Last night, my husband and I dined in the kitchen of the wonderful French restaurant and bakery, Artisan Bistro. http://artisanbistroaustin.com/ We weren’t alone. There were ten of us who signed up for a cooking class on a night when the restaurant is normally closed. Seating was set up around the wrap around bar facing an open kitchen. The area was intimate, cozy and romantic, with low lighting and beautifully arranged place settings. Most importantly, we all had a bird’s eye view of the chef at work.
The Executive Chef, Cesidio d’Andrea, is also the receptionist, chef, owner, sommelier, waiter, and busboy. I’ll get back to the reason for why Chef Cesidio is wearing so many hats in his restaurant, but for now, just know that he can multi-task as efficiently as any soccer mom caring for a family of five.
As our group arrived, D’Andrea was quietly taking care of final preparations, cutting slices of bread, bringing out bottles of chilled water with slices of lemon or fennel, checking off people’s names from the reservation list, all while we took seats at the bar and obediently waited to find out what was happening next. I was beginning to think this was going to be a mime performance, but, finally, he broke the silence by asking if any of us wanted to order wine. Expressions of relief appeared on everyone’s faces. (No one likes a mime.)
Now, I have been to Artisan Bistro often and had brief conversations with Chef Cesidio, so I knew his French accent was as thick as pouding au caramel. [OK. I’m being polite. I’ll put it this way: you don’t want him to be the bomb expert on the other end of the phone telling you whether it’s the red wire or the blue wire you need to cut so you can save the school bus loaded with kids.] All around me, I saw puzzled faces as he began explaining how he was going to make garlic cream soup. However, after a bit, wine was delivered around the bar, shoulders dropped, faces relaxed, and d’Andrea began an evening of informative instruction, often with humor and always with total, supreme command of his juggling kitchen act. The accent, well, it never went away. Get used to it.
The beginning act of this play was the cream of garlic soup. The main entrée, poached beef with spring vegetables baked in individual custard dishes, was a tiered design of layers of thin slices of the delectable and tender beef, a pureed half & half mixture of potatoes and sweet potatoes (spiced with cinnamon), and topped with cream, butter and gruyere cheese, browned to perfection. I know. You are still saying to yourself, cinnamon? Believe me. It works. The last course, the one that put me over the edge and wishing for baggy Mom jeans, was the French toast with sautéed strawberries and blackberries.
Chef d’Andrea is a showman as well as a talented French chef. As he was putting his final touches, with the wave of the hand, Cesidio sprinkled white powder over his plated French toast. He brought the house down when he said, “Zeez is not powdered sugar. It teeze cocaine, and if zee come back, I will know why.”
However, perhaps the most memorable dessert at the end was chatting it up with the chef. By the end of the meal, we all loved him. We ached for him as he told us how difficult it is to hire servers, hostesses, even dish washers in affluent Lakeway, Texas, where his restaurant is located. (This is a complaint I hear all the time from restaurant owners and one which is keeping more new businesses from coming here. Residents fight low income housing and rents are high. Traffic is terrible in Austin and no one wants to fight it to come to the Lake Travis community.) His lease is coming up and he is weary of hiring help that asks for a day off three days into a new job, or the no-show hostess. He wants to move downtown, but that’s expensive and requires investors. I hope he finds them. I’ll fight the traffic any day just to hear him say, “Bon Jour, zee special is……”
Note to reader: Now, I should mention that in the center of his working island was a large container (bigger than a bread basket) filled to the top with sticks of butter. As the evening drew to a close, I looked at the container. It was half empty. I figured we each had eaten a stick of butter that night. Not sure about the half & half we consumed, but at this point, I didn’t care. None of us did. We were all going home so we could put on our biggest pair of pajamas.