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New chef at 34th Street Cafe brings light, fresh touch

Claire Canavan

When Austin restaurant owner Eddie Bernal posted a job opening for the position of executive chef at 34th Street Cafe, 90 chefs applied from all over the country.

After scouring résumés and checking references, Bernal narrowed it down to five candidates to do a cooking demonstration for him and his team.

Like the competitions on some of television's top cooking shows, the finalists arrived at the 34th Street Cafe kitchen without knowing what they would be making.

Bernal instructed them to make a sandwich, a salad, and an entrée in an hour and a half using whatever was available in the kitchen. The only restrictions: no rare meat and no shellfish, which Bernal is allergic to.

One of the chef candidates, Jason Tallent, had recently moved to Austin from San Francisco. Tallent prepared a salad with oil-poached tuna, arugula, fresh vegetables, and a preserved lemon and cilantro vinaigrette. For his entrée, he made sea bass with tomato "fondue," good tomatoes cooked slowly in butter and white wine. Both of the dishes impressed Bernal.

But it was the sandwich that put him over the top. According to Bernal, Tallent made a "really delicious and juicy burger" served on toasted focaccia with the surprise addition of herb anchovy butter.

"His food was really good and it was our style," Bernal says. "Not over the top, just simple, fresh food." Tallent got the job.

For Tallent, moving to Texas was a return to his roots. Growing up in Dallas, Tallent learned cooking basics from his mother, a great cook who won the title of Miss Betty Crocker in 1968. She kept a garden in the backyard, and Tallent loved to watch the vegetables grow. He remembers pulling corn, carrots, and zucchini he says were as big as his arms out of the ground.

Though he worked in a restaurant kitchen as a teenager, Tallent pursued photography in college at East Texas State University. He quickly discovered that long, solitary hours in the darkroom didn't quite suit his personality.

"In photography you're taking from a moment rather than giving to a moment," he explains. "I like giving rather than taking." He wanted to get back to cooking, so Tallent enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

After graduating in 1994, Tallent worked at several top San Francisco restaurants, including Rose Pistola and Jardiniere, the Cal-French spot run by renowned chef Traci Des Jardins. Tallent cites Des Jardins as a major influence and credits her for creating a structured, organized environment where people took pride in their work.

In 1999, he scored a job at late-night dining spot Globe and was eventually promoted to executive chef.

At Globe, where Tallent worked for 11 years, he regularly sourced ingredients from local farmers because one of the city's best farmers markets (at the Ferry Building) was only blocks away. Tallent would scout out the freshest produce to feature at Globe's Sunday Farmer's Suppers. Eventually, Tallent says, he became interested in scaling down the complexity of his food and letting the ingredients shine.

With young twins approaching school age, Tallent and his wife, Susie Modiano (also a chef), decided to move somewhere more affordable. In February 2011, the couple moved to Austin, both with jobs lined up at Hotel Saint Cecilia. Eventually, Tallent landed the executive chef position at 34th Street Café, where he has been updating and tinkering with the menu since late June.

Certain longtime customer favorites — Caesar salad, chicken picatta — will remain menu staples. But Tallent created a whole new snacks section with small bites such as Shiner Bock battered okra and zucchini cakes with dill and feta. He makes all the elements of the charcuterie plate from scratch, including duck pate, rabbit rillette, and homemade fig mostarda.

The new menu features familiar dishes (pork chops, salmon) enhanced with small touches from around the globe. Tallent, who describes his overall style as "sophisticated comfort food," has a particular fondness for Mediterranean ingredients, things such as olive oil, lemons, garlic and oregano. A classic ribeye steak gets a flavor boost from the Moroccan fresh herb and spice mixture charmula, while the North African pepper paste harissa spices up a potato gnocchi dish.

Tallent still loves shopping at the farmers market . "It's inspirational for me to see ingredients right there and decide what I want to make," he says. "It's an organic way of cooking". He created one of 34th Street Cafe's newest entrees — braised lamb shank with black-eyed peas and grilled okra — after a visit to the market.

The kitchen at 34th Street Cafe had a few things Tallent hadn't worked with in a long time, including a deep fryer and a griddle, but he says he is "jazzed" to see what kinds of dishes he can create with the equipment.

In a food world where bacon is at the top of the trend list, Tallent's food skews a bit toward the lighter side. His favorite ingredient is the under-appreciated vegetable fennel. Tallent says he loves "fennel seeds, fennel pollen, fennel tops." He also likes its versatility. "You can braise it, sear it, fry it," he says.

"It's one of those ingredients people are going to have to realize I'm going to always have around."

34th Street Cafe

1005 W. 34th St. 371.3400, www.34thstreetcafe.com

Mondays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch; Mondays through Thursdays 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner.