3/27/2013 11:46:00 AM

A Chat With Parkside's Shawn Cirkiel

Energetic Shawn Cirkiel heads up staples of the Austin restaurant scene like Parkside, Backspace and Olive and June. After growing up in Austin and graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he went on what he calls the “cooks’ tour” - New York, San Francisco and Phoenix – before ending up back in Austin to run the kitchen at Uchi and then open his own award-winning restaurants. We caught up with Cirkiel to talk about his hippie upbringing, how he creates dishes and his mentorship of Paul Qui.

I’ve heard a lot about you growing up in your family’s restaurant. Was it an Italian restaurant? 

No, it was a vegetarian restaurant. My dad was from New York, from Parkside Projects, which is city housing, and that’s where the name of the restaurant comes from. My mom is from Austin. They were hippies and they met at a commune and had a vegetarian restaurant in New York. My mom is still a vegetarian to this day, and so that’s what I grew up in.

When they left and moved back to Austin, they still cooked. Our house has always been like a restaurant, from banquets to functions to brunches. Coming to our house, there was always a spread. Granted, it was all vegetarian. We had a farm and we milked our own cows, made our own butter, made our own cheese, had our own eggs. That’s the lifestyle I grew up in and knew.

So tell me about Parkside and the decision to be downtown on Sixth Street.

Everyone still thinks I’m nuts for going down there. But maybe it’s from growing up in New York and living in New Orleans and being in San Francisco and seeing old cities and buildings and feeling that energy. I think it’s the single-most urban restaurant in all of Austin. You feel like you’re a part of history when you’re eating there, and you feel like you’re a part of downtown, both good and bad. It’s not tablecloths and two-hour service. It’s loud and fun and good. It’s the energy that made Austin.

After we opened Parkside, the question was always, “What are you guys gonna do with the back space? What are you guys going to do with that space back there?” We wanted to eat Neopolitan pizza. So we brought in an oven and made a little tiny space out of the back space. We used all old reclaimed barn wood and we found a bunch of bricks from a 200-year-old church that matched the building. We didn’t paint, we just left everything what it was. It still has the old tin ceilings and it has its own warmth and feel. At the end of the day, all we really did was put in an oven.

Speaking of Italian food, how did the Sunday dinners at Olive and June come about? 

As a kid, we always ate together on Sundays. And as a chef, Sunday is family day. So we wanted to combine the two and cook how we like to eat. It’s not plated, it’s on platters and it’s an opportunity to share. It allows us to play with food from different farms and ranches, because the menu changes every week.

I spend almost every Sunday at the restaurant, because it’s the way I like to eat: a bottle of wine, and everything just shows up.

Do you end up repeating dishes? 

At Olive and June, Justin [Rupp, the executive chef] doesn’t like to repeat himself. He pulls out his hair, and we joke about it. We don’t necessarily repeat ourselves, but one dish leads into another. So one week we might take grilled acorn squash while it’s hot and dress it with capers, calabrese peppers, blood orange and extra-virgin olive oil as an antipasti, and then the next week we make it a blood orange salad with fried sage. Everything translates.

Then there are big changes. Like this week we did risotto instead of pasta for the course, so we joke that next week we’re going to make them do stuffed pasta because they had the week off.

I heard that your kids come eat at Parkside every week. What do they like to eat?

They eat at the restaurant almost every week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re five and nine now. Last night I cooked at home and made seared tilefish with a warm ragu of pomodoro sauce, chickpeas, broccoli and kale with garlic and rosemary. They ate all of that. They like the Backspace and pizza.

They have their moments. My son eats everything, so I always take him to everyone’s openings. When we were at the original Momofuku, the three of us shared two stools and sat at the counter. We have a picture of him with chopsticks looking down the line at the kitchen, chowing down.

I had this image in my head of your kids eating all the oysters at Parkside.

Umm, that’s a little advanced for them.

So you mentioned Uchi. I’ve heard that you and Paul Qui had a relationship and that at one point he called you a mentor. Are you guys still close?

Me and Philip [Speer] worked together many years ago and have a good relationship. Me and Tyson [Cole] have known each other for many years and are really good friends.

Essentially, they were in transition without a chef. They had spotted Paul and appreciated his talent, but they needed someone to come in who could help Paul run the kitchen. It sounds silly, but he’d never been in charge of people before. He had all this talent but no experience.

So Tyson and Philip called me. On the one hand I was the chef, but on the other I wasn’t. I was really just the consultant. My job was to help Paul transition into being a leader and learn how to organize food and kitchens, do ordering and all these odd things. I did that for a year, and it was awesome. He’s super talented and he’s a good friend. Tyson is great and so is Philip, and the way they think about food is really inspiring.

So what’s next for your group?

[Laughs.] If there was something in the works, I wouldn’t stay. How’s that for an answer?

Need to get in touch with the Zagat blog in Austin? Email Megan Giller at megzagATX at gmail dot com.


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