As the founders of Empresario, LLC (Texas’ first self-appointed “Spirits House”—sort of the Condé Nast of Texas booze brands), Dee and Gary Kelleher are at the helm of distilling, importing, crafting and marketing some of our state’s most well-known artisan alcoholic spirits. Their portfolio includes big guns like Texacello LLC (makers of Paula’s Texas Spirits), Republic Tequila, Pepe Zevada Z Tequila and Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur, to name a few. And though relatively new to the Tipple Empire-building game, the Kellehers’ roots in Austin stretch way back to the 1970s—when this city was a sleepy oasis of cosmic cowboys and fresh-eyed college students, yet poised on the verge of culinary revolution.
While working as bartenders at Mike & Charlie’s, the young and impetuous couple ran away and got married one weekend. Not long after, they opened their own catering company and deli on Mesa Drive—the fondly remembered Moveable Feast. Opened in 1980, the business offered salads, sandwiches, entrees and baked goods, and quickly found an enthusiastic clientele. Along with their caramel brownies and cheddar-poppy seed rolls, the Kellehers became renowned for their ever-changing menu of freshly made soups. In a typical week, Dee and Gary were making upwards of 36 gallons.
Though the couple sold Moveable Feast in the mid-’80s when their first child was born, soup still holds a commanding position in their family menus. Dee still uses her collection of old, laminated recipes from the Moveable Feast days; stained originals that hearken back to those crowded, whirlwind times. “When you’re feeling a bit puny, like you’re ‘coming down,’” she says, “that’s when you need the beef barley soup. Oh, and the seared broccoli and potato soup! Nowadays, I roast the broccoli…so much easier and tastes amazing!”
The recipe Dee wants to share today, though, isn’t one from that collection. It’s an adapted version of a spiced carrot soup with lime that was once featured in the The New York Times. It’s a light but aromatic Thai soup, and it’s been in heavy rotation at their house ever since it caught Dee’s eye. “This is the first soup I ever made with coconut oil rather than butter,” she says. “And you know…it’s so good for you. Oh, and it has turmeric in it. We’re all looking for ways to get more turmeric these days!”
While the carrots, onions and spices simmer in a large blue pot, Gary makes some accompanying signature cocktails featuring his newest creation: Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur. “I call this ‘honeysuckle lemonade,’ but the flavor is pure honeysuckle,” he says. “It’s taken me years to find a way to bring out the true honeysuckle essence. Growing up in Texas, there were so many summer evenings where we would just sit in the twilight, intoxicating ourselves with the scent and the flavor of honeysuckle. For me it’s a very nostalgic thing—I really wanted to capture that. Turns out,” he says with a chuckle, “it takes a lot of honeysuckle blossoms to make even a little bit of this stuff.”
A whiff of the honeysuckle liqueur is breathtaking—ethereal, lightly sweet and intensely floral—and conjures up deep memories of childhood summers. Shaken into a refreshing lemonade-like beverage, the liqueur is relaxing and cooling, as well.
“Dee knows this story,” Gary says, “but when I was seventeen, I took an ocean voyage to Europe, and on that trip I met a French girl named Martine. Those memories…of youth in general…that the smell of honeysuckle brings up. It reminds me of that voyage in a way. I mean, it was just a passing thing, probably my first crush, but that’s why I named it Martine. It feels like that feeling. It just kind of fit.” Gary all of a sudden comically raises his voice and looks at Dee. “IT’S OKAY WITH MY WIFE, I SWEAR!” he yells, then both of them laugh.
Now at the table, the glowing bowls of saffron-bright soup take center stage. A garnish of sautéed daikon radish, serrano pepper and toasted seeds adds texture and heat, and fresh cilantro leaves and lime juice brighten and offer a satisfying complexity. Served with rounds of baguette, Comté cheese, a light salad and a well-chilled and crisp Texas sauvignon blanc, the meal proves to be dinner-party-worthy and equally suited to warm or cold weather.
By Kathleen Thornberry • Photography by Melanie Grizzel