the ultimate comfort food, into a playful appetizer called meatloaf bites, where mini portions topped with chipotle ketchup rest atop potatoes. For the short rib tacos, the meat is tucked into wrappers made out of fresh jicama rather than tortillas. The fish and chips feature a Japanese style tempura beer batter, made with Fat Tire Amber Ale, so the fish comes out "light and crispy instead of heavy and greasy," Gernert says. A selection of burgers, steaks, and salads rounds out the menu.

At the League, Gernert still uses some of the techniques he learned in fine dining. He likes to prepare some dishes sous-vide, a technique in which protein is vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag and placed in a temperature-controlled water bath so that it cooks evenly and stays juicy. Gernert cooks his chicken wings and pork chops this way, keeping the meat tender, before finishing them on the grill.

Desserts are rustic and rich. Inspired by a pastry chef friend, Gernert created a compressed chocolate cake served in a mason jar. Made with almonds, the dense cake gets dressed up with raspberry jam and chocolate ganache.

Like the food menu, the bar selection is equal parts modern and throwback. Vintage recipes (a 1908 Sazerac, a 1941 Moscow Mule) share the stage with updated concoctions — "skinny" margaritas and cucumber lavender sours.

Gernert's interest in cooking started at a young age. At 3, he would sometimes help his mom make mashed potatoes. As he got older "every time it came to my mom's birthday or mother's day, I forgot to get her presents," he says. "So I would always end up making her dinner."

So how does Gernert thank his mom for helping him get the job at the League? He volunteers to coordinate food for events at the Austin Children's Shelter, for one, most recently preparing meals there on Thanksgiving morning.

But the main way he thanks her is by cooking for her on his days off. A recent family meal included cherry wood smoked salmon, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and potato hash with chipotle hollandaise. His much younger siblings won't eat most of those things, but Gernert keeps them happy with French toast and a fridge full of biscuits. "I'm a total Mama's boy," he says.

The League Kitchen and Tavern

1310 RM 620 S.

512-263-3279

leaguelakeway.com