La Condesa and Sway. Upscale Mexican restaurant La Condesa has become a downtown Austin staple, but not many people know that the space is certified by the Green Restaurant Association and that Ortiz prides himself on being part of the movement to live and eat sustainably. And Sway, which opened in December 2012, has impressed our city with the bold flavors of its modern Thai food.When Rene Ortiz was five years old, his mother moved his family to a Catholic commune in New Mexico, where they lived a meager life in a boys’ home. Fast forward a few decades and you’ll find a talented, creative man who has traveled the world, worked as a chef for years in Manhattan and opened restaurants across the globe, including two special spots in Austin:
When we sat down with the chef (by the way, he hates the word “chef” and would rather be called “Rene”), he told us about his life on the commune, his handbook on different ingredients and methods of cooking, and his upcoming trip to Burma to learn about the bitter flavors of food for Sway.
Zagat: So you grew up in a commune in New Mexico?
Rene Ortiz: My father is mentally ill, and my mother felt her only choices were to join the church and to raise her three boys on a commune. We lived at the Arturo House, which is a boys’ home.
It taught us a lot about agriculture and a meager life. We worked really hard. Had to go to church every day. It’s a Catholic church, the Jesuit order. I guess I’m religious, but I’m not a practicing person now. But I respect the history and the lessons that it gave me. It catapulted my love for what I do now. We had peanuts, grapes, we made wine, we had honey, goats, cows. We made cheese. We had catfish that we turned into baccalau. There were so many things that I learned on a farm. It taught me a lot about treating people like people, because the whole purpose of the farm was to provide food to the community in Juarez. It was very poverty-driven.
The three brothers, we often talk about trying to understand what it was and what we went through when we were kids. Because we don’t remember a lot of it.
We moved there when I was about five years old, and then I went to high school in San Antonio, in a place called Cibolo, Texas. I remember those teachers saying we should probably go into a blue-collar vocational sort of school and not their high school because they felt that we were really behind. But they never really gave us a chance. They only saw our academics as home-schooled children and didn’t realize how far along we were. I graduated in the first quarter of my class. We weren’t retarded [laughs]. We were very smart kids. We were just different. My brother is an artist and gets paid very well, and I do what I do, and my little brother is a hot rod builder. All three of us, we have our own drive that keeps our spirits alive. I take pride in all the artistic things that I do. Cooking is an aspect of my life. But the main thing is always trying to help people find their focus.
Zagat: Did you know when you were younger that you wanted to do something with food?
RO: Since my father couldn’t really work and my mom moved back to Texas and we went to San Antonio, our only choice besides moving house to house and being evicted was to get jobs. I met this man named Felix Leon, and he was like, “You can wash dishes for us.” So I started doing that, and he’s like, “Rene, want work the fry?” I was probably 16 and I was making $9 an hour, and it felt great. I could buy stuff and I made my family happy. We bought food. He would donate food, and it was really nice. Eventually he told me, “Hey you’re really good at cooking. One day I’d like to send you to culinary school.” I was like, “I don’t know what that is. But sure, that would be fine.”
I saw a commercial on TV for Olive Garden, and they were wearing chef’s uniforms, and so I thought that’s maybe where I should go learn to be a chef. The first day I applied and got the job at Olive Garden, and it just was not for me. I almost got molested in the walk-in, and that was the last time I ever went back. They still owe me a check.
I decided I was going to work for other chefs. I kept going from job to job, trying to figure out what it was and what I needed to learn to get better. [Chef Robert Clark’s restaurant] Star Anise was one, and I went up to Vancouver for the first time. Trained, opened a restaurant down in Austin. The last one was Mark Bliss’s restaurant, and then I left to go to New York.
Zagat: You’ve traveled so much in your life, as well as lived in New York and other urban areas. How did that work with your family situation?
RO: For me, the person who made that happen was Mark Miller [chef of Santa Fe’s Coyote Café and many other restaurants]. That man is on an airplane something like 210 times per year. He’s always traveling. It inspired me and drove me to really go get it. I wanted to be what that high school teacher told me I was never going to achieve in my life.
