In a city that’s constantly growing upward into the sky and outward into neighboring towns, the new Austin Central Library was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated “growth” of 2017. I visited shortly after grand opening weekend with my then-3-year-old son, and as he played with a wooden spaceship in the expansive third-floor children’s area, I thought to myself, “He has no idea; this is not the kind of library I grew up with.”
We had already climbed steps from the library’s underground parking garage and main entrance and walked across bridges that zigzag the airy, light-filled atrium extending up through the library’s six floors. It felt like a Mount Bonnell hike with comparable views. I had rushed him past tantalizing screens featuring educational games in an effort to focus on the sole purpose of our visit that Saturday: to find a stack of children’s books to check out and fill our tote bag.
Designed by Lake/Flato Architects with Shepley Bulfinch firm, the library is bordered by Lady Bird Lake to the south and Shoal Creek to the east. As writer Jack Murphy put it in a February 2018 piece for The Architect’s Newspaper: “The building is a constructed chakra of Austin’s energy right now, vortexed into being from the frenzy of development at work in the city. It feels like the karstic landscape and the accepted way of building upon it is peeled up and knotted into a bowline of pure Austin-ness.”
If this library seems more coffee shop or coworking space than the traditional libraries you grew up with, it’s in keeping with the evolving role of libraries worldwide. In a recent transformation, the space of a library is now called to be just as much a community resource as the books it houses.
Books are still very much the focus in the space though, and visitors to the much-anticipated Cookbook Café will be encouraged to discover the very books that guide cuisines and food cultures across the globe. Helmed by ELM Restaurant Group’s Andrew Curren—whose influence on the Austin culinary scene began just under a decade ago when he opened 24 Diner, and has since flourished with several more successful projects (Irene’s, Italic, Fareground)—the concept of the café bridges the communal and educational aspects of the library with the added elements of food, caffeine, beer, wine and cocktails. To bind it all together, Curren’s inspired café menu leans on, and celebrates, actual recipes from cookbooks available in the library. “I want all my Austin concepts to be based on that Italian ability to look out the window and say, ‘What do we want to eat today? What makes sense for where I am?’” Curren says. “With the library, the food had to be even more relevant, so we had this idea where we’re referencing and paying homage to these amazing cookbooks and authors.”
Curren chose recipes representing three categories: the South, the classics and his own mentors. To give patrons a taste of the South, he chose recipes by Sean Brock, Frank Stitt and Rick Bayless—the latter representing “way south” Mexico. In the classics category are Thomas Keller, Julia Child and Marcella Hazan. And Curren nods to his mentors, Floyd Cardoz, Jonathan Waxman and Justin Smillie, as well. “At Cookbook, we want each recipe to lend itself to an approachable and enjoyable dish that will be well received in Austin, while still feeling Austin enough for out-of-towners,” Curren says. “I chose the chicken pot pie recipe from Thomas Keller’s ‘Ad Hoc at Home’ cookbook for its simple elegance that relies on finesse and technique to execute a classic dish. Asparagus with crawfish meunière from Frank Stitt was a perfect fit because it pays homage to our bordering state’s Louisianan crawfish and the classic technique of meunière. Julia Child’s split pea soup with ham hock is so classic I couldn’t pass it up, and Marcella Hazan’s tomatoes stuffed with tuna is a clean, old-school option that filled a niche on the menu and will allow me to represent tomatoes at the height of our season here in Austin.”
Upon entering Cookbook Café, visitors will be immediately greeted by a display of cookbooks featured on the menu. In addition, the late Virginia Wood—longtime food writer and Austin Chronicle food editor—donated her collection of cookbooks to be displayed in the café. “When people come in, we want it to not only be another amenity to the library, but almost another section of the library,” Curren says. Both the food menu and the cocktail menu are annotated—directing visitors to the parts of the library where they can find the cookbooks and recipes. Notes on the literary-themed cocktail menu (Tequila Mockingbird, anyone?) tell stories of local purveyors whose products and visions contributed to the menu.
Education, information and community, after all, are what lead to mastery. “I’m in the hospitality industry to make people happy,” says Curren. “The only way for us to do that is by constantly learning from our mistakes and other people’s mistakes, and by reading more books and talking to more people. I’m raising my kids here and want them to have great restaurants and more places to learn and more culturally driven opportunities.” With the opening of Cookbook Café, those opportunities seem rich.
By Jen Hamilton • Photography By Dustin Meyer
Find out more at cookbookatx.com