Tastings with Chef Shawn Cirkiel: Olive & June PART 1.
by Dawn Garcia | Photographs by A Taste of KoKo + Dawn Garcia
“We don’t ever try to prove who we are. We cook to make people happy. It’s fun to serve really interesting foods and exotics but sometimes you just want to come in and have a good steak and a glass of wine and it doesn’t demean either. I think it’s hard because most cooks feel like you have to be ‘all-in’ every meal but really you just need to remember why you’re doing it … I just think it’s supposed be about good food and having fun.” – Chef Shawn Cirkiel
The very first trip I took to Austin was in February of 2012. I scheduled a slew of tastings and events while I was there and one Event was Chef Shawn Cirkiel‘s opening of “The Backspace” just next to Parkside.
I was set to go and realized I had a conflicting event and wasn’t able to attend. I contacted Shawn’s PR rep and asked if I could do an interview with him in its stead. He agreed and it was one of my favorite interviews. Shawn can be described in one word: dynamic. Full of energy, stories, and a pure passion for what he does – even in print it came through. Knowing I would be heading back to Austin, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to meet Shawn and do an actual tasting to make up for the year before. Molly Gerson at Paula Biehler PR not only made it happen, Shawn gave me TWO tastings! This is Part 1: OLIVE & JUNE.
The 1st stop was Olive & June. When you pull up, you know with certainty that what you’re about to experience is unique to Chef Cirkiel. There is story visible in nearly every corner of every pocket of space. Walking in at 11:30am, the restaurant is closed but Chef makes a special exception for me to come in. I bring Austin Food Photographer, Jane Ko of A Taste of KoKo with me to shoot.
The very second you enter, the rich reds adorning the rustic tables draw your eye, the art grabs your attention, the booths invite you to want to sit, the feel of every fiber lining the room makes you feel exceptionally comfortable without reminding you this is a high end restaurant. Restaurateur and Chef, Shawn Cirkiel ascends from the deep wooden steps and from that first moment it is apparent that he puts his entire being into every one of his restaurants. Olive & June is no exception.
Wearing his special order bright pink VANS with black eyelets, a soft pink button up, jeans, and a smile that seems to extend to you, Chef Cirkiel is your every day guy with impeccable taste, a hands-on approach to his craft, an eagerness to experiment, a calling to push himself further, a willingness to encourage his staff to be proactive and innovative, and a charm that allows you feel as if you’ve known him for years. Jane readies her camera and we dive right into conversation:
Dawn Garcia (DG): So what are we doing today?
DG: Nice! So, while we’re waiting, what’s your perfect meal when you come in here (I know it depends on mood and everything, but still)?
SC: So I like everything really – Bucatini – it’s old school, classic, the semolina durum blend and the textures are incredible. Our Pastas are all made in-house – take about 4 hours a day. Risotto is out of this world right now. But my favorite is Piccoli piatti – the funnest things because they’re so different. When we come in to eat we just order one of each, cut it in half and just share it. It’s perfect.
Risoles we’re curing in-house. It’s usually dry meat, ours is really soft and supple, and it has a different texture and we’re doing the lardo in-house so we’re doing a pea puree with fresh crostini and shaved lardo. The lardo is just with salt, pepper, rosemary, and fat. The semolina gnocchi is fun too but everyone confuses them cuz it’s kind of a little bit of everything in Italy so it’s just a blend.
DG: Gnocchi is meant to just be any kind of grain ball, really, right?
SC: Yah, right, exactly. So what we’re doing is we do it as grilled polenta (in unison Jane and I ooh and ahh because that really sounds fun!), grilled gnocchi on a wood fired grill al dente. All the cured meats we use out of Iowa. The pigs are just awesome out of Eaton Farms.
Wanting to give us REAL and not compromise on anything, Chef decides to entice us with desserts first before a spontaneous decision to head to The Backspace for a tasting afterwards. I happily comply but not before Pastry Chef, Steven Cak creates a dish so full of color, flavor, and interesting components that really are worth every word written.
As Chef Cirkiel – Shawn – talks, his excitement for what they’re doing finds itself dancing in the air. When he speaks about cooking, about meats, the restaurants, about getting creative, he lights up. In the middle of our conversation walks Pastry Chef Steven Cak. Holding our sweet, sexy desserts in his hands, he says hello, slides each one on the table before us and he and Shawn exchange in a little banter. It’s like being in the company of friends and it is refreshing! Shawn says outwardly, “I’m a little stuck on savory foods right now so these reflect that”. I look at the dishes before me, Jane effortlessly pulls out the camera, points, shoots, and begins her exploration through the lens, and I patiently wait as I too begin surveying the sweetness on the plates. Shawn begins talking about Backspace … and we begin our tasteful dip into the goodness before us.
Rhubarb/Citrus Torte : On the plate is limoncello, mint leaves, poached berries, crumbled cake, thyme in the background.
Chef explains, “Everything we try to do is technical – from the domes to the front shapes on the berries, to the gels and this is just crumble cake.”
Poached berries allow the dish to have the fine balance of both savory and sweet without taking anything away from the subtleties in the dish itself. Anise hyssop gives it this wonderful hue of palatable color and fragrance that remedies itself nicely with the bite of torte, gels, and kick of limoncello.
Buttermilk Panacotta: Rich deep burgundy lays carefully amidst the whites, beautiful gels, milky finish with torn bits of fresh mint. This is a crisp, awakening sort of dessert.
The conversation all blends together as we discuss just about everything but this is the gist:
SC: Backspace opened a year ago – it has it’s own super personality, has old barn wood, so much of it is refurbished. The space is super warm, there’s not really anything to it. It’s simple and that’s really what makes it so perfect. What’s interesting in Austin versus LA is – LA doesn’t have the capacity to handle everything but in Austin, there’s everything and it seems easier to find. As for sweets – Desserts change constantly.
[There’s] No set standard, a cycle of one thing leads to another and it sort of changes and forces us to change something else and then something else is created, we just adapt and then work with whatever we get. It’s not so perfect. Sometimes we get caught because we try to force it, it makes you change the whole menu to accommodate one item – the funny thing is all of the restaurants all kind of feed off each other. There’s also a competitive streak. What happens though is someone at one of our restaurants will come up with an idea but they don’t want to copy what another one of restaurants is doing so they just push themselves to create something different. It’s really funny. Part of it is me – ultimately I’ll talk about something and then carry one idea onto another, which is what we do and then it’s hard not to repeat. But we try to always change it up.
DG: Nothin’ wrong with a little culinary pride.
SC: What time is your flight? (I tell him.)
Well, I have a quick meeting at The Backspace and it’s open for lunch so the other part of it is we can shoot down right now and I can meet you there and we can do pizzas there. I know you got something here but then you can try a little bit of everything.
I’m in! This is why I love Chef Cirkiel. Not only is his energy and enthusiasm for what he does contagious, he’s very spontaneous and as a writer, that is my favorite way to do things. Before heading to The Backspace, we devour the desserts before us, take a tour of the kitchen where I see the most organized walk-in’s I have EVER seen (impressive!), we tour the mid-level that has stamps of Shawn’s life all around; we head outside to the upstairs patio where they often use that space for private events, and then we just step out to admire the beautiful tree growing up through the middle of the restaurant. (It somehow is spurring on my inner child to want to climb that tree!)
A few minutes later we head to the exit, grab our things, and prepare to meet Chef at The Backspace. There is something endearing about starting with dessert so now as we head to The Backspace for comfort food, my savory desires have been met. Now onto Part 2….