Mettle, the new East Side bistro from entrepreneur Bridget Dunlap that has been one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of the year. After interning at the French Laundry over 10 years ago and working in classic Austin restaurants like Vespaio and Olivia, Francisco is adding his flair for beautiful presentation and Asian-inspired flavors to the restaurant’s menu. Francisco is also a family man, with three young children at home. We sat down with him to talk Malaysian food, East Austin and the plethora of restaurants that he and Dunlap plan to open soon, namely an Italian restaurant on the East Side and a Thai trailer called Thaitanium.Andrew Francisco is the creative force behind
Zagat: So we heard you grew up in Malaysia.
Andrew Francisco: Originally I’m from Indiana, but we moved to Malaysia when I was 11 for my dad’s job, selling insurance. I stayed until I was 18.
Zagat: What were some of your favorite foods in Malaysia?
AF: Curry laksa, which we have on the menu at Mettle for our mussels. Grilled naan bread with it. All the Malaysian curries. Beef rendang is awesome. It’s like a sweet Malaysian beef curry. They have this street bread called roti canai, it’s made with eggs and it’s like a pancake. And that with fish curry is really amazing. Malaysia is cool because there’s Malay food and then there’s Indian food and Chinese food. It’s an extreme melting pot, so they all intermingle and create a lot of deliciousness.
Zagat: Skipping ahead in your career, what was it like to intern at the French Laundry?
AF: It was awesome. I still learn from it. Whether it’s a cooking skill or how to organize or an example of cleanliness. Thomas Keller was in the restaurant at 10 AM every day breaking down fish and fabricating foie gras and cooking. Grant [Achatz], who’s a very famous chef at Alinea, was the sous chef then, and he taught me how to shuck clams and pick frisee lettuce. I worked pastry with Sebastian [Rouxel] who now oversees all of it. I got in trouble a lot. I worked pastry for a month, and it was basically like, “Oh, Andrew’s making a mess.” I feel very fortunate that I got to do that. It’s molded my whole career.
Zagat: Tell us about the concept for Mettle. When people describe the restaurant, we hear the word “French” a lot, but looking at the menu, there are so many other influences.
AF: We’re not a French restaurant. We’re an East Austin bistro. It’s not really expensive. I want it to be accessible to everyone. I have French technique in my food, so I guess that’s where the French part comes from.
I wouldn’t say there’s a style except for - well the loose word would be, contemporary American. I have a chance to put my personality on the menu for one of the first times in my career, so it’s exciting.
Like the watermelon dish. Kaya is a Malaysian coconut spread, so it would be kind of like Nutella to Europeans. You usually spread it on toast. The dish has compressed watermelon with simple syrup, kaffir lime and beet juice. Then we square it off and we have scraps. So we make a granita out of that. And then some mint leaves and preserved lemon foam. It’s a contemporary old-school Malaysian fruit dish. You drink a lot of watermelon juice over there.
The spaghetti is kind of Asian. It’s spaghetti but the broth is a pork broth. All of my favorite noodle dishes are wrapped up into one. I love spaghetti in tomato sauce and pho and ramen. It’s all that but its own entity.
Zagat: Most recently you were at Olivia, which has a huge garden. Is the local angle part of Mettle, and do you plan to have a garden?
AF: Definitely. I support Johnson’s Backyard Garden with tomatoes, onions, carrots, whatever they have. I’m a big fan of Springdale too. I grow a lot of basil out front that’s doing well. I have an “urban garden” in back that’s about 12 metal basins. It looks a little sad right now because it’s so hot, but before it was great. We thought we were going to be opening earlier than we did, and it looked great with all of these nasturtiums and salad burnet, herbs you can’t buy from anybody. We’re planning to do a bigger vegetable garden too. It’s on concrete right now, and I’m learning through my mistakes. Lots of flowers too. Edible roses.
Zagat: How is it coming over from Olivia to being more in control of the kitchen at Mettle?
