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Trio's transplanted chef de cuisine finds fresh goods in Austin

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
Grant Macdonald is the new Chef de Cuisine at Trio at the Four Seasons. One his new menu is tempura redfish and a number of other new dishes. Photos by Lara Kastner.

Like many of us, Grant Macdonald's favorite Austin moment happened because he was at the right place at the right time.

The new chef de cuisine at Trio at the Four Seasons, who moved his family from Vancouver to Austin in December and whose new menu debuted just weeks before the South by Southwest March madness, was holed up inside the restaurant kitchen leading up to and during most of the 10-day festivities, but he walks about two miles through downtown to and from work every day.

"Walking to work every day, I really saw what was happening," he says. The Tuesday before SXSW officially started, he was walking home and took a jaunt by ACL Live on Second Street. "I heard a Radiohead song and thought, ‘That's funny background music for a restaurant'," he says. Upon close listening, he realized that it wasn't a radio cut. He was actually listening to a Radiohead concert from outside the venue (the group was there to tape an episode of "Austin City Limits"). He listened for a few songs, soaked in the moment and continued his journey home.

Austin is full of surprises like this, Macdonald says. "It's always a challenge when you arrive to a brand new town," he says, especially when you have two young children — daughter Alina, 5, son Finnlagh, 3 — and a wife, Ariana, who is pregnant with their third child, but they've always been a family on the move.

In the past five years, Macdonald has lived and cooked at some of the best restaurants in Montreal, New York City and, most recently, Vancouver, where he was chef de cuisine at Yew, the restaurant inside the Four Seasons.

Macdonald was at Yew during the Winter Olympics two years ago, and he says SXSW was busier because of the round-the-clock orders. "Three to 4:30 a.m. was a really busy hour (for room service)," Macdonald says, because all the other places to eat downtown were closed. At 5 a.m., the staff had to start making breakfast tacos for the KUT broadcast concerts that started at 6 a.m.

"It never stopped," he says.

He took a few days off to recoup, but he's back making tweaks to the new menu, which features dishes such as seared scallops and pork belly with black garlic and sauerkraut, pork chops with grape chutney and roasted carrots with freshly-made queso blanco.

Macdonald says he's still getting used to just how ripe produce is here in Texas. In Canada, the growing seasons are so short that, this time of year, chefs are still relying on root vegetables and other produce that can last through the winter.

Produce is much riper when it arrives in the kitchen, Macdonald says. "The distance to market is shorter, so food ripens more before it's shipped. When you get produce in Vancouver, things are ripening on their way to market. An avocado here is not the same as an avocado there."

When he first moved to Austin, he found himself in front of displays of bright, fragrant oranges, grapefruits and lemons at Whole Foods Market. "I was picking up citrus I didn't even know existed," he says, with a hint of giddiness still in his voice. Talk of pecans, olive oil and Gulf shrimp elicits the same excitement. "The food is so dramatically different than what I've been cooking my whole career."

Austin doesn't have the sheer bounty of seafood in British Columbia or the Asian influence on the cuisine, but longtime executive chef Elmar Prambs is helping show Macdonald the foodways that make Central Texas food unique. Prambs still won't show him how to make his signature sauerkraut, but Macdonald says Prambs' passion is inspiring.

"I feel like he's an Austin institution," Macdonald says. "He's the last of the old-school executive chefs. He has his hands in the kitchen all the time. He's our butcher. He cuts everything, including the steaks."

Austin might be farther from the coast than Vancouver, but using sustainable seafood and bycatch is still one of Macdonald's top priorities. "We've always been good at steak and wine," he says of the Four Season's main restaurant, Trio. "Seafood was the junior partner, and I want to make it an equal partner."

For instance, he's found a source for striped bass from an inland farm, which doesn't have the same negative impact on the fish or the environment as fish raised in pens in the ocean.

Macdonald says he hopes to get to travel around the state to visit some of the farms, orchards and docks where the ingredients he uses come from, but at the top of his list is — what else — a tour of Central Texas' iconic barbecue joints, which you definitely can't find in Vancouver.

Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504. Twitter: @broylesa

A360BLAST: OPENINGS, CLOSINGS & COMING SOON

¦ Open: Progress Coffee has opened an outlet in TreeHouse, a home improvement store at 4477 S. Lamar Blvd. progresscoffee.com

¦ Open: 400 Rabbits, a restaurant and tequila bar inside the Alamo Slaughter Lane, 5701 W. Slaughter Lane. 861-7069, 400rabbitsbar.com.

¦ Open: Ana Janelle's Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant at 1202 FM 685 in Pflugerville. 251-1669, anajanellessmokehouse.com.

¦ Closed: East Side Drive In Food Trailer Park, the lot at 1001 E. Sixth St, that was home to a number of trailers, including The Vegan Yacht, Firefly Pies, Pig Vicious, Love Balls Bus and Bits And Druthers, that are now in the process of relocating.

¦ Closed: Kick Butt Coffee at the Triangle. The original Kick Butt Coffee, 5775 Airport Blvd., remains open.

¦ Closed: Texenza Coffee, at 3110 Windsor Lane, has closed. The other locations are still open.

UPCOMING FOOD AND WINE EVENTS

¦ Jean's Kitchen at Travaasa Austin, 13500 FM 2769, is hosting a five-course wine dinner at 7 tonight with the winemakers behind Domaine Serene, an organic winery in Oregon. For menu details and tickets ($90), call 855-868-7282 or email austin@travaasa.com.

¦ Thirsty Planet and Hops & Grain have teamed to create an intriguing new Austin brew — an Imperial Belgian Brown Ale named Common Denominator. Drink.well American Pub, 207 E. 53rd St., will host the first tapping with the brewers at 6 p.m. Friday. After that, the beer will be available to taste at both the Thirsty Planet and Hops & Grain tasting rooms on Saturday.

¦ Johnson's Backyard Garden is hosting an open house and potluck from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the farm, 9515 Hergotz Lane. The event is free, but bring your own blanket, beverage and something to contribute to the potluck. jbgorganic.com.

¦ 24 Diner is hosting a beer dinner at 7 p.m. Monday with Tom Allen, co-founder of North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg, Calif. Each of the five courses will be paired with a North Coast beer. Tickets ($65) are available by calling 472-5400.

¦ At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jack and Bryce Gilmore will prepare a James Beard preview dinner of what they will be serving later in April at the famed house in New York City for a special dinner at Jack Allen's Kitchen, 7720 Texas 71 West. The father-son duo Gilmores have paired Texas wines, beer or spirits with each of the five courses, including the hors d'oeuvres. Menu and tickets ($125) at jackallenskitchen.com.

¦ Chefs Emmett Fox, Lou Lambert and Larry McGuire have put their heads together for an intriguing event from 1 to 6 p.m. April 22 at the Bridges Ranch outside Driftwood. Vaca Y Vino will feature a whole side of beef that has been basted in chimichurri, as well as a number of South American-inspired sides and dessert and live music from Brownout and Glover Tango. Tickets, which include bus transportation from downtown, cost $75 until Sunday, when they go up to $95. vaca.eventbrite.com.