A Couple of Chefs

By MM Pack 
Photography by Jenna Noel

What could be better for two talented, experienced chefs than living and working in Manhattan, food epicenter of the Western world? For Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan, it’s living and working in Austin, Texas.

After exemplary careers at premier Big Apple venues, the two now make their respective marks on the Austin culinary scene—Duplechan is chef de cuisine at TRIO in the Four Seasons and Maher is chef/co-owner of Spoon & Co. Catering and Dishalicious meal delivery service.

“We decided to come to Texas where we both had roots,” says Duplechan. “We were working so much in New York, we never saw each other. We thought we could live better here.”

Arriving in town in 2007 after a six-week honeymoon through France and Spain, the couple bought a fixer-upper and put in a garden, growing the usual fare plus a few exotics like Afghan black chickpeas. “This is our fourth planting,” says Maher. “Either we’re getting better at it or the soil has finally built up some nutrients.”  

The duo has quickly become enmeshed in the bustling local food community—shopping the farmers markets, joining Green Gate Farms CSA program and occasionally cooking together professionally for events and classes. But busy or not, they’re committed to sharing at least one meal a day at home.

“Todd is a really, really good cook,” says Maher. “My favorites? A couple things stood out, probably because we were in our courting stage—beef cheek goulash, bone marrow dumplings in oxtail consommé and the best smoked chicken salad EVER! I never felt insecure about cooking anything until I started dating Todd, but, for the longest time, he would do the majority of the cooking and I would act as sous-chef and do all the baking. We’re now fairly well balanced, though.”

A Nevada native, Maher graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in anthropology. She considered pursuing a PhD, but on a whim while visiting her home state, she instead took a job at a small French restaurant near Lake Tahoe. The owners were French Basques and the chef was from L’Orangerie in Paris. Maher worked in the kitchen six days a week, and in the dining room at night. She considers those 10 months as her culinary foundation.

Maher returned to Austin in 2002, and, after a stint at Jeffrey’s, sought her fortune in NYC. She worked at such notables as Jacques Torres, Bouley, Mas and Café Gray—all significant in her culinary development. But it was time spent at Savoy, working as a pastry chef under local-food pioneer Peter Hoffmann, that had a particularly big impact.

“I didn’t realize who Peter was,” she says, “even though I was very interested in local, fresh, organic…working at Savoy changed the way I think about food. I want my food to be itself, not an interpretation of itself.”

Duplechan grew up in Dallas and started cooking at Solly’s Barbecue while in high school. “My family is Cajun,” he says, “and every weekend was a cookout. My dad is a master gardener and an extremely adventurous eater—we ate the doves, turtles and rabbits we raised. He never explained what we were sitting down to eat; he’d say, ‘Let’s enjoy it for what it is.’ I learned about using what you’ve got. I want ‘Don’t Waste Stuff’ on my tombstone.”

A culinary graduate of the Art Institute of Colorado, Duplechan worked a few years in Denver fine dining, then spent six months in Europe. “I worked on an organic olive farm in Tuscany,’ he says. “I was introduced to fresh chickens and eggs, local market foods, grilled bread with garlic and new olive oil. We hunted wild boar with bows and spears. It was a crazy interlude that changed my view of food forever. I realized that the origins of food really matter.”

Duplechan’s culinary adventures took him to jobs in New York City, and finally cooking at David Bouley’s Danube and Tabla. “I came to understand that I wanted to cook, not do administrative stuff. So I regularly demoted myself.”

It was there that Maher and Duplechan met in 2003, in the communal locker room shared by restaurants Bouley and Danube.

“I was seriously impressed by Todd’s cooking,” Maher says. And Duplechan was impressed with Maher as well, but for a slightly different reason.

“Todd was impressed I could work in a challenging restaurant like Bouley and still be a nice person,” says Maher.

Six years under their belts, both Duplechan and Maher continue to find reasons to be impressed with each other…and with Austin as their semi-new home. “Restaurants are about community,” says Duplechan. “We’re finding that community here, and we want to build on it.”