FORAGER AT THE W AUSTIN
By Terrence Henry
Foraging with Valerie Broussard from Terrence Henry on Vimeo.
Earlier this year, Valerie Broussard returned to her office downtown and checked her voice mail. “Hey! Valerie!” a voice exclaimed. “This is Leon Cardwell, with Comanche Oaks Farm. I’ve got six wild suckling pigs I just trapped. Do you want ’em?”
Such messages aren’t unusual for Broussard, whose official title is Food and Beverage Buyer and Forager for the new W Austin hotel and its restaurant, Trace. When people grow, harvest or hunt something special, she’s the one to call.
The role is something of an experiment for Broussard, and for the hotel—an opportunity to merge upstart, independent farmers with an international corporate brand. While the easier route might be making contracts with a mega-provider like Sysco, Broussard is passionate about putting our unique local flavors on the plates at Trace. “We’re the first W to do this,” she says. “There’s no other model for what we’re doing here in Austin.”
Broussard hails from a small Cajun town in Louisiana and, with a green-thumbed grandfather and a mother who baked bread from scratch and made her own yogurt, has always had a connection to local, seasonal foods. But she’s also well versed in the world of fine dining—having worked in high-end restaurants and markets in New York City and as a private chef for families weekending in the Hamptons. She fell in love with Austin and its rapidly evolving food scene after several visits here with family. “I wanted to be able to contribute to [the community],” she says. After gastronomic graduate school in Italy, she made the move to Austin.
While other restaurants have employed foragers—notably Per Se in New York, Wink in Austin and, the founder of the movement, Chez Panisse in Berkeley—their foragers have always been full-time chefs. Broussard is one of the first to do so from the other side of the line.
In the months before the restaurant opened, Broussard visited farms with Trace’s chef, Paul Hargrove. “I watched him discover things,” she says. “He wanted to use parts of the plant they didn’t usually sell.” She took copious mental notes as Hargrove wandered the rows—picking out edible flowers and vegetable blossoms.
And though her title of “forager” may elicit visions of Broussard hunting for wild mushrooms or picking ramps daily, most of her time is actually spent indoors—fielding calls, sending faxes and processing invoices. Of course, she can often be found at the farmers markets too, where everyone seems to know her. On Saturdays, she visits the two SFC Farmers’ Markets, Sunset Valley and Downtown, and Barton Creek Farmers Market to pick up orders placed earlier in the week. After delivering her haul to the W, she’ll return to the downtown market and take time to talk to the farmers—which is often when she makes interesting finds. She recently learned that Winfield Farm is cultivating prickly pears—so she put in an order, which the restaurant will juice for cocktails and puree for a dessert sorbet. “I’ll see chamomile and I’ll text the pastry chef, Janina O’Leary,” Broussard says. “She’ll end up making chamomile ice cream.” She encountered flowering dill at the market, and soon the restaurant was serving housemade pickles with dill pollen. “It’s those special, unique, one-of-a-kind things that I’m looking for,” she says.
Broussard’s efforts to source locally and sustainably go well beyond produce and protein. The hotel uses a local florist, Mandarin Flower Company, and staples for room service include yogurt from White Mountain Foods, oats from Homestead Heritage and teas from Zhi Tea. If a diner wants Worcestershire with their strip steak, it will be from Austin’s handmade-products rock star, Dai Due. Even the physical space reflects the local and artisanal—the charcuterie boards and cornets used for bread and fries were made by local blacksmith Colin McIntyre, and the restaurant’s votives, tables and bars were all crafted locally. Even the minibars in the rooms reflect the local spirit, with mini-bottles of Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur and Tito’s Vodka, and munchies such as Austin Slow Burn Salsa and Cocoa Puro chocolate-covered cocoa beans.
There are difficulties with a large hotel sourcing locally and sustainably. Supplies can be inconsistent, and certain needs can’t be met on the local level. “It’s a hotel restaurant,” Broussard explains. “People want bananas with their cereal.” Because of corporate and government rules, she can only buy produce—not protein—from the farmers markets, and all the producers that deliver to her must have liability insurance. “Most farmers have it,” Broussard notes. “But it’s much less common with ranchers.” Finding local ranchers who are fully insured and have refrigerated trucks for delivery has been a challenge, so the restaurant has been using a lot of Niman Ranch meats and gulf fish from San Miguel Seafood (a local company). And not all producers meet the chef’s needs or the bottom line. “That’s the one part I dread,” Broussard says. “Letting them go. But local alone isn’t good enough. It has to be high quality. Chefs want to serve the best.”
Broussard frequently advises farmers to consider how their produce or proteins will be used in restaurants. “I tell farmers: ‘Think like a chef,’” she says. “Read the food news, look at restaurant menus, follow the industry.” She encourages farmers to be specific in their e-mails to chefs—describing carefully the size, color and even flavor of their product. And she tells them not to be afraid to try growing something exotic. “Even if it’s a one-time thing, we’ll try and explore it. Pitch me.” Winfield Farm has grown and harvested clover sprouts and cilantro blossoms for the restaurant. “She’s given me so many ideas,” says farm owner Govinda Hough. “We’re growing and harvesting new things because of her.” The farm now grows edible flowers exclusively for the W Austin.
Broussard and Hargrove are busy thinking about the current menu and beyond—putting together a wish list for farmers and reading their newsletters carefully to see what’s going into the ground. Trace is still a very young restaurant, and it’s been a learning process for Broussard—balancing bushels of tomatoes alongside budgets. But she believes her mission will resonate with Austin. “This is the kind of community that supports their own and is fiercely local,” she says. “It’s what people want. It’s what I want.”
Trace at the W Austin
200 Lavaca Street