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Peche's Jason Dodge draws on eclectic culinary influences

Claire Canavan

Customers usually wander into the Warehouse District bar Peché to throw back pre-Prohibition era cocktails with romantic names and sample the bar's selection of absinthe, the bright green and once-banned liquor.

They might be surprised to find out that behind the scenes, executive chef Jason Dodge is cooking up some serious locavore food, informed by a cooking style that is part French (from his days in culinary school), part Italian (from working at Enoteca Vespaio) and part down-home Mississippi.

Born into in a military family, Dodge primarily grew up in Meridian, Miss. He was raised on standard Southern foods — fried catfish, fried chicken, collard greens, hush puppies — which he remembers enjoying after church during Sunday dinner.

But because there was a small Filipino population in Meridian, Dodge also has memories of eating more exotic foods as well. He sampled pancit (a type of Filipino noodle dish), lumpia (similar to an egg roll), and went to his first whole hog roast when he was 7. He recalls thinking at the time, "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen."

An avid skateboarder, Dodge moved to Knoxville, Tenn., after high school and got his first kitchen job at Stefano's, a Chicago-style pizza place. He bounced around for a while after that, traveling the West Coast, working at an Italian restaurant, then taking a job at a country club back in Mississippi.

In the kitchen at the Northwood Country Club, which was primarily staffed by African-American women, Dodge really learned how to cook Southern food, prepping dishes such as gumbo, crawfish, cornbread and Jell-O salad. In this job, he said, "I learned the importance of bacon."

After a good friend died in a car accident, Dodge realized he wanted to start taking his life a little more seriously. He enrolled in culinary school at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu) where he got a solid foundation in classic French technique. After graduating in 2003, Dodge moved to Austin.

He worked briefly at the Four Seasons before taking a job at Vespaio, primarily making pizzas. He also worked the garden there and watched the food change with the seasons. After transferring over to Enoteca to become sous chef, Dodge learned about the logistics of running a kitchen, including things like scheduling and hiring.

When an executive chef position opened at Peché in 2009, owner Rob Pate said he was looking for someone who "was willing to take ownership" of the kitchen, and Dodge was ready for that challenge.

As Dodge first stepped into his new kitchen at Peché (exactly three years ago as of June 15), he realized what a huge job it would be. He would have to update the kitchen with new equipment and rethink the menu.

Peché's old menu was heavy on standard bar food such as sliders and Monte Cristo sandwiches. "Nobody was coming in for the food," Dodge said.

When Dodge and Pate sat down to rethink the menu, they had to decide whether the food should be more geared toward a bar or a restaurant and ended up meeting in the middle.

Dodge knew he wanted to do things in house at Peché, everything from mixing his own ketchup to butchering animals and making fresh sausage. He developed a set bar menu offering a braised pork belly sandwich, Nicoise salad and classic steak frites, among others.

He also introduced a rotating daily menu that would allow him to be creative and reflect the seasons by sourcing food from local farmers and suppliers he had met at Vespaio. Dodge regularly orders produce from Springdale Farms, chicken and lamb from Smith and Smith Farms, and pork from Richardson Farms.

Dodge considers what he has on hand on a daily basis to make a list of meats, fish, vegetables and starches, then decides what goes with what.

Drawing on his background in Italian restaurants, Dodge frequently experiments with different types of seasonal risottos. Inspired by the classic BLT sandwich, Dodge created an avocado and bacon risotto with arugula, tomato and fried soft shell crab.

He also puts sweetbreads on the menu when possible, recently working them into a dish with roasted lamb, saffron gnocchi and brown butter. Dodge's Mississippi roots are evident in such straightforward dishes as Lone Star-battered Texas redfish.

Peché's vast array of spirits can be a boon in the kitchen, too. Dodge braises greens with any of the different types of vermouth or makes steak sauce with any spirit that suits the dish. Because the bar stocks a variety of liquors, Dodge said, "There's really no limit to what can be done."

Last month, Dodge took an 18-day trip to Italy, his first ever. He planned to go on wine tours, sample the regional dishes and stage at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Il Falconiere in Arezzo.

The trip will also be a chance to develop ideas for a new Italian-inspired restaurant he plans to open later this summer with Pate in a space near 16th and Lavaca. Though the concept is still in development, there will be a wood-burning oven for pizza.

Dodge said to expect "a smaller joint where the focus is on good, simple, clean food, with everything made in house." The food is likely to involve the three ingredients Dodge said he can't live without: salt, fresh thyme and lemon juice.

He will probably continue to source locally at his new venture, as he believes that the local foods movement in Austin is "really accessible."

"If there's anything you're looking for," he said, "you can probably find it."

Peché