Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore named James Beard Award finalist
Barley Swine chef-owner Bryce Gilmore has been named a finalist for best chef in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Gilmore was a finalist last year, as well.
Gilmore is joined by Houston chefs Justin Yu of Oxheart, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s. Austin chefs Tyson Cole (Uchi) and Paul Qui (Uchiko) won Best Chef – Southwest in 2011 and 2012. The James Beard Awards will be handed out the first weekend in May in New York City.
I named Barley Swine my best restaurant in Austin in 2013. Read my mini-profile and conversation with Gilmore below:
If you were trite enough to ask talented Barley Swine chef-owner Bryce Gilmore what kind of food he makes, he’d likely answer, “Texas Cuisine.”
What’s Texas Cuisine, you wonder? Like chili? Not exactly, but in at least one case you’re not far off. Try a complex and hearty dish of smoked lamb loin with pinto beans, pickled mustard seeds and wilted turnip greens. It tastes like haute cowboy campfire food served in beautiful earthenware instead of a jangly tin pot.
Or there’s a pancake made of mesquite-smoked flour that wraps its gentle embrace around apples, bacon, candied hazelnuts and acorn squash.
But Texas Cuisine can also mean more exotic flavors like grilled goat heart with curried eggplant, sweet figs and crunchy homemade falafel.
The common element among all of these dishes is the utilization of fresh, local ingredients. When Gilmore talks about Texas Cuisine, he isn’t limiting himself to particular flavor profiles or techniques.
“We’re one of the purest forms of Texas Cuisine because we use regional ingredients,” Gilmore said.
The sourcing of those local ingredients and abiding by the unique growing seasons of Central Texas dictate what comes out of the galley-sized kitchen at Gilmore’s South Lamar Boulevard restaurant that seats about 36 people. (It used to seat about six more, but more on that in a bit.)
A couple of years ago the Growers Alliance of Central Texas named Gilmore’s original Odd Duck Farm to Trailer as one of the most regular purchasers of protein and produce from local farmers and farmers markets. Odd Duck closed in 2011, but Gilmore uses the same approach at Barley Swine (which opened in 2010) as he did with the trailer that originally brought him critical and popular acclaim.
But Gilmore didn’t always have that sourcing ethos as his motivation. First he had to learn how to cook. Had to learn the basics of tasting and technique.
Growing up in Austin, Gilmore started working in restaurants at the age of 14, busing tables at Z’ Tejas where his father, chef Jack Gilmore, worked. By his senior year of high school, Gilmore knew he wanted to cook for a living. He attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, then returned to his hometown of Austin, where he worked at Wink. It was there the soft-spoken chef got his first taste of the culinary standards that would guide his young career, one that includes a James Beard Award nomination.
“Seeing those guys go to the market every day and create a menu based on what we have, I thought it was a cool idea,” Gilmore said. “Once you kind of get to a point where you’re confident in your cooking ability, I started to think more about the whole other side of this that is neglected.”
What that means for diners at Barley Swine is a bountiful, imaginative and rotating menu. One month you might find a plate of earthy roasted beets with thinly sliced smoked trout, served with a scoop of honey-mustard ice cream topped with smoked roe. Another visit may introduce you to Barley Swine’s decadent take on “nachos” — delicate pieces of corn tuile with foie gras and cheese custard; or a scrambled egg nesting a sublime shiitake mushroom dumpling.
And the desserts are just as compelling as the savory dishes — Earl Grey tea-flavored pressed melon served with pear sorbet, funky Hopelessly Bleu cheese and crunchy pine nuts; or the fall flavors of apple sorbet with rich peanut butter mousse and a shaving of brioche that has as much flavor as an entire loaf of bread.
Barley Swine’s menu has always featured about a dozen items, with some daily chalkboard specials, but just this week Gilmore decided to move to a tasting menu. When you enter Barley Swine now, you won’t find a menu. Your server simply says, “We want to feed you.” What that means is 10 courses for $60, with most items shared between two people. On a recent visit, general manager Billy Timms paired those 10 dishes with five varied wines that perfectly suited the meal for $40. The tasting menu delivered a broad array of flavors and a satisfying amount of food during a two-hour dinner. (I imagine the restaurant will take a few weeks working out the kinks and nuances of its new system.)
Barley Swine also has made a move away from its communal seating, which had been a hit with some and a nit to pick for others. There remains one communal table at the front of the restaurant, but most of the seats are now available for online reservation at OpenTable.com (strongly recommended), and the tables that once squeezed six now seat four, making for a more intimate dining experience.
There have been minor (and welcomed) changes made as Gilmore and crew eye the late November opening of Odd Duck as a brick-and-mortar at 1219 S. Lamar Blvd., but Barley Swine remains committed to bold flavors, exceptional service and imagination in the collaborative kitchen.
“But the main thing is: Where is our food coming from and what do we have available to work with? And then create stuff based off that,” Gilmore said.
That approach, paired with creativity and technique, have made Barley Swine the most exciting restaurant in the city and brought Gilmore national media attention and the tag of “celebrity chef,” one the humble and quiet chef dismisses with a slight laugh.
“We are just cooking food; we aren’t saving lives,” Gilmore said. “At the end of the day what’s fulfilling is the people who actually come in here and eat and go out of their way to say how much they enjoy something. That’s why we do what we do.”