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Well-traveled Contigo chef creates family style dinner for Valentine's Day

Claire Canavan

On Valentine's Day, couples will flock to many of Austin's restaurants to gaze lovingly into each other's eyes while exchanging bites of chocolate souffle.

But at Contigo, the East Austin restaurant with the expansive outdoor patio and frequently humming vibe, everyone will be welcomed to a communal, family-style dinner.

Singles, couples, or larger groups can socialize with their friends or meet new people while passing plates of roasted chicken with turnips and greens, preserved lemon ricotta gnocchi, or crème puffs with lavender honey ice cream.

It's an event that makes perfect sense for Contigo. The name ("with you" in Spanish) reflects the restaurant's constant focus on community and hospitality.

The man behind Contigo's creative small plates menu is San Angelo native Andrew Wiseheart, the restaurant's executive chef and a co-owner, along with Ben Edgerton.

Growing up, Wiseheart was encouraged by his father to try unusual ingredients. His father would spice up his cooking with things such as pickled herring, sardines and anchovies, and although his two sisters turned up their noses at these foods, Wiseheart was game for anything. His curiosity and openness to new things would in some ways become the driving forces behind his culinary career.

After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu's Austin campus in 2004, Wiseheart got an externship at Brix, a restaurant in Napa Valley. Working at the sauté station at Brix was completely different than anything he'd done before. "The food there was very delicate and thought through," he said.

In need of a break after a year and a half of the all-consuming restaurant lifestyle, Wiseheart went through a couple of odd jobs, including cooking at an outdoor education center in upstate New York and catering for a television production company that produced the show "Pairings With Andrea."

Eventually he returned to Napa and got a job at La Toque, an intimate restaurant that had just earned one Michelin star. After working the vegetable and foie gras stations, Wiseheart was promoted to sous chef. At La Toque he developed an interest in charcuterie, the art of curing meats, which led him to pack his bags for Italy in the hopes of getting a job with a butcher.

Wiseheart took a three-week language course in Italy but never did find that job with a butcher. Instead, he worked at a restaurant in Modena, cooking pasta and fish, until a friend in Croatia invited him to the island of Hvar for good rock climbing and fishing.

After taking a ferry across the Adriatic Sea and hitchhiking across the island, Wiseheart and his friend settled at Cliffbase, a climbing camp right on the ocean run by a Slovak man named Miroslav Stec. Wiseheart started working for Stec — doing masonry work, picking olives — in exchange for rent and ended up staying for four months.

Wiseheart described Croatia as "the most self-sustainable place I have ever been." He was particularly struck by the simplicity and freshness of the food. The Croatian families he worked for would invite him in for lunches that consisted of big bowls of broth and plates of whole grilled fish.

He remembers a salad called "fruit of the island" that Stec would make by combining fresh fish bought that morning from local kids, capers that a neighbor had brined, arugula, and homemade vinegar. "The salad was amazing," Wiseheart said. "It was about as Old World as I could imagine anything being."

Wiseheart came back to the U.S. determined to settle in Austin. But after being back in town for only a few weeks, he was lured back to Napa by a sous chef position at a French restaurant, Angèle. After working at Angèle for a year and a half, Wiseheart was once again drawn to Europe, this time determined to walk across the entire country of Slovenia.

In Slovenia, he and a traveling companion cooked on an outdoor stove and camped out in the woods as they made their way across the country. Wiseheart recalled being struck by the markets in the small villages they walked through, particularly by the charcuterie.

"Charcuterie started as a way to preserve meats," Wiseheart said. "It's very much an art, and every country and culture in the world seems to have some form of it." In Slovenia, Wiseheart noticed dried racks of ribs hanging in shop windows, which he said tasted amazing. "The craft of it, the artisanal aspect was very inspiring," he said.

After the Slovenia trip, Wiseheart was finally ready to put down roots. Back in Austin he got a job as a line cook at Olivia, working with chef James Holmes. After several months, Wiseheart got connected with Ben Edgerton through a mutual friend.

Though the two vaguely knew each other from attending summer camp years ago at Laity Lodge Youth Camp, they found that now their business interests intersected.

Edgerton wanted to open a bar that served beer-friendly food while Wiseheart, inspired by his European travels, wanted to open a butcher shop and Old World style deli. Eventually, the two figured out a way to partner together and combine their ideas.

Their restaurant, Contigo, would be a largely outdoor space modeled and named after Edgerton's parents' hunting ranch in Jim Wells County. Wiseheart would develop a seasonal bar food menu using fresh, quality ingredients.

"Snacks, beer food, charcuterie, artisanal, those were all guiding words for me," Wiseheart said. He drew heavily on his passion for charcuterie when developing Contigo's menu. Though the menu changes frequently, recent charcuterie offerings included chicken terrine with mushrooms and pickled mustard seeds and pork liver pâté with eggplant fritters.

Since the restaurant's opening in May 2011, certain dishes have become fixtures. Don't expect the ox tongue sliders or the housemade "pigs in a blanket" to disappear anytime soon.

Drawing on his experiences in Europe, Wiseheart values simple, fresh ingredients, and when possible, sources from local producers, including Richardson Farms and Dewberry Hills Farms.

Wiseheart refuses to label himself as any particular kind of chef, however. He said simply, "I like to cook food that people like to eat."

Reservations are now being accepted for Contigo's $35 per person "Non-Valentine's Day Valentine's Dinner" with seatings from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. All tables will be set for large parties, and groups will be sat together in the same fashion as a supper club. Call 512-614-2260 or email contigoaustin@gmail.com.