David Bull at the Driskill Hotel, and he's since moved on to man his own kitchen as executive chef at the Carillon, one of the city's more underrated fine-dining establishments. Watkins himself, though, has received plenty of attention for his clear talent and ease in the culinary world, winning competitions like last year's Live Fire event. We sat down with him to talk about cooking as a sport, why so many chefs get pork belly wrong and why you should never, ever ask a chef what his signature dishes are.When opinionated chef Josh Watkins reached the ripe old age of 23, he had already appeared on Iron Chef America. At that point the young chef worked with heavy-hitter
Have you always been interested in food and cooking?
When I first started line cooking, it was pretty sports driven, like, “How much can I take, coach? Put me in the game!” After I graduated from Westlake, I worked in the industry in Austin for about two years and then ran back to California as quickly as I could. I attended the California Culinary Academy, and that’s where I fell in love with food.
Speaking of Northern California, how do you think the Austin dining scene is unique compared with somewhere like San Francisco?
In my mind the two big culinary destinations are New York and San Francisco. So when I came back to Austin, I really wanted to bring a lot of that with me. Honestly, during the first couple years, there was no competition with regard to me and David Bull at the Driskill Hotel. We were consistently getting number one by the Austin American-Statesman.
And as honored and humbled as that made me, I don’t want that. I want what we have now, which is being pushed by 20 to 30 other great chefs and entrepreneurs. That culmination of culinarians is really what’s making Austin special. Because it’s boring if you’re not pushed.
You mentioned chef David Bull. What did you learn from him?
I learned organization. David Bull runs his kitchens much like he runs his family with five kids. The kitchen is controlled chaos at the end of the day. It’s delegation, it’s concise organization.
Talking about The Carillon - sometimes it's a bit under the radar, because of the location and the fact that it’s part of the hotel. How do you get around that?
You hit the nail on the head. We’re absolutely under the radar for those reasons. We’ve tried to market it as its own entity. It’s the off-property events, it’s all the charity things we do. At the end of the day I’m humbled and honored to be a part of the Austin culinary culture. I never imagined it would come as far as it has.
What ingredients and flavors are you interested in using?
The whole phenomenon with Brussels sprouts has happened, right? We’re taking that same train of thought and applying it to broccoli. We’re frying broccoli, we’re grilling broccoli. It’s produce first, which comes from my Northern California upbringing. We're saying, "Hey, how many ways can we tweak this vegetable? How many ways can we present it? How unique can we make it?"
Are there other food trends that are over? What are we going to see coming up?
Pork has been done and done and done, but the reality is that it’s delicious. I don’t think it’s a smart idea to base any business concepts on it right now, but at the same time you have to embrace the fact that pork itself is just delicious. So keep using it, keep eating it.
Even pork belly?
Even pork belly. It’s played out, and I totally get it. But if right now you can name five restaurants that serve pork belly in Austin and you go to every one and it’s perfect, then I will say stop serving pork belly. But I don’t think that’s the case. Because I don’t think everyone treats pork belly with the respect and the time that it needs.
We still serve pork belly. Even if an ingredient is played out, if you’ve perfected it for your customers, then why stop serving it? They keep coming back for that one thing.
As far as new things, we’ve been playing around with a lot of fermentation. Kimchee is an obvious one, but we’ve been fermenting basically everything you can think of. So we’ve got a bunch of pots in the kitchen (don’t tell the health department).
The fermentation of anything generates deliciousness. Umami, right? And if you can harness umami, then you’ve basically won as a chef.
What unusual things are you fermenting right now?
I can’t tell you yet, because they’re not on the menu.
You mentioned people coming back over and over for a particular dish. What is The Carillon known for?
So to me, asking a chef what his signature dishes are is as cliché as asking him what are your specialties. I always fall back on this statement that’s a clichéd statement itself, but it does explain a couple things. Would you ever ask a painter his favorite color to paint with, and if he could only paint with one color for the rest of his life, what would that be?
As a chef you get pigeonholed. There are three dishes on our menu that have been there for three years. Everything else is new. But those three dishes have never been removed because people just demand them. And honestly, I’m so over them. But the reality is, we run a business, and I want people to come back to the restaurant and have a good time.
So what are our signature dishes? Whatever the guest likes. I just despise complacency. It’s a disease. I don’t ever want to get stuck doing the same thing over and over and over again, just because it works and the guest likes it.
I’ve been fortunate thus far in this business to always have a position where I had complete control and creativity. And that’s exactly why I chose it as a career.
What’s next on your plate?
For The Carillon, we’re going to continue to grow the current concept we have here. We actually have a 50% overhaul in concept coming out by fall. We’re going to be adding a lot of things that aren’t currently in the space with regard to menu and decor.
For me, the future will tell. I’m completely happy in my current position, but at the same time I’m always looking for what’s next. Again, you can’t be close-minded.
Need to get in touch with the Zagat blog in Austin? E-mail Megan Giller at megzagATX at gmail dot com.