One glance at Chef Ren Garcia’s résumé and you’ll notice it reads like a who’s who or what’s what of the Austin culinary scene for the past three decades—Bouldin Creek Café, Vespaio, Dai Due and now, Micklethwait Craft Meats, are all there. It’s clear he has the chops to handle the chops…and brisket and ribs…working the pit at the popular barbecue food trailer, but interestingly, he wasn’t always a connoisseur, or even consumer, of such things. Garcia’s evolving culinary prowess all started when this once-devout vegetarian moved to Austin in his 20s (to play in a band, of course) and found that cooking was also his jam.
In 1995, he started working in the kitchen at the original Kerbey Lane Café, with brief stints at Jake’s Coffee on The Drag, where a monkey named Jasmine would sit on his shoulder while he made lattes. He loved the gigs, but they got monotonous. “I was [at Kerbey] like four years, off and on,” he says. “I would quit and then they’d call me and ask, ‘Can you pick up a shift?’ and then I’d go back and get fired. And then a couple days would go by and they would be like, ‘Hey, can you pick up some shifts?’ So it was like that.”
Next stop was vegetarian mecca Bouldin Creek Café in 2000, which had just opened a couple months before in its tiny first location. “Originally, we just had the most ghetto Hotpoint range,” he says. “The oven was hooked up with a bungee cord. We only had four little burners and a George Foreman to heat up our hash browns. And then sometimes during service, the bungee cord would bust, and the oven door would just hit you right in the knees and you’d be like, ‘Owwwww!’” Despite the startup equipment before the café became the award-winning institution it is today, Garcia put his vegetarian cooking skills to the test while there—refining recipes (the “Ren Taco” is still on the menu) and learning the ropes of managing a kitchen.
Wanting to learn something new after another four years as a short-order cook, Garcia went in for an interview at the newly opened Enoteca Vespaio. He already knew the owners of Vespaio from a different context, so he thought he’d give it a shot. “They saw me [at the interview], and they were like, ‘You can cook?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I can cook pretty good!’” Thus began a swift ladder-climb from “pizza guy” to sous chef at Enoteca, then grill and sous chef at Vespaio, and then eventually, kitchen manager of both restaurants—a position he held for eight years. “That’s where I learned all the sausage-making, the butchering, fish-cutting…Learning under Ryan Samson just blew my mind. He’s the best I’ve ever worked with.”
The transition from tofu scrambler to beef Bologneser was not without its twists and turns. First, it required that after 14 years as a vegetarian, Garcia eat meat again (a chef has to know how things taste). He also learned how to butcher an animal without any waste. “Butchering is a trained thing,” he says. “You have to know what you’re doing; you don’t want to mess up the animal.” In addition to all the knowledge gained from working under Samson, Garcia fell in love with sourcing ingredients from local farmers—which Vespaio has been quietly practicing for years. “We never said, ‘All these tomatoes are from Tecolote and all these greens are from Springdale and these heirlooms are from Rain Lily,’” Garcia explains. “We put them on the menu because they’re good…because they’re the best. I mean, you have to have a really good tomato if you’re gonna do a Caprese salad!”
After Vespaio, Garcia worked a year and a half with Chef Jesse Griffiths (also a former employee of Vespaio) to first open, then help run, the kitchen at Griffiths’ new brick and mortar, Dai Due. Garcia went on to help friend Stephanie Scherzer—co-owner of Rain Lily Farm and Farmhouse Delivery—launch a new meal-kit product, called Supper Club, comprised entirely of local foods. “It was a challenge,” he explains. “These are the only things you have to use. And you have to make it delicious and easy for families. It’s the end of summer and it’s only eggplant and okra. You get no garlic and you get no onions. Go!”
But Garcia not only rose to the challenge, he was inspired by it—and by all the ways he found to make locally grown vegetables elevate any dish. In fact, it was almost like returning to his vegetarian days. “Seeing all these vegetables and getting to work with them was the biggest treat for me…realizing how amazing and diverse Texas is. You really don’t even need any meat for any of this!”
These days, Garcia and his partner, Rob Patton, are “90 percent veggie” at home, and in addition to slinging barbecue at Micklethwait, Garcia also does consulting work for Bouldin Creek Café. While some die-hard veg-heads may find this a contradiction, it isn’t for Garcia. It’s all a part of his journey to becoming a well-rounded, well-informed celebrator of food and where it comes from—perhaps a chef’s answer to Michael Pollan’s classic “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” “To learn how to turn cheap cuts of meat into amazing dishes and pair them with vegetables and herbs and spices…and busting your balls trying to make a good dish,” he says, “I wouldn’t have learned how to make a vegetable really shine if it weren’t for the experience of learning how to braise and grill and cook and smoke with meat.”
By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Andy Sams