AF: Wonderful. Not in any negative sense, but it’s just a progression of my career. It’s what I’ve been working toward. It’s hard not to feel like I sound crazy. I’ve never opened a restaurant before. I figured it would be extremely demanding, and it certainly is. But it’s nice. I’m a big baby. I get my way all day long, and if I don’t, I’m grumpy about it. I don’t act like that. But it’s fun to have control of every little detail.
Zagat: Fried chicken is one of chef James Holmes’ signature dishes at Olivia and at Lucy’s. But you also have fried chicken on the menu. How is yours different?
AF: My chicken is all bone-in chicken thighs, and I put them in a bag with seasoning and a big scoop of duck fat. Then I cook them at 165 degrees for 6 hours. From that point, I portion them and fry them to order. The chicken is American, but there’s cucumber kimchi on the side.
Zagat: Tell us about being on the East Side. Are people hesitant about doing nicer dining on the East Side?
AF: So far so good. Being this far over, we’re a little bit of a destination point. There’s nothing next to us where you’re going to walk by. I don’t live on the East Side, so this is new for me. I think the East Side is cool. I like the energy over here. There’s a cool blue-collar history and young originality and innovation. I hate to use the word “hipster,” because that word is so played out. Everybody’s nice over here. And it’s a good location for local product. Lone Star Meat, where I get my beef from, is right down the street. Springdale Farm and Boggy Creek are both close. I feel better in my heart that I know I could walk down and get steaks if I had to.
Zagat: We heard through the grapevine that you want to compete with the Uchis and Uchikos and Quis in town. How are you guys doing that so far?
AF: I don’t show up to work to compete with anybody. I definitely have a lot of respect for every other restaurant in town. I want to serve the same quality of food. I don’t read any other menus in town, because somehow you’ll roundabout get influenced, and I don’t want that to happen. But sure, I guess we all compete with each other, it’s business. I’m not trying to compete with an established badass restaurant like Uchi, though. But I want everyone to know that I’m making original and delicious food.
Zagat: What are some of your favorite restaurants in town?
AF: I don’t go out to a lot of fancy restaurants anymore, even though I love to. I’m either at Mettle or with my wife and three little kids. I love Uchi. I like Taco More’s goat soup. It’s amazing. If I’m extravagant, having oysters at Perla’s is always nice with a mixed drink. Makes you feel like a king. My wife and I just went out to Salt Lick to celebrate a day off, and we had a bottle of rose and barbecue. They keep getting better over there, and it’s really nice.
Zagat: Bridget Dunlap has said she’s planning to open more restaurants soon. Are you involved?
AF: I’m the executive chef of the food side of her businesses. We’re looking at a place down the street, and we’re going to do Italian food. Casual but more coastal, like Sardinian and Sicilian food. That will give us more freedom toward Italian food, because then you’ve got Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to play with as well. She has the Container Bar opening, and we’re going to do a Thai trailer called Thaitanium. I’ve written that menu. I’m not sure when they’ll open. Maybe a year.
The Italian restaurant is right around here, six blocks from Mettle. It’s an old upholstery building by Dario’s.
I’ve cooked Italian food for more than a few years, and my boss Daniel Brooks, who oversees everything at Mettle and the other restaurants, was the manager at Vespaio for six years, so we’re excited to do some Italian food. I was also at Vespaio for four years.
Zagat: What else do you have on your plate right now?
AF: My vegan chicharrones on the menu are like these homemade chips that I came up with. They’re made from tapioca, which reminds me of a shrimp cracker, which are big in India and Malaysia. It’s smoked water and tapioca and you cook them out and then deep fry them. I found online this vegan bacon powder that’s made from a yeast derivative. I’m working on that as a side job to sell those.
Zagat: People would be able to buy them in stores?
AF: Yeah. We have a guy making bags and stuff. They’re called Aqua Crisps. We’d sell them at Whole Foods, Central Market, start from there. I’d also like to sell the raw product. The raw product looks like plastic and is nonperishable. It’s completely dehydrated. I’d like to sell those to other restaurants or bars, because it’s really cheap. As long as you have a deep fryer you can fry it yourself. And then put your own spices on them.
(Photo by Found Media Group)