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Nature surrounds, heals and inspires chef Lawrence Kocurek at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa

Claire Canavan
Lawrence Kocurek uses his charcuterie skills for dishes such as this appetizer, a fois gras torchon served with lemon curd, pickled grapes and toasted brioche.

To get to Stories, the fine dining restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, first you travel east of Austin on Texas 71.

Turning off the highway, you meet a winding road that seems to turn endlessly through corridors of trees before it opens up onto the sprawling grounds of the resort.

Lawrence Kocurek, the executive chef at Stories, arrived in the position by way of his own twisting path, drawn to the job in part because of the restaurant’s secluded setting.

Kocurek made his name in Austin as the owner of Kocurek Family Charcuterie, a business he opened in 2009 with his wife, Lee Ann. The duo’s artisanal cured meats — sausages, pâtés, rillettes — caught the attention of local foodies as well as national magazines such as Bon Appetit.

So it came as a huge surprise to the food community when, at the end of 2011, the Kocureks announced that they were shuttering their charcuterie business.

“We were successful, but our profit margin kept getting smaller so it was hard for us to stay in business,” Kocurek said.

As the business expanded, rising expenses began to outpace income. Using natural meats from local farmers meant better quality but lower profits. Paying rental fees for the stall at the farmers market, buying licenses from the city, and spending money to commute to a farmers market in San Antonio added up.

The Kocureks eventually wanted to get certified by the USDA, which would have meant a new level of licensing and health department regulations.

Still, for a while they kept growing. As they prepared to build a new kitchen, the couple was set to take on investors and jump to the next level.

But after thinking about all the challenges that come with rapid expansion, the Kocureks reconsidered and decided to close the business.

“It was very sad and very hard,” Kocurek said. “And it still is.”

On the day he closed the charcuterie business, he went home and shaved off his signature handlebar mustache. “It was a way to close that chapter,” he said.

Needing a fresh start, Kocurek and his wife transitioned back into restaurant jobs, with Lee Ann, a sommelier, taking a job at Perla’s, and Kocurek nabbing the top spot at Stories.

He interviewed with Suttichai Sripolpa, the resort’s executive chef, who said of the job search, “Our goal was to find someone who really understood the Austin food market and clientele.”

At Stories, Kocurek draws on his background in classical French technique gained from his years at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He also incorporates Asian influences he picked up during the years he spent cooking at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine in downtown Austin.

Because of the resort’s woodsy setting, Kocurek created a meat-centric menu with plenty of wild game. Classic American comfort foods are elevated by modern twists and fine dining touches.

The New York strip steak, which is dry-aged in house, gets a lift from homemade steak sauce, Yukon gold potatoes and leek confit. On the seafood side, a saffron and shellfish risotto hits the table laden with lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, clams, crab and mussels.

Side dishes tend toward the seriously indulgent. Think mashed potatoes with goat cheese, truffle macaroni and cheese, and roasted garlic and sausage bread pudding.

Kocurek has relationships with local purveyors, sourcing wild boar and antelope from Broken Arrow Ranch and quail from Lockhart. He takes advantage of the resort’s herb gardens for things like rosemary and chive blossoms.

But Kocurek doesn’t completely embrace the hyper locality that is currently in vogue. Instead, he said he is driven to use ingredients that are seasonal but not necessarily always local.

For instance, foraged mushrooms from Oregon and Washington are currently peaking, so Kocurek mixes several types — hon shimejis, oysters, and chanterelles — into a fresh pasta dish tossed with herb butter. Later this fall he hopes to add Hen of the Woods mushrooms and porcinis from Colorado to the dish.

In a nod to his years at Roy’s, Kocurek whips up a dish using whatever Hawaiian fish is in season. Right now, it’s Uku (gray snapper) and it gets a Mediterranean twist with grilled artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives.

“As a chef, using ingredients at the times of year when they’re meant to be used is pretty important,” he said.

Fans of Kocurek Family Charcuterie will be happy to see how Kocurek’s charcuterie skills have been woven into some of the menu items at Stories. As an appetizer, he makes a fois gras torchon and serves it with lemon curd, pickled grapes and toasted brioche. Merquez sausage, which accompanies a seared lamb loin dish, is also housemade.

In some ways, cooking in a ranch-style setting seems like a perfect fit for Kocurek. The Austin native grew up visiting his Czech grandfather in Gonzales every summer, spending time playing in the river and catching fish. His grandfather taught him how to hunt, how to can jellies and jams, and how to clean catfish and squirrels.

Nowadays, being surrounded by nature influences the way Kocurek plates his dishes. In the seafood risotto, Kocurek decorates with the lobster antennae and caps off the dish with a saffron-infused foam to give the look and feel of the ocean.

“My plates here are a little more nature-driven, from the colors used to how the garnishes look,” he said.

From his second-story kitchen, Kocurek gets to look out the window and see endless trees. It’s a view he finds himself enjoying.

“It was a fresh wound closing the charcuterie business,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a relief to come out here and just focus on the food.”

Stories at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort is at 575 Hyatt Lost Pines Road outside Bastrop. More information at lostpines.hyatt.com.