Get to know five of Austin’s most talented female chefs who will be serving food at this year’s festival.
By Niki Jones, Festival photo by Charles Reagan Hackleman
This year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival features another impressive cadre of female chefs brimming with talent. April 26 through 28, foodies, wine connoisseurs and cocktail aficionados will descend on Auditorium Shores to enjoy the best of the best. Austin Womancaught up with five of the leading Austin chefs who’ll be reigning supreme at this year’s fest: Sarah Heard, chef and co-owner of Foreign & Domestic; Stephanie McClenny, owner and principal jam maker at Confituras Little Kitchen; Kristen Kish, chef and partner at Arlo Grey; Carmen Valera, owner and tamalera at Tamale House East; and Ling Qi Wu, chef and owner of Lin Asian Bar + Dim Sum.
Austin Woman: What dish is currently your most popular, or what dish are you known for?
Sarah Heard: Currently, our most popular dish is the lamb campanelle with Calabrese peppers and hazelnuts. The dish we are becoming known for is our four-course offal tasting menu. It starts with sweetbreads and sherry-tomato caramel, moves to blood pasta with goat-heart Bolognese, then on to seared lamb heart with red-wine risotto and glazed shallot, and finishes with foie mousse, cherry jam and peanut glass.
Ling Qi Wu: My most popular dish is the Shanghai soup dumplings. Everyone knows Lin Asian Bar has the best soup dumplings.
Stephanie McClenny: At our shop, Confituras Little Kitchen, we specialize in jam and biscuits. We create our seasonal jams based on current farmers’ offerings and handmake our heritage-grain, locally milled biscuits on-site. We also serve up a healthy serving of community, hosting nonprofit culinary events and groups in the local Austin food scene.
Carmen Valera: Mom’s Migas because, well, Mom! It is a favorite and more often than not, Mom is actually making them. If you like a little spice, try the Chipotle Mom’s Migas. [They’re] smoky and spicy.
AW: If you could work in any other country for a year, which country would it be and why?
SH: Italy. I love the simplicity. I also love pasta and fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, etc. It’s all very comforting food for me.
LQW: I like to be in France. I love their pastries and desserts. Making desserts is another passion of mine.
SM: I would love to spend some time in The Netherlands. I have familial ties there and would love to further explore the local cuisine. I suspect it’s not all herring and Gouda.
CV: Holland, specifically Noord Holland–Amsterdam. It is like a laid-back Paris. The food, music, museums and people are amazing. Within an hour of being there, I heard Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson, so I felt right at home.
KK: Japan because the style of cooking is completely out of my comfort zone. Also, I’m 10 percent Japanese.
AW: What is currently an Austin food trend?
SH: Sardines in a tin [and] kitschy, updated home cooking that’s Instagramable.
LQW: Austin locals like to eat healthy, local ingredients and organic products.
SM: Unfortunately, the latest trend in the food scene seems to be the quick opening and closing of restaurants. There is a lot of new money in this town and the little guy seems to be getting squeezed out. Supporting your favorites is the best way to keep them in business.
CV: Mexican food and barbecue are my jam.
AW: What would you choose as your last meal?
SH: My mom’s chicken and dumplings.
LQW: I will always choose Asian food. Asian food is my roots, my memories and my life.
SM: Triple-cream Brie, crusty baguette and a bottle of rosé.
CV: Since I am aware it is going to have [to be] my last meal, I am going to make a full day of it. Breakfast, I am going to let my boyfriend cook that. He is a chef and makes the best tacos and barbecue in New Orleans, so I will let him make Austin-style breakfast tacos. Lunch, Micklethwait barbecue: brisket with all the sides, plenty of homemade bread, pickles and barbecue sauce. I am a Texas girl through and through. [Dinner:] Éénvistwéévis in Amsterdam. I would just let Klaas, the chef, make whatever he wants.
KK: Chicken fingers, french fries and mayo.
AW: Which U.S. city is surprisingly becoming a foodie town?
SH: San Antonio. They’ve brought some really cool stuff to the table lately. It’s been very fun to watch the growth!
LQW: I’d say Austin. There are lots of famous and talented chefs choosing to come to Austin, and I always enjoy learning new things from other types of cuisines.
CV: Birmingham, Ala.: traditional barbecue, but [I] love the Greek fish markets and the craft-beer scene.
AW: If you were offered the chance to be on Top Chef, would you do it?
SH: Maybe. My concern would be the schedule because we are running the restaurant daily and I have a 7-year-old daughter, 50 chickens, 2 goats, a rabbit, a goose and a garden to take care of.
LQW: Yes, I always like competing with other chefs. It’s a great experience for me.
CV: Nope. [I] have nothing but love and admiration for the chefs that compete, but I would freeze up.
KK: This is an obvious question.
AW: What’s the best part of your job?
SH: Watching our guests eat and experience something new and love it! I love having an open kitchen; it really allows us to connect with our guests and to create an inviting family feel.
LQW: I get to eat for free! But more importantly, my job gives me a chance to meet new people and learn about new ingredients and cooking techniques.
SM: I enjoy the daily ritual of cooking. I feel that it keeps me grounded. The majority of the time, my hands are touching something that comes from the earth rather than something that is man-made or virtual. It has changed how I view the world around me.
CV: Our customers. I love meeting the people who ate at my Grandmother Carmen’s spot on First and Congress and all the first-timers rolling in their suitcases as they make us their first stop or last stop (or both) as they visit our amazing city. I love looking at their must-eat list and being on it. It is an honor.
KK: Variety. Consistency bores me except when it’s my food.
AW: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a chef?
SH: I think it was late one night when I had a big college test the next day (hospitality management), but I was busy cooking, not studying.
LQW: Well, my grandma is the one who taught me to cook, but after having my second daughter, who was a premature baby…I realized the true importance of eating healthy.
KK: When I wanted to be an architect, but almost failed math.
CV: As for when I decided to be a chef, it was two weeks before we opened. Actually, Mom, Diane Valera, is the real chef and she just has the gift of creating. She can take anything and make the most delicious meal. It is something you are born with. When we create a new dish, she reads a bunch of recipes and then puts her spin on it. Her secret, though, is saute, saute, saute.
AW: What is the one food you will never love?
SH: I hate raw celery. It makes me gag.
CV: Raw onion. I love cooked onion but hate it raw.
KK: Smoked salmon and purple vegetables, especially potatoes, mildly cauliflower. [I’m] learning to love eggplant.
LQW: Basically, I eat everything, even durian, the [stinky] fruit from Asia.
AW: Who is your industry idol?
CV: Padma Lakshmi. I love everything about that woman and what she has done for the industry.
SH: I really appreciate Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune. Her use of all parts of the product, her simplicity, her respect for her staff, for the food she is cooking and for the flavors she is creating—they really align with my views.
LQW: Kristen Kish.