Bryce Gilmore was born in Austin and now, at the age of thirty, cooks there and has no plans to leave. He first made a name for himself with Odd Duck, a trailer serving inexpensive food many would argue was worthy of a restaurant (closed since December). Now he has that brick and mortar location, Barley Swine, which in two years has been named one of the best new restaurants in the country and earned Gilmore a Food & Wine Best New Chef award. In the following interview, Gilmore talks about how Barley Swine came about, what it means to craft a restaurant that represents its chef, and future plans for the now defunct Odd Duck.
Your father, Jack Gilmore, is a respected chef. What was it like growing up with him?
My father's been a chef ever since I was born, but I wasn't too much into cooking until high school. I started working as a busboy when I was fourteen and gradually worked my way into the kitchen. I enjoyed the pace, working with my hands, and all that stuff. Dad was always traveling for restaurants, so I didn't get to work with him until the year after high school, when I actually helped him open some places. We worked side-by-side and I got to see every aspect of opening a restaurant.
He does southwestern cuisine. Lots of Mexican influences and southern elements, with chills and things like that. I learned the basics of cooking and what it means to be a chef from him, and then I decided I was going to go to culinary school in San Francisco. That's where I was exposed to more ideas and restaurants and ways of cooking.
What had the most impact in San Francisco?
I learned about different cuisines — Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, and French. I fell in love with the Mediterranean elements, which is probably what you see the most of in my food these days.
At the same time, being in San Francisco taught me about local farmers and sourcing your ingredients well. I wanted to take that philosophy with me to Austin, and now it's great to see that there's such a demand for local farmers and that sort of culture. Right now, that's what inspires us the most. It's fun to see what they have every season.
Were there any chefs or restaurants in particular that were important?
I spent a year at Boulevard, which was a huge deal because they followed all the ideas I just described. It was a high volume fine dining place, which was something I hadn't experienced or worked in before. I also worked for a chef named Quinn Hatfield, who did a lot of small plates, which is basically what I do now at Barley Swine.
How have you seen Austin's food scene change? You've been there from the beginning of this wave.
I think more people are demanding good quality food. Before, I think there was only a handful of fine dining or special occasion restaurants. And back then, those were basically all French. Everything else was Mexican or Tex Mex or southwestern. Now, more and more people from big cities are moving to Austin and expecting exciting, cosmopolitan food. They know what good food is. I think we've still got a long ways to go, but we're way better than we were five years ago.
What do you mean by "we've still got a long way to go"?
Maybe that was the wrong way to put it, but I'd like to see Austin continue to get better. But sometimes I think that what we consider to be a really good restaurant here is just an okay or mediocre restaurant in New York or San Francisco. I see more and more restaurants open up every month, and the demand grow, so it's looking good. And I want to be a part of that.
And what do you find compelling about the farming and products?
First off, it's cool to see a young generation of farmers emerging. We go to the markets every week, and a lot of the guys we see are in their twenties. The future of farming seems promising, based on that.
As far as product goes, we don't have anything particularly unique. We get a lot of things that everyone else gets, but we try to stick to the seasonal limitations. Our seasons are pretty different from the rest of the country. So, if apples are in season in New York, they aren't here, and we won't order those. Central Texas cuisine should reflect that.
You know, you can't really beat San Francisco, but the point is working with what we have, which is good and getting better. It's fun to have what we do have, which is a lot. But I will say that the sweet onions are pretty insane. I could use the San Francisco ingredients, but I don't want to.
Why stay in Austin when you probably could be cooking in San Francisco?
This is home, plain and simple, and I love it. Moreover, I want to be a part of this food scene. People are extremely supportive of what we are doing. There's something cool about supporting the local economy and being part of a scene that is growing and getting more and more attention.
I think our restaurant represents Austin very well. The environment of our dining room is very casual and fits well. We offer fine dining food in a bar, basically.
What do you think about the casual dining trend or whatever you want to call it?
Everything serves its purpose. This week we went to Eleven Madison Park in New York and had a mind-blowing experience. You're paying for an experience where every little detail is accounted for. And then I went to the Spotted Pig, which is basically a gastropub with excellent food. You don't go to Eleven Madison Park every night of the week. I want a place where people can get foie gras and a beer and not end up paying a ton. The service can still be knowledgeable and attentive. I don't need to spend tons of money on my plate ware or have ironed white tablecloths, but I will put a ton of effort into making this a great experience. I want people to be relaxed. Stuffy is not me.
Flavor is the most important thing, because that's what you remember.
The trailer was a one-man show, and now you're in a pretty small restaurant. Is the intimacy by design?
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted a place where I could do what I wanted and have control. It had to represent who I am. I like the way it's set up. We're able to see all of the food that goes out and is intimate. I don't know if I could ever have a restaurant that's more than 150 seats. It's more than I could handle, honestly.
Are you planning on opening anything else?
We added eight seats to Barley Swine, and now we're at 42. That's about the max. We are looking to turn the [Odd Duck] trailer concept into a 100-seat restaurant.
What kind of food would you serve?
Similar to the trailer, it would be more rustic than Barley Swine, with lots of grilling and wood. It would again be casual, but maybe not that much of a focus on plating and making it look nice. Nothing is set yet, but we're exploring all of our options.
Finally, you say the restaurant had to represent you. Can you try to describe what that means in regards to the food?
Trying to do bold flavors. I like acidity, I like spice. It's really important for me to have fun, and I think you see that during the experience at Barley Swine. We realize that we're cooking food and not at a hospital, curing cancer. We try not to do anything too classic. We like to take things and twist them around. You know, we do a dish that is supposed to represent Texas and barbecue, but it's not just a plate of barbecue. And, of course, it all starts with the guys on the farm.