Zagat: Has Mark Miller been to Sway?
RO: Yeah, he came a few months after the restaurant first opened. He was very pleased with the meal, but he felt that I have lots to learn regarding certain tastes. The main one was the bitter flavor.
He was like, “Well, the best way to teach you is to take you.” I was like, “Yeah, sure. Where are we going to go?” He was like, “We’ll just go to Burma for four days and you’ll figure it out.” And for him it’s no big deal. This guy horsebacks in Mongolia.
That trip later in the year will hopefully teach me more than I ever thought. It’s an important lesson. Although it’s fast. Mark’s not about taking in the sights. He is on a personal note, but when it comes to me, it’s like, let’s get the job done. You need to eat this, this and this, and he will literally force-feed you. He’s hard core. Eat, eat, eat. Taste, taste, taste. What do you think, what do you think? He literally blows your mind with information.
Zagat: Do you expect to change Sway’s menu when you get back from your trip?
RO: Yeah, definitely. There really hasn’t been a study on bitter foods or fermented foods, so I’ll be doing that.
Zagat: What do you mean by “study”?
RO: Our studies on salts or umami or sours, citruses. A lot of the chefs will get together and try to study what it is. I started it with La Condesa, because nobody really knew what I was doing there. It made it so much easier for me to just give them something to read that was defined and understood and profiled.
You see the ingredient, you profile it, the origin, its medicinal purpose, cultural purpose, celebratory food. There’s guidelines to what it is and history. Because it’s really a story about people. I always like seeing how Pangaea worked together and how it separated. Like the parcel: empanada, steam bun, samosa, spring roll, egg roll - it’s all the same s*%t. How did everybody figure that out? That’s part of the study of understanding what food history is. I love that part of food education, and providing that to the staff is wonderful.
Fermenting, nobody really understands that part of it. They’re getting it. They understand beer and kombucha, if they’re cool. But how do you ferment beans? How do you ferment every bit of food in your pantry to be sustainable in other people’s lives? But also to create an umami effect for the new life and culture of the age we live in. How do we progressively change the food movement? These things that we study, they’re very old. But to bring them to be progressive, how do you figure that out?
Zagat: When people come to work at your restaurants, do they get a packet of required reading?
RO: They have a giant handbook. Since it all started, it has evolved as each manager thrived on that and each chef thrived on the education. There’s a monster amazing glossary. Sway has one too now, and it’s so rad.
You have to treat people like people to get what you want. I was terrible as an individual in New York because I was poked and kicked and pushed and terrorized. So as a young sous chef, that’s what I did. It was the worst. I got off on it, but becoming an executive chef, nobody wanted to work for me.
Meeting Peter Gordon in London, he was one of those guys who came up to me and said, “You’re terrible.” I was like, “ARRRRRR!” And he said, “No, I just want you to listen to me. Listen to who you are.” He put it into perspective where I was like, “You’re right.” He goes, “Your food would taste so much better if they actually loved what they were doing and loved you for it.”
It became this whole drive of being as charismatic to my people as I could ever be and giving them whatever I could possibly give them to make sure they grow as individuals and not just for me.
Zagat: When did that shift happen?
RO: That was like maybe 12 years ago. That’s all it took, because it was inside. I knew. I was getting off on it, but I didn’t feel good. I felt like I was terrible. And Peter Gordon changed my life. Total turn. It didn’t feel like a job anymore. It felt like I had to hone my talent as an individual and push forward.
Zagat: What’s next for you?
RO: I’m very comfortable now with these two restaurants. My wife and I recently started a jewelry line, Old Licorice, so we’re working hard on that. I would like to do T-shirts and hats and stuff and more branding things of artwork. It’s art before economics, and I stand behind that 100%. What I do for a living is my heart. People pay me for it, and I don’t know why [laughs]. I have fun. It’s not work, that’s for sure.