Joshua Thomas shows off the fancy bowl his wife, Allison, won as valedictorian of her class at the Culinary Institute of America, where they met as students. “She eats breakfast out of it every morning,” he says, deadpan. “Oatmeal.” Allison laughs in a way that hints she’s heard this joke before. Or maybe it’s just the glasses of coconauts making everyone a little loopy. Joshua proclaims this classic Tiki drink as the “summer cocktail of choice” at their home. The couple keeps a running batch in the fridge—scooping out cups of the slush from a 1-liter Weck jar, then adding a sprinkling of nutmeg for guests.
Today’s guests include Allison’s mother, Jan Heaton, who’s watching the Thomas girls (4-year-old Meera and 6-month-old Nadiya), and Scott Walker, VP of Operations for La Corsha Hospitality Group, who helps run Green Pastures, the event space with an attached restaurant that Joshua relaunched as Mattie’s this past March. For these special visitors, Joshua is serving up more than coconauts: He’s cooking one of his staple meals—a shrimp curry that was one of the first dishes he made for Allison. “It helped seal the deal with her,” he says.
Joshua learned his way around a curry from his mother, a native of South India, but he didn’t think about food as a career until he used his finance degree to keep books for a few years at a construction company. “It wasn’t crazy exciting,” he says. His life became more exciting when he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, met Allison and worked his way up in the kitchens of an impressive series of restaurants, including New York’s Michelin-starred Le Bernardin and Dévi (the first Indian restaurant to earn a Michelin star in the U.S.). By 2010—after weathering the financial crisis in a rocky New York restaurant market—Joshua was more than happy to follow Allison to Austin for her new job at Whole Foods Market. He had no trouble finding chef work in town, but made his real splash in 2013 with his food truck, Chaat Shop.
Joshua’s take on Indian street food was bold: “chicken tikka tacos,” “tater chaats” and other creations. (“His ancestors were rolling in their graves,” says Scott.) But his plans for Chaat Shop’s future weren’t so ambitious. “I didn’t look at the truck as something that could exponentially grow into an empire,” he says. “It was more of a mobile test lab.”
Nevertheless, putting himself out there paid off in an unexpected way. Scott happened to be the landlord of the food court where Chaat Shop parked for a while. He also became a fan of the truck and a fast friend. When Joshua showed him a menu for a French-themed place he’d been thinking about, Scott knew he was the right chef to overhaul Green Pastures, a South Austin institution that opened in 1893. Joshua took over the kitchen as executive chef for about a year in 2015 before they shuttered the place for a spell, revamped the building (finding, among other things, a cache of buried Schlitz cans from the 1950s and 1960s) and reopened with Mattie’s as the centerpiece of the restored property.
You won’t find coconauts on the menu at Mattie’s, but you will find Green Pastures’ legendary milk punch. Beverage guru Jason Stevens threw out the recipe the restaurant had been serving for the past few decades and restored the cocktail to its 1960s-era iteration. That approach pretty much sums up how the new management has taken on Green Pastures 2.0 as a whole. They restored the Victorian house without changing it or the grounds any more than they had to. And the peacocks are still there—they simply have nicer digs to roam.
Likewise, diners at Mattie’s will find the menu familiar, but better. Mary Faulk Koock, daughter of Green Pastures founder Martha “Mattie” Miner Faulk, started a restaurant on the property in 1946. Several Texas-themed cookbooks later, she established Green Pastures as a fine-dining destination with a definite Texan vibe. That left Joshua with fried chicken, gumbo, bread pudding and other Lone Star staples to reinvent. He’s risen to the challenge by putting just enough of himself into every dish. Just don’t call it fusion. “The fried chicken definitely has some Indian nuances, but the other items are less pronounced,” he says. “I do try to find ways to incorporate spices and seasoning, which one wouldn’t normally find in a dish, to add something unexpected and surprising; it’s a way of introducing more flavor.”
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel